Saturday, March 30, 2019
THE POWER WITHIN (1995)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
I've gotten a fair amount of entertainment from the DTV flicks of PM Entertainment, but only when the producers stuck with their strength: putting tough-ass actors-- Don Wilson, Lorenzo Lamas, Cynthia Rothrock-- in situations that ensured non-stop action. The company was so well-practiced in the art of action-movies that they could take a fourteen-year-old kickboxer, Ted Jan Roberts, and make him a DTV star in the '93 MAGIC KID and its next-year sequel. (I haven't watched these in a long time, but as I recall Roberts' character is not "magic" in any way, and only occasionally dresses up in ninja gear, in contrast to the probable influence on both films, 1992's THREE NINJAS.)
Since Roberts was about 16 around the time of filming POWER WITHIN, someone at PM must've thought that the most logical idea was to do a KARATE KID ripoff. However, whereas the senior PM writer on the project, Joe Hart, had done some good trash-action pics like RING OF FIRE 3 and T-FORCE, he must've written POWER WITHIN with half his brain turned off. And the movie gets no stylistic help from director Art Camacho. POWER was his directorial debut after working largely as a stuntman/ stunt coordinator, and he increases the awfulness of Hart's largely senseless script by staging action-scenes that barely have any resonance with said script.
Much like the protagonist of 1984's KARATE KID, Stan (Roberts) is a young nerd who isn't able to date the pretty girl he likes or fight back against school bullies. Stan takes karate classes, but can't get a handle on self-defense and even his little brother calls him a "loser." He also lacks a father-figure, living only with his brother and his weird ex-child star mother (Karen Valentine).
While Stan is suffering teenaged torments, Vonn, a villainous heist artist (William "Karate Kid" Zabka), steals an ancient ring from a museum exhibit. He shows up at the house of the man who hired him to steal the ring, only to inform the crime-boss that he Vonn plans to keep the ring and the money the boss paid him. The ring evidently gives Vonn super-kung-fu power, for he easily beats downs the boss's goons (none of whom wield guns) and leaves.
It's at this point that Hart's script goes totally off the rails. Instead of giving Stan some real training a la KARATE KID, the script introduces a mystic Oriental fellow, Yung, who has custody of a ring identical to the one Vonn stole. Later it will be revealed that the two rings were forged in ancient China inside a "volcano," and that they gave an emperor such power that he laid waste to his domain. This scenario, which sounds like Tolkien put through a mixmaster, isn't even followed through to explain why Yung kept custody of one super-ring but the other one simply fell into the hands of archaeologists somehow.
Stan, recovering from being beat down by the ex-boyfriend of the girl he likes, is approached by Yung, who plans to give Stan the ring. Vonn conveniently chooses this moment to home in on Yung's ring, so that absolutely no one else witnesses Yung fighting off Vonn and his black-clad henchmen. Yung is fatally wounded, but has enough mystic strength to teleport himself, Stan, and Stan's car to another location. Why can't Vonn find his way to that location? Who knows?
Yung dies, bequeathing the ring to Stan with lots of pseudo-Oriental bullcrap like "The explanation is too simple for you to understand." Stan reacts to the death of this mysterious stranger like Luke mourning Obi-Wan, but the youth gets over it when he finds that he can now beat up bullies with no effort at all. The ring even helps in school, mentally feeding him answers to a teacher's oral questions and seemingly improving a test-score he took before getting the ring.
Hart then pads out the flimsy script with throwaway scenes: Stan dating the girl of his dreams, Stan's mom getting hit on by a cop and a routine "Obi-Wan return" scene, when Yung's spirit comes back into Stan's life to mouth more witless platitudes. All of this leads up to a lackluster duel between Vonn and Stan. Vonn wins, gains ultimate power-- and then Stan, despite having shown no sign of any strength aside from what the jewelry gave him, somehow zaps the rings to dust.
Formula-movies always show their indebtedness to better films, but if they're good formula, they show an understanding as to what made the earlier stories work. POWER WITHIN, though, picks its tropes erratically, showing no sense for what makes any of the tropes persuasive. It isn't even as interesting as the Ed Wood sort of films that take formulas and subject them to relentless overbaking. The most I can say for the film is that if one can ignore all the gaffes, Roberts's fights with various goons are watchable, though that lousy end-fight manages to ruin even that.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
Aside from 1978's CORVETTE SUMMER, DRAGONSLAYER is the only film that Matthew Robbins both directed and co-wrote (collaborating on both films with one Hal Barwood).
It's interesting that, even though the genre of fantasy was booming in 1981 thanks to numerous Tolkien emulations and to D&D games, DRAGONSLAYER operates as a elegy for the worlds of fantasy. Though the specific location of the narrative is the made-up "Urland," it's just Dark-Ages England by any other name. At this time, Christianity is making major inroads into the culture but the old ways of paganism have not yet died. However, even Ulrich, the foremost wizard in Urland, tells his apprentice Galen that he Ulrich is not long for this world, at a time when wizards are becoming scarce.
In an opening cadged from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a coterie of poor farmers, led by the apparently male youth Valerian, approach Ulrich for help in banishing a dragon. As seen in the archetypal European dragon-myth, this particular dragon, Vermithrax, has taken up residence in some caverns near their farmland, and over time the rulers of the realm have appeased the dragon by feeding it female virgins. Said virgins are selected each year by a lottery that supposedly selects from all females of a certain age, though it seems that only the poor people's daughters have ended up as dragon fodder over the years. Ulrich swears to help the farmers, but he meets what appears to be a death by mischance. Galen (Peter MacNicol) chooses to accompany the farmers back to their territory, and in the process learns that Valerian is actually a young woman disguised as a boy, as part of her father's strategy to keep her out of the dragon's mouth.
Galen does have considerable magic powers, and he brashly attempts to slay the dragon by simply burying it in its own cavern. However, Vermithrax breaks free and scours the countryside with fire. This puts Galen in bad odor with reigning king Casiodorus, who is largely responsible for the custom of dragon appeasement. He and his soldiers confiscate Galen's magical amulet, and although the young wizard escapes, he's unable to do anything more to fight the dragon. In fact, he comes into further conflict with the King when Galen reveals to Casiodorus' daughter Elspeth that she's never been included in the lottery.
Galen, armed with new weapons given magical potency, attempts to slay the dragon himself, but fails, though he does manage to kill the king's foremost flunky. However, at the eleventh hour it turns out that the deceased Ulrich is not quite sincerely dead, and that he's laid a secret plan to kill the dragon all along.
Robbins and Barwood's medieval world lacks many of the glorious tropes of heroic adventure. Casiodorus is not just an aristocratic parasite, but a fool, since he vainly hopes that the dragon will simply die someday. Galen sees this dream proved a folly when he invades the cavern and finds that Vermithrax has spawned a small brood of carnivorous dragonets-- which would eventually prey on the people as well, save that Galen kills them. The Christian priests are no better, being presented as vain in their trumped-up belief that God will save them from the ravening beast. Even Valerian's father, though approving of her alliance to Galen, admits that he'll be glad to see magic die away. Ulrich's plan, in effect, destroys both the last dragon and the last wizard, clearing the path for the triumph of materialism and general mediocrity. However, the last minutes of the movie allow Galen and Valerian to cherish the hope that at least a little magic will survive.
Monday, March 25, 2019
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
In my review of SHIN GODZILLA I observed that it was the first Japanese-made Godzilla film since the original to focus entirely on a battle between the giant monster and the Japanese military. Of course, America's 1998 version followed that trope, but given the derivative nature of that movie, I tended to think its lack of other big monsters was largely reflective of the script's lack of imagination.
The 2014 effort has much in common with the "monster-vs.-military" trope, but it does labor mightily to orchestrate a climactic battle between this spanking-new incarnation of Godzilla and a couple of insect-monsters called "Mutos." In contrast to the 1998 film, 2014-Godzilla mines a trope seen in the first few Showa films, which asserts that creatures like Rodan, Anguirus and the Big G have migrated from caverns far beneath the Earth's surface. And although there are some fulminations against nuclear power in G-2014, this seems to be the first time a Godzilla-film suggested that these archaic monsters were mutated in archaic times, when the Earth was filled with naturally occurring radioactivity. This explanation does make it a little more logical that Godzilla and the Mutos should be attracted to radioactivity, and it even gives the Mutos their own counter-tactic against modern humans: the ability to project EMP waves that paralyze electrical functions.
Sad to say, this attention to mining earlier tropes provides G-2014's only attraction. While G-1998 is a competent blockbuster, G-2014 looks like it was made by a director trying to get noticed for his skill with military scenes (though apparently Gareth Edwards' only feature-length film was another creature-work, MONSTERS, which I have not seen).
The film suffers not just from dull human viewpoint characters, but also from an initial bifurcation of viewpoint. The initiating setup begins with Joe Brody, supervisor at a U.S.-Japanese atomic plant, who loses his beloved wife to an apparent nuclear meltdown. However, fifteen years later, Joe tries to convince his grown son Ford-- the real viewpoint character of the movie-- that the meltdown is actually a government cover-up for an anomalous event. Joe perishes, but Ford inherits his mission, and becomes the viewer's-eye that witnesses the cause of the anomaly, the resurrection of one of the Mutos. This creature's appearance brings forth its mate, as well as another prehistoric creature, one that preys on Mutos. A Japanese scientist (cannily named "Serizawa") gives this "alpha predator" the name of "Gojira."
The possible consequences of the Mutos mating and spreading more of their kind seems somewhat derivative of G-1998, and they become the film's central threat, with Godzilla as something of a coincidental rescuer. But Godzilla is sorely under-used, and the design of the Mutos is unimpressive-- when one can see anything at all, given that the lack of electricity eventuates in far too many scenes shot in partial darkness. Even the outdoor scenes are hard to see, though Edwards seems to find plenty of light when it comes to depicting military goings-on.
I wasn't crazy about SHIN GODZILLA devoting far too much attention to the humans buzzing around and trying to dope out the big monster. But at least some of the dialogue was okay, and the explanations of Godzilla's freakish nature were interesting. I can't say that any of the human characters of G-2014 held my attention even as well as Nick Tatoupoulos.
GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND (1972)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
The American name for GODZILLA VS. GIGAN doesn't make much sense, since the audience only sees Monster Island briefly, before heroic monsters Godzilla and Anguirus depart said isle in order to fight the bad monsters. However, the Japanese title is also problematic, since Gigan, despite being touted as a major adversary alongside fan-fave Ghidrah, ended up being one of the Big G's least well-remembered opponents. And at least the title MONSTER ISLAND does suggest the idea of the film's only attraction, a big monster-battle-- and since those battles take place on the Japanese mainland, well, that's a "monster island" of a sort, too.
ISLAND is one of the lowest points of the Showa series, not least because it recycles footage and music from earlier Toho efforts, including bits of the highly recognizable Anguirus-Ghidrah tussle in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. But at least there are some new, well-staged battles between Ghidrah and Godzilla. In contrast, new heavy Gigan-- apparently some sort of space cyborg, since he has a cycling buzzsaw that sprouts out of his stomach-- wears out his welcome once he's shown off his limited bag of tricks. (He also has arms that terminate in single curved talons, apparently made of metal.) As in earlier films, Godzilla and Anguirus function more or less like superheroes who come running when humans are in danger, though at least this time the villains behind the monsters are planning to destroy the whole Earth to make it habitable for them.
Once again Toho resorts to aliens as the prime movers behind a monstrous assault, but these extraterrestrials are perhaps the least interesting instigators of the period. The script's big idea is that, instead of the aliens being simply a hard-luck race looking for a new world to colonize, these beings are sort of a sub-race that survived when the dominant race of their world exhausted all resources. ISLAND is exceptionally preachy about humans having a lot in common with the dead aliens, and pedestrian as well, since the script thinks it's brilliant to pick up on the old canard that only cockroaches will survive once humans wipe themselves out. Thus these creatures are, despite their alien origins, are literally big cockroaches who can disguise themselves as humans. This time, though, the Cockroach People decide not to wait for humankind to destroy itself, but nudge things along.
The only interesting sociological myth of ISLAND is that the script reflects how thoroughly the Showa producers deemed the Godzilla series to be "for kids." The principal viewpoint character is a goofy manga artist named Gengo, and the level of his talent is shown when he imagines a couple of condescending faux-monsters who incarnate "homework" and "strict mothers." His questionable talents cause him to come in contact with the organizers behind a theme park, World Children's Land, which is also devoted to monsters (though all we see is one big Godzilla-statue). The organizers, however, are the Cockroach Men, and so Gengo and his allies-- one of whom is a young woman looking for her alien-abducted brother-- get involved in exposing the plot of the Cockroaches. The only member of Team Gengo who's at all interesting is his girlfriend Tomoko, who shows off her black-belt karate skills in a couple of scenes.
Saturday, March 23, 2019
TAUR THE MIGHTY (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I reviewed the sequel to this film here, where I said, among other things-
I should note that THOR was filmed back-to-back with another peplum with the same star and director, TAUR THE MIGHTY. Both "Thor" and "Taur" were toss-off names applied to a hero who, the story goes, was originally going to be called "Tarzan" until the Edgar Rice Burroughs organization took exception. This goes a long way toward explaining why the protagonist has no resemblance to the Scandinavian thunder-god of mythic and comic-book fame.
TAUR starts off with two royal sisters, Illa and Tuja, being hassled by a couple of enemy soldiers out in the wilds of what might be North Africa (actually shot in Yugoslavia). To their rescue comes a tough young fellow-- but no, it's not Taur, but a young orphan, Syros, whom Thor found in the forest and raised as his son (sort of like Classic Hollywood Tarzan's relationship with "Boy.") Syros beats off the baddies and returns the girls to their father the King of Some Kingdom. Syros asks for the hand of blonde Illa and the king agrees. They start planning a wedding, and since they figure Thor ought to attend, the king sends a Black African servant, Ubaratutu, to fetch Thor for the festivities.
Ubaratutu, it should be noted, is just as muscular as Thor, but occasionally shows a streak of cowardice, a streak which isn't apparent in AMAZON WOMEN.
A little later, Thor and Ubaratutu arrive at Some Kingdom, but they find only corpses, since the neighboring warriors of Quesos (?) have carried away as slaves everyone they didn't kill. Since Syros isn't among the dead, Thor insists that Ubaratutu come along as they seek out the Quesos realm and free Thor's buddy.
The heroes soon learn that most of the survivors of the raid have been confined underground, where they're forced to mine gold and refine it in a rather anachronistic furnace (complete with conveyor belt!) The women get different treatment, being trained as sword-wielding warriors to fight in some arena somewhere. Both Illa and Tuja have survived to join these almost-Amazons, though the script's only reason for keeping both alive is to force them to fight each other blindfolded later on. The tyrants in charge of the operation are Queen Akiba and her high priest El Kab, who are pretty much your standard evil rulers. Since Thor can't immediately free everyone from the soldiers, he and Ubaratutu blend in with the slaves, apparently with no real plan but getting close enough to figure out how to undermine (heh) the whole megilla.
For an Italian muscleman film, TAUR is pretty skimpy on romantic interludes, but it does offer an assortment of female-female sword-duels. Script and direction frequently takes advantage of comical possibilities, though a forced arena-fight between Thor and Ubaratutu seems designed to humiliate the black guy. (FWIW, he gets better treatment in AMAZON WOMEN.) Perhaps the funniest consequence of the English dubbing takes place when Illa, freed from captivity, chases Akiba into a cavern. Good girl corners bad girl alongside a crevasse, and then utters the deathless line, "I should kill you!"-- just before pushing Akiba into the crevasse. Maybe some dubber didn't know the difference between "should" and "am going to?"
Anyway, the evil mining operation gets blown up, the villains are slain, and the former slaves of Some Kingdom take over. Syros is all set to marry Illa once more, but instead of sticking around for the wedding, Thor informs Ubaratutu that it's time for them to go looking for a new adventure. And off they go, the peplum version of Ebony and Ivory-- even if they only get one more outing.
KING SOLOMON'S TREASURE (1979)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Though the 1937 KING SOLOMON'S MINES remains the most faithful adaptation of any work by H. Rider Haggard, KING SOLOMON'S TREASURE may be the runner-up.
To be sure, there's not a lot of competition. Since the silent era, only three Haggard works-- SHE, KING SOLOMON'S MINES and MINES's sequel ALLEN QUATERMAIN-- have seen adaptation, and it's a sad state of affairs that for modern movie-watchers the best-know version of Haggard's long-running white-hunter hero comes from two terrible 1980s movies, the 1985 SOLOMON'S and its immediate sequel, ALLEN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD. The second of these adapted a few elements from the novel ALLEN QUATERMAIN, but it was primarily, like the earlier film, a clear knockoff of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
TREASURE, completed two years before the debut of Indiana Jones, is probably the closest adaptation ALLEN QUATERMAIN-- which actually gets explicit mention in the credits-- will ever receive. Though Haggard's initial Quatermain book is the better work, ALLEN is arguably more influential. In the later book Haggard promulgates the trope of the "lost race," a civilization that has somehow become separated from the rest of the world and that keeps all the customs of some archaic culture. Many authors, not least Edgar Rice Burroughs, mined this trope repeatedly throughout 20th-century pop fiction. To a small extent, ALLEN also contributed to the trope of "surviving prehistoric life," in that its heroes are forced to battle unusually large crabs. To be sure, Jules Verne's yet earlier JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was probably the main influence on the signature work of prehistoric survival, Conan Doyle's 1912 THE LOST WORLD.
TREASURE doesn't entirely hew to the 1887 Haggard novel: in addition to oversized crabs, the heroes of the story also come across a couple of dinosaurs before reaching a lost colony of Phoenicians, conveniently next to a smoldering volcano. The film uses the same characters from the two Haggard books-- great hunter Quatermain (John Colicos), Sir Henry Curtis (David McCallum), and Captain Good (Patrick MacNee)-- as well as including Umslopogas (Ken Gampu), the Black African tribesman who joins Quatermain in the second novel. However, instead of alluding to the previous African journey of the three Englishmen, they go looking for King Solomon's Mines and end up encountering Zu-Vendis, the kingdom of the Phoenicians. Presumably the producers wanted the title to remind moviegoers of the first book, which is far better known today than the second one. The three Englishmen and their African buddy are welcomed by the city's queen Nyleptha (Britt Ekland), who in the book is one of two sisters. (Oddly, the 1987 QUATERMAIN film gets this detail right, but not much else.)
Nyleptha has good reason to welcome strangers, for her court is controlled by an evil high priest, who wants her to marry her half-brother in order to secure the throne for the future. The Phoenician queen promptly falls in love with Curtis, and he with her, which of course leads to lots of trouble for the Englishmen and their buddy-- not to mention the fact that the volcano chooses to get active right around the same time. The Englishmen take out a lot of soldiers with their rifles, with Quatermain showing himself the best shot, as in the novels. In contrast to the ending of ALLEN QUATERMAIN the novel, though, where both Allen and Umslopogas perish, Allen is left alive for possible sequels.
Now, having chronicled all of the film's likenesses and differences from the novel, I come to the big question: does being faithful to the book make TREASURE a good film? And the answer is that it's at best watchable. I've seen online reviews trashing the performances of Colicos, McCallum, and MacNee, but I thought all three of them did a fair job of keeping things moderately interesting. (Can't say the same for Britt Ekland, though.) The main problem is that both the script and the direction are simply pedestrian, giving the actors little to work with. I only assign the film with a "fair" mythicity because it does try, however erratically, to bring life to the original "lost race" novel
Thursday, March 21, 2019
GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
I'm a little more forgiving these days of SEA MONSTER's shortcomings than I was in earlier viewings, but even so, the thing I like best about the film is that it took a script that would've made a terrible "King Kong II" film and converted it into a mediocre Godzilla flick. By my lights this was a fortunate state of affairs, because when Toho Productions did make its second and last "King Kong II" film, they did a better-than-average job with the delirious KING KONG ESCAPES. Thus I'd have to say that SEA MONSTER's virtue is that of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to protect the lives of other soldiers.
Godzilla, after all, had already had a number of epic films in his repertoire, with SEA MONSTER being immediately preceded by the two monster-mashes that pitted the Earth-monsters against King Ghidorah. Since Toho was reputedly cutting costs on its monster epics anyway. Godzilla's best days (at least in the Showa era) were all but behind him, apart from DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, and even this was originally intended as a farewell project.
The most obvious sign of the penny-pinching times is that most of SEA MONSTER emphasizes a coterie of human beings who get stuck on Letchi, a South Seas island that's a neighbor to Mothra's Infant Island. A motley crew of Japanese youths are dragooned by one of their number into a search-and-rescue for the one guy's brother, and although the brother-location poops out dramatically, it does make for an interesting opening. Once the guys arrive on Letchi, they eventually find the brother, but they also come across a lot of trouble. One source of trouble is a maybe-Communist terrorist organization, the Red Bamboo, who have set up shop on the island to manufacture nuclear bombs. They've also drafted several Infant Isle natives to slave for them, though one comely lass named Daiyo escapes and involves the guys in her difficulties. On top of this, there's also a giant lobster, Ebirah, who just hangs around the boundaries of Letchi and keeps anyone from leaving. It's not clear if Ebirah was created by nuclear run-off, or if it was one of the many subterrranean prehistoric behemoths who found its way to the surface as Godzilla did. Alternately, the big crustacean may be a little of both, like Godzilla. Somehow the Red Bamboo have evolved a way to fool the lobster's senses with a special chemical, which might argue for their direct involvement in its creation.
However, the young girls and girl have one small, if ambivalent, advantage: they find Godzilla hibernating in one of the caverns on Letchi. (Originally this would have been Kong, though presumably that script would've had to find some half-decent reason for Kong to have allowed the terrorists free reign on his island.) With some help from a lightning-rod-- IMO the movie's best scene-- the heroes manage to jolt Godzilla awake, and the rowdy reptile immediately takes on the big lobster. Ebirah retreats, so Godzilla returns to the island-- which means that he becomes yet another problem for the good guys.
The rest of the film involves the heroes running from either Godzilla or the soldiers while waiting for Mothra to wake up and come to their rescue. Despite some lively moments, the remainder of the film becomes wholly predictable, aside from a modesty entertaining final battle between reptile and crustacean.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
MODESTY BLAISE (1966)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Here's a mini-review I recently wrote on the Classic Horror board:
As I type this, I've almost finished watching MB on Youtube. I can appreciate Losey's use of vivid, primary colors and weird angles, but he's taken the story O'Donnell did and flummoxed it around for the sake of "artiness." Reportedly in the day he claimed he was going to "out-Bond Bond," but had never seen a whole Bond film, and so only had his own skewed perception of what the genre was about. OUR MAN FLINT is a much more successful spoofy spy-flick-- heck, even the obscure OUT OF SIGHT understands how to play on the tropes better. Why Losey thought his Antonioni borrowings would play in Peoria is beyond me.
I've seen a lot of criticism of Vitti, but I think she was just doing what she was told to do, to be airy-fairy and silly, and she did that well. It just didn't help sell the movie.
Of course I have a few more things to say about this famous misfire. The MODESTY BLAISE comic strip, written by Peter O'Donnell, debuted in 1963, and its success with the public coincided with the "Bond fever" unleashed by the 1962 movie DOCTOR NO. Technically the sophisticated Modesty Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin weren't any sort of espionage agents. But because they were reformed master criminals, they had a working knowledge of the subcultures of crime and espionage, and most of their exploits were only different from those of Bond in that they were independent agents who answered only to their own sense of justice. At some point, the franchise was optioned for film adaptation, and O'Donnell provided a screenplay, based partly on the first outing of Modesty and Willie. Though O'Donnell's screenplay was only marginally influential on the finished film, the author novelized his story in the first prose novel, MODESTY BLAISE. Though I haven't read the novel in many years, I recall it as a tautly-written adventure-story informed by humor and strong sentiment. The novel has no metaphenomenal elements, though other stories in both the comic strip and the prose adaptations employed such elements on occasion. The 1966 film does have a few uncanny devices-- gas-bombs and something called "antisonar"-- which place the solo film into the realm of the uncanny.
Director Joseph Losey, best known at the time for his 1963 arthouse success THE SERVANT, reportedly found O'Donnell's script boring, though he kept just the bare bones of the original story, in which Modesty (Monica Vitti) and Willie (Terence Stamp) take on master criminal Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) and his small army of henchmen. Whereas O'Donnell provided a crisp adventure-tale involving stolen diamonds, this setup was for Losey merely an excuse for endless shots of Vitti fluttering around various exotic locales in bizarre costumes.
Twice blonde-haired Vitti is made up to look like the comic-strip character, complete with brunette hair and quasi-military outfit. But at no time does Losey give either of the two heroes any resemblance to their tough-as-nails predecessors. Willie does a little bit of his signature knife-fighting, and Modesty does a little clumsy judo, but Losey seems utterly uninterested in giving the audience anything approximating thrills. Had he spent even a tenth of his costume budget on stuntwork, maybe MODESTY would've been improved slightly. As it stands, the only scene that offers some suspense is one in which Gabriel's perverse right-hand henchwoman beats up a mime and throws off a cliff. In the original story, the mime is an undercover man, but the script by Evan Jones (who had worked with Losey on three previous projects) doesn't even provide that rationale. I suspect that Losey only kept this scene true to the original because it tickled his love for surrealistic imagery.
While Losey shows no interest in the travails of Modesty and Willie, the villain Gabriel comes close to being the real star of the show, as Losey apparently instructed Bogarde to play the character as a flaming, effete homosexual. Thus the film is replete with countless scenes of Gabriel lounging around and making ironic pronouncements-- though none of his supposedly humorous asides are funny.
Speaking of irony, Losey certainly intended to undercut the straightforward adventure of the original narrative and replace it with something like "camp," although Losey apparently did not understand that true camp only mocks its narrative very indirectly. One can't call MODESTY "satire" either, since there's no target for any animus. So by default MODESTY becomes a free-form irony, mocking the supposed pretensions of adventure-fiction with yet greater pretensions.
The movie's sole virtue is its use of vibrant primary colors. But in many respects, even though it's an irony like the 1968 BARBARELLA, the later film took the opposite course: piecing together various sequences from the picarescque French comic feature and making them into a relatively tight whole.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Though BIG DOLL HOUSE was not the first WIP film, it was arguably the one that defined the genre for the 1970s and subsequent decades. And one thing that makes it stand apart from the rest is that, although it's in no way a metaphenomenal narrative, it does use tropes that, given a different approach, could have been aligned with the uncanny.
HOUSE sets up its action with many of the usual patterns seen in WIP films from earlier decades: the new fish (Judy Brown) enters prison to do time for an offense that the audience doesn't think is so bad (in this case, killing a scummy husband). She meets a set of predictable yet still vivid character-types: the tough girl (Roberta Collins), the revolutionary idealist (Pat Woodell), the lesbian and her heroine-addled partner (Pam Grier and Brooke Mills). There's a sympathetic prison doctor, who's pretty much the only decent male, a couple of comical delivery guys (one of whom is played by Sid Haig), and a bunch of cruel guards, all women. But for once there's a little mystery: though a woman named "Miss Dietrich" is nominally in charge, there's also a mystery man, Captain Mendoza, who is supposedly the real warden, though the prisoners never see him. The audience gets to see Mendoza as a weird masked figure who presides over the frequent tortures of prisoners: whippings, electroshock, and torment with snakes (the last two providing naturalistic versions of "bizarre crimes," even as Mendoza's outfit is a naturalistic "outre outfit.")
Since all of the women are impossibly glammed-up, it's hard to take even the violence very seriously, and a constant stream of one-liners reinforces the lighter mood, with the stand-out being the oft-quoted "You'll get it up or I'll cut it off!" There are some mild subtexts of feminine liberation here, roughly linked to the then-popular vogue for proletariat revolution, though these too don't bear strong examination.
There's more implied than actual sex, and catfights are featured far more than gunfights, including a classic battle between Collins and Grier (the last time Pam Grier would ever lose a filmic fight). The revelation of the mysterious warden's identity is pretty obvious, though the script adds a twist by showing that the corrupt official has a psychological hangup against the sexual proclivities of the female convicts. Though I used to think that the next-year follow-up THE BIG BIRD CAGE was the better of the two productions, I've come to feel that the latter is a little too jokey, and thus misfires when it comes to providing good sleazy melodrama.
Monday, March 18, 2019
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*
I've no familiarity with the 1993 video game DOOM or any of its later iterations. Wikipedia informs me that the original concept's "first-person shooter" scenario took a lone gunman to the planet Mars, where he shoots it out with an assortment of demons from Hell itself. In contrast, the movie DOOM remains firmly within a science-fiction universe, aside from a highly speculative assertion by a scientist that there may be a genetic code for the human soul.
The year is 2046, and humankind has gained access to Mars by finding a teleport-device, left in Nevada by ancient Martians who apparently deserted their planet. There's no evidence as to what happened to the emigrants, and Mars itself shows no trace of living creatures, but a facility of Earth-scientists has been built on the planet to study the remains of the long-dead denizens. When communication between Mars and Earth breaks down, a squad of Marines, all armed to the teeth with advanced weapons, are sent via portal to Mars to rescue the scientists and, perhaps more importantly, their research. However, once there, the soldiers are repeatedly attacked by monsters.
Because of the combination of marines and monsters, some critics chose to see DOOM as overly indebted to the 1986 ALIENS. There are rough similarities, particularly the idea of humans attempting to co-opt alien science or resources for human military advantage. As in ALIENS, most of the military grunts are "doomed" to become cannon fodder. However, the David Callaham-Wesley Strick script emphasizes the way in which the monsters from the outside are identical to those on the inside.
Only three characters are of great consequence: the mission-leader "Sarge" (Dwayne Johnson), his subordinate "Reaper" (Karl Urban), and Samantha Grimm (Rosamund Pyke), who, in addition to being one of the facility's scientists, is also Reaper's twin sister. In between conflicts with monsters, Samantha eventually reveals that her fellow scientists performed a genetic analysis of the human-like inhabitants of Mars. The oldest remains of Martians showed 23 pairs of chromosomes, just like humans, but later Martians had 24 pairs. Samantha theorizes that the 24th chromosomal pair was synthetic, and that it boosted the strength and healing-powers of the natives. However, she further theorized that the genetic tinkering caused a cultural upheaval that resulted in the extermination of the race, including, presumably, those that failed to colonize Earth.
The plot-device of the long-distant upheaval recalls a similar trope from 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET. In that film, the humans who investigate the titular world learn that its long-vanished native race invented mind-boosting machines that unleashed the "demons of the id," so that the natives destroyed themselves in their quest for advancement. In the course of all the monster-slaying, Samantha observes that although some monsters came about from the project using human test-servants, and others were "infected" by contact with mutated persons, the infection doesn't spread to everyone. She observes that the genetic mutation occurs only in persons who have a propensity for excessive violence in their (figurative) souls. This leads to a combative confrontation for Reaper, for his superior officer Sarge soon reveals the dark nature hidden behind his military facade. Fortunately, Reaper, who also gets exposed to the genetic mutagen, also has his positive nature boosted by the mutagen. Overall, I found DOOM a reasonably good example of military SF-cinema, though I found tedious the movie's attempt to reproduce a "first-person shooter" scenario. Happily, it only took up about five minutes toward the end.
Whereas ALIENS is a film in which the titular extraterrestrials are on center stage, dwarfing the importance of the space-marines fighting them, determining the "main characters" of DOOM becomes a little more dicey, given that the actual Martians are all dead. However, their genetic legacy-- that of passing on the mutagen that can enhance either "good" or "evil"-- has more central importance to the narrative than any of the three human characters. A quick check of Wikis about the video game suggests that there's no generic name for the "Doom Monsters," probably because they are largely supposed to be either Hell-demons or humans possessed by demons. So for my own satisfaction, I'll state that the stars of DOOM are indeed the "Doom Mutants"-- and, since both Sarge and Reaper become affected by the mutagen, they become reflections of the mutagen's potential to create both monsters and monster-fighting heroes.
ADDENDUM: Though there are no literal devils in the movie, it's interesting that in one scene Samantha demonstrates that mutagen-infected flesh literally goes out of its way to infect violent people, and ignores those who are not so spiritually polluted. This may be a psuedo-scientific way of saying that people who have already "signed over the souls to the Devil" are the main victims of the mutagen.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
COUNTESS DRACULA (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
COUNTESS DRACULA is something of a Hammer anomaly for a couple of reasons, neither of which has to do with the studio's use of the name "Dracula" to sell a film based on the crimes of 16th-century noblewoman Erzebet Bathory.
First, COUNTESS was only Ingrid Pitt's second starring film-role, after her moneymaking debut in 1970''s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS-- and yet, COUNTESS had Pitt conceal her beauty beneath old-age makeup for many of her scenes-- which probably was something of a turn-off for viewers who wanted to see Pitt follow up on her earlier, very sexy performance.
Second, though there are various scenes of bloody violence, in keeping with Hammer's increasing penchant for exploitation, they're fairly low-key for Hammer and for the director Peter Sasdy, who showed far more flair for cinematic violence both in his previous movie TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and in the one that immediately followed COUNTESS, HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Perhaps Sasdy or his producer (Alexander Paal, also one of the film's scripters) had some notion of using the Bathory legend to make a comment on the dangers of vanity. Coming from Hammer Films, such a righteous message seems a little like a barman give lectures on the virtues of teetotalling.
The script also fails to "up the game" once the setup's been established. Elizabeth, an aging noblewoman recently widowed, listens to the reading of her late husband's will and learns that she must share the inheritance with her daughter Ilona, currently attending school far from the Bathory castle. By accident Elizabeth learns that when she's exposed to fresh blood, her wizened skin becomes rejuvenated, though this is given no real explanation whatever, and her few confidantes just take this miracle in stride. Being one of Hammer's many nasty aristocrats, Elizabeth begins exsanguinating various female victims, though far less than the historical Bathory allegedly did, and for a time, the countess enjoys being young again. A young nobleman, Imre, arrives at court as part of an arranged marriage to Ilona, whom Imre has never met, so Elizabeth simply usurps her daughter's place and makes passionate love to the younger man-- much to the disgust of her confidante Dobi, an older man who liked the countess the way she was. Receiving news that Ilona is scheduled to return to the castle soon, Elizabeth arranged for her to be waylaid and imprisoned, so that Elizabeth can continue living the life of a young woman.
Despite a solid performance by Pitt, the character of Elizabeth never comes alive. It goes without saying that almost everyone can identify with the desire to cast off the bonds of age in favor of renewed youth, but the viewer knows so little about Elizabeth that even her joy in regaining said youth falls flat. Even a political reading of the Bathory story-- the ruthless noble, literally bleeding the life out of the lower classes-- gets less textual support from COUNTESS's script than one can find in any of the "regular" Hammer vampire flicks. Only once did I find myself repulsed by a character's immoral action, and that was in a scene where Elizabeth's nurse, a commoner who simply hitches her wagon to the Countess's star, makes it clear that she'll do anything to protect her meal ticket.
The other narrative flaw is that Elizabeth remains largely confined to the castle and the surrounding terrain, so that she doesn't really DO anything. Imre and Ilona don't come alive as characters, and though there's one clever line in which Dobi tells Imre that the ideal mate is also a "mother," COUNTESS has none of the interesting Oedipal themes found in Sasdy's RIPPER.
Friday, March 15, 2019
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Wikipedia credits BLADE with having initiated Marvel's success in live-action films. I wouldn't give it that much credit for two principal reasons: (1) few of the viewers who made the film a success (spawning two feature-film sequels) knew that Blade was a (very minor) Marvel character, and (2) nothing about the film reflected the mindset of Marvel Comics as it would come to be defined following the important live-action adaptations of the early 2000s: X-MEN (2000) and SPIDER-MAN (2002). I'll note in passing that if these two adaptations of Marvel's "big guns" had bombed, such failures could well have jinxed the later MCU films. Had BLADE failed, I don't imagine that said failure would've had any more long-term repercussions than the actual flop of 1999's under-rated MYSTERY MEN.
The original comics-character debuted as a supporting character in Marvel's TOMB OF DRACULA series, and only enjoyed a handful of starring appearances. Sole scriptwriter David S. Goyer, though later responsible for a number of bad superhero films like MAN OF STEEL, succeeded here in fusing the fragments of Blade's history into a cohesive whole, and, in some cases, improving upon them. For instance, one of the many plot-threads of the movie-- which, to my knowledge, was not in the comics-- is that in Blade's world, there's a conflict between the elder vampires, who keep the existence of their kind concealed from humanity, and a younger, ambitious breed. Thus the movie starts with a gratuitous display of vamp-on-human violence that foreshadows this conflict, even if the scene's main purpose is to gross out the audience and to introduce Blade as the champion of put-upon humanity.
The opening violence also leads Blade to one of his primary support-characters, Doctor Karen Jenson. One of the hero's vampire opponents is severely burned but not killed, and when he's taken to the local ER, the bloodsucker kills one doctor and bites Karen. Blade initially succors Karen to use her as bait to lure more vampires, but over time her skills as a hematologist become increasingly important to the story, not least in terms of humanizing the protagonist, who's become almost as fearsome and implacable as the monsters he stalks.
One of the younger breed is Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who is indirectly responsible for imbuing Blade with quasi-vampiric powers (resistance to vampire bites, slow aging, strength). Frost bit Blade's mother when she was still pregnant with him, and though she apparently died, the infant Blade survived to develop into a "day-walker." Blade and his mentor have been looking for Frost for years, and their alliance with Karen just happens to parallel the young vampire's newest project: to perform a special ritual that will give him rulership over the vampire kingdom.
The action-scenes in BLADE are sometimes too fast-paced to follow, creating confusion more than excitement. Snipes' powerhouse performance as the hero sells the film even when Stephen Norrington's direction falls short or turns lackluster. Unlike the superhero films of the 2000s, BLADE's combination of horror and adventure doesn't leave much room for comedy relief, though there is a cute repeated bit about a recurring vampire henchmen (Donal Logue) who keeps losing his hand to Blade's formidable sword.
The one aspect of the film that justifies my SPOILERS is that I'll now reveal that, in contrast to the original history of the character, Blade's mother, instead of bleeding to death, rises again as one of Frost's undead. She both fights with Blade and attempts to seduce him to Frost's cause, which could have had the effect of making the villain into a father-surrogate figure, a Claudius to the hero's Hamlet. However, precisely because this version of Frost has been retooled as "the young upstart," and because he's being played by an actor about ten years younger than Wesley Snipes, the standard Oedipal arrangement doesn't work here.
Thursday, March 14, 2019
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
One of the best metaphenomenal westerns I've ever encountered, aside from the best episodes of KUNG FU, debuted on the TNT cable channel-- which I would have to say, never struck me as a font of great original film-making.
A gang of bandits, led by Britton (Eric Roberts) and Guthrie (Peter Stormare), robs a bank in a western town, and during a gunfight, an innocent woman is slain. This moves none of the outlaws save Sonny, nephew of Guthrie (Brad Rowe), but a posse comes after the robbers, so they must flee into the desert. After passing through a dust storm, the gang finds itself in an isolated town named Refuge.
At first glance the citizens of Refuge look like ordinary peacable folks, which should make them easy pickings for the outlaws. None of the locals, even the sheriff (Sam Shepard), carry guns, they won't swear or drink, and every time the church bell rings, the citizens drop what they're doing and assemble in church.
Sonny, by chatting one of the pretty girls, is the first to get an inkling that Refuge is not an ordinary town. Some of the outlaws begin noticing that certain citizens have a resemblance to famous dead gunfighters-- Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Jesse James-- while the sheriff himself bears a likeness to Wild Bill Hickock. Eventually the secret comes out: Refuge is a literal "ghost town," where the spirits of dead people have come together to endure a form of purgatory. If they can live righteous lives for a period of time, the citizens can ascend to the rewards of heaven. When one of the locals loses his patience with a nasty outlaw and clouts him with a shovel, a mysterious Indian shows up and escorts the local away to an unknown fate.
The outlaws, though not entirely believing the story, waste no time in taking advantage of the situation. At this point Sonny loses sympathy with his former comrades, particularly when his uncle threatens to rape the pretty young thing whom Sonny likes. It also helps his belief when he actually witnesses a new arrival to town, none other than the woman he saw slain back in the mortal world.
Though the film starts with the outlaws, Gordon Dawson's script is really centered on the former gunfighters, who, to win entry into heaven, must try to resist their instinct to fight back. Sonny, whose name suggests his low-ranking status in the gang, becomes crucial to encouraging the gunfighters to do the right thing, to battle evil even if they may have to go to hell for it.
One might cavil that PURGATORY changes its ground rules from time to time, as when one outlaw is literally smitten by heaven, though the skies are silent when it's time for the big showdown. However, one might argue that everything that happens in Refuge has been ordained by "the big man" in order to test the residents, much like the depiction of God in the "Book of Job." But in most isophenomenal westerns, religious characters are nominal figures, confined to watching the battle of good and evil play out. PURGATORY reverses that trope, putting religion in the driver's seat, but still lending validity to the western's crucial myth of the showdown. All of the actors-- even Randy Quaid, whom I personally don't like-- acquit themselves well, though clearly Sam Shepard is "first among equals" here.
Monday, March 11, 2019
PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1950)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
There had been a lot of cavemen-comedies before PREHISTORIC WOMEN, but up to 1950, this is probably the best, with writer-director Gregg G. Tallas mining the tradition of the Greek Amazons to
sow dissent between the sexes in prehistoric times.
Since none of the cave-people speak English, a narrator serves to tell the viewers what's going on for most of the film. Thus it's through the narrator that we learn that, in contrast to the Classical Amazons, the "Prehistoric Women" of the title only separate themselves from men for one generation. Following a prologue that shows some cave-women dancing wildly in "frustration"-- particularly dark-haired Tigri (Laurette Luez)-- we learn that some years ago Tigri's mother Tana rebelled against the men who tyrannized the tribe's women, and beaned the chief with a rock. Then all the women of the tribe followed Tana to make a separate tribe with their children, who were apparently all girls, since Tigri grows to womanhood with no men around.
However, Tigri and her fellow cave-women don't want their tribe to die out for lack of available males, so they anticipate the later practices of the Greek Amazons and quest forth to abduct male slaves. The girls happen upon the young men of the tribe from which Tana fled, though viewers never see any of the mean older men of Tana's time. Instead, the only men are a bunch of young studs out hunting. It's not clear whether or not Tigri's group has ever encountered the cave-studs before, but the cave-girls have an advantage, being armed with slings that swiftly clobber most of the guys. One caveman, Engor, escapes to contemplate what he'll do to rescue his friends.
The girls bring the guys back to their village, using the threat of their pet black panther to insure that the men accede to their new slave-status. The guys don't seem to mind being lorded over by the women too much, probably because the girls are all hotties. Engor, while following in the tracks of the Prehistoric Women, accidentally discovers how to make fire. However, this doesn't immediately help him in the village, for the girls overpower him as well. Tigri, who hasn't selected her own mate-of-convenience yet, chooses Engor for herself and fights off a competitor. However, when a pterodactyl (played by what looks like a pelican) attacks the village and threatens to carry off Tigri, Engor manages to drive off the beast with a torch. Having put the women in their place, the men assume dominance once more, and Engor considers bringing all the fugitive women back to the original tribe.
Happily, the patriarchy doesn't get any further than the matriarchy, thanks to the menace of a nine-foot-caveman named Guadi. Having menaced the cave-people on other occasions, this embodiment of male aggression, who apparently has no female equivalent, attacks Engor's new tribe. Engor is ultimately able to destroy Guadi by setting the forest ablaze. The cave-girls don't do anything to bring this state of affairs, but with Guadi gone, Engor changes his mind and decides that they will all return to the village and carry on with their new tribe, that respects both men and women.
Though the scenario is risible, as are the gorgeously coiffed cave-girls, Tallas's comedy has some clever "war between the sexes" bits, and thus PREHISTORIC WOMEN remains moderately charming despite its low budget.
FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS (1960), PLANET ON THE PROWL (1966)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological. sociological*
It's 1985, and Earth had passed through a non-baptism of fire-- that is, the Earth nations managed to put aside their differences enough to cease menacing one another with nuclear fires, not unlike the history attributed to STAR TREK's Federation a bit later in the 1960s. However, amid all this international peace, scientists unearth a strange relic from the 1906 Tunguska meteor-strike. The item turns out to be a magnetic tape, apparently the last surviving remnant of a Venusian spaceship. Though the scientists labor to translate the tape, a multinational conference decides to investigate the possibility of life on Venus. As it happens, the Soviets had prepared a ship, the Kosmokrator, for a journey to Mars, but the agenda is changed, and a multinational crew of experts is selected. As is par for the course in such films, there are no national duplications: there's one Russian, one American, one Black African, one Japanese, and so on. (Reputedly the American release altered some of the nationalities as established in the original German/Polish film.)
Not much is said about the method by which the Kosmokrator traverses the millions of miles separating Earth from Venus, but it doesn't take long and no one needs to enter cryosleep. There are a few soap-opera bits here and there-- the American Robert once had an affair with the Japanese lady doctor Sumiko-- but the trip has no major hiccups. There's even a slightly comical R2D2-ancestor, a little robot named Omega. However, partway to their destination, one of the scientists manages to fully translate the magnetic record, and the cosmonauts all learn that Venus sent one of their ships to Earth on a scout mission, prefatory to launching an attack. In the movie's most dramatic scene, the crew-mates have to decide whether or not to divulge this discovery to the people of Earth.
Though capable of simply turning the ship around and going home, the cosmonauts decide to forge onward, all the way to Venus. The ship sends down a landing-craft with Robert in command, but though he discovers some entities that look like bat-winged insects-- actually artificial in nature-- he learns that there are no longer any living Venusians. Further investigations indicate that the Venusians had been preparing atomic weapons with which to attack Earth, and ended up destroying themselves instead. There are even some outlines of slain Venusian bodies in certain walls, a clear reference to a historical phenomenon recorded in Hiroshima. However, the Earthpeople's advent sets one of the doomsday machines in motion, and now they have to endeavor to prevent the Venusians' deadly plans from coming to fruition.
VENUS, purportedly based on a Stanislaw Lem book, never develops either its characters or its theme of an atomic specter that returns to haunt human civilization. Oddly, in the same year an American independent company released another space-voyage tale involving a multinational crew, TWELVE TO THE MOON, which, while no classic, was somewhat more engaging.
Stodgy as VENUS is, it's far more watchable than PLANET ON THE PROWL, which title I prefer to the original WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS.
PROWL is the third entry in Italy's so-called "Gamma One" series, preceded by THE WILD WILD PLANET and WAR OF THE PLANETS. Both of these are decent cheapjack soap-opera, but though Film #3 takes place in the same future-Earth environment, the characters of the first two films are jettisoned in favor of a new cast. all of whom manage to be even less well-defined than the first group. As memory serves, the fourth and last film returns to the action-orientation of the first two flicks.
Unfortunately, even though schlock-meister director Antonio Margheriti helmed all four films, he or another producer decided to dust off a SF-trope that had become hoary even by 1966: a gigantic asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. As the asteroid comes closer, the planet suffers cataclysms, forcing the Earthpeople to send a spaceship to deal with the cosmic intruder. Suffice to say that even the astronauts don't seem to have any sort of plan in mind, they manage to destroy the asteroid, which may or may not be a living thing. In place of good action, there are a lot of scenes of actors clambering over phony asteroid-parts. There is one fistfight between the ship's commander and a subordinate, and that's about it for PROWL.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 (2015), HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3 (2018)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
It's not saying much to assert that the sequel to HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA is an improvement on the first film, given how tiresome and pathetic it was. It's of passing interest to me, though, that it improved precisely because most of the story ditches the original "hotel for monsters" schtick, and lets the comical creatures cavort in other settings.
It's seven years since the first film, thus giving new married couple Mavis and Johnny time to give birth to a five-year-old rugrat, Dennis. New granddad Dracula (Adam Sandler again), having started out his comic career interfering with his daughter's life, returns to his old ways, for Dennis seems to be late to manifest any vampiric powers from Drac's side of the family. This problem provides the initial excuse for the vampire-lord and his goofy band of ghouls to take leave of the hotel's confines. Drac fools Mavis and Johnny into taking a trip without Dennis so that Drac can expose Dennis to a "monster training camp," the very one from which the Big D matriculated. This outing leads to a handful of moderately amusing gags, both about the monsters' "road trip" and the camp itself, which is now replete with multiple child-safety measures. Further, Dracula is aghast to discover that his maybe-human grandson has a different sort of "bat man" for his favorite hero, as in the one published by DC Comics.
Though Drac does return to the hotel afterward, very little of the plot-developments center around the running of the hotel itself. Drac's gross father Vlad returns from limbo and starts bossing his son around, and Drac tries to keep Vlad from finding out that his granddaughter has married a human. Further, for the first time some nasty-minded monsters appear: a legion of grotty bat-creatures, who menace Dennis but ironically bring his vampire powers to the fore. In a climactic battle-scene reminiscent of the 1966 BATMAN show, Drac, Mavis and Dennis beat the crap out of the bad bats, paving the way for overall reconciliation and all that jazz.
Not surprisingly, the third installment returns to the worn-out schtick of the first tilm, but instead of confining the action to Hotel Transylvania, this time most of the story is tied to a cruise-ship, the Legacy, and various other seaward sites.
First, there's a prologue showing how Dracula constantly eluded the murderous attacks of nutty vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who just doesn't like vampires because the prof's a dopey bigot. (Naturally, this film doesn't include anything like the first film's spotty references to the way Drac's breed go around hunting for humans). Following the prologue, Dracula begins thinking about taking a wife to replace his dead amour, but his daughter convinces him to get away from hotel business and take a cruise. On board the Legacy, Drac is immediately smitten by the ship's captain/entertainment director. Ericka.
But Ericka has a hidden agenda: she's the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing, now a cyborg with a human head, and he's drafted Ericka in a plan to destroy all of the monsters on the cruise. Not surprisingly, Ericka's initial emnity toward the vampire lord takes a turn for the better-- which is more than the film's predictable litany of dumb gags does.
The best thing about the third film is that, in spite of the presence of a menacing monster-hunter, the film doesn't attempt a combative conclusion like that of the second opus. I'm obliged to label the second film as combative, but the first and third are not, making it possible for me to dismiss the series, at least for now. Since HT3 was another box-office success, presumably another of these things will be glutting movie screens in the near future.
Thursday, March 7, 2019
IT'S ALIVE (1969)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Of the eight direct-to-TV films Larry Buchanan made in the late sixties, IT'S ALIVE is the only one not based on an earlier AIP movie. I think that I may have seen this film aired on TV at the time of its premiere, or if not, at some time close to it. At the time I thought it one of the worst films I'd ever seen.
I'm a little more forgiving now, though it's still obvious that Buchanan made ALIVE with the same workmanlike approach seen in the AIP adaptations. It's been said that ALIVE is based on a Richard Matheson story, but Matheson is not credited, and it seems likely that Buchanan simply took the base idea of the story and reworked it to suit his location shooting and the talents of his actors-- of whom only former Mouseketeer Tommy Kirk was the only "name."
A tourist couple, Norman and Leilia, go driving in the Ozarks, but their car runs low on gas. They pick up a young hitch-hiking paleontologist named Wayne (Kirk), who has come to the area to examine prehistoric remains. Wayne suggests that they seek out a small farm run by an eccentric middle-aged, Greely, and his housekeeper Bella. Greely has no gas to offer the travelers, but he has a makeshift zoo for tourists, and insists that the trio get a look at the remarkable creature he has confined down in a subterranean cave.
Leilia is the only one who senses that Greely isn't quite right, and she's proven correct when the loony fellow traps all three of them in a cage beneath the earth, and boasts that he plans to feed them to his creature. Paleontologist Wayne figures out that the carnivorous, reptilian humanoid is a survival from prehistoric times, called a "megasaur" or something like that. Eventually Greely explains that he came across the creature and began feeding it with various large animals. Since the madman has no plans beyond keeping his pet creature fed, one supposes that he could have continued using animals indefinitely, but then there would've been no conflict. So at some point he found it convenient to ambush lost travelers like his latest three visitors and give them to the creature. However, he fancies Leilia and offers to save her from the megasaur, even noting that he'd cheerfully get rid of his housekeeper and let Leilia take her place.
Bella, though terrified of Greely's violence, becomes the trio's only ally, though she isn't able to keep Norman from being killed. None of the travelers are interesting-- Wayne, for existence, exists just to give the audience insight on the dinosaur-man's supposed provenance. Only Bella sustains some sympathy, especially given that Buchanan, largely seeking to eat up time, devotes a substantial sequence to showing how Bella fell into Greely's clutches and was terrorized into becoming his virtual slave.
As Greely, actor Bill Thuman is alternately good and bad-- bad when he attempts to "play mad," good when he simply confines himself to a quiet menace. Both he and his mesozoic minion come to a bad end-- bad also in the sense of being tedious and anti-climactic. Allegedly, Thurman also played the monster, who is your basic "zipper-up-the-back" critter, complete with absurd ping-pong ball eyes.
BURIED ALIVE (1990)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Film-adaptations of E.A. Poe are almost never adaptations as such. More often they're grab-bags of tropes taken from several Poe tales, and nothing exhibits this tendency more than Gerald Kikoine's EDGAR ALLAN POE'S BURIED ALIVE.
With a title like that, one might fairly expect that the scriptwriter would build, at least partly, on the two most famous Poe-stories involving immurement: "The Premature Burial," or "The Cask of Amontillado." But BURIED only borrows one motif from "Cask," and sticks it into a scenario that slightly resembles Poe's asylum-run-by-inmates tale, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether."
Yet even here, Kikoine and his scripters-- both of whom show no other credits on IMDB-- tosses aside the irony of a mental hospital run by madmen. Instead, the story takes place in the melodramatically named "Ravenscroft Institute," which is a correctional home for teenage girls. The opening "teaser" scene shows one of the girls seeking to escape the institution, only to be beaten down and murdered by a killer wearing a Ronald Reagan mask.
The viewpoint character is Janet (Karen Witter), a new instructor, hired by headmaster Julian (Robert Vaughn). It's made clear that Janet and Julian have already made each other's acquaintance, with the strong suggestion that they've enjoyed some romantic interlude, and that this strongly influenced the process by which Janet got the job.
Once there, Janet has to butt heads with teenagers who don't give her any respect. There's surprisingly little exploitation of the girls' charms, particularly since director Kikoine had a long list of softcore sex movies previous to this, and largely ended his career after doing this and one other horror-flick for trashmeister-producer Harry Alan Towers. However, Janet's real problem is that she starts having psychic flashes, imagining herself falling through the ground, or being entombed. In one of her conversations, it comes out that Janet and Julian both had tyrannical parents, but the script makes very little of Janet's past, focusing, rather transparently, on the fact that Julian's father-- also his predecessor in running Ravenscroft-- inflicted rather severe punishments on Julian.
It's in one of Janet's visions that the viewer gets a brief taste of Amontillado wine, when she witnesses a ghastly old man (John Carradine) breaking through a stone wall, grabbing Janet and ranting "Bad! Bad!" at her. The big reveal at the film's end is that Julian finally got so torqued at his mean dad that he walled him up behind one of the Ravenscroft walls, and that, ever since, the ghost has been sending weird visions to the residents, though somehow the revenant can't seem to torment the one who actually committed the murder. Janet is apparently a better medium for his message, in that she starts poking around into Ravenscroft's history-- leading to the lesser reveal that Julian is the killer. I say "lesser" because he's almost the only possible suspect, aside from another of the instructors, a dotty fellow played by Donald Pleasence (easily the best perf in the film). I never did understand why Julian was killing off various girls, but Janet finds evidence of his earlier murders, leading to a conclusion in which the ghost very belatedly evinces enough power to avenge his murder.
The most significant aspect of BURIED ALIVE is that it's the final role of horror icon John Carradine, though as a role it is-- in more ways than one-- pretty insubstantial.
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
THE SHADOW RETURNS, BEHIND THE MASK, THE MISSING LADY (1946)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Of all the masked avengers to spring from the pulps, the Shadow would seem to be the least promising to be reworked into comedic terms. However, these three Monogram B-films are at least much livelier than the two dull B's produced by Grand National in the late 1930s.
The films are almost certainly modeled on the light-hearted adventures of Nick and Nora Charles, with Lamont Cranston as a young man-about-town (and nephew of the police commissioner!) as Nick and his fiancee Margo Lane as Nora. To be sure, whereas the THIN MAN flicks mastered a sort of effortless joie de vivre, the writers of these ersatz SHADOW films force in so much allegedly clever dialogue that the viewer is practically drowning in bon mots. To make things more complicated, the crimefighter's faithful taxi-driver Shrevvy has his own girlfriend Jenny who follows him around-- and both girls are perpetually suspicious that their guys are using crimefighting as an excuse to gad about.
The devoted Shadow-phile will never hear a word spoken as to why bon vivant Cranston has assumed the masked identity of the Shadow. Despite the fact that the radio serial had become successful by 1946, there's no indication that this avenger has to "power to cloud men's minds," though he does seem to be able to project his shadow into unlikely lighted spaces. Otherwise, he's just a guy wielding guns and wearing a mask and dark topcoat. To be sure, the various directors of these flicks must've wanted to give Shadow-fans a little action, for Cranston, as played by serial star Kane Richmond, does get into a few fights, rather than just threatening people with his dark presence.
In all three films, Cranston and his entourage seek to solve some mystery, usually involving some "macguffin" or other. In SHADOW RETURNS, there's a formula for a radical new plastic at stake, though this object gets far less attention than Margo's latest jealousy over her beau, or her pique when she can't get him across the altar. Phil Rosen directed with uncredited assistance from William Beaudine.
BEHIND THE MASK is, if anything, even sillier. A villain poses as the Shadow and forces the hero to clear his name, but this takes a back seat to such scenes as Margo posing as the Shadow, even though she's wearing Cranston's outfit and said outfit does not even slightly fit. Again Beaudine worked on the film, though the director of record is Phil Karlson.
In one respect THE MISSING LADY is the most interesting of the trio, and not because of the "lady" of the title, a MacGuffin in the form of a jade statue. In MASK Karlson sedulously followed the daffy comedic model provided by the first film, and the script for LADY does include some goofy stuff, like a pair of old biddies who like to race with their apartment building's elevators. But there are some gloomy, seedy crime-scenes-- particularly at the opening-- that look forward to Karlson's serious crime-films of the early fifties, such as 99 RIVER STREET and THE PHENIX CITY STORY. Sad to say, Karlson's last films included a return to daffiness in the form of the "Matt Helm" film series.
Friday, March 1, 2019
FURY OF THE CONGO (1951), SAVAGE MUTINY (1953)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Thanks to Youtube I finally managed to re-screen the only two JUNGLE JIM films I had not reviewed yet.
FURY OF THE CONGO is one of the liveliest, albeit most nonsensical, entries in the series. Jim (Johnny Weismuller) starts out rescuing a man named Cameron from a crashed plane. Cameron's on a hunt for Dunham, a lost biochem professor. Actually, the professor's mission sounds more like a naturalist's specialty, since Dunham went into the Congo looking for a strange hybrid beast, the Okongo, which is a cross between an antelope and a zebra. (Naturally, the film uses horses with fake stripes.)
Jim guides Cameron into the wilds of the Congo. A scene-shift informs the viewer that Dunham has been captured by evil white hunters. The hunters have also captured a bunch of Okongos, because the beasts have a special narcotic juice in their glands, as the result of eating and converting native narcotic plants. The crooks force Dunham to harvest the drug, as well as drafting many of the local native men to help with the Okongos-- though the viewer doesn't really see the native men doing much of anything to justify the trouble they later cause for the villains.
The absence of the men from the local tribe does make for some Amazonian activity, when Jim and Cameron are netted by the women of the tribe, led by the sprightly Leta (Sherry Moreland). Despite the women's spears, Jim wins them over with his jungle charm, and then he, Cameron, and Leta are off to set both the native men and the Okongos free. On the way Jim has to kill a very large spider-- possibly the phoniest in cinematic history, given the way it's transparently dragged across the ground via wires. Jim eventually learns that Cameron is actually the villains' leader, which begs the question as to what he was doing in the plane earlier. Despite all these reversals, Jim succeeds in his mission, leading to the film's best action, where the white hunters are killed by the spears and arrows of the native women.
In contrast, SAVAGE MUTINY is an entirely naturalistic adventure in the Jungle Jim canon, as well as a strange apologia for nuclear bomb-testing. Even before Jim is called upon by his country to aid a British/American nuclear-testing project, the white hunter keeps busy by ferreting out some Communist spies in the Congo.
Afterward, the scientists tell Jim that they want to test their bomb on a particular island off the coast of Africa. It's really important to test the bomb on this isle, since the scientists want to get valuable data on the effects of radiation on the plant life there. However, the island is inhabited, so the scientists need Jim to persuade the natives to be relocated.
Jim has no problem with this duty, and he even challenges one of the headmen of the tribe to a fight to get the natives' respect. However, more Communist agents are still loitering about, and they get the idea to score a propaganda victory over the West. The Commies attempt to sabotage the evacuation so that either the test will be prevented or the tribe will be bombed into extinction. Jim manages to prevent both fates. The final words of the film are the one saving grace of the otherwise tedious tale, since the writers managed to make it seem like the West's freedom to test bombs on primitive isles marked the very apogee of the cause of freedom.
KING OF THE JUNGLE (1933)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
One year after the debut of Johnny Weismuller in TARZAN THE APE MAN, and some months before Buster Crabbe essayed the role in TARZAN THE FEARLESS, Crabbe had the chance to essay one of the more atypical "ape man" knockoffs in KING OF THE JUNGLE.
I've not read the original novel on which KING is based, Charles Thurley Stoneham's THE LION'S WAY, serialized in 1929. But since the book concerned a young boy being adopted by lions, I think it's pretty likely that Stoneham borrowed his idea from E.R. Burroughs, since Tarzan had been around for over ten years previous. Yet if KING is an accurate representation of the source novel, then Stoneham certainly wasn't a slavish swiper. The author's hero "Kaspa the Lion Man" may have a pedagogical upbringing akin to Tarzan's, but Stoneham's hero may be the least wild of all the wild men.
Director H. Bruce Humberstone-- who would later helm two official Tarzan films-- quickly moves past the "origin story," in which a blase couple go traveling in the Congo and promptly get killed, leaving their toddler son to be adopted by a lion. The boy grows to studly manhood amid a pride of lions, communicating with them only through roaring noises. The nearby natives leave the "lion man" alone, but white hunters capture him, and soon a promoter named Forbes (future "Charlie Chan"Sidney Toler) decides that the wild foundling will be perfect for his circus, dubbing the nameless youth "Kaspa the Lion Man."
It's significant that even though Crabbe's character looks just as buff-and-tough as Weismuller's ape man, Kaspa isn't seen getting into fights. He and some of his lion-brothers are captured in a pit, and then shipped to America in cages. A customs official foolishly lets Kaspa out of his cage, whereupon he swims to shore and mostly avoids the pursuing constables rather than fighting with them. He meets his "Jane," a schoolteacher named Ann (Frances Dee), and she "tames" him rather easily, in particular charming the savage beast with piano music. Through her influence Kaspa more or less resigns himself to joining Forbes' circus, not as an attraction but as a lion-tamer able to put his brethren through their paces. Kaspa becomes civilized enough to learn how he can make enough money to buy back the lions and return to the jungle with them, but in the meantime he and Ann fall into a very chaste love. (The only acknowledgement of sex comes through a few of the female circus performers, who make clear that they like the way Kaspa fills out a loincloth.)
Since the script hasn't really set up a villain as such-- Forbes being a reasonable fellow who more or less forgets about his desire to exhibit/enslave Kaspa-- a minor villain is tossed in, a fellow who loses a hand to a lion and then tries to destroy the beasts. All he succeeds in doing is starting a fire that ravages the circus and unleashes many of the animals (a standout scene being one where some elephants run amuck in a city-street, knocking over cars and a fire hydrant). Kaspa's only heroic deed in the film consists of keeping his leonine siblings from either killing or being killed, which then leads to a happy-ending resolution.
Since KING has so little in common with the sexy, savage world of W.S. Van Dyke's TARZAN THE APE MAN, I'll conjecture that Paramount simply bought the option on Stoneham's 1929 work as one of many acquisitions, and then rushed KING into production in order to take advantage of APE MAN's release, without actually seeking to tailor the film to resemble any previous cinematic Tarzan iterations. KING is something of a forerunner to the 1984 film GREYSTOKE, in paying more attention to the foundling's personal life than to exotic adventure, but most of the script is banal, despite the fact that one of the three scripters was the celebrated author Philip Wylie. I've no way of knowing how much Wylie contributed, but it's interesting that his earlier novel GLADIATOR resembles KING OF THE JUNGLE, since GLADIATOR is also about a hero for whom internal dramatics are more important than extroverted adventures.
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