Tuesday, July 30, 2019
KNIGHTFALL, SEASON ONE (2017-18)
PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous* (???)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
I'm almost always able to make a phenomenological judgment of anything I review, be it a stand-alone work, an episode of a series or the entire season of a series. But for the first time I'm putting question-marks after my phenomenality determination above, because Season One of KNIGHTFALL just doesn't give me enough information. More on that later.
Set in France during the 1300s, KNIGHTFALL rewrites many of the cultural myths about the historical Knights Templar. Instead of portraying them as elitist villains, as they are in Walter Scott's IVANHOE (which I touch on here), the Templars are faithful defenders of France, even though their primary loyalties are to their own order, and to Pope Boniface. Though the series' first season portrays a wealth of characters, the star of the show is Landry de Lauzon, who succeeds his deceased mentor as the titular head of the Templar monastery in Paris. In the course of the series, Landry comes into conflict with the King of France, with his scheming, Richelieu-like lawyer De Nogaret, with other members of his order, and with a mysterious Saracen order, the Brotherhood of Light. The Brotherhood is one of the more fantastic aspects of this not-very-historical period-piece, for their purpose is to block Landry from one of his main missions: to re-acquire the Holy Grail, of which the Christians lost custody during one of the unsuccessful battles of the Crusades.
The "weird society" of the Brotherhood, by itself, would qualify only as an uncanny trope, as would some of the more exotic weapons that appear in 12th-century France, such as the concoction called "Greek fire," and a costumed female assassin, referred to as a "Mongol" but geared up to look more like a 12th-century version of a ninja. Plainly the makers of the series chose to base their reading of history on extravaganzas like Frank Miller's 300, or at least the film version thereof. Once a viewer understands that this is not primarily a naturalistic series, its departures from consensual reality can be tolerated.
To be sure, though KNIGHTFALL boasts quality acting and bracing battle-scenes, there are so many divergent subplots in the show's ten episodes that the season comes off somewhat disjointed. Another plus is that the series does not, like many current movies about the era of the Crusades, attempt to downgrade the Christian outlook of the principals, even though Landry comes to realize that conquering the Holy Land is a fruitless endeavor. Some scholars have asserted that the stories of the search for the Holy Grail became for medieval Europeans a compensatory goal for the failure to regain the formerly Christianized lands of North Africa. Certainly Landry's search for the Cup of Christ, and its possible use to redeem mankind, becomes his primary goal as a Templar, even though he has a number of other human concerns as well (not least a major romance with the Queen of France, a big no-no for a Templar monk).
However, the series keeps the nature of the Grail mysterious. One character claims that drinking from the Grail cured him from a fatal wound, and he even shows Landry the catastrophic nature of the wound as proof. But only in one later incident does Landry try to use the Grail to heal someone, and the result is ambiguous. Further, a character aligned with the Brotherhood of Light suggests that the cup may be far older than the era of Jesus Christ, so at the very least, the show's creators wanted to leave open the possibility that the Grail could have some special properties.
Possibly the recently issued second season will bring forth more evidence one way or the other. Online sites seem skeptical as to whether KNIGHTFALL will enjoy a "third crusade."
Monday, July 29, 2019
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
If one can get past the thoroughly unscientific resolution of GORATH, which reads like something most comic books wouldn't have tried in the early sixties, the film provides a painless forum for director Ishiro Honda's favorite theme of "alien menace unites quarreling Earth-nations," which was given such poor treatment in 1959's BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE.
That said, the character-arcs in GORATH are somewhat clunky. The action takes place in 1980, and not only has Japan become a significant player in the space-race, all of the countries have access to an "ion drive" that makes interstellar travel possible. One such Japanese craft, the Hawk, is captained by the respected scientist Doctor Sonoda, and the rest of his crew are also top-notch scientists. However, this Hawk is doomed to fly no more, for it comes across a gigantic star, later named "Gorath." Sonoda determines that the star is on a collision course with Earth, but the Hawk, caught in Gorath's gravitational pull, is doomed to be the celestial body's first victim. Sonoda tells his fellow scientists that despite their inevitable fate, they can still serve their planet by transmitting all the data they can back to Earth.
No one on the homeworld has any inkling of Gorath's approach, and it's at this point that Honda introduces three of his viewpoint characters. They have different names in different translations, but I'll go with the ones in IMDB: two young women named Takiko and Tomoko, and a young man, Tatsuma. Takiko and Tomoko don't yet know about the Hawk's destruction, but they know two of the crew-members, since Takiko is Sonoda's daughter and Tomoko is engaged to a younger officer. Tatsuma, despite being another scientist who works for the Japanese astronaut-program, interrupts the two women while wearing a robot-costume (he's apparently paid so poorly that he takes on street-advertising for spare cash). Tatsuma goes his way, and Tomoko mentions that she had dated Tatsuma for a while, but found him clownish and thus attempted to find a more upscale boyfriend.
In due time, everyone finds about Gorath's menace, and a new scientist, Tazawa, becomes the go-to guy for strategies to avoid total destruction. Though Tazawa's important in terms of setting up the action, he never becomes a dramatic figure. Some drama inheres in Takiko mourning for her father, but the real narrative result of the Hawk's destruction is that now Tatsuma is free to make a move on Tomoko again. In fact, Tatsuma is a bit of a jerk about the way he transparently hopes that Tomoko will just kind of forget her previous fiancee and date Tatsuma again. However, the clownish Tatsuma, not the sober Tazawa, is the one who comes up with the idea that will save the Earth. Tazawa dismisses the possibility of destroying Gorath with nuclear bombs, for the planet is in essence a runaway nuclear bomb (this may be the script's attempt to give Gorath a resonance akin to that of Honda's greatest success, Godzilla), Then goofy Tatsuma suggests that maybe they could just move the Earth-- and bingo, Tazawa begins setting up plans to mount rockets on one side of the Earth in order to move it out of the way.
Of course, if that was the only thing the Earth-people did to battle the crisis-- and they do seem to deal with it with admirable equanimity-- GORATH would be a pretty dull film. So a new crew of astronauts, including Tatsuma, takes another spaceship, the Eagle, to survey Gorath and gain as much info as possible. In addition, in a short scene deleted from the American edition, a cadre of scientists working to install the Earth-rockets run into a giant walrus. This critter was apparently added to appeal to kaiju-lovers, though even in the Japanese version the monster is quickly slain.
Surprisingly, though the Eagle survives its brush with Gorath and eventually returns to Earth, Tatsuma doesn't exactly cover himself with glory. He's so traumatized by the sight of Gorath that he loses his memory, and although there's some suggestion that he will reconcile with Takiko once they're reunited, Honda doesn't really wrap up the romantic arc. He's concerned only with portraying the noble unification of humankind. To this end, Honda really hypes up the tension in the final scenes when the rockets successfully move the planet out of Gorath's path-- although Gorath does manage to destroy the moon as it passes. Indeed, the planet is far more the central character than any of the human agents, and the tale concludes with Tazawa wondering if they ought to thank the nuclear planetoid for having brought all Earthlings together (though it sure looks like the Japanese are the only ones who are truly responsible for saving the Earth).
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019), SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
FAR FROM HOME is something of an improvement on HOMECOMING, which juggled too many disparate plotlines for its own good. For one thing, FAR refreshingly concentrates on just one villain, the Lee-Kirby classic Spider-foe Mysterio. For another, the various tropes that keep reminding us that this Spidey is "Iron Man Writ Small" are far less intrusive, in spite of the fact that the MCU world is still reacting to the death of Tony Stark and the effects of "the Snap" as depicted in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. If anything, FAR plays down the paternal effects of Stark's presence in Peter Parker's life. However,there's still a lesser "Good Father" who takes an avuncular role in Peter's life: Stark's factotum Happy Hogan. Happy, though not as constant a presence in the IRON MAN films as he was in the comics, is well situated to stand in for Stark, not least by having a "will-they-won't-they" relationship with Peter's sexy Aunt May.
But there's a Bad Father in the offing, too, and even viewers knowing nothing of Mysterio's reputation in the comics ought to be suspicious when this character, supposedly a hero from another dimension, presents himself to Peter as yet another guiding light to the world of mature super-herodom. Though no one in any previous films suggested that Spidey ought to become "the new Iron Man," Peter nevertheless gets the idea that a lot of people expect him to somehow take over for the late hero, which gives him no end of adolescent performance anxiety. In line with the original comics-version, Peter seriously considers throwing in the towel on the superhero game, though in the comics this had a lot more resonance after he'd been a hero for several exploits, rather than just three documented adventures. He's also become intensely focused upon his somewhat snarky classmate M.J., the latest iteration on classic girlfriend Mary Jane, and when he gets the chance to join his class in a European tour, he's far more interested in finding some way to win M.J.'s heart than in tinkering with any of Stark's automated Spidey-suits.
Agent Nick Fury, however, has returned from the oblivion of "the Snap" with a clarion call to enlist Spider-Man, supposedly an Avenger (when?), as part of a new initiative against the forces of evil. A new menace, gigantic Elementals, appears to be just such an Avengers-level menace. This forces Peter to step up his game-- though to be sure, fighting Godzilla-sized adversaries isn't one of his strengths-- and this call to adventure is efficiently juxtaposed against Peter's attempt to be an ordinary teenager. Mysterio proves to be yet another "Tony Stark Writ Small" in his way, and though the original character wasn't all that complex to begin with, at least his story wasn't yet another MCU Homage to the Armored Avenger. (For good measure, a lot of this Mysterio's combat-visuals recall another Lee-Ditko creation, Doctor Strange.) The film's best scene is one in which Mysterio uses his technology to weave a web of illusion around Spider-Man; then, and only then, did I feel that Mysterio had his own villainous identity. However, by the end of the film the super-crook is reduced to combating the hero with dozens of identical drone-robots, which brought to my mind something I wrote about the final IRON MAN film:
IRON MAN 3 is the first film in which the hero perfects a new and showy ability to have parts of his armor automatically fit themselves upon his body from afar. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a hero who presents a somewhat stable appearance and set of powers when he takes arm against a sea of troubles. As if to mirror this disintegration of the iconic status of Iron Man, Tony Stark has yet another twitchy mental breakdown. He also whips up a small army of robotic Iron Men and in a pinch causes his flying armor-sections to engirdle fiancee Pepper for purposes of protection, rather than following the tried-and-true "heroic rescue."
I suspect that the MCU's love for videogame-style multiple opponents-- seen also in the first two AVENGERS films-- is at the root of having Mysterio use a horde of identical drones to attack Spider-Man. Because of this penchant, the fight-choreography, while accomplished, is also monotonous. Similarly, Peter's assorted schticks with his merry band of classmates get a little wearisome at times, though the writers manage to milk a fair number of laughs out of the juvenile hijinks.
Finally, since I complained about the absence of J. Jonah Jameson from the MCU's Spider-Verse, I suppose I should acknowledge that they finally manage to work him into a credit-coda-- though EVEN THIS is turned into yet another fricking homage to the IRON MAN mythos.
Okay, Kevin Feighe, we get it. IRON MAN made your fortune. But could you spread some of the self-congratulation around in other MCU films, and leave the Spider-franchise alone for JUST ONE FILM?
Indeed, the best thing about SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is that there were no mentions of Iron Man, or if there were, I happily missed them. However, SPIDER-VERSE makes the same mistake as a lot of previous live-action Spider-films: that of oversaturation. Not only does it present the viewer with five Spider-heroes from various dimensions, it also works in four major villains: Green Goblin, Kingpin, Prowler, and Doctor Octopus-- most of whom are also anomalous versions of the original comics-characters.
Miles Morales, famed in comics as the "black-and-Latino" version of Spider-Man, is a character I never followed, so I can't say whether or not the animated movie captures him adequately. I would certainly hope that there's more to Miles in the comics, for I find this particular denizen of diversity to be fearsomely dull. The film's first hour deals with the perennial Spider-Man question, "whether 'tis nobler to take arms against a sea of super-villains or to try to skulk away from trouble and live a normal life." Miles goes through loads of adolescent angst trying to answer that question for the first hour of SPIDER-VERSE, and he gets only questionable help from an older extradimensional spider-hero. Most of this first hour is played for slapstick comedy.
The second hour picks up interest when the other Spider-variations are introduced, and the animated coordination of the various heroes works reasonably well. In most "dimensional doppelganger" stories, I tend to regard the "copies" as guest-heroes, but here, since Miles Morales is himself something of a one-off, I would consider the whole team of Spider-Friends to be an ensemble of centric heroes.
Monday, July 22, 2019
GRAVEYARD OF HORROR (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I like to think that I have a fair appreciation for really brain-fried films, in which it's evident that a given filmmaker has totally lost control of his narrative. However, there's a world of difference from someone like Ed Wood, whose odd worldview is somewhat memorable, and that of Spanish writer/director Miguel Madrid, who's really just moving a lot of game-pieces around without much investment.
While it's possible that the English language version left some things out, Madrid's presentation of his characters and setup is desultory at best. A character named Michael is sort of the viewpoint character, in that the movie starts out with him doing a voice-over about Binbrook,his family's castle. The lord of the castle is Michael's brother Robert, a Scottish earl, who lives there with his wife Ann, a family doctor named Lexter, and Margaret, whom Michael calls his niece though it's never clear if she's Robert's daughter or some other relation. Robert has been missing about a month or so, but Michael shows absolutely no interest in this fact. Upon returning to Binbrook, he learns that his wife Elizabeth has died, ostensibly in childbirth, though both Lexter and another local doctor are vague on details. Elizabeth's mother blames Michael for being absent, and Elizabeth's two sisters Lilith and Pamela seem hostile to Michael as well. Margaret welcomes Michael somewhat, but Ann-- who's introduced so poorly that I thought she was supposed to be related to Elizabeth's family-- has a medical condition, which is why the enigmatic Lexter is a live-in doctor.
Michael is so aggrieved by all the secrets that he tries to get help from a creepy caretaker, one Fowles, in opening the grave of Elizabeth. Fowles gives Michael no help, and when Michael tries to do the deed himself, two robed figures in demon-masks assault the young man and knock him out. They drag him off, and the last we see of Michael for a while is when the robed men put him in the path of some unseen creature.
GRAVEYARD then becomes a peculiar film, in that two major characters have disappeared and no single character takes Michael's place as viewpoint-figure, not even the local cop who takes charge of investigating the disappearances. Creepy Fowles hangs around, and it's evident to the viewer that he's colluding with the robed men, though their identities remain hidden. Director Madrid then puts most of his narrative drive into explicating how Lilith and Pamela were both hot for their missing brother-in-law Michael, so in a way Michael, even while absent, is still very near the center of the action.
(MAJOR SPOILER: though Madrid doesn't tell viewers how Michael escaped his assailant, the film concludes with the revelation that he went into hiding for some reason, so he's still alive at the confusing conclusion.)
However, Michael is sort of a stand-in for the real star of the narrative: that other missing brother, Sir Robert. We belatedly learn that he was an experimental scientist, and that he ran one of his experiments on himself, thus changing himself into a (very cheap looking) monster. Thus he's been confined by Lexter, who feeds him from the local graveyards. There's no suggestion as to why both Lexter and Robert's wife thought that keeping and feeding a dangerous monster was a good idea. Maybe they'd read JANE EYRE once too often? It all unwinds with Robert killing his keeper and being gunned down by cops.
Though there's little nudity or gore in GRAVEYARD, the film's only real appeal is the sense of lustfulness communicated by the two sisters, since these scenes build up the fantasy of Michael as an irresistible chick-magnet. I tend to think the film would've been a little more unified had one of them actually killed Elizabeth, rather than being mere red herrings to distract from the weak Robert-plotline.
Monday, July 15, 2019
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Though TOWN takes some dramatic license, it's unlike most of the "perilous psycho" films I've covered in that its events are substantially based in the real events of the Texarkhana Moonlight Murders in 1946. Thus, of all the films I've reviewed here, TOWN's nearest relation is 2000's ED GEIN.
In that review I set down some of the reasons that I chose to classify GEIN as naturalistic:
I've long argued on this blog that the determining factor for metaphenomenal films-- including both the uncanny and the marvelous-- is not what divided them but what unites them: the sense of "strangeness." If this were not the case, then we would have to judge Bloch's book to be horror because in the novel Norman tries to use occult books to resurrect his mother, while Hitchcock's film is not horror, because the script dispensed with this detail. The uniting factor in both, whether the supernatural is invoked or not, is the "strangeness" communicated by the figure of Norman Bates, my favorite example for the trope of the "perilous psycho."
And later, with regard to how the film handles its potential for "strangeness:"
Nor does the quality of strangeness descend from any of the other factors that make up Gein's legend-- the gory murders, his fetish for shrunken heads (see the still above), his rearrangements of corpse-parts-- including a 'woman-suit"--or Gein's hallucinations of his dead mother talking to him. These are all *potentially* elements for evoking the feeling of strangeness. But ED GEIN pursues the approach I called "fictionalized-reality" above, meaning that Gein is rendered with a pathetic, no-larger-than-life treatment by lead actor (and executive producer) Steve Railsback. Thus I judge that this version of Gein, unlike Norman Bates and other fictional icons spawned by Gein, to be purely "naturalistic."'Now, although the slightly-fictionalized of 1946 Texarkhana is a naturalistic one, the killer who makes the town "dread sundown," dubbed the Phantom Killer, is uncanny in the extreme. Despite director Charles B. Pierce's use of a flat, documentarian style for most of the film, the scenes in which the Phantom preys on isolated victims clearly evoke the uncanny. The Phantom is always seen in a burlap mask and otherwise ordinary clothes. But in keeping with the details of the case-- wherein no perpetrator was ever charged-- his motivations and modus operandi are always left in mystery. He never speaks, and though he uses a more mundane weapon than most psycho-killers, an ordinary pistol, the Phantom nevertheless becomes a veritable boogeyman to the embattled Texas town. One scene, in which he torments a bound victim with a bizarre trombone-serenade, speaks to the utter unknowability of this particular psycho.
Happily, Pierce doesn't allow familiar faces like Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine and Dawn Wells to overpower the overall naturalness of the milieu, as one sees in most TV "movies of the week" about similar subjects. Even a climactic chase-scene, in which the law pursues the beleaguered killer, does not break with the downbeat, documentarian feel of the production.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
KINDAR THE INVULNERABLE (1965)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
The most interesting thing about this relatively late Italian peplum is the filmmakers' attempt to borrow from Greek mythology to make a pseudo-Arabic mythology.
Though the people in KINDAR look like Arabs, they're evidently pre-Islamic. There are just two tribes depicted: a city-bound tribe that dwells within the heavily guarded walls of Uthera, and a nomadic tribe led by the film's villain, Seymouth. Both tribes invoke a god named "Horus," which may mean that the closest thing the scripters could come up with for a god of the pagan Arabs was to swipe that of an Egyptian god.
Eman, sultan of Uthera, anticipates the birth of his first son. However, just as the sultana delivers her child, lightning flashes through a window, striking her. The mother is slain, but the lightning's power, possibly sent by Horus himself, makes the newborn invulnerable. In other words, it's one trope from Column Achilles, mixed with another from Column Dionysus. Eman consults with a soothsayer who conveniently knows a prophecy that foretells the coming of the invulnerable offspring, with the caveat that he can be slain only by "the Red Flower."
However, the infant gets stolen by one of the nomads, and over the next twenty years is raised to manhood with the name of Kindar (Mark Forest). Kindar believes that his natural father is Seymouth, though Seymouth doesn't say much about Kindar's mother. The ruler does have a female consort named Kira (Rosalba Neri), whose status is left up for grabs, though given how often she glances lovingly at Kindar's pecs, it's unlikely that she ever related to Kindar as a stepmother. Somehow Kindar grows to manhood without learning that he's invulnerable, since halfway through Seymouth reveals this little fact to his faux-son by having archers shoot arrows at Kindar.
Seymouth plans to have Kindar help him break down the walls of Uthera. However, the nomads take prisoner Nefer, a young woman of Uthera, and though Seymouth gives her to Kindar, the hero's decency prevents him from despoiling her, which leads to the two to fall in love. Kindar also meets and fights Ciro, a male warrior from Uthera, without knowing that Ciro is his younger brother.
Eventually Kindar learns the truth and turns against his false father. At this point Seymouth-- who also knows the business about the Red Flower-- figures out that it's just a fancy name for "fire." He attempts to catch Kindar in a fiery trap, but Bad Girl Kira sacrifices herself to save Kindar, making it possible for the hero to kill his Bad Dad and win the Good Girl.
This is an OK action-film of its kind, but Forest is pretty stolid, and the suspense of having Kindar face his version of kryptonite is totally blown.
Saturday, July 6, 2019
THE IRON CLAW (1941)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Though this 1941 serial sports the same name as a 1916 Pearl White chapter-play, there's probably no other connection between the two works. For one thing, the 1916 serial didn't sport only a mystery villain, but also a mystery hero, the Laughing Mask, who has been tagged by some as the first American-made "superhero," at least in cinema.
Because the 1916 serial is lost, I'll probably never know whether the serial was more focused upon the original Iron Claw or his nemesis, or even upon Pearl White's character. However, there's no such obscurity about the 1941 chapter-play. Though CLAW is just as full of unstinting action as any other serial, the story hearkens back to "old dark house" films in which a house-bound ensemble of people-- often, but not always, members of a family-- are picked off one-by-one by an unknown, often masked killer. The villain is often unmasked by an outsider, often a journalist, whose role is essayed in CLAW by one Bob Lane (Charles Quigley). He also usually has a female aide, who may be an outsider like him or some sympathetic member of the ensemble, and this role too is filled by one Patricia (Joyce Bryant). Such viewpoint characters are seen in action-serials as well, but most such serials keep their pool of victims relatively sympathetic. CLAW resembles old dark house films like 1933's THE SHADOW in that most of the possible victims are grasping, disreputable types.
The main plot-- that there's a hidden treasure somewhere beneath the Bensonhurst estate, sought by both the Benson family and by the claw-handed stalker-- is perhaps a little more typical of silent serials than of the old dark house films. But then, CLAW's script doesn't stick close to any coherent plot. Once the Iron Claw starts killing people, Bob and Patricia start trying to track down his identity, only to be hindered by a small army of gold-hunting gangsters as well as the main villain. There's the usual comedy relief and the usual suspicious activities by the pool of victims, though the latter come to nothing since in the final chapter the Claw's ID is revealed but the viewer never knows why he assumed the guise of a hooded killer in the first place.
The charm of this barely coherent tale-- almost half of which seems to consist of heroes chasing villains, or vice versa, through the underground corridors beneath Bensonhurst-- is largely dependent on the charms of director James W. Horne. Horne spent many years directing two-reel comedy shorts, and only the last years of his career did he begin directing serials for Columbia. In other forties serials, characters rarely speak except to deliver exposition seasoned with slight touches of humanity, but here and elsewhere, Horne's characters are over-dramatic and given to peculiar lines that make the whole movie seem mock-serious.
Indeed, many serial afficianados view Horne's serials as covert comedies, and the estimable Jerry Blake even considers IRON CLAW an outright spoof of straight serials. While I acknowledge that there's a strong streak of the ludicrous in this and other Horne serials, that streak does not dominate the serial over the more pervasive elements of adventurous thrills and chills.
In addition to the Claw's uncanny appearance, he only uses a couple of gimmicks, like a mirror set up to make cars run off a road, and a pit filled with spikes-- though I don't remember if he creates the spike-pit himself or simply uses one created by an earlier generation.
Monday, July 1, 2019
THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
Though I like AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN well enough, I confess I mainly re-watched it in order to verify the statement made in my review of ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN:
Immediately before Mark Hanna wrote ATTACK, he also penned THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, which was an original script, unlike the novel-derived SHRINKING MAN. COLOSSAL MAN, though, does not have any of SHRINKING MAN’s naturalistic dialogue or characterization, but depends largely on stock formula character-types. Hanna’s conceptual follow-up to COLOSSAL MAN, though, is closer in tone to that of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, in which the main character’s SF-mutation is made a vehicle to describe that character’s psychological weaknesses.
Nor surprisingly, I find that my memories of COLOSSAL were entirely accurate. There's no attempt to imbue the afflicted Glenn Manning or his long-suffering fiancee Carol with psychological heft, even to the limited extent seen in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Indeed, in one of COLOSSAL's scenes, Carol tells a soldier that Manning has no relatives, which was almost certainly the script's way of keeping the cast of characters to a minimum. But even the romantic relationship between Manning and Carol remains static. She isn't seen in the film until long after Manning has been irradiated, and she never signifies anything but the supportive girlfriend, being even sketchier than the heroine of director Bert Gordon's immediately previous "giant film," THE CYCLOPS. There's one flashback showing Manning and Carol vacationing together before he's about to go off to fight in Korea, but even this exists just to foreground Manning's status as a soldier. Following the scene with Carol, the narrative cuts to a scene with Manning and a soldier-buddy being attacked by two Koreans, an encounter that only Manning survives.
To be sure, Manning makes his biggest impression at the film's opening, at a point when the viewer knows almost nothing about Manning. He and other soldiers are observers at the testing of a new A-bomb, but not only does the bomb not detonate as scheduled, a civilian craft accidentally lands near the bomb-site. Manning disobeys his commander's orders and rushes out to rescue the pilot. The bomb goes off, apparently annihilating the pilot and irradiating Manning. Days later, the doctors expect him to perish of third-degree burns-- nothing is said of radiation poisoning-- but he undergoes a rapid healing process, as Carol happily witnesses.
However, the military moves Manning without telling his fiancee. Carol does show some wit in the way she tracks him down to a private hospital, at which point she learns that her fiancee is already a giant, and growing more every day. At this point the military takes Carol into their confidence, and allows her to confer with the Colossal Man. Unfortunately, Manning has become unhinged by his experience, to the extent that he tells one frightened soldier, "I'm not growing! YOU'RE shrinking!"
Like a number of 1950s SF-films before it, a great deal of time is devoted to science-lectures, as various experts seek to both stop and reverse Manning's rampant growth. Patently scripters Mark Hanna and director Gordon were content to toss any sort of SF-hyperbole to justify the events, as when one scientist tells Carol that the Colossal Man's heart isn't growing as fast as the rest of him because "the heart is a single cell." This absurdity is almost trumped by a later development where another scientist manages to actually shrink two huge beasts, an elephant and a camel, with the serum he hopes to use on Manning.
But this is merely a false hope, for the Colossal Man, having figuratively become "too big for his britches," goes on a rampage and is ultimately destroyed by the army he served. Interestingly, he takes a tank-shot in the face, mirroring the way soldier-Manning shoots an enemy Korean in the face.
Though the scientific double-talk is worthless, COLOSSAL is never less than memorable in its exploitation of giant-izing visuals: Manning being kept in a circus tent, Manning wandering into Las Vegas and peeping on a bathing woman, Manning getting stabbed by a large-economy-size syringe by the doctors, after which the giant uses the syringe like a spear against a fellow soldier. So on the purely kinetic level, COLOSSAL is a colossal success.
I should note what many others have observed: that the rough outline of COLOSSAL was almost certainly borrowed for Marvel's INCREDIBLE HULK. But since the Hulk was designed to be a continuing character, the creators arguably upped the psychological game by having Bruce Banner rescue, not an anonymous pilot, but a wisecracking teen who then becomes intensely involved in the main character's travails.
CAT O'NINE TAILS (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This film, Dario Argento's follow-up to the successful BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, sports a title meant to suggest the multiplicity of clues that the two amateur detectives must follow to find a serial killer.
I noted in my review of the 1970 film that in Argento's world, the detection of a murderer did nothing to dispel the overall sense that the world was fundamentally enigmatic. CAT follows the same pattern, and may well be even less comprehensible than the first film, which followed an American novel reputed to be fairly linear in structure. By contrast, CAT was based on a story concocted for the screen by Argento and three other credited writers, so it was crafted more expressly for Argento's aesthetics. The script also throws in a little more unpredictability by giving the viewer two detectives, one of whom is literally "in the dark."
This time out Argento teams up a young Italian reporter named Carlo (James Franciscus) and an older former reporter, Franco (Karl Malden). Despite his affliction of blindness, Franco overhears two men having an ambiguous conversation that seems to involve blackmail. That same night, there's a violent burglary of the Terzi Institute, which lies close enough to Franco's home that the blind man hears some of the racket. Argento treats Franco's perceptions as if his heightened senses almost take on visual intensity. When the police investigate the break-in the next morning, Franco seeks out the scene of the crime and makes contact with young Carlo. At the same time, several of the employees of the Terzi Institute, all oriented upon genetics research, are interviewed by police. One of the men, identified by Franco's young niece as one of the men involved in the blackmail conversation, dies, and soon the two detectives connect the researcher's death with the break-in.
From there the detectives follow one lead after another, and the mystery killer shows an omniscient ability to know just what leads to cut down at what time. (For instance, after a photographer records the image of the unknown killer slaying the researcher, the murderer shows up to silence the photographer mere moments after the latter discovers his prize.) In contrast to the highly sexualized murders seen in PLUMAGE, the ones here are fairly mundane: the photographer is garrotted with a cord, the researcher is pushed into a subway train. Indeed, the murderer, when he's finally shown, has nothing unusual about his appearance, and the oddest thing about his killings is that after slaying the photographer, the unseen psycho gratuitously slices the dead man's face.
Still, despite his mundane motives, the killer is a genuine uncanny type of psycho, and his nature is explained (if one can call it that) by the Institute's research. The script posits that the researchers found an anomalous "XYY" gene which was always found in psychopathic murderers. Scientifically this is nonsense, and only for a few minutes do the characters discuss the research's possible use in the early detection of psychotic types. But it's most interesting in a symbolic sense, for it's as if Argento wanted to imply that psychosis arose from an excess of masculinity. In BIRD the killer is female, but she seems to "catch" her psychosis from some male source of trauma.
CAT does seem to have too many "tales" at times. One subplot involves Carlo's romance with Anna, the young adoptive daughter of Doctor Terzi. Both characters never feel like anything but red herrings, and Argento reveals a sexual relationship between the two that doesn't come to much dramatically. Carlo's discovery of the forbidden romance, which leads to him voicing suspicions to Anna, does lead to her great sarcastic line, "Whore plus liar equals murderer!" (It probably has more resonance in Italian.) It's also possible that the relationship exists merely to be the obverse of the normative one between Franco and his beloved niece.
Though the killer suffers from a psychosis rooted in his gender-genetics, none of his murders are committed for sexual pleasure, and Argento goes out of his way to avoid any really "bizarre crimes." The murderer's true identity, like his crimes, is unimpressive, and Argento seems much more interested not in violent murders but in violent set-pieces showing men fighting or chasing each other in the tradition of the Hitchcockian thriller.
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