Saturday, December 26, 2020

THE HIDDEN (1987)

 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*

THE HIDDEN neither loses nor gains from the standpoint of expired years. An efficient thriller with lots of gunplay and car-chases, its main innovation is that the featured team of buddy-cops are a human (Thomas Beck, played by Michael Nouri) and an alien masquerading as an FBI agent (Gallagher, played by Kyle MacLachlan). 

Alien Gallagher has taken over the body of a dead agent in order to seek a body-hopping E.T. of another species who has to come to Earth to usurp citizens and take them on criminal joy-rides. Naturally, for some time Beck has no way of realizing that the various breakout of random criminal acts stem from one source. But the longer he spends in the company of the quixotic Gallagher, the more he sees that "the truth is in there"-- that is, a gross ALIEN-imitator who slurches his way into the gullets of human beings prior to making them his pawns. Gallagher can destroy the creature, but only in a crucial period when the unnamed malefactor is outside a human body.

Because in his  own world Gallagher is a policeman who lost his partner, he has a rough bonding-experience with Beck. There's no great depth to their exchange, though, even on the level of DIRTY HARRY. The most interesting symbolic motif in the film is that while the evil alien is all gooey putrescence, the good alien, when he shows off his own ability to body-switch, manifests as an angelic ray of light.







MEGASHARK VS. CROCOSAURUS (2010), MEGASHARK VS. MECHA SHARK (2014)


 


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

MEGASHARK VS. CROCOSAURUS picks up where the previous MEGASHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS left off, but leaves behind the eight-armed monster and substitutes a big croc. None of the characters from the first film show up, but this is no loss, since the first ones were forgettable. In contrast, the script for CROCOSAURUS comes up with three viewpoint characters-- a Navy scientist, a U.S. government agent, and an English hunter of rare animals-- who play off one another a little better than the human characters found in most big-beast flicks.

Although Megashark is the focus of this four-flick series, if only in line with the scores of killer-shark films out there, both the Giant Octopus and the Crocosaurus are more visually interesting, and I consider both of them co-stars alongside the big megalodon. The script works in a relatively well-thought-out conflict for the shark and the croc, before the interfering humans manage to wipe them out.



Though there's not much to say about CROCOSAURUS, it's an improvement over the second sequel, MEGASHARK VS. MECHA SHARK is a dull slog indeed. I'm not sure why the honchos at the Asylum didn't just keep churning big prehistoric survivals, unless they had some delusion of being able to come up with a robot as appealing as Toho's Mechagodzilla. The "Mecha Shark" of the title is a shark-shaped submarine invented by a boring lady scientist, and although she wants to use her invention against a new Megashark (the first one have been finished off in the first sequel), the Mecha Shark has a tendency to go berserk at times, as if it was a real sea-beast.

MECHA SHARK's only accomplishment is to make the third sequel, MEGASHARK VS. KOLOSSUS, look at least adequate by comparison. However, I don't think either Mecha Shark or Kolossus have enough personality to share the spotlight with the monster shark, since they're just tools of those pesky humans.



Sunday, December 20, 2020

THE SON OF TARZAN (1920)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


Serials in the sound era weren’t known for fidelity to their sources, but a few silent chapterplays hit closer to the mark. SON OF TARZAN may have been following the lead of the 1918 TARZAN OF THE APES, a feature-length film which faithfully adapts the first half of the first Tarzan novel. Further, whenever SON departs from the 1915 Burroughs novel, it’s generally an improvement.


I wrote that the novel that gave us “Korak Son of Tarzan” didn’t manage to create a hero equal to his famed sire, and the serial is also little more than a variation on the jungle-man theme. But though some silent serials ate just assemblages of perilous situations, sometimes lacking the celebrated “cliffhangers,” the various vicissitudes of SON OF TARZAN are more artfully crafted. Like the perils of the novel, all the conflicts serve to give hero Korak and heroine Meriem their “baptism of fire” until the happy ending.


One huge improvement on the novel is the serial’s main villain. In the book Paulvitch, the fiend who is indirectly responsible for sending the son of Tarzan and Jane to the jungle, isn’t killed right away, but survives his first encounter with the young hero and pursues the youth to Africa as a means of seeking vengeance on Tarzan. Since the novel’s villains are weak and narrowly conceived, Paulvitch, played by Eugene Burr, provides a more obsessed and hiss-worthy enemy.


As in the book, Korak and Meriem starts as children, mature during their very chaste time together in the jungle, and then are played by different actors in their teen years. Rather surprisingly, the serial even preserves the novel’s idea that Meriem initially thinks of Korak only as a “big brother,” but slowly gains an awareness than she doesn’t want a brother’s affection from him. As a displacement for those burgeoning sexual feelings, the serial adds a detail absent in the novel: a scene in which Meriem goes bathing in a river and has to be rescued from a beast by Korak. Whether or not the makers of the 1932 TARZAN THE APE MAN were aware of this earlier adventure in jungle-nudity is anyone’s guess.


As in the novel, Tarzan and Jane play supporting roles, kept in the background as they tirelessly search for their lost offspring. However, someone in production must have decided that the audience wanted some real ape-man action, for the serial introduces a subplot in which thugs attack Tarzan and get their asses handed to them by jungle savagery.


Friday, December 18, 2020

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)

 








PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*


It’s been alleged that Columbia’s RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE may have started out as an attempt to make a sequel to Universal’s DRACULA, presumably without actually drawing on that movie but rather on the public domain novel. But Universal’s legal department blocked that idea, so Columbia came up with a “Dracula-under-another-name.” This character, Armand Tesla, inevitably reproduced the physical image of Universal’s Dracula since he was played by Bela Lugosi.


The legal complications might not have had any real impact on the script for RETURN, since its authors would have been drawing from Bram Stoker’s novel from the first anyway. That said, the writers also brought in elements foreign to Stoker, some of which may have been borrowed from contemporaneous horror films. Yet there are aspects of the Columbia vampire saga that are more faithful to Stoker than one sees in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation. For instance, though the script doesn’t exactly give Armand Tesla an origin as such, there’s the implication that he was once a scholar back in 1700 who became so infatuated with the subject of vampirism that he somehow transformed himself into one of the undead. This fragment of a backstory bears some resemblance to one of the origins Stoker gives to Count Dracula, who’s said at one point to have been a student at a college called the Scholomance, which somehow led to his vampiric descent.


To be sure, some structural elements just make good sense for the whole subgenre. The vampire needs to have a base from which to carry out his depredations, and he’s generally impatient enough to fixate on a victim or victims within easy access. Armand Tesla is first seen fanging an innocent woman in the London of World War One, and he likes the taste enough to follow her to a medical clinic. His activities, however, trigger two persons affiliated with the clinic, Doctor Saunders and Lady Jane Ainsley, to thwart the vampire’s initial attack. Angered by the resistance, Tesla tells his lupine slave Andreas (Matt Willis) that he plans to punish Saunders by making his small granddaughter into a bloodsucker. But the vampire hunters strike first, driving a metal spike through Tesla’s heart, and he dies, albeit temporarily. With the expiration of his master, Andreas reverts to human status and lives for the next twenty-something years with no werewolf-style transformations, working for Lady Jane at the clinic.


Andreas, of course, is RETURN’s version of Renfield, who in both Stoker and in Browning is a madman influenced by Dracula’s power, though in very different ways. The script implies that somehow Tesla has transformed Andreas, a normal human, into a hairy monster, though this ploy might seem counter-intuitive since Andreas does not seem able to transform back to human even at his master’s behest. (Late in the film Andreas is stopped by two cops, and though the wolf-man fights off the constables, having a lupine appearance probably didn’t help him avoid trouble.) Though the script does not reference Stoker’s claim that vampires can command wolves to do their bidding, this is apparently at the root of the writers’ decision to make Andreas a wolf-man, so that he would obey Tesla in all things. Yet it’s also possible that they were riffing on the general idea of supernatural contagion by having a vampire capable of creating not only vampire-slaves, but a werewolf-slave as well. The scripters may also have taken some influence from 1941’s THE WOLF MAN, where a werewolf (played by the then-ubiquitous Lugosi) passes on his curse to Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr, to whom Matt Willis bears a nodding resemblance).


Some twenty years later, Saunders has passed on of natural causes but his granddaughter Nikki (Nina Foch) has become a young woman in her twenties. She’s engaged to John (Roland Varro), the son of Lady Jane—making their relationship a trifle odd for a horror-film of the time, since John and Nikki are the movie’s romantic couple, yet are a good twenty years apart in age. (Almost surprisingly, Foch and Varro were both accurately cast with respect to their real ages.) A local constable heralds trouble, though, for he confronts Lady Jane with a recording by Saunders, detailing how he and Lady Jane killed a vampire. In a bit possibly derived from the 1935 DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, the policeman explains that the law takes a dim view of driving spikes through people, accused vampires or not.


However, fate, and the Second World War, intervene to make possible the vampire’s return from death. A bombing-raid by German planes unearths the spiked corpse of Tesla. Two groundsmen come across the impaled body, assume that the spike was put there by the bomb-blast, and they pull out the metal intruder. In due time Tesla returns to his unholy unlife, which includes asserting his mastery of Andreas once more and assuming a new identity, the better to get close to Saunders’ granddaughter and turn her into one of his own kind.

After this original twist on the idea of resuscitating an undead, the movie largely falls into a routine pastiche of the customary vampire tropes: the evildoer’s stalking of his victim, her wasting illness, the slow realization of the vamp’s true identity. The only novelty of the film’s middle part is that for the first time the main vampire hunter is a woman of mature years, Lady Jane (Frieda Inescourt). It’s also of interest that, whereas Tod Browning’s adaptation uses crosses and other holy paraphernalia in an offhand manner, the script for RETURN strongly emphasizes through Lady Jane’s dialogue the sanctity of Christian icons and their ability to repel Satanic evil. This emphasis also appears at the climax, in which Andreas uses a Christian cross to defy his master, propelling him to his doom in the sunlight. The script doesn’t provide any explanation as to why vampires dissolve in daytime but remain whole when they’re spiked/staked. In Stoker’s book, either staking or sunlight can slay a vamp, but vamps only decompose if they have cheated time long enough that they fall apart once their unnaturally prolonged lives are terminated.


The script is strong in terms of keeping things busy with lots of incidents, though RETURN never escapes a feeling of being a bit too derivative. The movie’s primary distinction is that it seems to be the first film to articulate the image of a vampire controlling a werewolf, even though Andreas makes a very atypical lycanthrope. This trope, though it only appears occasionally, has the distinction of having shown up in such diverse places as Jack Kirby’s JIMMY OLSEN comic and Whitley Streiber’s novel WOLFEN. Lugosi is satisfactory in the role of Tesla but the role doesn’t really give the actor any standout lines, whereas Inescourt manages to dominate every scene she’s in. The ending, in which the dopey constable breaks the fourth wall for the sake of a lame joke, has been rightly castigated by almost everyone.






Sunday, December 6, 2020

THE MURDER MANSION (1973)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


SPOILERS immediately: MURDER MANSION is a supernatural hoax flick, putting it firmly in the domain of the phantasmal figuration. To my knowledge the film is only readily available in a dubbed English version, so it’s hard to judge whether or not that release left out any material that would have made the original Spanish-Italian narrative seem less derivative and haphazard. I tend to doubt it, though.


The two most oft-used tropes of the “old dark house” template are either that (1) a bunch of people come to stay at a mansion for some common purpose, such as the reading of a will, or that (2) a group of people, either close associates or strangers with unrelated backgrounds, end up taking shelter in said mansion to escape bad weather or similar problems. In this case, MANSION hews to the latter model. Because the titular dwelling-place seems perpetually enshrouded by heavy fog (the Spanish title was “the Mansion in the Fog”), several people, one individual and three separate couples, end up taking refuge in the mansion of a vaguely aristocratic couple, the Clintons. Martha Clinton (played by top-billed “Evelyn Stewart”) goes out of her way to tell all of the travelers the spooky story of her aunt, who was rumored to be some sort of vampiric witch before she and her chauffeur died in a car-crash. Then, for the rest of the travelers’ stay at the mansion, they’re besieged by the spectral figures of aunt and chauffeur. There are some decent minor scares before it’s revealed that the Clintons are pulling off the ghostly imposture, hired to do so by one of the husbands, who’s apparently trying to drive his rich wife crazy.


Generally, this sort of Gothic spook-show only sounds workable when there’s an isolated target to gaslight, one person who will sound daffy when he or she rants about vampires and ghosts. Such a plot doesn’t seem at all tenable when a bunch of people are seeing specters in one place, even if most of these witnesses are supposed to get killed. In essence, the writer wanted to merge a gaslight-plot with giallo-style incidents in which a bunch of people get knocked off in succession. (To be sure, though European cuts are often spicier than their English dubs, I don’t see a lot of room for any artiful Argento-style executions.) With one exception, all the putative victims aren’t any more engaging than stick-figures, though the cast-list includes a number of familiar faces of Euro-genre films. When this is the case, I tend to view the person or persons perpetuating the hoax to be the real stars of the show—unless the hoaxers actually create a fantasy-persona that’s more resonant than they are, as I’ve seen in such films as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and APRIL FOOL’S DAY, to say nothing of the Washington Irving classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”


Of the ensemble of targeted victims, only one character stands out, and with a different approach it wouldn’t have been hard for the film to make her the star. Elsa (Anelia Gade) is the rich wife, married to a wastrel named Ernest, the fellow who hired the Clintons to do his dirty work. But Elsa’s real problem with Ernest—and the thing that keeps him out of her bed—is that her real name ought to be Electra. In a fevered flashback scene, Elsa is seen as a teenager at a party, scolding her old man—whose good looks she remarks upon—for dating a “child.” In truth, the so-called “child” is one of Elsa’s own classmates, and thus a young woman her own age. It’s clear that Elsa wanted more from her father than paternal attention, and that she married Ernest in part because her father didn’t like him—though her act of keeping Ernest at a distance revealed Elsa’s true sentiments. But teen-Elsa’s father dies of a heart attack while getting it on with the classmate—the film’s one good psychological fantasy, merging sex and death. Thus, modern-day Elsa remains terminally messed up—so much so that by making her crazier, Ernest unleashes a demon on himself. At the climax, when Ernest thinks he’s going to get away with everything, Elsa shoots him to death. She doesn’t see her actual husband, but rather the image of her dead father, whom she’s executing for having had sex with someone who wasn’t her. This hyper-Freudian fantasia is the only element that lifts MURDER MANSION out of the level of the routine scary movie it was designed to be.







UP, UP AND AWAY (2000)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


This Disney Channel telefilm appeared in the same year as the first live-action X-Men movie, but the concept of UP UP AND AWAY could have appeared as easily in the 1960s. If one can imagine some producers attempting to do THE MUNSTERS as a family comedy about superheroes instead of using movie-monsters, you would get something very like this movie, with lots of slapstick jokes counterpointed by lackluster homilies about the relationship of parents and kids. In this case, the homily would probably read something like, “Parents have to learn not to project unrealistic expectations on their kids.”


The Marshalls make up a family of superheroes in a world where, like THE INCREDIBLES, a lot of superheroes are seen bouncing around though no supervillains seem to be extant. They are also an all-black family of do-gooders, though the script thankfully downplays any sociopolitical content beyond giving the superhero father (Robert Townsend) the name “Bronze Eagle.” The Eagle is married to heroine Warrior Woman (Alex Datcher), who somehow maintains the look of a smoking-hot model while fixing breakfasts for her three children: oldest child Adam, youngest child Molly, and middle child Scott. Adam and Molly have both manifested super-powers that in no way resemble those of their parents But Scott, about to turn 14, has not yet gained any special abilities. One of the basic rules of the universe is that if one’s powers don’t show up by age 14, they never will, and so Scott has deep fears of being the odd man out. (Even his grandparents have super-abilities, with Scott’s grandfather—a horribly miscast Sherman Helmsley—representing the old guard of superheroes.) Scott decides to fake his ascension to superhero status, but this merely results in his exposure as a “power-less wonder” earlier than intended.


The best thing about this bland concoction (aside from how good Ms. Datcher looks in a skintight superhero outfit) is that Scott doesn’t obtain any eleventh-hour abilities, so that he and his family must cope with this admittedly mild conflict. But, in order to underscore the idea that mere mortals can also make a difference, a poor excuse for a supervillain at last shows up, and Scott manages to foil the mastermind and free his family from the villain’s machinations. However, the climactic scenes are extremely low-energy and desultory, and Scott doesn’t even get into a basic hand-to-hand fight during his triumph. (Didn’t his heroic daddy train his middle son to fight with his fists, even if he did get super-powers?) This lack of a climactic fight-scene gives UP UP AND AWAY its only distinction. Since I deem all of Scott’s heroic relations to be no more than support-characters—AWAY is Scott’s story, not theirs—this is a superhero film that doesn’t feature even an ordinary human with combative skills, making the movie even less relevant to the superhero idiom than HBO’s THE BOYS.










THE SISTERHOOD (1988)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Just as one man’s trash may be another man’s treasure, not all makers of trash-films can find treasures in their own junky entertainments.


Filipino writer-director Cirio H. Santiago, for example, gained a measure of fame with action-film addicts throughout the seventies and eighties, in that he could turn out a film full of blood, breasts and bullets with the best of them. It’s also of passing interest that Santiago put out a fair number of “femme formidable” flicks, in which sexy women demonstrated a separate but equal ability to kick ass. He not only directed the kung-fu tournament film TNT JACKSON, but also both of its remakes, 1981’s FIRECRACKER (the best of the three IMO) and1993’s ANGELFIST.


So one might have thought he might do well directing a cheaply-made film about Amazons in a post-apocalyptic world. Unfortunately, Santiago just didn’t have the right mojo for even this simple form of science-fantasy, and what one gets is even less interesting than his other films in the genre, such as EQUALIZER 2000 and FUTURE HUNTERS.


SISTERHOOD starts out with a little promise. Following the usual barely described apocalypse, viewers are told that most of the surviving human tribes have regressed to a barbaric patriarchy, in which women are kept in bondage by the stronger males. However, there’s one rebellious all-female tribe, the Sisterhood, which lives apart from the other tribes. The male tribal leaders fear these women warriors because some if not all of them manifest mutant abilities, even though they tend to be very minor in nature (and thus not requiring much expense in the FX department). The viewer first encounters two of the sisters: Alee, who can do a little telekinesis, and Vera, who can heal others’ wounds instantly. The duo then encounters Marya, a young woman from another tribe, exiled for her witchy ability to commune with a pet hawk. When a gang of hostile raiders attack the threesome and abduct Vera, Marya joins Alee in the attempt to rescue Vera.


I didn’t expect any deep disquisitions on gender inequity from THE SISTERHOOD, just some basic entertainment in which women got to kick a little butt. But though actresses Rebecca Holden and Barbara Hooper go through the motions of fighting with swords, they’re never convincing as warrior-women. Lynn-Holly Johnson projects more personality in the character of Marya, but despite her real-world skill at gymnastics she doesn’t fare much better in the fight-scenes. Further, Santiago opts for an easy victory by having Alee and Marya uncover a cache of 20th-century weapons, enabling them to take down a whole tribe of male malcontents with barely a mussed hair. So SISTERHOOD lines up with Santiago’s other science-fantasy flops, not lively enough to be kinetically involving and not goofy enough to engage the irony response.










MEGASHARK VS. KOLOSSUS (2015)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


In one of my reviews of a Syfy Channel flick, I observed that the channel’s spate of giant-monster films suggested that the film-writers were sick of being told that everything in the ecosystem was deeply precious and vital to human existence. These “creature on the loose” films usually culminate in some heroic individual managing to stick it to some colossal representative of the natural world.


However, since the Asylum’s “Mega Shark” franchise necessitates finding a way to bring back its jawful antagonist again and again, at some point the writers began drawing on abstruse ecological theories, not unlike the Gaea hypothesis, to explain the big beastie’s resuscitation. In the original film, MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS, a prehistoric megalodon got flash-frozen into an iceberg, as did the other creature of the title. The big shark dies in the first sequel, but a second Mega Shark emerges from another iceberg in the second sequel. In the third and thus far last sequel, humans have very sensibly gone hunting down all the frozen megalodons and destroying them. Yet one Doctor Kelly advances the theory that the ecosystem keeps finding ways to generate new Mega Sharks every time human beings kill one. The one that perished in Part Three, therefore, gave parthenogenetic birth to a new spawn, which shows up in Part Four to contend with the spawn of human ingenuity, Kolossus.


The script is too jejune and erratic to play up the idea of Mega Shark as an avatar of the ecosystem, but it’s probably no coincidence that his opponent is spawned by a human seeking not to balance the natural world but to end it. Kolossus is a colossal robot, loosely compared to the giant bronze warrior Talos from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and he’s also a doomsday weapon, designed to annihilate sinning humanity. Somehow the human protagonists—the aforementioned doctor, another scientist, and a tough lady operative-- must find a way to eradicate both a menace arising from the natural order and a peril spawned by the hubris of homo sapiens. Just to keep the pot boiling, there’s also an ecology-oriented supervillain who attempts to control both the big shark and the robot to his own dastardly ends.


Even for this subgenre, KOLOSSUS is badly padded with lots of scenes of Navy ships doing uninteresting things. Worse, when the film finally gets around to a match between the two colossi, it’s less like “When Titans Clash” and more like “When Titans Splash.” It's also possibly the least bloody of all giant shark films, so despite the coda’s promise of another Mega Shark flick, it might be time to let this franchise die a natural death.






MERLIN (1998)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*


Most works that have appeared under the imprimatur of Hallmark Entertainment have struck me as thoroughly mediocre. However, the 1998 two-part telefilm MERLIN proves a decent addition to the annals of modern-day Arthuriana.


Any creators working with Arthurian story materials is inevitably faced with something in the nature of an all-you-can-eat buffet table. Creators have a huge selection of stories, some of which contradict one another, in order to produce a new work for modern audiences. MERLIN therefore can’t be faulted for lack of fidelity to a prescribed model, since nearly every creator picks and chooses from the buffet of both archaic tales and modern variations.


One prominent variation is the idea of medieval witches and warlocks fighting a “rear guard” action for paganism against encroaching Christianity in Great Britain. Mab, Queen of the Faeries (Miranda Richardson), sees the “Old Ways” dying, so she gets the idea to bring forth a great mortal magician to aid her in her quest to reverse the tide. Merlin, instead of being fathered on a mortal woman by a demon as in some old tales, is brought into being with no father at all, on top of which his mortal mother dies in childbirth. A former pagan woman, Ambrosia, becomes the child Merlin’s surrogate parent, since Mab, arguably his “bad mother,” doesn’t want to mess with child-raising. Merlin speedily grows to manhood, at which point he’s played from then on by Sam Neill, and he shows a talent for magical manipulation even before Mab takes him under her wing. However, Merlin is less interested in defending paganism than in building a normal life for himself, and after he meets a comely young noblewoman named Nimue (Isabella Rosselini), he attempts to avoid magical in general and the schemes of Mab specifically.


Though there are no Christian supernatural entities in MERLIN, Mab becomes something very like Satan, constantly tempting and manipulating others, particularly her disobedient “son.” Once Merlin inevitably returns to the practice of magic, he foresees the necessity of bringing forth a great king named Arthur, even if this means allowing his father to spawn him on the body of a woman married to another lord. Arthur’s teen years are speedily bypassed, and his drawing of Excalibur and ascension to the throne are given adequate but somewhat rushed treatment. Then Mab comes up with her coup de grace, suborning the ambitious mortal girl Morgan LeFay (Helena Bonham Carter), leading to her unholy union with her half-brother Arthur and thus the birth of Modred, whose iniquity will doom Camelot.


There are a number of good psychological touches in MERLIN. Though Richardson’s Mab becomes somewhat trying (she always speaks in an intense stage-whisper), her disinterest in human love alters late in the game, when she forms a maternal bond with Modred, even though he’s less her true son than is Merlin. Neill, who was in his early fifties at the time of filming, was probably not anyone’s ideal Merlin, whether as a young or old character, but he treats the role with respect and handles all the thaumaturgic pronouncements handily, particularly in his climactic magical duel with Mab. Arthur is played by a lanky actor who never seems very kinglike, though it’s a good touch that he at least resembles the actor playing Modred. There are some good tragic moments with the misguided sorceress Morgan, and on the whole the film probably equals THE MISTS OF AVALON in terms of providing plum roles for female characters, but without falling into AVALON’s soap-opera bathos.

At the same time, though the script does work in a lot of the metaphysical and sociological myths attendant on the founding of Camelot, the story never quite manages to bring all of the separate tropes together into an impressive whole. The Grail myth is touched on so briefly that the writers probably ought to have left it out, which might have given them more space to build up the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot relationship. On the whole, it’s a respectable Arthurian tale, focused less on the king than on the kingmaker. But its apparent main theme—Merlin’s mother issues—is never rendered well enough to bring forth any narrative “magic.”




Sunday, November 29, 2020

CYBER SIX: THE COMPLETE SERIES (2014)

 



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*


As I’ve mentioned in this ARCHETYPALARCHIVE essay, Cybersix, a comics-feature published in Italy but originated by two Argentinian creators, was considerably darker and more mature than most American crimefighters. At present there’s no official English translation, so in the U.S. the character is best known from this thirteen-episode teleseries. CYBERSIX did not succeed in the American market, which success might have brought about at least one more season of episodes. Being a Canadian-Japanese co-production, the short-lived series enjoyed greater circulation in Canada and in parts of Europe, though I would guess that the black-garbed heroine never became a recognizable icon worldwide.


Despite being animated in Japan, the show was notable for being remarkably faithful to the art-style of Carlos Meglia, as well as grounding the heroine’s adventures in a quasi-European milieu, the city of Meridiana. As in the comics, Cybersix is an artificially created superhuman, who has come to Meridiana to oppose the world-conquering schemes of Von Reichter, the evil geneticist who created her. The action scenes between the athletic heroine and the varied monsters cooked up by Von Reichter prove a match for any comparable scenes in the contemporaneous BATMAN teleseries, and the heroine receives ample assistance from a “sidekick,” a bio-engineered black panther named Dataseven, whose presence lends Cybersix an extra level of coolness. Many of the dramatic encounters register strongly, particularly between Cybersix and her confidante Lucas, whether she’s in her hyper-feminine “superhero” identity or posing in her “Clark Kent” civilian persona of male teacher Adrian Seidelman. The only visual aspects that don’t work especially well are the comedic ones, such as the overly cute street-kid Julian and the hyperkinetic son of Von Reichter, Jose. The latter, though generally working under the aegis of his father, is the main face of villainy on the series, and he’s characterized by endless and repetitive temper tantrums.


Since the animated TV show was aimed at “tweens,” there wasn’t room for the adult material from the comics feature. In the comic the heroine can only endure when she has access to a life-enhancing serum, “sustenance,” which she sucks out of the bodies of Von Reichter’s other genetic minions. Obviously, a TV cartoon could not show the character vampirically preying on people’s bodies, so the subject of sustenance is only mentioned in a couple of episodes, and Cybersix obtains it from canisters that her genetic “brethren” carry on their persons. Similarly, elements of sexuality had to be toned down. The series certainly does not mention that Cybersix acquired her costume from a prostitute, However, that history is signaled in the episode “Yashimoto Private Eye,” wherein the titular snoop visits a demimonde shop (run by a very masculine looking woman) and sees parts of Cybersix’s costume in the shop’s display-window. The romantic attraction between Cybersix and her human confidante Lucas begins strongly, when she visits him in his apartment seeking to obtain a missing canister of sustenance, but their attraction only occasionally plays into the other twelve episodes.


Only in the episode ‘Full Moon Fascination” does Cybersix have to deal with a sexual threat, as well as a frontal assault on her cross-dressing double identity. Glamorous lady teacher Elaine arrives at the school where “Adrian Seidelman” works with Lucas and puts the moves on the burly biologist, inciting Cybersix’s first bout with jealousy—a thing she can’t do anything about, without endangering her imposture as one of Lucas’s male buddies. Elaine also happens to be a product of Von Reichter’s lab, which means that she knows about Adrian’s other identity, and she can morph into the form of a scientifically bred werewolf. In the grand werewolf tradition, she can also infect others with her nature, a fate she’s not slow to visit upon Lucas. Cybersix must try to bring Lucas back to humanity, in part by reminding of their history as friends and potential lovers. A high point of the episode occurs when Cybersix visits Lucas’s apartment in an attempt to suss out his feelings for Elaine. Lucas, expecting Elaine for a date, rushes the heroine away, but when Elaine shows up, she instantly senses the presence of her competition, perhaps as much from woman’s intuition as from her werewolf senses.


Too often, episodes merely focus upon “the menace of the week,” and though the heroine shows a certain amount of alienation in her first episode, often she becomes a typical superhero, cracking jokes once a menace has been defeated. The mythicity of the episodes overall is no better than fair, but then, one could say the same of that baby-boomer adventure-toon classic, the original JONNY QUEST. And like QUEST, CYBERSIX boasts a really cool theme song jam-packed with adventurous snippets—though since the protagonist of CYBERSIX is female, the triumphal song (composed by Robbi Finkel) speaks to the heroine’s fervent desire for normal love amid her striving for pure survival.


In addition, the DVD collection boasts numerous strong commentaries regarding both the history of the comics-character and her animated avatar.





THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE (1957)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*

Following writing the screenplay for THE EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon penned two B-horrors for producer Sam Katzman, this film and ZOMBIESOF MORA-TAU.  I gave ZOMBIES a lambasting in my review, but it’s a masterpiece next to the other film, which is so slow-paced that it would have been more accurately titled THE MOVIE THAT TURNED TO STONE.

Most of the movie takes place on the grounds of a young woman’s detention center. STONE may be the only “girls’ prison” film in which none of the inmates discuss the crimes that put them in stir. The prison-girls exist only to be victims of their administrators, Doctor Murdock (Victor Jory), his female accomplice Mrs. Ford (Ann Doran), and four others. Though the exact chronology remains fuzzy, all of the administrators have been alive for over 200 years, because in the late 18th century they stumbled across a scientific method for leeching vital energy from victims, enabling the six of them to become immortal. They appear to be entirely normal unless they don’t get their allotment of energies, at which their bodies petrify before they perish.

For two centuries this coterie of mad scientists has preyed upon the bodies of young women, who for no stated reason are the only viable donors. By the 1950s, they’ve set up shop in the detention center, where they plan to keep themselves by occasionally draining young women and passing their deaths off to heart attacks.

But the best laid plans of mad scientists don’t make good movies unless they start to get bollixed up. One of the immortal men, Eric (tall, gaunt character actor Frederick Ledebur) can’t simply renew his energies every few decades like his compatriots, and he begins needing more treatments as his body becomes more stone-like. This means that more young prisoners must die and have their deaths covered up, which in turn causes another of the immortals, one Cooper, to become morally conflicted about the project. In addition, two social workers, one male and one female, start nosing into the suspicious deaths. While the actors playing these roles get a lot of lines, their characterizations are almost non-existent, excluding even the predictable romantic angle.

Only two scenes relieve the tedium. One is a Frankenstein-style scene in which Eric breaks into the girls’ dormitory to abduct a victim because he needs a transfer badly and his colleagues are taking too long. (This also may be the dullest dorm-raid ever committed to film, given that all the girls wear concealing robes and PJs.) The other scene involves actor Paul Cavanagh as the unfortunate Cooper, who gets denied his treatment when he shows reluctance, and the other immortals callously watch him die before their eyes. However, Cooper leaves behind evidence that alerts the protagonists to their true peril, and thus leaves the men who turn to stone between a rock and a hard place.     

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

OMAMORI HIMARI, DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND (both 2010)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, sociological*


I’ve no acquaintance with specific changes in the business of making anime serials for Japanese TV. However, it seems that during the 21st century it’s become common for production companies to adapt manga serials, often serials that ran for several years, with a very conservative production of twelve to fifteen episodes for a single season. Without reading the original serial, one can’t be sure that the brevity of the adaptation necessarily resulted in a rocky translation. I suspected that this might be the case with the adaptation of DATE A LIVE, but for all I know the original manga might not have been much more coherent than the anime. One anime serial, CORPSE PRINCESS, ended its only season without a clear resolution, suggesting that the creators were hoping for a second season that didn’t materialize. Yet it must be admitted that for many years a lot of television shows, animated or otherwise, have been prematurely terminated before reaching a stopping-point, so perhaps this is simply an innate problem with the television medium.


I’ve not read the manga-series OMAMORI HIMARI, though since it lasted about four years it’s certainly likely that the twelve-episode TV show left out a lot of stuff. The show looks in most respects like a cookie-cutter “magical girl” show. Yuuto, a completely average high-school boy, lives an ordinary life, with parents who are either deceased or never seen, and a pretty neighbor-girl who acts like a girlfriend even though she’s not defined as such. Then Himari Noihara, a busty teen girl with cat-ears, bursts into Yuuto’s life. She reveals that he’s the descendant of a line of demon slayers, and that Himari is one of those demons. However, because one of Yuuto’s ancestors spared Himari’s life, she swore fealty to defend the last remaining scion of the line from other demons. In Himari’s first interaction with Yuuto and Rinku, she gives a graphic display of demon-slaying when an insect-creature briefly possesses one of Yuuto’s classmates.


In addition to Himari moving into Yuuto’s house and constantly threatening his virginity, OMAMORI quickly becomes a cookie-cutter harem comedy as well. Yuuto, despite being a nebbishy non-entity, attracts numerous cute girls into his sphere: a cute water-demon, a cute “tea demon” (who plies her trade in a Japanese “maid café”), and a cute demon slayer from another demon-slayer family. It’s possible that in the original manga these secondary love-interests may form an ensemble where they’re as important to the series as the primary couple. However, because the show only has twelve episodes to work with, I would rate all of the other girls as supporting characters.


I’m not even sure Yuuto qualifies as a central character. Despite descending from demon fighters, Yuuto doesn’t become versed in the ways of battling boogiemen. Himari states that Yuuto possesses an inherent talent to bring forth a mystical phenomenon called “the Passing of the Light.” He finally manifests this talent in the final episode, but his power consists of being able to “power up” Himari so that she can slay the main demon-villain, one Shuten Doji (an authentic Japanese boogie, for what that’s worth). Though manga and anime are replete with dozens of everyman protagonists, Yuuto is one of the dullest out there, so that I tend to view Himari as the show’s only central character.


The TV show has one ingenious idea. Though at first the show seems concerned only with rooting out malicious goblins, the true threat is that the demons are also in danger. Shuten Doji can only restore himself to full power by consuming demons with the use of a voracious minion, so the demon-girls in Yuuto’s harem have a vested interest in making common cause with Yuuto and Himari. Both the supernatural action-scenes and the humorous erotica are average, so another season probably wouldn’t have revealed any profound depths.





DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND, also a one-season wonder with just twelve episodes, had a much greater capacity for spectacular failure. The manga-series DANCE has ranged over several years and several volumes and still has not reached a stopping-point. Nozomi Tamaki’s manga is as layered as any of the best prose adventure-novels, with two strong leads and a wealth of impressive supporting characters. DANCE takes place in a world where vampires and werewolves have existed since antiquity, but only in modern times has Mina Tepes, the Queen of the Vampires, established a self-sufficient kingdom for the vampire people. But Mina has countless enemies, and her strongest ally in preserving the Vampire Bund is her werewolf bodyguard Akira. The two of them, who possess both a nascent romantic bond and a figurative “daimyo-samurai” relationship, embody the heart and the soul of this extraordinary serial, to which I’ve devoted two essays, here and here.

Happily, the DANCE teleseries does not make the error of attempting to condense this sprawling saga into a single season, as did (for instance) the second season of ROSARIO + VAMPIRE. Although DANCE elides a lot of plotlines and supporting characters, and changes one support-character from male to female, the twelve episodes faithfully adapt the essence of the first two or three major arcs. The show references Mina’s three main enemies from the early continuity and concludes by causing the trio to be stymied though not precisely defeated. In addition, the final episode alludes to yet another major evildoer, but anyone who wants to learn more about that character would be forced to seek out the manga-stories.


It’s almost standard for anime serials to faithfully emulate the artistic look of the manga-art, and DANCE effectively mirrors Tamaki’s lush designs of characters, locales and attire. Tamaki’s series was more vulnerable to being censored in one respect: that the character of Mina, seeking to protect herself from being forcefully married to some vampire-lord, has transformed herself into a pre-teen girl. For this reason, the potential romance between Mina and Akira remains merely a wish-dream, even though one episode makes it clear that under the right circumstances Mina can transform into a mature form, albeit temporarily. I’ve argued that Tamaki was not playing to the “lolicon” undercurrents in Japanese manga and anime but that he was in fact deconstructing that cultural meme by showing that Mina’s immature body was not on display for the purpose of erotic stimulation, and might in theory even discourage anyone so inclined. Even in Japan, though, this meme could have been censored for television consumption. DANCE not only keeps the meme but is true to Tamaki’s handling of it. Since this accuracy might not have lasted over the long haul, the brevity of this particular anime series might be a blessing in disguise.





Sunday, November 22, 2020

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964)

 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*


Someone has said that artists are like sorcerers who can be bound by their own spells. Certainly this is true of those creators who become so enraptured by certain themes that they repeat them obsessively. That said, obviously there are also creators to whom spell-casting is just a job, and they use magic after the fashion of Mickey Mouse’s junior magician in FANTASIA.


This line of thought comes to me as I grapple with the fact that the film under review seems to reproduce the esoteric aspects of an archaic Egyptian story, “The Tale of the Two Brothers.” Yet the career of the movie’s primary architect Michael Carreras does not seem to follow any thematic pattern in the various films that he wrote and/or directed for Hammer Studios. In contrast, some of the films that Carreras simply produced, such as HORROR OF DRACULA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, qualify as two of the most mythic films in the Hammer oeuvre. Based purely on the works that Carreras did write or direct, then, I tend to think that Carreras merely flirted with the esoteric content of the Egyptian myth—that of a sibling rivalry expressed through ancient magic—in order to sell a new mummy-movie. Carreras deserves some credit for finding a novel approach to this subgenre of monster-films, since it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Hammer to grind out a simple pastiche of Universal’s mediocre Kharis-flicks. But Carreras’s use of the fresh material is still executed with the style of the journeyman filmmaker.


Certainly CURSE starts out with one standard trope of most mummy-movies. Circa 1900, the tomb of an ancient Egyptian royal, Ra-Antef, is unearthed by a team of European archeologists, consisting of French professor Dubos, his daughter Annette, her British fiancée John and another scholar, Sir Giles. When the archeologists clash with a representative of the Egyptian government, the possibility of a mystic curse comes up. In addition, ill fortune, not explicitly mystical in nature, befalls Dubos, who is captured by Bedouins who kill him and cut off one of his hands. These raiders, whose antipathy for the expedition remains mysterious for much of the film, also arrange a surprise for Annette, leaving the severed hand in her bedding to shock her.


But even though these developments disturb the Europeans, the man financing the expedition, a money-minded promoter named King, won’t allow anything to interfere with his plans to exploit the unearthed mummy. Much to the displeasure of both Sir Giles and the Egyptian emissary Hashmi, King plans to take Ra-Antef on tour, charging yokels a quarter to view the remains of the mummified prince. Giles breaks off relations with King, but John and Annette continue to work for the exploitative American financier, helping him plan his traveling sideshow. It’s possible that the two of them stay with King in order to build up their monetary reserves in preparation for their planned marriage, though neither character makes this justification.


The members of the expedition depart Egypt for England, and two incidents take place on the ship. A knife-wielding assassin assaults Giles, and when John interferes, the young man throws the killer overboard to his presumed death. As a result of this scuffle, John, Giles and Annette make the acquaintance of another traveler from England, a well-to-do nobleman named Adam Beauchamp. No one can explain the assassin’s attack, nor does anyone connect the incident with the murder of Professor Dubos by Egyptian fanatics. Beauchamp for his part professes a great interest in Egyptology and once the group reaches England, the nobleman invites John and Annette to have dinner with him. In the ensuing days, it becomes evident that Beauchamp is putting the moves on Annette whenever John is too busy to accompany her, due to his work on King’s exhibit. At one point, someone breaks into said exhibit, stealing a list of the Egyptian artifacts, but at this point nothing has transpired that might not be the relatively mundane activities of a murderous cult.


Annette relates to the fascinated Beauchamp the history of the mummy. In Pharaonic Egypt Ra was a great scholar fascinated with the occult preservation of life. Ra’s jealous brother Be, reputed to have been a self-indulgent sensualist, poisons the minds of the people against Ra, forcing Ra’s father to exile the sinless prince. Ironically, it’s in this exile that Ra stumbles across a nomadic tribe that possesses knowledge of the secrets of life and death, embodied in a sacred medallion—which also happens to be one of the items recovered from Ra’s tomb in the present era. However, the archaic tale ends with Be taking preventive action against Ra’s return to the throne, by sending assassins who slay Ra, cutting off one of the prince’s hands as proof of the kill. There the ancient tale ends, or seems to end.


In her conversations with Beauchamp, Annette discloses a bit of a father-complex, mentioning that she followed in her father’s archeological footsteps to catch her negligent parent’s attention, and Beauchamp responds by flattering her for her intellect. John, apparently not knowing how to regain his fiancee’s wandering affections, busies himself investigating the medallion in the possession of Sir Giles, but someone breaks into John’s house, knocking him out and stealing the artifact. Immediately thereafter, the mummified corpse of Ra-Antef goes missing from the exhibit, presumably stolen by the same person(s) who attacked John.


But the mummy wasn’t stolen; rather it was revived with the use of the mystic medallion. The bandaged behemoth begins stalking all those who violated his tomb, killing both King and Sir Giles. And at last Annette learns Adam Beauchamp’s true reason for following the members of the expedition: he’s not only responsible for reviving the mummy, he wants Ra-Antef to kill him. It seems that Beauchamp is none other than Ra’s evil brother Be, rendered immortal by the curse of his Pharaoh-father so that his life can only end at Ra’s hands. For some reason—antipathy toward the modern world, perhaps? —Be wants Ra to slay Annette as well. However, the mummy still possesses some of the good prince’s better nature, and spares Annette while destroying Be (after significantly crushing one of Be’s hands). Then Ra brings down the roof on his own head, so that he will be once more entombed and removed from the living world. There’s no guarantee that John and the straying Annette will be united once more, and the film’s final spoken words consist of an unexplained phrase: “Rest, my father, rest.”


In a script less concerned with piling up mysterious occurrences to be solved by the Big Reveal, some of Carreras’ motifs—particularly the quasi-Freudian emphasis on severed hands—might have sustained a deeper symbolic discourse. Yet CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is mostly concerned with just solving a mystery rather than delving into psychological or metaphysical mysteries, so its mythicity can only be judged as “fair.”

ENTER THE NINJA (1981)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Ninjas had been kicking around in both Eastern and Western entertainment-venues for roughly twenty years before this film, and Chuck Norris’s THE OCTAGON, appearing in theaters the year before ENTER THE NINJA, may have kicked off the eighties craze for black-suited assassins on both sides of the good/evil spectrum. Yet ENTER, despite some sizeable shortcomings, proves a more entertaining film than the majority of ninja-flicks of that decade.


I’m not making any great claims of profundity for ENTER. It’s one of dozens of unassuming B-films to have issued from the production studios of Golan and Globus, sometimes (but not always) under the imprint of Cannon Films. ENTER has the distinction of being one of the few films in the directorial oeuvre of Menachem Golan (forty-plus flicks in all) that anyone remembers, aside from the 1986 Chuck Norris vehicle THE DELTA FORCE. Like THE OCTAGON, ENTER offers the spectacle of a Caucasian protagonist becoming initiated into the mysterious Eastern discipline of ninjutsu. Protagonist Cole (Franco Nero) graduates from some secret ninja school over the protests of a fellow student named Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), who maintains that true ninjas can only be Japanese. But apparently Cole completes his course without being required to become an assassin in the service of anyone, Japanese or otherwise, and he then departs to visit Landers, an old war-buddy at Landers’ home in the Philippines.


The bulk of the film emulates one of the most popular tropes of western films: the mysterious stranger who rescues an embattled family, whose property is desired by one or more grasping money-men. When Cole arrives at Landers’ home, Landers’ wife Mary Anne holds a rifle on him, and he disarms her, all of which goes to proving how much the two owners of the property are under siege by an evil millionaire, Venarius (Christopher George). Venarius keeps throwing nasty henchmen at Landers and his wife, and Cole devastates all comers, until the rich guy finally gets an emissary to find him another ninja. One guess who.


Though there’s nothing original about the plot, Golan and scriptwriter Dick Desmond toss in a lot of mildly amusing business in between fight-scenes, particularly in the depiction of Venarius’ comical henchmen. In contrast, most ninja-flicks are pretty short on amusing bits, and thus ENTER’s biggest flaw is not the dull parts between the fights, but the star of the show. For some reason, Franco Nero, despite having essayed the role of Django, one of the most memorable spaghetti-western heroes, walks through his role, looking perpetually annoyed rather than seeming to be a tower of strength. Even when his buddy’s wife begins an affair with him—something Shane certainly would never have done—Cole always looks sour and maybe a little dyspeptic.


There aren’t a lot of exotic ninja weapons here, so the uncanny phenomenality inheres wholly in the costumes worn by both Cole and his opponent. Strangely, though Sho Kosugi’s performance isn’t much better than Nero’s, Kosugi was promoted to hero-status in the next two “ninja-hero” films from Golan and Globus, one of the few times an Asian got to portray such a protagonist in an American film.


RAWHIDE: “INCIDENT OF THE PALE RIDER” (1963)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*






The programs RAWHIDE and WAGON TRAIN ran roughly concurrently. Both were westerns, and both concerned the business of transportation across the frontier. Both tended to deal with naturalistic story material, but occasionally devoted a few episodes to uncanny occurrences that happened either the regular characters or to guest-stars. Yet WAGON TRAIN, even in its uncanny moments, always projected a rational outlook. The wagon-master and his allies were in the business of conducting settlers to find new lives in the Old West. Thus, even if there were times when their progress was impeded by unusual events or even just melodramatic tragedy, WAGON TRAIN always emphasized the theme of progress. In contrast, RAWHIDE’s main characters, though also engaged in a hardnosed business, had but one task: to move herds of dumb, easily panicked beasts to waiting markets, where the beasts would be used, in one way or another, to provide food for humans. Rather than reinforcing the notion of progress, most episodes of RAWHIDE, uncanny or not, portray the lives of the drovers as peripatetic and repetitious, with figurative specters of death haunting their peregrinations.


Trail boss Gil Favor sends some men—including his ramrod Rowdy, the Mexican drover Hey Soos, and a non-regular named Calhoun—into a small town for supplies. Hey Soos, who often acts as the voice of superstition on the series, intuits the threat of death in the area. Rowdy scoffs and seeks out a Wells Fargo office. He spots a stranger mournfully singing the elegy “Streets of Laredo” but thinks nothing of it until the man, later identified as an outlaw named John Day, draws on Rowdy with the intent of robbing him. Calhoun walks in on the scene, Day shoots him and Rowdy shoots Day. Calhoun is only wounded, and as Day perishes, he pronounces an ambiguous curse on Rowdy.


Rowdy, Hey Soos and Calhoun—whose wound continues to plague him—return to the drive and acquaint Favor with the occurrences. To Rowdy’s disquiet he learns that in his absence Favor has hired a drover named Rivers, who looks exactly like the late Day. Favor believes the resemblance is a coincidence, Hey Soos believes Rivers is an agent of death, and Rowdy doesn’t know what to believe—particularly when Rivers has the habit of singing “Streets of Laredo” and making enigmatic remarks about death.


Favor wonders if the lookalike might be a twin brother, and somehow he comes across an old man in the area who knew the Day family, and who attests that although John Day had a twin, he’s supposed to have died long ago. But this news exacerbates Rowdy’s fears. The strange fellow even agrees when Rowdy wonders if the name “Rivers” suggests some barrier that he Rowdy has to cross. Further, Calhoun dies, apparently of his festering wound, and Hey Soos injures himself in trying to avoid contact with the double.


Rowdy finally confronts Rivers, and the non-supernatural truth is revealed: he’s Jim Day, and his apparent death was faked to save him from a false legal charge. To sell the illusion of death, Day even allowed himself to be buried alive, after which he lived a life apart from men, becoming a pariah. To avenge his brother, he pretended to be a ghost in the hope of provoking Rowdy into killing him—which would have led to Rowdy’s hanging, since Day could not physically draw a gun. Favor allows Day to leave the camp, since he can no longer harm anyone, and he’s condemned to a living death by his own hate.


While the explanation of the “haunting” might seem rational, Day’s ability to generate fear with his illusions qualifies as an uncanny version of the phantasmal figuration trope, since the fear of death is in no way lessened by the revelation. Favor pronounces the closest thing the episode has to a “moral,” emphasizing the importance of showing courage in the face of fear. But the fear is no less for all that, and the title’s use of the Christian term “pale rider”—which does not otherwise appear in the episode-- suggests an archetypal dimension to such apprehensions. Day’s illusion is more subtle than most similar types, since it’s accomplished through suggestion, not unlike a more pervasive hoax perpetrated in the 1944 film WEIRD WOMAN.


Though RAWHIDE boasts a few combative episodes, “Pale Rider” conforms to the overall subcombative tendencies of the series.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

AMERICAN NINJA (1985), AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987)

 





PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


I commented in one of my reviews of the later "American Ninja" films that I thought the first two were decent timewasters. However, my re-screening of the first two films has revealed that they were pretty dull affairs overall, and are mostly interesting for having launched the action-career of Michael Dudikoff, who definitely went on to better vehicles.

Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) serves as am Army private with a unit stationed in the Philippines. He was conscripted into the armed forces after some minor crimes, but Joe has an excuse: he's a high-functioning amnesiac who doesn't remember his own background. He's a monosyllabic loner with no friends in his unit, and this status becomes worse after an army platoon is attacked by black-garbed ninjas. seeking to kidnap the daughter of the base colonel. Joe saves the young woman, but everyone else in the platoon is slain. He returns to his unit under a cloud of suspicion, since no one knows where the hell this gang of ninjas came from.

Joe then makes a friend the hard way, when one Corporal Jackson (Steve James) challenges Joe to a fight. Despite Jackson's martial talents, Joe smokes him easily, and the two become buddies. Over time the duo investigate the provenance of the ninjas, who are working for a gang that steals army ordnance and sells it on the black market. Why this gang decided to use ninjas is anyone's guess.

Sam Firstenberg's direction is pretty dull except in the fight-scenes, and these are far from top-rate, since Dudikoff shows himself a novice at fake-fighting. 




Firestenberg's direction doesn't get any better for the second entry in the series, but Joe looks much better in the fight scenes, as does returning partner Jackson. This time, the main villain (Gary Conway) is a drug-dealer who has a side operation: that of using genetic manipulation to create an army of "super ninjas." (Thus I find out why the fourth and fifth films in the series made a big thing about giving their respective protagonists "super ninja" antagonists; the writers were trying to coast on whatever very small charge viewers got from this film.)

Once again the good guys must rescue a rather uninteresting damsel in distress, who in this case is the daughter of the villain's imprisoned geneticist. Everything not involving the fights is dull, and though the bad guy talks about his pet ninjas having super speed and being reinforced with steel limbs, it doesn't appear that his existing ninjas have been so enhanced. Still, since the doctor's genetic program appears to be a work in progress, I judge the second film to be marvelous in nature. Joe Armstrong doesn't use many special weapons, and those that the bad ninjas utilize are pretty mundane, like nets and ropes.





Wednesday, November 18, 2020

BATMAN: “MINERVA, MILLIONAIRES AND MAYHEM” (1968)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


The final episode of BATMAN ’66 ends the series on a “clever-zany’ note. Villainous Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor) runs a spa for celebrities. Writer Charles Hoffman may have derived her name from the general association of the Roman goddess Minerva with health in general, and thus with concepts like Roman baths. To Minerva’s spa go such many wealthy men—two of whom are played by showrunners William Dozier and Howie Horowitz—and she then uses a machine called the “Deepest Secret Extractor” to, uh, suck the secrets out of the men’s minds regarding the places where they hide their valuables. This big score depends entirely on the millionaires hiding their goodies in all sorts of easily accessible locations, though at least, when Minerva uses her device on Bruce Wayne, she has to harvest a combination number to Wayne’s safe to steal a trove of diamonds. Wayne doesn’t remember having this particular secret sucked out of him—which one would not think to be his “deepest secret”—but he becomes suspicious of Minerva’s operation.


Bruce and Dick change to Batman and Robin, and they show up, requesting Minerva’s massage treatment, though they don’t even doff their costumes for the process. Minerva’s feminine intuition tells her to get rid of these quasi-cops by having her henchmen shove them into a deadly pressurizing machine. Naturally, the heroes escape while the henchmen are looking the other way, and when they charge Minerva with the crime, she claims that it was all just an innocent mistake. Batman, having overheard that Minerva’s planning a rendezvous with another millionaire, attempts to set up the sinister spa-owner so that they can catch her in the act. Once again, Alfred, sans any makeup, is sent into a villain’s hideout in order to impersonate a famous figure. Minerva is initially fooled by the imposture, but her Extractor reveals that Alfred is a phony. In addition, the machine comes close to revealing the butler’s knowledge of three secret identities, but Batgirl makes the scene and interferes. Minerva has her thugs pop Batgirl and Alfred into the pressurizer, but by that time Batman and Robin move in, and the heroes wipe up the gym with the henchmen, after which Minerva is taken prisoner. Minerva, while only a modest supercrook, is certainly an improvement over Doctor Cassandra, and Gabor, never known for superlative acting skills, imparts an appealing combination of charm and deviousness to the character. The episode ends with Batgirl disappearing once again, and Batman ends the series with the quizzical query about her: ‘Who knows, Robin? Who ever knows?”


BATMAN: “THE ENTRANCING DOCTOR CASSANDRA” (1968)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


Bad as Louie the Lilac was, at least the role didn’t require sixty-something Milton Berle to dress up in mod hippie garb. Such is the unfortunate fate of Ida Lupino and Howard Duff for having agreed to play the sinister swingers Doctor Cassandra and her henchman Cabal. According to Stanley Ralph Ross’s script, Cassandra is a master of the “occult sciences” and of alchemy. In contrast her compatriot, despite having a “cabalistic” name, seems to be a jive-talking dullard. Cassandra comes from a long line of old-time witches and alchemists who were scorned as failures, and now she seeks to control all of Gotham City. One of her devices is an invisibility pill, which sounds positively sane next to her other “dumb-zany” contrivance. The latter is her “Alvino Ray Gun,” which seems to borrow its principles from animated cartoons, since the gun has the power to turn flesh and blood humans into flat cardboard cutouts. (As with the episode “A Piece of the Action,” writers of the show liked the idea of turning the actors into two-dimensional figures like those seen in comics.)


Cassandra and Cabal obligingly drop the flattened fighters off at police HQ, the better to show off their power. This proves a big mistake, since the cops transfer the figurines into the custody of Alfred, and he again uses a Bat-miracle device to restore all three crusaders to normal.


Meanwhile, Cassandra enacts her plan to make all of Gotham’s supercrooks into her allies, by releasing them from the prison. All of the arch-fiends are played by doubles, though some of the sound-effects, like the laughs of Romero and Gorshin, are recycled to sell the illusion. The three heroes track down Cassandra’s hideout, but the evil alchemist has given all the crooks her invisibility pills. For a few moments the crimefighters are on the ropes against an invisible horde, but after Batman puts out the lights, the odds are evened and the good guys win out.


Lupino and Duff are pretty bad in their roles, though the actors have little to work with in these dumb-zany roles. This might qualify as the worst episode, except that Ross does throw in a few clever lines. In one scene, when Robin seems to fancy Batgirl, Batman remarks that Robin may be experiencing “the first oncoming thrust of manhood.” Similarly, when the three heroes are being zapped by the ray-gun, Batgirl claims that she feels herself being “flattened,” Batman makes the not-quite non-sequitur remark, “What a pity.”


BATMAN: “THE JOKER’S FLYING SAUCER” (1968)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


A flying saucer appears over Gotham City, and a not-so-little green man invades the library of Barbara Gordon, causing very minor disturbances. Both events have their source in the machinations of the Joker, whose green hair may have suggested to Charles Hoffman an association with green-fleshed aliens.

Once again Joker employs advanced technology, claiming that he got his saucer from a mad scientist cellmate. Batman and Robin confer with Gordon about the crisis, while the green man (former teen actor Richard Bakalyan) plants a bomb in the Batmobile. While the bomb ticks away, Joker explains to his minions how he plans to terrorize first Gotham, and then the world, into bowing down to his authority. Batman deduces Joker’s hand in this game and figures out that the fiend will need access to precious metals, the sort kept in one of Bruce Wayne’s many research facilities.

Both Batgirl and Alfred pursue separate courses to learn Joker’s plans, which proves necessary because the Batmobile-bomb finally goes off in the Batcave. Neither Batman nor Robin are killed in the explosion, but it does take them out of the action for a time, allowing Joker to take both Batgirl and Alfred prisoner. Joker threatens to shoot Batgirl into space on a solo rocket, but she foils this trap, after which he simply keeps her around as a hostage. A timely broadcast by Alfred brings the Duo to Joker’s hideout, with the usual concluding fight. Not even the flamboyance of Cesar Romero and a brief appearance by the Bat-copter can keep “Saucer” from being one of the dullest episodes.



BATMAN: “I’LL BE A MUMMY’S UNCLE” (1968)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


King Tut, back for his last outing, conveniently forgets that he had ferreted out the true identities of Batman and Robin, even if no one believed him. This time he’s seeking Nilanium, a super-metal which once existed in ancient Egypt, and which can be used to build “an indestructible empire.” There’s also a Nilanium deposit far beneath stately Wayne Manor, and since that land is not for sale, Tut buys the land next to Wayne Manor, planning to illegally drill his way onto Wayne’s land.


Though Batman pretty much deduces Tut’s plan, Barbara Gordon happens to be on hand when Tut makes contact with a land agent to buy the land. This development comes about simply to give Batgirl a pipeline to the situation, even though she doesn’t know that Tut’s real threat is not that of purloining Nilanium, but of tunneling his way into the Batcave.


Stanley Ralph Ross has the Duo take their sweet time about countering Tut’s foray, and thus Tut invades the Batcave with barely any opposition. The heroes erase the memories of Tut’s henchpeople with the usual Bat-gas, but Tut escapes, and almost manages to reveal the Big Secret to Batgirl and other onlookers. That hoary old device, a falling chunk of rock, robs the Felonious Pharaoh of his memory. The only noteworthy joke in this weak sauce is that when the amnesiac professor is collared by cops, he calls them “Harvard people.”


BATMAN: “THE GREAT ESCAPE” (1968)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Western villain Shame (Cliff Robertson) shows up for the third season’s final two-parter, courtesy of Stanley Ralph Ross. The frontier felon is accompanied by a new posse: a mostly silent Indian, a Mexican bandido who talks with a British accent, new girlfriend Calamity Jan (Dina Merrill, one of the few moll-actresseses to get top billing), and Calamity’s mother (ensuring lots of mother-in-law jokes). Calamity breaks Shame out of jail with the help of a tank, the first jailbreak seen since “The Joker is Wild.”

Shame sends the Terrific Trio a clue to his next crime: that he plans to rob the Gotham Stage. This proves to be a feint: instead of holding up the attendees at a stagecoach recreation, the owlhoots assail the local theater (where the doorman is played by Jerry “Leave It to Beaver” Mathers). The three heroes show up and battle Shame’s gang, but the women’s auxiliary—Calamity and her mom Frontier Fanny-- paralyzes the crusaders with fear gas. With all of the heroes scared of their own shadows, Shame takes Batgirl hostage as protection against the cops. Though Batman and Robin are almost incapacitated, they somehow manage to drive to the Batcave, where Alfred neutralizes the fear gas with a convenient antidote. The two heroes figure out Shame’s hideout, but the villain deserts the hideout with his henchmen and his hostage. By chance Frontier Fanny gets left behind, and this leads to the heroes’ attempt to trade Fanny for Batgirl. The first segment ends without an explicit death-trap, though the apprehension of Fanny sets up the action of the second segment, wherein Shame tries to assassinate his enemies during the hostage exchange.

One of Batman’s many Bat-toys preserves the heroes’ lives, but though the villains escape again, Batgirl, who’s recovered from the fear gas sans antidote, is liberated. Batgirl reveals that she heard Shame talking about a “great train robbery,” and Batman deduces that the frontier felon plans to hijack a load of discarded bills being sent by train to the treasury for destruction. The information comes too late to prevent the heist, so Batman seeks to draw Shame by challenging the vain villain to a personal duel. Shame accepts with the intention of bushwacking the crmefighter. Batman honorably goes it alone, but Robin and Batgirl trail him, knowing that Shame won’t play fair. While Batman’s allies neutralize the henchmen, Batman and Shame enact the series’ only one-on-one battle.

In fact, all of the fights in the episode are above-average for the third season, and this may testify to the pervasiveness of the western-hero myth and all of the concomitant tropes. The script doesn’t come up to the mythicity-level of “Londinium Larcenies,” but like “Wail of the Siren,” “Escape” is as well-constructed as any of the better episodes of the first and second seasons.



BATMAN: “PENGUIN’S CLEAN SWEEP” (1968)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

For Penguin’s final appearance on the show, Stanford Sherman gives the villain a more venturesome plot than his antics in “Enter Batgirl” and “Sport of Penguins.” Penguin (Meredith), his moll and his henchmen infiltrate the Gotham Mint, but the villains’ purpose is not to take anything away, but to leave behind the poisonous effluvia of the lethal Ligerian fruit fly, so as to contaminate the money being printed at the mint. Despite evidence that the mint’s employees have been stricken with sleeping sickness, it takes the heroes a while to work out the specifics of Penguin’s plans. However, when Penguin steals the only vaccine in Gotham that can cure the disease, the good guys make the connection. Because some of the contaminated money is issued to Gotham residents, every citizen is forced to toss his paper money into the street—and Penguin is just the bird prepared to collect this windfall, in the episode’s most memorable image. Batgirl is first on the scene, but Penguin subdues her, though he doesn’t bother to kill her.

However, Bruce Wayne puts a crimp in Penguin’s plan by informing every financier in the world that the Birdman Bandit’s money is tainted. Batman then fears that the frustrated fiend will unleash all of the flies upon Gotham, but he takes preventive measures. Thus, when Penguin emerged from hiding to gloat over a city stricken with sleeping citizens—including his nemesis—the Terrific Trio spring to life and batter the villains into submission in an above-average end-fight.