Sunday, September 30, 2018


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

ZORRO RIDES AGAIN is not only a rather bland take on the original "Zorro" story-- which would be successfully remade in 1940. It's also one of the lesser collaborations of directors William Witney and John English, who would work on such stellar serials as PERILS OF NYOKA and THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU. Still, ZORRO was the first teaming of the two directors, so it may be excusable that they didn't do much more than provide twelve episodes of riding and shooting.

The story takes place in 1930s California, but there are hardly any signs of modern civilization, and I suspect the story was recycled from earlier serial-stories in which dastardly outlaws besieged frontier towns. Marsden (Noah Beery, who was a villain in the 1920 MARK OF ZORRO) a power-hungry financier, wants to gain total hegemony over a railway that joins California to Mexico (thus endangering U.S-Mexico relations, though this is only mentioned in the first episode). Thus Marsden's gang, led by a Caucasian bandit styled "El Lobo," rains havoc upon the locality until a new Zorro appears. This hero descends from the original Diego de la Vega, and his secret identity, James Vega, carries over the name. Vega too is played by a Caucasian actor, John Carroll, though this isn't problematic given that the original Zorro was an aristocratic Spaniard. (He might've had Ottoman blood in his veins, but probably not that of Native  Americans.)

Like most serials, there's no real plot, just assorted perils and resolutions, until the conclusion, when, instead of the villain being unmasked, the hero is, though it doesn't prevent him from gaining the ultimate upper hand, much like the original McCulley source-novel. Carroll plays the double role well (he shifts to an accented voice in his Zorro persona, but the accent sounds reasonably natural and non-offensive to my ears), and though this Zorro never wields a sword, there's plenty of whip-action to be had. Indeed, the whip-scenes provide the serial's best action, particularly when the hero humiliates a big bully who's just threatened a young Mexican woman.

Otherwise, apart from the serial's history in the collaboration of Witney and English, ZORRO RIDES AGAIN is mostly interesting as being the first of four revivals of the character in serial-format, including ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION.

Thursday, September 27, 2018


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

I've recently mentioned that I don't think NIGHT OF THE COMET really deserves its alleged cult status. SOLARBABIES is the reverse; it's been dumped on frequently, but it actually has a little more substance.

I can understand some of the hostility. The title is risible, as is one of the opening scenes, showing the five starring teens playing skate-hockey against another team, with silly lights attached to their skates. In addition, it's understandable if some people don't like the very idea of the film's conceptual blend of "Mad Max Meets the Little Rascals." But, taken on its own terms, Alan Johnson's film has a simple, clear storytelling style, far preferable to the muddled messiness of most "Mad Max" ripoffs.

The titular Solarbabies exist in a post-apocalyptic world where water is in short supply. It's not clear what's happened to most of the world, for we only see one desert-terrain, where the people live in cobbled-together, low-tech enclaves but have legends of better times before the catastrophe. There's not much said about how the adults in the world interact with one another. The focus is on Orphanage 43, where kids-- mostly teens-- are supervised and trained by the reigning government, the "Eco-Protectorate." Apparently for no reason but exercise, the teens are trained to play games of skate-hockey. The Solarbabies-- Jason, Tug, Terra, Metron, and Rabbit-- are first seen engaging a rival team, the Scorpions, in an unsanctioned match, thus establishing the heroes as rebels against the entrenched power. One Eco-soldier named Grock (Richard Johnson) comes down hard on the defiant Solarbabies, particularly because he likes the Scorpions better.

Then a young deaf orphan named Daniel-- also mascot to the Solarbabies-- finds a glowing light-globe. The globe. apparently an alien intelligence, never speaks on-camera, but it communicates telepathically that its name is "Bodhai." This name is loosely derived from the Buddhist term for "awakening," and Bodhai has an invigorating effect on Daniel, for the globe heals his deafness. Later, when Daniel has shown the globe to his fellow orphans, they happen to express their despair at their water-deprived world, and Bodhai gives them an indoor shower.

The characters of the teen heroes are simple but engaging, and that makes it easier to take the routine plotline, in which the young people-- all male except for Terra (Jami Gertz)-- seek to protect Bodhai from the evil Eco-soldiers. As soon as Grock finds out about Bodhai, he wants nothing but to use his technology to strip the globe of its mystic secrets. So the basic equation of the film is "mysticism good, technology bad," but the sincerity of the young performers sells it well enough.

Both the metaphysical and sociological themes of SOLARBABIES are underdeveloped, but the conclusion-- in which Bodhai leaves the teens but imparts some of its soul-power to them-- is a fair extension of the MAD MAX themes of cosmic renewal.

Monday, September 17, 2018


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

Primarily I rewatched this 1985 TV-pilot to see whether or not it fulfilled my criteria for a combative work. I'm happy to find that it does not, because COVENANT is a dull bit of business and not worth giving much evaluation.

There are two opposed factions in the film. The starring villains are a ruthless family, the Nobles, who comprise a Satanic cult that has existed in some form since the days when the Aryans invaded India. The script implies some identity between these archaic Aryans and the Nazis of the 20th century, and connects them through some alliance with the Christian Satan, to whom all members of the cult render up their souls for plenary power. On the other side is a group called "the Judges," who are implicitly linked to the warrior-judges of ancient Israel, though it's unclear whether or not this group has been around for the same number of centuries.

The Judges, led by the Biblically named "Zachariah" (Barry Morse), try to convince one of the Nobles' new pawns, one David Wyman (Charles Frank) of the evil of the Nobles and their insidious financial schemes. Strangely, Zachariah talks less about the specific evils perpetrated by the family, than about the fact that they recognize no barriers against inbreeding. Cousins marry cousins, uncles marry nieces, and so on. This was apparently the writers' attempt to marry the OMEN-like concept with something akin to a night-time soap like DALLAS. However, COVENANT is one of the few dramas to perform the feat of making institutionalized incest dull.

In addition to converting David to the cause, the other major plot-line is a struggle within the family. The youngest relation, teenaged Angelica Noble, is the only one not aware of the demonic pact, nor the fact that she's scheduled to be brought into the fold upon her 21st birthday. Her mother tries to spare her that fate, and this conflict leads to assorted supernatural deaths, again in what looks like a blatant imitation of the OMEN formula.

It's a decent blend of actors, including Jane Badler and Jennifer Cooke, who had both worked on the V teleseries. But the performers have little to work with, and the TV-film doesn't even have the virtue of delivering a finished plotline, as Angelica's initiation is still pending as this rough beast slouches to completion.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

NIGHT OF THE COMET is often described as a SF-comedy. I don't think that it is, but if it was, it would definitely be of the "one-joke" variety. That one vivid joke-- what happens to a couple of young "valley girls" when the rest of the world is destroyed-- has made COMET into a minor "cult film," though I also don't think it deserves that distinction either.

As a light take on the SF-genres of the "post-apocalypse" and the "zombie plague" respectively, COMET is diverting enough. But like a lot of films without much focus, the best mythic material-- psychological in this case-- appears at the beginning. The picture introduces its audience to two teenaged sisters living in Southern California, Regina and her slightly younger sister Samantha. Regina works as an usher at a movie-theater, plays video games, and has occasional sex with her boyfriend. Samantha gets the burden of introducing their backstory. Their barely mentioned mother left the sisters' father long ago, and the father-- a military man-- departed to serve in some unspecified capacity in Honduras. But he put his new wife Doris, a full-time evil stepmother, in charge of the two girls. Not only does Doris play around on her absent husband, she even punches out Samantha for being too sassy while Doris is holding a party.

The occasion of the party is the appearance of a comet due to pass very close to Earth. Though a voice-over warns the audience that the comet last appeared near Earth at the time of the dinosaurs' extinction, most people on Earth-- or at least in America-- are celebrating the heavenly body's approach with "comet parties." By chance neither Regina nor Samantha are up and about watching the comet's passage, and that's one reason that they-- and a tiny handful of other humans-- are spared the effects of the comet's dust. In the space of one night, most of humanity dissolves into calcium dust, and another small handful turn into unusually chatty zombies.

After Regina and Samantha get over the shock of being almost the only persons in the city, they take measures to arm themselves. Fortunately they've had training with guns and in armed combat, presumably due to their absent father, and this comes in handy defending themselves from killer zombies. Then they meet Hector, another normal human who avoided being affected by the comet-dust. Regina seems very interested in Hector, but strangely Samantha doesn't seem to consider moving in on her sibling's territory, though Samantha does enjoy tormenting her sis about whether or not Hector might be gay.

The two girls and Hector also fall afoul of a government think-tank. These scientists also avoided the dust but who are now ruthlessly gathering other normals and using them in experiments in order to find a cure for the dust-poison. Eventually the cure is made irrelevant when the dust is dispelled by rain, and so Hector and Regina must begin thinking about repopulating the Earth, apart from a handful of surviving kids. Samantha is belatedly given a suitor her own age so that she doesn't end up being the odd girl out.

There are some amusing moments in COMET, the standout being the girls having fun fooling around in a nearly deserted mall (where, in the tradition of George Romero, they meet more zombies). But a smattering of cute lines does not make this movie a comedy. In essence, the film follows the same dramatic trope seen in most apocalyptic tales: the need for the younger generation to rebuild the world-- effectively becoming their parents-- after a cataclysm has conveniently wiped away the previous generations.

Friday, September 14, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


PALE BLOOD is one of the many "good vampire" films that proliferated in the 1990s, made more palatable by the stylized direction of Chinese director V.V. Dachin Hsu and her co-director Michael Leighton. Even for a vampire drama, it's a bit on the slow side, and doesn't wrap up all of its plot-points.

As the film starts out, Los Angeles has seen three women die exsanguinated, leading to the press rumor of a "vampire killer." At the same time, a Romanian citizen named Michael Fury (George Chakiris) arrives in L.A. and makes contact with a local woman, Lori, who works for an investigative firm. The dialogue clarifies that Fury has engaged the firm to look into the killings, but Lori has very little to reveal to Fury, at least about the serial killer. She goes into much greater detail about herself, telling the pale-fleshed Fury that she's a big fan of vampires. Fury denies the existence of the undead, but not much later, it's made clear that Fury is the real thing. He's one of the last of his kind, and he takes umbrage at someone, real or phony, spreading the idea of a vampire murderer.

As it happens, the L.A. vampire is a phony, a loopy video director named Van Vandemeer (Wings Hauser) who has killed the women for a publicity stunt. Just as Fury seems composed and continental, Vandemeer is twitchy and obnoxious-- but the killer is also smart enough to detect the presence of a real vampire on his tail, and he uses some ingenious devices to turn the tables and to imprison Fury. The film does end with a somewhat unequal combat between the killer and the undead avenger, though I'd still judge the film as combative since Vandemeer is a classic "trickster villain."

The most egregious plot-problems are with Lori. She's more or less the "Mina" of this tale, who's devoted to the good vampire while he gets his (non-fatal) blood-sucking jollies with the appropriate "Lucy." Then there's a puzzling scene in which she's apparently learned enough occult stuff that she can cast visions to Fury-- though it's by no means clear that she intends to do so. The climax also reveals an additional layer to Lori's character, but the script doesn't play fair by including any hints of the big revelation.

The duel of heroic vampire and remorseless human killer is made more palatable by the skillful performances of Chakiris and Hauser, respectively playing "passive" to "active" to good effect.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

According to one online resource, Shaolin priests never actually used "wooden men," much less "bronze men," to train kung-fu practitioners, nor did they have booby-trapped hallways full of springing spears and falling stones. Oral legend seems to have been the source of such stories, which Hong Kong cinema was not slow to exploit.

Both 18 BRONZE MEN and its conceptual-but-not-literal sequel RETURN came out in 1976, suggesting that producer Joseph Kuo might've already planned the sequel before the box-office results came in. The same three principals-- Carter Wong, Tien Peng, and Polly Shang Kuan-- appear in both films, though in completely different roles for the sequel. Both are uncanny films that depend heavily on the bizarre training rituals of the Shaolin monastery, though, to be sure, the opponents in both movies also show off a few "outre devices."

In terms of plot, 18 BRONZEMEN is a routine recycling of the venerable "you killed my father, prepare to die" trope. Tien Ping is Shaolung, the central hero, who at a tender age loses his father, a soldier in the defeated Ming Dynasty, to the villainous General Kwan, representing the upstart Ching Dynasty. Shaolung's grandmother drops the kid off at the monastery for training, and the monks agree to train the youth, because Shaolin sympathies remain tied to the Mings. While at the temple Shaolung meets Brother Chung (Carter Wong), who's also lost his parents to the Ching tyrants, and they bond over sworn revenge. The two of them endure countless travails to attain kung-fu mastery, including a series of eighteen teachers painted bronze (actually gold, probably because the color shows up better) and various booby-traps. After both men pass all the Shaolin tests, they go looking for their enemy. On the way they make another ally, Lu (Shang Kuan), a female martial artist posing as a man (and fooling everyone who sees her). After a big fight with a turncoat monk who wields a weapon capable of firing multiple darts, the trio tracks down evil General Kwan. Kwan bemuses the heroes a little bit with a disguise-stunt, for he's got several minions dressed up to look exactly like him. However, in the end Shaolung, Lu and Chung triumph.

RETURN OF THE 18 BRONZEMEN is in some ways more interesting because one has to figure out what the producers were aiming at. The focal character, instead of being a sympathetic champion of good, is a rotter named Ai Sung-Chueh (Carter Wong). He's a prince in the hierarchy of the Ching empire, and when the old Emperor is about to succumb to illness, Ai somehow forges the ruler's will and makes himself emperor following the old guy's death. Even speaking as someone who knows nothing about Chinese royal customs, I find this gambit hard to countenance. However, the film doesn't spend too much time with palace intrigue.

Instead, Ai takes a vacation from rulership  and goes out among his people incognito. He rescues a young woman from some thugs and escorts her to her husband, apparently with no selfish motives in mind. But when he sees the husband (Tien Peng) practicing Shaolin kung fu, Ai decides to challenge the guy. When Ai loses the "friendly" match, he becomes obsessed with obtaining the same superlative skills. Again keeping his identity secret, Ai becomes a Shaolin monk. When he's become proficient, he's subjected to the ultimate test: vanquishing the eighteen Bronze Men-- some of whom even wear armor-- and escaping various automatic traps.

However, in an odd twist, just before Ai passes the last test, the monks are informed of his princely identity, and they dismiss him, claiming that they're not able to take risks with royalty. (It may be that they're also refusing him because of their earlier established hostility to the Ching.) The aggrieved emperor returns to his court, which seems to have got along quite well without him. However, some separate scenes introduce a female martial artist (Shang Kuan) who has some trouble with some rowdies on her way to meet the emperor. She invades Ai's court and tries to kill him with some odd weapons-- notably, a sword that can shoot other sword-blades. Ai defends himself ably with his Shaolin skills, refusing to let his courtiers intervene. After a blistering fight-scene between the principals-- probably one of the more realistic male/female battles in kung-fu cinema-- the lady assassin runs away, and though Ai sends soldiers after her, her fate is left up in the air. As a finale, one of Ai's flunkies brings him the news that the Shaolin monastery has mounted an offensive against the Chings, and informs Ai that the generals plan to decimate the monks with a great new weapon. The film ends with a close-up on Ai's obsessed face, meditating on the coming destruction of the monks who denied him his wishes.

RETURN is, to be sure, much more slapdash than the earlier film. Yet it deserves minor kudos for trying something different. Ai is an unmitigated villain, admirable only for his gutsiness in fighting his own battles. Still, there's not much psychological heft behind his actions, so it may be that the change-up resulted from someone, be it Carter Wong or some harried screenwriter, simply getting tired of the same old heroics.

Saturday, September 8, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though as an adult I've come to respect the Scooby-Doo franchise more than I did as a kid-- if only for its sheer persistence-- it stings a bit to see the talking Great Dane get top billing over Batman. I suppose I can take refuge in the fact that this DTV film wouldn't even exist if not for the durability of the mystery-solving mutt, and that the Batman here is the "hip humor" version who appeared in the TV cartoon BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, a series that finished up in 2011.

I call the protagonist of the BRAVE AND BOLD series "hip humor" to distinguish from the "camp" aesthetic of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries. In camp, it's important that none of the characters, particularly the principals, should be aware of the absurdities they encounter. "Hip humor," in contrast, usually does have one or more characters who are acutely aware of the weirdness of their worlds. The Batman of the BRAVE AND BOLD teleseries sometimes resembles the campy Batman of the live-action series, but the former delivers his oddball lines with a deadpan air that suggests the knowing-ness of the hip humor-character:
What is this now, the fifth or sixth deathtrap I've been tied up to because of you over the years? left the school before learning Wong Fei's most important lesson: when outmatched, cheat
 Sorry. Crime doesn't take dinner breaks and neither do I.

The teleseries loosely followed the template of DC's team-up title, which, for most of its existence, placed Batman into temporary partnerships with almost every "guest-hero" available from the DC roster. The comic book was nominally serious in tone, but not infrequently, the writers did attempt a sort of hip humor, though it's questionable as to whether they succeeded. More, a lot of fans remember the title best for its preponderance of wacky improbabilities, which also happens to be the way fans tend to think of Silver Age DC as a whole. Often the improbability stemmed just from the idea of the Caped Crusader being teamed up with characters who just didn't seem to belong to the same universe, ranging from World War II hero Sergeant Rock to the futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes. The 2008-2011 cartoon show exploited those incongruities with a "retro" artistic approach, hearkening back to the Batman comics of the early Silver Age, which often pitted the hero against flamboyant gimmick-villains like Clayface II and the Polka Dot Man.

However, the producers of SCOOBY/B&B, while trying to emulate some of the aesthetic of the cancelled teleseries, were clearly required to slant the humor not toward hipster loopiness, but toward the prevailing type of humor of the Scooby franchise. Over the years that franchise occasionally toyed with hip humor, but by and large the approach has stuck with what worked in the Hanna-Barbera original: baggy-pants burlesque and slapstick.

This wasn't a big problem when the Scooby Gang crossed over with other franchises in other DTV flicks, such as 2014's WRESTLEMANIA MYSTERY and 2015's ROCK AND ROLL MYSTERY. But in both of these, there wasn't a lot of mythology to the guest-stars-- respectively, the wrestlers of the WWE and the rock-group Kiss-- and so it didn't really hurt those guest-stars to play in Scooby's sandbox.

The writers of BRAVE AND SCOOBY try mightily to make B&B''s "hip humor" style jibe with the Hanna-Barbera baggy-pants style, but the attempt rarely succeeds. Perhaps one of the few bits that works is a scene in which Velma Dinkley attempts to out-detect one of DC's goofier sleuths, Detective Chimp. I can appreciate the Silver Age flashback when Batman invites the Scooby Gang to join his sleuth-group "the Mystery Analysts." In the comics this was a group of mundane amateur detectives who helped Batman solve crimes, but for the purpose of B&B, it's just an excuse to convene some of the favorite guest-stars from the teleseries: the Martian Manhunter, Plastic Man, Black Canary, and the Question-- none of whom are particularly associated with mystery-solving. (Aquaman, even less associated with sleuthing, deals himself into the plot, mostly because the show's "Richard Harris" take on the character was a fan-favorite.)

And the plot? It's a pretty forgettable schtick about solving the one case Batman himself couldn't solve, involving a scientist who disappeared into another dimension. There's also a mysterious spectre, the better to fulfill the ghost-hunting part of the Scoobies' resume. A few other Bat-villains are also added to the mix, resulting in too many crooks-- and too many crook-catchers-- spoiling the whole soup.

It's mostly interesting as a failed experiment, and, in my case, as a challenge for categorization, since the "adventure" theme of BRAVE AND BOLD is here overruled by the "comedy" theme of SCOOBY, though there's enough heroic action that the whole thing registers as combative with me.

Friday, September 7, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Not having seen HIGHWAY TO HELL for many years, I didn't remember that it had enough comic elements to qualify as a comedy. That itself is something of a giveaway: upon seeing HIGHWAY again, I found hardly any of the humorous content really funny, despite its broad nature.

HIGHWAY, rather than taking the farcical approach of many supernormal comedies, plays its main story fairly straight. Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kirsty Swanson) are young, in love, and on the elopement path, driving to Las Vegas for a quickie marriage. Brian Helgeland's script doesn't devote any time to the reasons why Rachel's parents didn't want her to marry. The entire focus is on the trope of the eloping lovers, who find that the desert plays host to many roads, including the "highway to hell."

A grotty police officer pulls the young lovers over and promptly abducts the blushing bride. Fortunately, before encountering this denizen of Satan's domain-- generally addressed as "the Hellcop"-- Charlie receives some assistance from Sam (Richard Farnsworth), an old desert-rat who for many years has dwelt in the wilderness, because years ago his bride was similarly stolen from him. Apparently it took Sam so long to learn the byways of hell and to accrue some supernatural weapons that he grew too old to make an assault on Hell himself. However, he donates his arsenal and his intel to Charlie, who drives into the unholy domain-- most of which still looks like the barren desert. The weird-looking inhabitants range from MAD MAX-like bikers and various pathetic condemned souls, one of whom is Clara, Sam's former love, who surrendered to the blandishments of the realm's Satanic ruler (though I didn't quite follow what she got for signing away her soul). Moving from the pathetic to the ridiculous, there are also a few more noteworthy sinners hanging around this version of hell, the most memorable being Adolf Hitler as played by the acerbic Gilbert Gottfried.

Helgeland's version of Hell has almost nothing to do with standard Judeo-Christian concepts, and thus Satan (Patrick Bergin) has more in common with the Greek Hades. He's a supernatural "snatcher" who can abduct virgins to be his brides, though for unspecified reasons he'd really prefer to have his brides surrender themselves willingly. In fact, there are few if any references to the Other Side, and at no time does Charlie get any help from the servants of Satan's opponent. Charlie isn't able to overcome the Hellcop or Satan's other minions by force alone, so he resorts to that beloved device of road-movies everywhere: the climactic race.

The base concept of HIGHWAY is a lot stronger than the execution, but it's refreshing to see a protagonist who's somewhat maladroit without playing the fool, while Bergin makes a persuasive, borderline-tragic devil-figure. It's worth a look, but not two.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

SF-films are not known for creating finely detailed viewpoint characters, but I'd never seen one that barely establishes such characters at all.

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE begins with an alien invasion of Earth, which, in keeping with a stated theme of director Inoshiro Honda, ends up uniting the fractious nations of the planet into a common defensive cause. In the first fifteen minutes, the viewer watches the aliens using a gravity-device to cause ships and bridges to slip the surly bonds of earth, and the shocked representatives of many nations converge at a conference in Japan to discuss the matter. One of the viewpoint characters, a Japanese officer named Katsumiya gives a report on his findings, but at this point it's not discernible that he is particularly important to the story. A turbaned delegate. Ahmed, gets up and begins actly oddly, attracting the attention of a woman named Etsuko. She's unable to convince the next two people she talks to-- a fellow named Iwamura and the officer Katsumiya-- that Ahmed was acting oddly, and only then it is evident that these are the film's viewpoint characters. I wondered if this down-played approach to the characters was the consequence of a bad American edit. However, a little research disclosed that although BATTLE is not a literal sequel to 1957's THE MYSTERIANS, Etsuko appeared in the earlier film as the sister of one of the heroes. None of the major BATTLE characters appeared in THE MYSTERIANS, but since the same writer wrote both, it may be that he made some connection that didn't "carry over" into the finished script. In BATTLE Etsuko is the romantic interest to new character Katsumiya. It isn't even clear that the two of them and their buddy Iwamura are all qualified astronauts, though later in the story this becomes a significant plot-point.

Ahmed is the second prong of a two-pronged attack, for he's one of the first Earthmen to be brainwashed by the invaders. Ahmed is used to undermine the conference, but he fails and is executed by a long-distance ray from the sky. Before the delegate dies, he announces that the people of "the planet Natal" intend to make all Earth-people into slaves, which is all the motive one gets regarding the invaders.

Fortunately, though Earth doesn't have a fleet of saucers like the Natalians, it does have a functioning space-program, as well as an experimental heat-ray. Once scientists have determined that the Natalians have made a base on the moon, they get two rockets ready lickety-split and send them off to attack the enemy. Though the conference sports assorted non-Japanese faces, the crews of the two ships are all Japanese officers, including Katsumiya, Iwamura, and Etsuko. However, an earlier sequence establishes that the expedition now has a mole along for the ride. The Natalians have brainwashed Iwamura, who lies in wait for the opportunity to blow up his own ship in progress. By chance he's intercepted by a crewman and gets tied up, so that both ships reach the moon without further trouble.

As with the overly easy transition from Earth to moon, the astronauts, using ground-cars find the domed HQ of the Natalians without much trouble. There is one altercation, when the astronauts, infiltrating a system of caves, encounter a bunch of chittering, space-suited humanoids who try to capture Etsuko. Presumably the humanoids are the Natalians, though curiously none of them are armed, and are easily blasted to bits by Katsumiya.

The humans set up their heat-ray to make their attack. At the same time, though, Iwamura-- who's been left behind, totally unsupervised-- escapes his bonds and manages to blow up one of the unoccupied ships. A clash of energies ensues as the astronauts unleash heat-blasts upon the dome, which returns fire. By coincidence, the astronauts manage to destroy the dome just before Iwamura destroys the remaining ship. Once Iwamura is no longer receiving radio broadcasts from the Natalians, he reverts to normality, and, in the film's best emotional moment, he sacrifices his life to make sure his comrades get back to the rocket and return to Earth. The surviving ships of the Natalians then give pursuit, resulting in another clash of technologies before the united people of Earth triumph.

BATTLE, though boasting the signature miniatures and animated energies characteristic of FX-wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, is a fairly pallid space-opera compared to THE MYSTERIANS. Perhaps it would have benefited from a more dynamic central hero. But as written, BATTLE is in the tradition of Wells's "War of the Worlds" and most 1950s invasion-films, in that the aliens-- poorly conceived though they are-- are the pivotal, and thus central, characters.

Saturday, September 1, 2018


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

This DVD collection includes the six films adapting the very long chanbara ("swordplay") saga of the LONE WOLF AND CUB manga. The collection also includes a re-edited Americanized film-version, SHOGUN ASSASSIN, derived mostly from the second film in the series. and various extras.

By way of explicating the manga's concept, I wrote this here:

I won't attempt in this post to cover every aspect of the complicated manga-saga LONE WOLF AND CUB, a series taking place during the era of Japan's Shogunate rule. Main character Itto Ogami, a master of the samurai sword and executioner to the Shogun, is cast out from his lofty position due to the political maneuvers of his enemies. With the fall of his aristocratic house, he wanders Japan as a masterless ronin, hiring out his sword as a master assassin. At the same time he's constantly pursued by enemies for the price on his head. His only companion is his very young son Daigoro, whom Itto usually pushes in a baby cart. This image alone, a melding of the worlds of innocence and violence, is quintessentially Japanese in character. That said, not every LONE WOLF story is equally mythic. Some stories are simply tales in which Itto takes on some powerful foe and wins out. Other stories succeed in communicating the rigor of the samurai ethos but characters may remain flat.

The best of the manga-stories manage to communicate a pitiless world of grim duty, in which Ogami even occasionally slays innocents who in some way come into conflict with his samurai sense of obligation. It would not be hard to see Ogami's world through the lens of irony, depicting Japan's medieval world as a chaos of petty intrigues. However, the episodic stories constantly tout Ogami's samurai ethos as admirable, and even when he's forced to slay a valiant foe, the authors present the event as a clash of noble spirits, in line with the invigorating aspect of the adventure-mythos. Yet because the stories are fairly episodic, they vary wildly in terms of capturing a modern myth of the peerless samurai hero.

The six 1970s films display an equally high level of craft, but like many of the manga-stories they don't quite rise to the "good" level of the best myth-films. All six star Tomisaburo Wakayama and Tomikawa Akihito as Ogami and his son Daigoro, though it could be argued that the famous baby-cart-- outfitted with hidden knives and rapid-fire rifles-- is the unbilled "third star" of the movies. Even if there were no other metaphenomenal elements in the LONE WOLF films, the baby-cart-- with which Ogami takes on whole armies in two separate series-films-- would transport these tough-minded swordplay-films into the realm of the uncanny. Strangely, of all the manga-stories adapted, the six here don't choose to translate "The Guns of Sakai," which relates the way in which Daigoro's stroller gets weaponized.

Because the films are all of a piece, I won't review them individually, though I will note that the filmmakers did not choose to adapt the final story of the manga, in which Ogami destroyed the leader of his enemies. Instead, I'll simply indicate the metaphenomenal elements to be found in each film.

SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972)-- here's the first revelation of the baby cart's special capacities.

BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (1972)-- Ogami is pursued by female assassins with ninja-like tricks, including knives hidden in radishes. He also fights a threesome of master fighters with weapons like iron claws and "flying maces."

BABY CART TO HADES (1972)-- Ogami defeats costumed ninja in various disguises. This is the first of the two films in which Ogami defeats a small army.

BABY CART IN PERIL (1972)-- Ogami is hired to slay a female assassin seeking to avenge her rapist by killing many of his retainers; she sports extravagant, demonic body-tattoos designed to distract her opponents. The rapist is apparently a hypnotist, able to cause his opponents to see flames enveloping his katana, but the woman's tattoos throw him off his game so that she can slay him before Ogami slays her.

BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS (1973)-- Ogami must recover a letter from the hands of a Buddhist monk. This is the closest that the movie-series comes to the marvelous-supernatural, since when Ogami draws near the monk, the assassin cannot attack the monk because he has transcended ordinary life. Still, one can interpret this form of "chi" as something akin to hypnosis, and Ogami manages to transcend his own limitations to complete his mission.

WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL (1974)-- Ogami is threatened by a clan of tricksters who come close to unsettling his samutai calm with their ghostly appearance. Indeed, the three foremost killers were buried alive for 42 days, without food or water, and are viewed by their leader as being "neither dead nor alive." Nevertheless, Ogami is able to kill the unkillable, after which he destroys another army.

LI'L ABNER (1940)

PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*

This low-budget version of Al Capp's popular comic strip has more of the raucous qualities of its model than did the 1959 musical, and it's a little funnier, as long as one isn't expecting more than a B-movie can deliver. I've seen one review that says its plot is "all over the place," but Capp's comic-strip continuities followed the same "everything and the kitchen sink" pattern. The only thing that's not much like Capp is that the film doesn't indulge in any of the fantasy-content often seen in the comic strip.

The flick is the first live-action depiction of Capp's invented hillbilly ritual, "Sadie Hawkins' Day." In contrast to the 1959 film, the event doesn't dominate the proceedings. Things start out with the usual status quo: Daisy Mae (Martha O'Driscoll) pursues hunky Li'l Abner (a well-cast Granville Owen), but he's wary of being trapped into marriage, which in his mind correlates with always being debilitated by age and trammeled with the burden of children and grandchildren. He'd rather spend his youth fishing and eating pork chops, though his Mammy (Mona Ray, wearing big appliances on nose and chin) schemes to have him marry Daisy Mae.

Through a comic misunderstanding, Abner gets the idea that he's going to die soon, so Mammy convinces him to propose marriage to Daisy Mae, since impending death will spare him the rigors of wedded bliss. Then Abner gets the idea to provide for his aging Mammy and Pappy by earning a reward for capturing the mountainous malefactor Earthquake McGoon (Charles A. Post, in his last billed role). Abner interrupts McGoon in the midst of a bank robbery and they exchange titanic blows, though neither character seems quite as superhuman as the comic-strip versions. Abner wins and tries to take McGoon to the law. Mammy, watching over him, prevents McGoon's buddies from interfering, even hauling off and clouting one of the fellows, which is also in line with the Mammy of the comic strip.

However, to escape the whole gang, Abner must get help from a local girl, Wendy Wildcat (Kay Sutton), and she'll lend aid only if Abner promises to marry her. The big galoot, figuring his fatal illness will save him from two marriages as easily as one, agrees. But sometime after he collects his reward, he figures out that he's not going to die after all. The local authorities agree that the matter can only be settled by the Sadie Hawkins race, depending on whether Dairy Mae or Miss Wildcat catches Abner. To complicate things further, Abner's foolish Pappy lets loose McGoon, on the condition that the brute keep Abner from marrying Wendy. McGoon, of course, intends to keep his word by killing Abner. Regrettably, there's no second battle between the two big hillbillies, but since Earthquake is brought low by sheriffs toting sticks of dynamite, I still rate this a combative comedy. There are slight suggestions of fantasy-elements-- Abner dreams about meeting an angel, and in his first meeting with Wendy he's briefly thinks she's a wild animal in human form-- but none of these tidbits make the film metaphenomenal.

The film was not successful and the standard copy ends with an odd jump-cut, suggesting that maybe the money ran out and a faux ending was stitched on. Buster Keaton has a supporting role as the goofy Indian "Lonesome Polecat," and the cast also boasts other notable comic talents, including Chester Conklin and Edgar Kennedy. These days director Albert S. Rogell is probably best known for his duties on Universal's 1941 THE BLACK CAT.