Monday, October 28, 2019
SWAMP THING (1982), THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING (1989)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmologioal*
Where the two low-budget SWAMP THINGS are concerned, I'm not sure which is less desirable: a plodding, nominally serious treatment of the famed comic-book monster, or a lively but horribly lame comic take on the same material. Wes Craven both wrote and directed the 1982 adaptation-- the first comics-character to make it to the big screen since 1978's SUPERMAN-- but he doesn't really bring any special insight to the work.
The original character was Alec Holland a scientist working in the Florida swamps with his wife on a biological restorative project. Spies infiltrated Holland's project to steal his project, killing both of the scientists despite the attempts of an American agent, Matt Cable. However, thanks to his formula Holland's body merged with the flora of the swamplands, so that he rose to a second life as the plant-creature Swamp Thing.
Craven doesn't mess with this template much. Agent Cable gets a sex-change, becoming Holland's possible romantic interest Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau). Because Craven wants to suggest some sparks even after Holland dies and is resurrected, the wife of the comics-story becomes Holland's sister. (It may be that the actress was originally told she was a wife, going by the severe look she gives Holland when he's first seen chatting with Alice.) After that, the evolution of Swamp Thing is pretty much on-target. The monster-hero's perpetual adversary in the comics was a mad scientist named Anton Arcane, but here he becomes the mastermind behind the spies who bring about Holland's death. Arcane wants Holland's formula in order to experiment on a new breed of super-warriors-- but what he gets is a hulking plant-monster who shrugs off gunfire and trashes Arcane's henchmen.
After some repetitive encounters in the swamp, with the monster helping Alice against her pursuers, both of them are captured and imprisoned in Arcane's house. While the villain amuses himself by applying the serum to one of his henchmen, Swamp Thing-- who's lost one vegetable arm to a thug's machete-- gets his best scene, exposing his arm-stump to dawning sunlight and willing himself to grow a new arm. (The scene might have been better played silent, but unfortunately we get some inappropriately triumphal SUPERMAN-style music.) Swamp Thing has a final confrontation with Arcane, who "monster-izes" himself, and after the villain's defeat he leaves the heroine behind, accepting his isolation in the solitary swamp.
This was a fairly simple but accurate translation of the 1970s SWAMP THING comic. However, by the mid-eighties, DC Comics had launched a new run of the title-- in part because the first movie was reasonably profitable-- and during that time, the team of writer Alan Moore and artist Steve Bissette made fannish history by giving the moss-backed monster some new dimensions beyond just skulking around the swamps. An example of one of the best stories appears in this review, showing the creature enjoying a strange tryst with human heroine Abigail Arcane.
I have to assume that either director Jim Wynorski or one of the credited writers read this 1985 comic, since RETURN includes a tossed-off reference to a major motif in the comic-tale, wherein Abigail has a visionary experience after eating a tuber growing from Swamp Thing's body. Since Wynorski and his people play the whole thing for laughs, I can't imagine why they bothered to include such a scene, unless they simply wanted to fill time.
Arcane, though killed in the first movie, has been revived by his rogue scientist-allies, and now he has another whole compound in the swamp. He invites his stepdaughter Abby (Heather Locklear) to said compound for a visit, but he's got a deeper ploy in mind. He believes Abby has some unique genetic potential, like that of her mother, which Arcane can use to stave off death. Instead of instantly imprisoning the helpless young woman, the cultured villain procrastinates, inviting Abby to dinner while Arcane's lover Lana darts jealous looks at the younger woman.
Eventually Abby escapes the compound, and when she's overtaken by the villain's hirelings, Swamp Thing comes to her rescue-- though he's apparently no longer immune to bullets, since he's seen comically running from a fusillade. His strength is apparently less as well, since he's seen bludgeoning henchmen with (of all things) a baseball bat. (Allegedly this stupid scene appears because Wynorski was a big WALKING TALL fan.) While Arcane's henchmen get a lot of dopey asides, Swamp Thing and Abby more or less fall in love, though Wynorski plays this for laughs as well. It all leads up to another big fight between Swampy and one of Arcane's fiendish creations, though this trifling action doesn't create any more excitement than anything else.
So I guess my verdict is that the nominally serious if dull movie was a touch better than the rampantly stupid one. Still not much of a choice, though.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Though I can at times appreciate the acid wit of producer-director Robert Aldrich, many of his works strike me as pointless exercises in grotesquerie, as if he were desperately trying to convince critics that he was a master of Nabokovian cultural observation.
I hadn't re-watched BABY JANE in over thirty years. I remember thinking that it did satisfy me in terms of delivering shocks and lurid emotions, and I'm certainly not against either of these in principle. During my recent re-viewing, though, I found BABY JANE tedious going-- and not simply because it was a horror-thriller in the naturalistic mode.
For the most part, it's a two-character story. Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Baby Jane (Bette Davis) are sisters brought up in the vaudeville tradition, though in their earliest days Baby Jane was their father's favorite, in that she had a Shirley Temple-like appeal for audiences. The film opens by showing the child-actress doing a routine that some would call "kitschy," and Aldrich, presumably following the book, uses this incident not only to detail the early conflicts between the sisters, but to make fun of the unsubtle commercializing of Baby Jane's image by her father.
Later, as adults, the sisters' fortunes are reversed: Blanche becomes a popular actress, while the studio considers Baby Jane used goods. A mysterious accident, possibly caused by Baby Jane's resentments of her sister, leaves Blanche crippled. The two sisters live for years in the family house, Blanche supporting Jane with her wealth as Jane supports Blanche as a caregiver, but Jane still nurses deep resentments and drinks to excess. When Blanche makes the decision to sell the house and find medical treatment for Jane, Jane reacts by keeping Blanche prisoner in the house and terrorizing her.
Though BABY JANE reputedly sparked the so-called "horror hag" subgenre, the 1962 film isn't nearly as interesting as Aldrich's follow-up, HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. (In my review I observed that CHARLOTTE felt like "a dumbed-down imitation of Tennessee Williams," but hey, that still plays better than a half-assed version of Nabokov. Crawford is fine, but Davis's hammy performance is tiresome. Victor Buono got his only Oscar nomination for a supporting role as a pianist who answers Baby Jane's deluded advertisement for an accompanist, and though he's good too, I can't help feeling that when his character expresses lordly contempt for the low-class kitsch of child actors, he's expressing the very sentiments-- whether from the original book or solely from the screenplay-- that made the project attractive to Aldrich.
Saturday, October 26, 2019
THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD (1960)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
Here's another "Arabian knockwurst" that I watched purely to determine whether or not it fit into my category of combative films. "Not" turns out to be the case.
American versions of Old Araby are probably at their best when they simply admit that they're superficial, colorful trifles, given to any number of anachronisms. That said, WIZARD OF BAGHDAD doesn't provide any support for that generalization.
The wizard of the title is none other than low-class genie Ali Mahmud (Dick Shawn). Despite living in some roughly medieval era of Baghdad, Ali constantly spouts all sorts of anachronistic jokes, my favorite (so to speak) being a line that uses the term "snafu." Shawn plays the part as if he were a Borscht-belt comedian who'd been transformed into a genie, and after warbling a nonsense-song over the credits, Ali reports to Asmodeus, the chief genie of all genies. This scene sports one curious if inept attempt at conjuring up a fantasy-atmosphere. As Ali enters the palace of the genie with the weirdly Greek name, he's confronted by floating heads, like a skull and various animal-heads. The heads look terrible, but I have to assume someone thought they would give the fantasy-palace some atmosphere.
Asmodeus seems to have a position not unlike a military general, for he reams Ali for being a hard-drinking, hard-loving slacker who hasn't advanced to a higher state of geniedom during his years in the business. Asmodeus decides to give the goof-off a last chance: he's charged with making sure that Baghdad fulfills its potential to be the greatest city in Old Araby. Ali doesn't want the assignment, and he cavils at being forced to give up his flying carpet for a mere flying horse, but he descends to Earth anyway. Around the same time, aging sultan Rashid consults a female oracle who counsels him to sign over his kingdom to his daughter and her future husband, the son of another powerful lord, though both offspring are still children.
Ali can't resist indulging in wine and women, and so he's drunk as a skunk when an evil invader, Julnar, infilitrates Baghdad with his men, kills Rashid and opens the city's gates to an invading force. The sultan's girl-child Yasmin is too young for marriage, so Julnar simply keeps her prisoner for a future wedding. Husan, Yasmin's intended, flees the invaders and is taken in by a tribe of desert-bandits, who raise him as their own. Meanwhile, Asmodeous waxes wroth and takes Ali's powers from him, so that he's forced to get a job as a court jester. (Given how unfunny Shawn is in this film, it's hard to believe Ali doesn't starve to death.)
Seven years later, Yasmin's old enough to marry, and Julnar begins making wedding plans. By happenstance the princess crosses paths with Husan, takes a fancy to him, and inducts him into her personal guard. The scenes between princess (Diane Baker) and unknown prince (Barry Coe) are the only halfway entertaining parts of the film, particularly given Yasmin's attempts to make Husan fall for her.
Ali more or less hovers on the edge of the action, having conversations with his horse, who can't fly any more but who can talk to Ali, though no one else understands the equine. Ali finds himself moved by the plight of the imperiled lovers. He finally gets invested enough to seek out Asmodeus again and to demand his powers back. And the head genie is so pleased by the young sprout's gumption that, well, he just gives Ali back all of his magic mojo. Ali returns to Earth in time to save Husan from the headsman and to thwart Julnar's army, all with the cheapest possible FX. There's are a couple of mild fights at the conclusion, but since Ali is the star, these don't acquire a combative value.
George Sherman directs in journeyman fashion, with almost no interesting setups. Though producer Sam Katzman was known for cheap productions, WIZARD actually looks modestly expensive compared to a lot of his B-films-- though eight years previous, Katzman's THIEF OF DAMASCUS proves considerably better trivial entertainment.
Thursday, October 24, 2019
SAILOR MOON S: THE MOVIE-- HEARTS OF ICE (1994)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, psychological*
I've never been a big fan of the manga/anime franchise SAILOR MOON, though I must admit it's one of the few Japanese properties that's enjoyed high visibility in the U.S. Still, this stand-alone movie has the advantage of being based on a manga-tale by the creator of the Sailor Scouts, so at least it has the necessary blend of sentiment and silliness.
Since the movie appeared around the same time as the third season of the animated TV show, the script makes no attempt to provide new viewers with the histories of the main character, middle-school girl Usagi (a.k.a. Sailor Moon), or any of her ensemble-mates, most of whom are named against planets in the solar system. (One exception is a pint-sized kid, "Sailor Chibi Moon," meaning "child moon," who has her own complicated arc in the TV series.) To be sure, the rest of the Sailor Scouts don't have much personality, so their primary contribution is to bring all sorts of cosmic powers to bear on the threat du jure. Sailor Moon's civilian ID pretty much sells the rest of them, since young Usagi has all the faults impossible for most heroes, in that she's conceited, flighty, ditzy and occasionally chicken-hearted. The appeal of the series focuses on Usagi's consistent ability to get over her weaknesses and metamorphose into her "higher self," Sailor Moon.
One regular character-- albeit not a member of the hero-ensemble-- is Luna, one of two intelligent cats who hang around with the Scouts and give advice. (Luna is female, the other cat, Artemis, is male.) As the primary threat approaches Earth-- an evil "snow fairy," Princess Kaguya (named after a character in Japanese folklore)-- Luna becomes the fulcrum of the "B-story." After suffering an injury, Luna is taken in by an astonomer named Kakeru. This fellow doesn't have any idea that Luna is an intelligent alien cat, but Luna falls in love with him despite the biological impossibility. Kakeru has an astronaut-girlfriend, Himeko, but the two of them have had a falling-out. Kakeru, despite being a scientist, is obsessed with the legends of Japanese snow-fairies, and he becomes involved with the evil Kaguya when she and her "snow dancers" arrive on Earth, planning to freeze the planet for no particular reason.
The best action occurs at the climax, as all of the cosmically powered Scouts take on the ice-queen, but Luna gets the emotional crux of the story. Given that she already knows her love for the human Kakeru is impossible, she gets Sailor Moon's help so that Luna can take the form of the folkloric Kaguya in order to get him free of the evil ice-queen's thrall.
The potential conflict between practical, scientific Himeko and the overly dreamy-minded Kakeru is one that might have been better developed-- but since SAILOR MOON was focused on adolescent audiences, this particular psychological conundrum remains unsolved.
THE RAWHIDE TERROR (1934), THE VANISHING RIDERS (1935), WILD HORSE PHANTOM (1944)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Here are three "weird westerns," all of which appeared together in a DVD collection, but are otherwise unrelated. All three are also combative adventures, for what that's worth.
THE RAWHIDE TERROR, the weirdest and most incoherent of the three, may be the only B-western of which the "monster" is the star. In a prologue, a wagon with a father, mother, and two kids is waylaid by a dozen white men masquerading as Indians. The bandits kill the mother and father but unaccountably leave both male children alive. The older brother wanders off laughing madly, and the younger is left alone.
Some fifteen years later, the former bandits have become pillars of the community in a small town called Red Dog. However, a mysterious killer, "the Rawhide Killer," begins strangling all of the men one by one. The mad murderer is a lanky fellow wearing a slouch hat, vest, and a rawhide strip over his face. Since no one knows who he is without this "mask," the strip doesn't serve any real purpose, particularly when it's strongly hinted that the Killer is the maddened survivor of the wagon-murders.
The short film, originally projected as a segment of a western serial, was retooled into a B-feature when the serial-plan fell through. Thus it's hard to tell who the story's "hero" is, a wandering cowboy, who has a fairly decent fight with Rawhide-guy, or Red Dog's sheriff. The latter character gets more attention in the film's jumbled latter half, concluding with the tossed-off revelation that the sheriff is actually the other orphaned kid. But the Killer, though played with gusto by William Barrymore, gets most of the narrative attention.
THE VANISHING RIDERS turns around the usual tendency of weird westerns to have the villains create the illusion of phony ghosts. Good guy Bill Jones (played by an actor whose real name was, oddly enough, the same as the real moniker of "Buffalo Bill") wants to bring a gang of outlaws to justice. To this end Bill and his kid sidekick Tim decide to play on the superstitious fears of the outlaws (this is, interestingly, four years before the debut of Batman). The crusader and his youthful partner dress themselves and their horses up in skeletal outfits and drive the outlaws crazy for a while, until it's time for the hero and his helpers to beat down the villains with an extended fight-scene.
This B-western is at least tolerable compared to the zaniness of RAWHIDE TERROR, but the only real entertainment shows up when an old fellow (who has "comedy relief" written all over him) unknowingly insults the leader of the outlaws to his face, only to be spared by the leader's sense of humor.
WILD HORSE PHANTOM, a cheap modern-day western from the PRC filmmakers, gives RAWHIDE TERROR a run for the "most incoherent" prize, even though on the whole PHANTOM has (slightly) better direction and production values. The title is the most off-putting aspect, since none of the horses in the story are important to the story. Even the steed owned by series-hero Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) isn't significant, though the beast gets second-billing. There are a couple of candidates for "phantoms" in the story, but neither have anything to do with anyone's horse.
Carson works with the warden of a prison to let outlaw-leader Link Daggett escape prison with his gang in the hope that the crooks will go looking for their cached loot. Carson is involved because the money was stolen from the bank of a certain town, and if the money isn't returned, a bunch of farmers will lose their farms. I have serious doubts as to whether any real authorities would release a whole gang to achieve this end, and indeed, the crooks murder another ex-con. This scene takes place so that the con's comic-relief buddy Fuzzy will be motivated to attach himself to Carson's attempt to follow and eventually re-capture the gang. That said, the needless murder of an innocent is clearly OK as long as those salt-of-the-earth farmers don't lose their lands.
The gang seeks out an "old dark mine," but Daggett can't remember just where the loot is, which provides an excuse for both the heroes and the villains to wander around in the caves for long stretches. A few times a macabre laugh rings out, but this isn't much of a "phantom," for it's just a neighboring rancher trying to scare the intruders away from the loot he's discovered. A far more justifiable phantom is an oversized bat-- allegedly recycled from PRC's horror-cheapie DEVIL BAT-- which attacks Fuzzy, leading to some comical moments. There's no attempt to explain the bat's provenance, though much later Fuzzy finds a much smaller bat hiding in his clothes, which is possibly a present from the big one. The antics of Al "Fuzzy" St. John are the only fun part of the overly complicated story, since even Crabbe's riding and fistfights come off as dull this time.
Monday, October 21, 2019
ZORRO AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
This is one of the many mediocre swashbucklers churned out in Europe during the fifties and sixties, and I review it here only because I wondered whether or not the presence of a faux "Zorro" in the film caused it to qualify as a film with an uncanny phenomenality.
Now, it's not an objection that the film takes Zorro, a character who originally appeared in the early 19th century, and plops him down in 16th-century France, so that he can mix and mingle with the Three Musketeers and their milieu. However, the naturalistic mythology of the Musketeers, as essayed by the filmmakers, overwhelms any uncanny propensities.
Former Tarzan Gordon Scott, the only recognizable name in the cast, appears in France at the time of a war with Spain, but there's not much history here: just the usual conflicts of the Musketeers and their enemy Richelieu. There's no real explanation of why Scott's character-- who isn't Don Diego de la Vega-- has chosen to wear a black mask and black attire in order to rob evil nobles, and for that matter the hero barely appears in his customary regalia except in one scene. It's true that there's a quick reference to Zorro's penchant for carving his initial in the skin of certain opponents, but this is no more than a casual toss-off before the film returns to more Musketeer hijinks.
I stated in this review of two SHADOW films from the late thirties that I didn't necessarily consider the second film to be uncanny simply because the main hero was vaguely associated with the mythos of the Shadow. In the case of that second film, 1938's INTERNATIONAL CRIME, the hero never dresses up in Shadow-regalia, and so it's easier to deem it as purely naturalistic, like a dozen other detective films of its type. In the case of ZORRO VS. THE THREE MUSKETEERS, we have a hero who does dress up like Zorro, albeit very briefly. Yet his costumed persona is seen so briefly that the impact is utterly nugatory, and so Scott's character might as well be a mundane masked bandit.
Aside from this classificatory conundrum, the film is largely devoid of entertainment value, even if one happens to like this sort of cheap Euro-adventures.
Saturday, October 19, 2019
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
George Romero's original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD deserves all the praise it's been given for its revolutionary effect on horror movies. I'm not talking so much about the gore factor. Gore had started to appear with greater frequency throughout the sixties, and had NIGHT never existed, horror-films of the seventies probably would have pursued trails of, well, entrails with no less enthusiasm. The uniqueness of Romero's creation is that gory goings-on are used with considerable intelligence, giving the viewer something that's less than a morality-play but more than an allegory.
There had been many films before NIGHT in which a motley crew of largely unrelated characters are forced to band together against a particular threat. Indeed, the entire "old dark house" subgenre usually depends on stranding an ensemble of characters in some remote mansion while a killer picks them off one by one. In place of an old mansion, Romero gives us a remote house in the country, and the adversary is not one killer, but a horde of "ghouls," dead bodies given life by outer space radiation. Though the creatures were later termed "zombies," the original term is more accurate, since the distinguishing characteristic of ghouls is that they unearth and devour dead bodies.
Does NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD have a message as such? I would say yes only in the sense that its message is no message: that the whole work is fucked up and perhaps beyond redemption, even though the ghoul-threat seems to be on the wane by picture's end. That's one reason I term the film an "irony," a literary mythos indicating that things are so corrupt that there's no real possibility for right action.
Most "trapped ensemble" films feature a hero who's basically right about everything the group needs to do to survive. But although the character of Ben (Duane Jones) attempts to fill the post of nascent leader, his efforts are as doomed as those of anyone else. There's also usually an opponent to the leader, a stumbling-block if not an outright villain. But although the Romero-Russo script makes Harry, one of the people fleeing the ghouls, into a loud, unlikable fellow, he's not seen as being unquestionably wrong regarding the strategy the group should pursue to ward off the attacking ghouls.
The nub of the disagreement between Harry and Ben is that Harry wants everyone in the house-- that is, Ben and three other survivors, in addition to Harry's wife and ghoul-bitten young daughter-- to take refuge in the cellar, which can be boarded securely and has no windows that the ghouls can penetrate. Ben wants to rely on boarding up all doors and windows on the ground floor so as to retain the possibility of getting away if they can find an opening. Though Ben is presented as the more reasonable of the two, neither's idea is without problems. Harry's own wife points out that if they hide in the cellar, they won't know whether or not rescue forces show up. Yet by film's end, everyone's agreed to follow Ben's strategy, and everyone but Ben ends up dead-- and he escapes only because he barricades himself in the cellar, as Harry wanted to do. (That said, if Harry and his wife had taken refuge in the cellar, they would've found themselves trapped with their ghoul-infected daughter, who does indeed end up taking her mother's life.)
On a related matter, though many critics have treated Ben as the voice of reason-- not least because he's portrayed by a black actor at a time when black actors didn't usually play the lead role-- he shares a lot of Harry's faults. Desperation moves Ben to insist on the group trying to reach a car outside the house and gassing it up. Thus he underestimates the group's ability to fend off the ghouls long enough to accomplish this-- with the result that two of the survivors die. Harry, who went along with the plan, fearfully shuts the door in Ben's face when Ben tries to get in. Ben bursts in, and after securing the door, gratuitously punches Harry a rather excessive four times, which suggests that he's taking out his frustrations on the older man. Later, just prior to the climax, Harry's resentment of the beating causes him to draw a rifle on Ben, though his overt motive is to keep Ben away while Harry and his wife flee to the cellar. But Harry isn't actively trying to kill Ben when Ben wrests away the gun and shoots Harry dead, despite the more pressing matter of numerous ghouls breaking into the house.
As mentioned earlier, the struggles of this little group of survivors becomes somewhat problematic as Romero shifts his focus to the retaliation of gun-toting humans, who find it relatively easy to shoot down the slow-moving ghouls. (This leads to one of the script's funniest lines: "They're dead-- they're all messed up.") Some critics have made much of the dismal ending, when Ben encounters some of the hunters and they shoot him dead before he can identify himself. While it's impossible for modern audiences to see this scene without thinking, "white guys pot-shooting black guy," Ben's death would have been the same in the script had he been played by a white actor. Indeed, Romero had commented that he had intended to use a white actor until Duane Jones gave the best audition.
I don't know if Romero's film, with its unsettling vision of a literally dog-eat-dog world, sparked something in the makers of seventies horror films, though it's not impossible to imagine NIGHT encouraging such works as THE HILLS HAVE EYES and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. But I know that I'd like to think it had such an effect, on some subconscious level at least.
Friday, October 18, 2019
THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
I haven't read Lovecraft's novel THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD in many years, but Charles Beaumont's adaptation seems a serviceable translation. The biggest difference would seem to be that this time, when modern-day Ward gets caught up by the influence of his long-dead sorcerer-ancestor, Ward has a wife along for the ride.
Justified witch-hunting is the name of the horror here. In the early 1800s the New England town of Arkham (not the name used in the original novel) finds its womenfolk being kidnapped for human sacrifice by the evil aristocrat Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). The locals capture and execute Curwen, but he curses the whole town and the ringleaders who organized the execution of both Curwen and his mistress Helen Tillinghast (whose surname is also borrowed from another HPL tale).
Over a hundred years later, Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget) arrive in Arkham, having been informed by someone that he's inherited the old Curwen castle. (It's later intimated that the spirit of Curwen has been lingering about, and through human agents has been luring other descendants to Arkham, though no one prior to Ward proved suitable to the warlock's needs.
The script builds the menace of the old house and its weird servants (one of whom is played by Lon Chaney Jr.), with able assistance of Ronald Stein's score. While Ward and Anne aren't fleshed out characters, Beaumont gives them both compelling personalities, with Anne particularly standing out in this regard as "more than your average distressed damsel." Price's performance is more restrained than many of his other "Corman/Poe" entries, and even when Curwen successfully possesses the body of his descendant, Price makes credible the warlock's plans to summon the elder gods and gain dominion over the earth.
I can't say that I think PALACE captures the deeper appeal of Lovecraft's horror fiction, not least when Corman couldn't bother to spring for decent makeup on his mutated freak-people (see above). But it's a watchable entry.
MONSTER DOG (1986)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Schlock-director Claudio Fragasso had collaborated with his wife Rosella Drudi about four times previous to this entry, but MONSTER DOG doesn't come anywhere near equaling the delirium of the couple's work on that "best worst movie," TROLL 2. That said, though the script for DOG is weak even for a formula horror-flick, there are at least a few decent scares here and there.
The film is one of the horror-genre's many takes on the "prodigal son," in which a person, usually relatively young, returns to a place he's left behind for many years, only to find sinister forces waiting for him or her. Protagonist Vince Raven (Alice Cooper) returns to his family's country home long after he's made it as a big-time singer, and he brings with him his girlfriend and a video-film crew, all to the end of using the largely deserted house to shoot a music video. But the moment the entourage drives into town, the sheriff and several scruffy locals stop the car, telling them that wild dogs have been besieging the area, often killing residents. The sheriff seems to blame Raven for this event, even though Raven's clearly just arrived. Later Raven discloses to girlfriend Sandra that his late father suffered from a form of dementia that was sometimes mistaken for werewolfism, and that long ago the afflicted man was executed by the locals for both being a real werewolf and for calling troops of dogs in to prey on locals.
There's no surprises here: I'm giving away little to say that the accusation of real werewolfism is real and that Raven has inherited it. The entourage suffers from attacks by wild dogs, by vigilante country-folk, and by a bloody-clothed old man who's probably the best thing in the movie. Even if Cooper had been a better actor, there wouldn't have much he could do with this dull "A leads to B" storyline.
Though Poe has nothing to do with this sort of gory junk, the protagonist's surname apparently inspired someone to use the Alan Parsons Project's 1975 song "The Raven" at one point./ Cooper sings, too, but he's not as vividly theatrical here as in his best-known performances-- possibly because he'd just got out of rehab and wanted to make a simple sleaze-film with no redeeming value.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
DARK SHADOWS, EPISODE 462 (1968)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
Since I've just stated in this essay that it's problematic to review single episodes of the sixties series DARK SHADOWS, here I'll deal with the events of this episode as if they comprised a vignette, a narrative that barely has a middle, only a setup and a (sort of) resolution.
Most single episodes imply the mythic content of the show more than actually incarnating it. For instance, a few episodes previous, DARK SHADOWS spent about four months sending Victoria Winters back to 1795 (the same era in which Gothic novels became super-popular, by the way), where she encountered 18th-century versions of the Collins family. This is a fun long arc, but I wouldn't call it mythic, even though it does introduce the extremely important series-character Angelique.
In episode 461, Victoria returns to her 1968 milieu (I'll pass over the complications of her mode of time-travel). Confused as she is by the transition, Victoria can't completely distinguish between the 1795 Barnabas and the 1968 Barnabas, given that despite her temporal trip she never learns that the two are the same. But one of the young governess' first lines is her reflection that "I wanted to live in the past," which refers to her frequently seen tendency to enjoy the Old World culture of early America, the culture from which the Collins family sprang. For the months predating the time-travel storyline, Barnabas was planning to make Victoria his vampire bride, also for reasons of auld lang syne: because he thinks she's the reincarnation of his lost love Josette.
What's interesting about this vignette is that as a result of Victoria's trip to the past, she's fallen in love with a man who lived in 1795-- but it's not the Barnabas of any era. Instead of the middle-aged vampire, she's fallen for a young man her own age-- or, at least, someone who was Victoria's 1968 age back in 1795. When the governess returns to her own time and place, she's suddenly in the same position as Barnabas: being romantically enthralled to someone long dead. Later episodes give Victoria an "out" that Barnabas is denied, simply because the actress left the show and so the Victoria character-arc had to be wrapped up as well as possible.
This vignette, far more than the actual four-month long arc, manages to capture the psychological appeal of being in thrall to the vanished past. Barnabas later tells his confidante Julia that "the past is constantly being re-lived"-- which may be an instance of the show's writers justifying their penchant for revisiting and revamping past story-continuity. Even Julia herself gets a hair-makeover to make herself "feel all new," and chastises herself for having indulged in the fantasy of escaping her troubled past.
The most overtly dramatic thing in the episode is that Victoria, despite being physically free of 1795, finds herself dreaming of a spectre from that era--one whom the viewers of the show witnessed, but whom Victoria never actually saw. She knew the living form of Jeremiah Collins, the young-looking uncle of 1795 Barnabas, but I don't believe she ever saw his ghost. Nevertheless, Jeremiah, who was slain in a duel with Barnabas, appears in Victoria's dream to warn her about Barnabas, though he somehow omits to tell her what she most needs to know: that modern Barnabas is a vicious vampire.
The strangest thing about the episode is that at the episode's conclusion, Barnabas finally does (apparently) fang Victoria for the first time, though the action is off-camera. This looks like the triumph of Old Death over Youth and Life-- except that by the time Episode 463 starts, Victoria not only doesn't act like a typical vampiric slave, she's still obsessed with the young man she met in 1795.
So the writers clearly decided to let Barnabas have his way, only to block him through the heroine's devotion to True Love. Indeed, early in the episode Julia tells Victoria that "death does not stop love," and thus, despite the problematic conclusion of the vignette, this single episode foreshadows the eventual resolution of the Victoria Winters plotline, in which her love does preserve her from the dominion of death, at least in the form of one 200-year-old vampire.
ADDENDUM: Since I already went outside the original episode being reviewed, I may as well add that in subsequent episodes Victoria falls under Barnabas' control somewhat more-- yet this too is a prelude to a development that will eventually lead to her escape from her aged suitor.
Monday, October 14, 2019
HOSPITAL MASSACRE (1981)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Apparently HOSPITAL MASSACRE was the original title of this early eighties slasher, though I confess that alternate title X-RAY is more evocative, if only because it suggests the extremity of exposure suffered by heroine Susan (Barbi Benton, the only "name" actor in the cast).
There's not much question that director/co-writer Boaz Davidson-- who'd mostly directed comedies prior to MASSACRE-- was strongly emulating the "hot" slashers of that period. The opening scenes are clearly modeled upon those of HALLOWEEN, in which a pint-sized psycho commits a heinous murder, which then lays the groundwork for his fully grown self to continue his slaughter-play. Whereas Little Michael Myers murders his own older sister, Little Harold of MASSACRE sticks within his own age-group. He pens a love-note to fellow grade-schooler Susan, and then watches in dismay as she tells her equally young brother about the note and they both laugh at Harold's presumption. Harold then kills Susan's brother, but Davidson stages the scene in such an awkward manner than it seems silly rather than tragic. Davidson also doesn't bother to say what happened to Harold once Susan, an indirect witness to the crime, blew the whistle on him. Nor do we have any inklings as to why, when Harold does come after Susan when both are adults, he chooses to do so in a hospital.
As an adult Susan (Benton) displays a little of the same bitchiness she evinced as a kid, verbally reaming her ex-husband when he tries to get her to let him have custody of their daughter for a weekend. Susan can't be bothered, as she has to get a routine medical checkup for her place of employment, though this scene does set up the ex-husband to be one of Susan's allies later on. But for the time being, Susan leaves the guy in the dirt and goes into the hospital.
For about twenty minutes, Davidson makes the multi-story place of healing seem as menacing as a decayed old manor. Harold, disguised as a doctor, starts messing with Susan's records so as to get Susan confined for reason of extreme illness, but even before that, Davidson's hospital seems full of menacing images: masked exterminators fumigating a whole floor, cackling old patients, stolid nurses and obtuse doctors. For those twenty minutes, Susan seems to be in a real hospital. However, once Harold starts killing anyone who gets in his way, the hospital devolves into just another big set where most of the rooms are conveniently empty and no one hears any screams. Harold's murders are certainly more imaginative than many other slashers of the time, though not much gore is seen. Still, there's nothing here that would make Dario Argento look to his laurels.
Worth a look just for a few scenes, but don't expect much.
SOMEONE IS WATCHING (2000)
PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny // marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This is another of those movies where I have to give away plot points to explain the film's phenomenal nature.
This made-for-TV flick opens on some fragmented scenes from a woman's murder many years earlier, Then widow Michelle (Stefanie Powers, not looking her almost-sixty years in the least) moves into her new home with her grade-schooler son Cory, not knowing that it's a murder house. Michelle gets some moving-help from Charles, a former boyfriend who still wants to get with her, but Michelle turns him down flat. Shortly after moving, Michelle catches a stranger playing Peeping Tom at her window. She finds that it's a 30-something geeky fellow, Bobby, who occupies the neighboring house with his elderly father. The father pleads with Michelle not to call the cops, and Michelle agrees as long as Bobby stays clear in future.
Nevertheless, odd things keep happening around the new house, and Cory starts talking to "BJ," an unseen figure in his closet whom Michelle deems an imaginary friend. Michelle's nutty neighbor Sally (Margot Kidder) sees some weird things while babysitting Cory, and gets concerned enough that she calls in a lady psychic to investigate. The psychic is the sole source of all marvelous content in the film, for though she doesn't explicitly say whether or not the place is haunted, her visions prove to be useful to Michelle in ferreting out the truth.
Though director Douglas Jackson keeps a spooky vibe going for a good portion of the film, it's eventually revealed that the "haunter" is none other than Bobby, whom by that time Michelle believes to be dead by suicide. It seems the neighboring houses are linked by a common corridor, and that's the way Bobby has infiltrated Michelle's home and convinced Cory of his status as an imaginary friend. (I'll parenthetically note that while the woods are full of movies where someone pretends to be a ghost, I'm not aware of any involving a magical friend-imposture.) In addition, years ago Bobby both raped and murdered the previous occupant of the house, and let her husband do time for the crime.
Unlike many TV-movie psychos, Bobby is creepy enough to follow in the footsteps of Norman Bates-- whom he resembles in part thanks to the peeping incident-- though Bobby's psychology is not as well delineated. There's no description of Bobby's past history aside from his murder of his earlier neighbor, but by the time he starts stalking Michelle, he's got some idea that he can become the new father-figure to Cory and husband to Michelle. Since the character of Michelle isn't being played to be Stefanie Powers' real age, it's implied-- if only because of her kid's age-- that she's not significantly older than Bobby, or, for that matter, old boyfriend Charles or new cop-boyfriend Joe. So there's not an overt mother-complex in WATCHING, though Bobby's habit of murdering neighbor-women still seems like a PSYCHO swipe.
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
STAR SLAMMER (1986)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
My main reason for writing about this outer space WIP flick is to continue asking the unmusical question, "how goofy does a film have to get, before it becomes a de facto comedy?"
The entire "so bad it's good" meme arises from the perception that many flicks, even if their creators crafted them with thoroughly serious intent, are inadvertently funny because of incompetent handling, silly ideas, and the like. In some though not all of my reviews, I tend to privilege intent over results. For example, even though it was a really dopey idea for some Italian producer to put non-actor Neil Connery in the role of a superspy for OPERATION KID BROTHER, the basic intent of the production still seemed to carry the vibe of "adventure."
Most films directed by Fred Olen Ray are full of similarly cheesy concepts, not to mention tons of cheesecake. Yet, I still rated a goofball flick like DINOSAUR ISLAND as "adventure" as well, despite its conflation of Cretaceous critters and a cult of hot Amazons. STAR SLAMMER, though, seems to be sending up both of the subgenres it fuses, both that of space opera and the WIP film. The opening scene starts on some alien planet, accompanied by very wonky music, as a curious old fellow named "Zog" comes into contact with Taura, the movie's heroine. Before knowing that Zog's a friendly, Taura addresses the staff-wielding old fellow with a line worthy of THE BIG DOLL HOUSE:
"One more step and your rod's history-- I mean, your staff."
In no time at all, Taura butts heads with Bantor, an enforcer of the local planetary tyranny, and their conflict costs Bantor one of his hands. He gets Taura condemned to a prison ship for women, the "Star Slammer" of the title, where the heroine is menaced by her fellow cons, by a warden in a sadomasochistic outfit, and eventually, by the aggrieved Bantor, who eventually decides to take direct revenge on Taura.
Some reviews have said that STAR SLAMMER is slow, but compared to a lot of Ray works, this one has a fair amount of visual liveliness, even if one never forgets what a cheap production it is. The female prisoners are all impossibly glamorous and the flick, while hardly a satire, keeps using over-the-top lines like "there are demons all around us, and they take the form of women!" I particularly found comical the character of "the rat," an inmate named Squeaker, who constantly complains that the others beat her up all the time-- which, of course, inspires them to beat her up some more.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
BATES MOTEL, SEASONS 1-5 (2013-17)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
I know you think I'm a monster, and I do believe there are people in this world who are fighting for good. But honey, there is no good. There's just life, which is hard and cruel and undeserving of your kind soul. I know you tried, I know you did. You tried so hard for such a long time. Honey, you are in a big pickle, Norman, you are. I'm not mad at you, but I can't let you do any more damage. It's time for me to fix this.
The above lines, from one of the last episodes of season five, are spoken not by Norman Bates' actual mother, whom he's killed by that season, but the Norma in Norman's head (though still played by Vera Farmiga). While the writing of BATES MOTEL isn't as sharp as the best of the PSYCHO films, these lines cause me to alter my verdict on the literary mythos which best exemplifies the series. In this review, I opined that the first season of BATES seemed more in line with the mythos of the drama than that of the irony, which I had applied to the classic 1960 movie. However, even though the series, as conceived by producers Carlton Cuse and two others, suffers from some rather blah side-plots, both producers and writers make a sincere effort to exemplify the original view of both the Hitchcock work and the book it was based on: that life is fundamentally warped and devoid of real "goodness."
I didn't care for most of the side-characters introduced to flesh out the suggested background of Norman and his mother in the Bloch book and its adaptation. Still, the episodes, even those relating to a tiresome drug-running operation in Norman's city, were never less than diverting. Still, there's never any doubt that Norman and Norma are the real stars of the story, with Norma proving a character substantial enough to stand alongside her psychotic son. In all previous iterations-- even PSYCHO IV, which provided the longest such flashback prior to the TV-show-- it's always been Norman alone who was the star. Norma Bates was for the most part just the excuse for Norman's mother-fixation and for his murderous rampage against women who tempted the young madman.
Though I changed my opinion on the mythos of BATES MOTEL, nothing in the other four seasons has altered my verdict that Norman's "perilous psycho" is entirely naturalistic in nature. There's never any sense that his "disassociative identity disorder" (as his lawyer terms it) has any special mystery to it, so the vibe of the uncanny never manifests. I should note that whereas in early seasons Cuse and his cohorts simply stretched the boundaries of the original scenario to allow for new characters-- not least a new half-brother for Norman, and a new take on the incestuous leanings of the Bates family-- the final season substantially rewrites the history of the original 1960 film. It's not an amazingly fresh take on the subject matter, but it's certainly makes better fare than Gus Van Sant's tedious shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's classic.
THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
I had read one of Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain" fantasy-novels prior to seeing Disney's THE BLACK CAULDRON in its 1985 release. Even based on that one book, I thought CAULDRON was a terrible betrayal of the Alexander universe, even granting that his juvenile fantasies weren't on a par with the best in the genre. Upon getting a chance to look at the DVD release of CAULDRON, I hoped that time might prove more forgiving.
Nope. The movie, mostly derived from the first two books in the Prydain series, faithfully follows a number of the plot-threads of the narrative. Yet the story is still undermined by the screenwriters-- nine in all, including co-director Richard Rush-- and their utter inability to either (1) evoke the charm of Alexander's original characters, or (2) to come up with something equally interesting.
For decades, critics have caviled about the Disney animators' supposed tendency to ruin fairy-tales by reworking the stories to fit Disney's creative preferences. SLEEPING BEAUTY in particular has been attacked for injecting cutesy characters not present in any version of the original tale. Nevertheless, the 1959 film, in large part through its elaboration of evil fairy Maleficent, sustains its own vision of a Manichean struggle between light and dark, between cuteness and gruesome grimness.
CAULDRON's narrative certainly has that potential as well. Everyman hero Taran, through his responsibility to care for Hen Wen, a pig with oraclar talents, wants to escape his humdrum farm-life and become a great warrior. But when the pig runs away, Taran has to give pursuit-- and in so doing, he's pulled into an adventure far more perilous than he's fantasized about. The Horned King, apparently a sorcerer who's very nearly a demigod, seeks to master the world by finding the enchanted Black Cauldron, which can change dead soldiers into a zombie army. The evil king wants to use Hen Wen's psychic skills to uncover the Cauldron's location, and Taran, in the process of trying to keep the pig out of the wizard's hands, gathers to himself a small ensemble of fellow travelers: a furry little savage named Gurgi, a somewhat befuddled bard with the extremely Welsh name of Fflewddur Flamm, and a princess/love-interest named Eilonwy. In the Prydain books, Taran and his three friends give Alexander's simple quest-tale more charm than the plot possesses by itself.
The biggest problem with Disney's take on these characters, though, is that the writers had no faith in the way the characters interacted in the books. The movie constantly seeks to shove moments of Disneyesque jollity down the throats of the audience, and generally cuts the things that made the characters interesting.
To be sure, Taran and Gurgi function in the movie roughly as they do in the books: one the bland everyman character, the other the silly, language-mangling comic relief. Still, the movie manages to rob them of any semblance of spontaneity; they just seem to go through the motions. Flewddur, though he's introduced with reference to his habit of bending the truth, quickly devolves into just another comic sidekick, and for some unknown reason he's made into a much older man, though this has no impact on the narrative. Worst of all, Princess Eilonwy-- who really sells the books with her tendency to dither like a scatterbrain, even though she's perhaps more resourceful than Taran-- is simply dumbed down into a "Disney princess" even more standardized than those of Classic Disney.
Other magical figures-- a race of diminutive fairies, a trio of grotty witches-- are also played for low comedy, and end up detracting from the potential enchantment of the quest. The only character who works is the Horned King, formidably visualized and given great voicework by John Hurt, but he's not on screen enough to have the "Maleficent effect." In the course of the quest, Taran more or less gets the chance to be a great hero when he acquires a magical blade, but though he fights off a few goblins with the sword, the script emphasizes a pseudo-Tolkeinian "renunciation trope." Granted, Taran isn't that dynamic a hero in the books, but this routine motif saps the main character of any real vigor, with the result that CAULDRON fails to rate as a combative film. There's also an ensemble-character who appears to die to complete the quest, but even in 1985, I knew he was going to be revived by some sorcery, in deference to young kids who might've been overly depressed by such a tragic ending.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*
Dr. Carrington: Knowledge is more important than life, Captain. We've only one excuse for existing - to think, to find out, to learn.
Given that most SF-films of the late forties were serials like THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES, it's rather stunning that the first two years of the 1950s showed Hollywood producers validating the genre with such exceptional works as DESTINATION MOON in 1950, and both THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE THING in 1951.
Producer and maybe-part-time director Howard Hawks had never made a metaphenomenal film before since the beginnings of his career in the late 1920s. Not having read any in-depth treatments of the subject, I would guess that the project, which adapted a classic John W. Campbell Jr. novella, appealed to Hawks as a new venue for extolling one of his favorite themes: the admirability of the seasoned professional, this time not contending with the perils of the air or the sea, but with dangers "from another world."
The story initially centers on a group of Air Force officers in Alaska. Though Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is nominally in command, he's been made a figure of fun by his men for having been out-drunk by a female acquaintance, and left in embarrassing circumstances. Hendry takes the jibes like a good sport, establishing one aspect of his admirable nature. Then Hendry's aid is requested at a North Pole research installation by a respected scientist, Doctor Carrington. Hendry's somewhat ambivalent when he arrives and meets again with Nikki, the woman who embarrassed him, though it's clear they both still have some "heat" between them. Hendry then takes command of an expedition to unearth a strange foreign object that Carrington and his fellow scientists have detected buried in the Arctic ice: a bonafide flying saucer. The attempts of the Air Force to dislodge the UFO destroy it, but one alien passenger, "the Thing," survives to menace all of the inhabitants of the isolated outpost.
Given that THE THING is so well-known among SF-fans, I won't dwell on the specifics of the creature's campaign to conquer the Earthmen, save to point out the opposing attitudes of Hendry and Carrington. Hendry is willing to take the Thing prisoner for study if possible, but when the monster proves dangerous to his men, he's first and foremost concerned with ending the threat to his men. As the above quote shows in part, Carrington is not concerned with immediate survival but with somehow tapping into or even subordinating himself to the superior "knowledge" of the alien visitor. That said, one admirable aspect of the Charles Lederer script is that Carrington is never just a simplistic turncoat against his own kind. Though generally projecting an emotionless facade, the scientist's fanaticism is glossed by his having driven himself to mental exhaustion by his passion to learn the Thing's nature.
Indeed, though Hawks and his collaborators emphasize the primacy of the short-term view, that of survival for both the humans at the outpost and for the human race generally, THE THING is admirable in displaying the passion that all of the scientists feel for "the long-term view," discovering a new aspect of the universe. Even Carrington, who foolishly turns on his fellow humans in his passion for knowledge, is not utterly condemned by the script, given that he's spared the fate of many a mad scientist, being merely injured, not killed, by a rampaging monster.
Later versions of the story would emphasize the original novella's concept of the Thing as a shape-changing mimic. Yet there's a special charm to Hawks' "intellectual carrot." As unlikely as a human-form vegetable may seem, the Thing's humanoid form serves to make the idea of a plant-based alien species more persuasive than, say, an alien who really did look like an overgrown tuber (I'm thinking of Roger Corman's hilarious fiend from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD here).
The primary patterns here are cosmological and sociological, though a few critics have attempted to see the Thing as an "evil id" figure born from Hendry's consciousness, given that Hendry is a bit of a "male monster" to Nikki. However, Hendry never really seems out of control, and so if the Thing is anyone's evil id, he would seem to have been conjured from Carrington's unknown complexes.
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