Tuesday, February 25, 2020


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


In his fictional works, Edgar Allan Poe's most pervasive theme was the fear of enclosure. He's become justly famous for showing  his usually nameless protagonists trapped in hostile environments-- inside graves ("Premature Burial'), behind bricked-up walls ("Black Cat," "Cask of Amontillado"), or within prisons ("Pit and the Pendulum"). Yet even houses, designed to be places of repose and shelter, could be turned into sites of horror. Poe may well have derived this trope from either Gothics in general, or from the "ur-Gothic" that initiated the genre, Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO. The latter seems likely to me, because in Poe as in Walpole, not only are houses capable of trapping and suffocating their owners, even one's families tend to drag their relations down into perdition.

Roger Corman's first Poe-adaptation, 1960's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, emphasized the same ouroboric elements. Thus it's understandable that PIT, the second venture into Poe-sy, would follow the same template. Of course, the original Poe short story does not involve familial pressures at all, being simply an exercise in sustained terror, as a Nameless Protagonist suffers in an Inquisition cell outfitted with both the titular "pit" and bladed "pendulum." It seems likely that Corman knew that the bare story would not make a good ninety-minute film, and so he probably suggested to Richard Matheson that PIT should incorporate some of the familial elements that had played a strong role in the success of USHER, their previous collaboration. Matheson responded with one of his best scripts, drawing together not only elements from the 1960 film but also from Sigmund Freud's reading of Shakespeare's HAMLET. Indeed, in many scenes of the film, loose viewpoint character Francis Barnard (John Kerr) wears a black outfit not unlike the traditional stage-garb of Prince Hamlet, though as a character Francis is probably closer to Laertes.

Englishman Francis stands in for the film's viewers when he comes to the door of the ancient Spanish castle where the Medinas make their home. He's responding to a letter informing him that his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), who apparently married castle-lord Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) many months ago, has passed away. After encountering Nicholas's sister Catherine-- who has only occupied the castle following Elizabeth's death-- Francis is shocked to learn that Elizabeth perished three full months ago. Nicholas claims that he was too deeply bereaved to think about notifying relatives (no one in the movie asks why so devoted a brother never bothered to meet the family intowhich his beloved sister had married). When Francis inquires as to the cause of Elizabeth's death, Nicholas equivocates, but finally claims that his cherished wife perished in reaction to the "barbaric miasma" within the walls of the ancestral home.

This figurative "miasma" stems from the brutal acts of Nicholas's long-deceased father Sebastian Medina. When Sebastian was lord of the castle, he tortured hundreds of victims in the dungeons beneath his family's living-space, and young Nicholas was aware of his father's hideous deeds. Sebastian's full descent into iniquity transpired when he learned that his wife Isabella was carrying on an affair with his brother Bartholomo. In Shakes-speech, these would be re-arranged versions of King Hamlet, his wife Gertrude and his brother Claudius, but Sebastian is more pro-active than King Hamlet. Sebastian slays both of the incestuous adulterers, not knowing that young Nicholas witnesses the whole calamity from hiding-- including seeing his mother imprisoned behind a brick wall, where she eventually either starves or suffocates. This early trauma doesn't keep Nicholas from growing to manhood and marrying Elizabeth, but he remains to some extent fascinated with the many torture-implements in the dungeon, and an early scene suggests that Nicholas keeps one implement, the giant bladed Pendulum, in good working order.

Despite the confirming testimony of family doctor Leon, Francis doesn't believe that his 'strong-willed" sister would perish of such an affliction. Then sepulchral voices disturb the servants, suggesting that the ghost of Elizabeth has suddenly started walking the halls. This manifestation plays upon Nicholas's fears that Elizabeth may not truly have died of her illness, but that her state may have mimicked that of death, causing her to get interred alive, like Isabella Medina.

Given that the film doesn't show any ghostly manifestations two-thirds into the film, it's no great surprise that the recrudescence of Elizabeth is a hoax, perpetrated by both her and her lover/co-conspirator Doctor Leon. The duo's plan hinges upon their assumption that Nicholas will suffer a complete mental breakdown when faced with his dead wife. But Nicholas, instead of retreating into a state of abject weakness, rallies by taking on the persona of his dead father. He imagines the schemers to be the wife and brother of Sebastian, and so kills "Bartholomo" and inters "Isabella." Still addled, "Sebastian" then runs into Francis and subjects him to the delights of the Pendulum before Catherine and a servant intervene, so that the mad son of the Inquisition torturer meets his fate in the Pit.

I've mentioned a few of the weaknesses of Matheson's script, though the largest hole is that he's never able to account for Elizabeth's hostility toward her husband and her reason for pursuing such a roundabout plot. Maybe the old "henbane-in-the-ear" seemed too recherche? Price's performance here is not one of his best, coming off more one-note than any of his other Poe-translations, and Steele, just coming off her career-making role in Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, appears too briefly to make a strong impression. I tend to feel that the real star of the show is the imagined persona of Sebastian Medina, for even though Nicholas fulfills a role in the film not unlike that of Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet, Nicholas comes off as a weak, vacillating and guilt-afflicted character, in contrast to the passionate (some would say over-passionate) figure of the Danish prince. But then, a figure like Prince Hamlet might have seemed more than a little out of place in an adaptation of Poe, where fusty monomaniacs existed to suffer in Gothic bondage.

Friday, February 21, 2020


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


Though CRIMSON PEAK only performed adequately at the box office in 2015, I consider it the best work from director/co-scripter Guillermo del Toro, easily edging out my previous favorite PAN'S LABYRINTH. On the other hand, it's  hard to say a lot about it, given that in the DVD del Toro provides copious information on all of his influences from Gothic novel, Hitchcock films, Henry James novels, and other items to craft CRIMSON. One might say that he provides his own Cook's Tour of the literary myths (my term) underlying this sumptuous visual fest.

Because del Toro discussed his themes and content in such depth, I don't want to reiterate too many of his own observations, though I can hardly doubt the sincerity of his creative imperatives. However, had I never listened to the commentary, I would still have deemed the film high in its mythic realizations of cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, and sociological tropes.

The primary myth of CRIMSON is that of "good woman and bad woman fighting over a somewhat-good man," but with a conclusion that does not entirely validate the romantic angle. It may be that the lack of a romantic sense of closure-- even that of a sacrificed love such as one sees in TITANIC-- may have kept mass audiences from investing in the experience. CRIMSON also seems at odds with the current grotesquerie of the horror-film genre, for del Toro is clearly trying to find an artistic middle ground in which beauty and repulsion are fused. In all likelihood the current horror-audience didn't know what to make of this attempt to revive the tropes of the Gothic.

The movie's secondary myth involves the uncovering of some shocking secret, which isn't universal in all Gothics-- the founding novel CASTLE OF OTRANTO being a significant exception-- but many film-watchers have come to expect such revelations from classic films like REBECCA. The motif of incest has appeared so often in Gothics that no one will be very surprised to find that this trope is a big part of del Toro's conception. That said, del Toro does attempt to work out the psychological underpinnings more thoroughly than I've seen since Robert Bloch gave birth to Norman Bates.

A short summation of CRIMSON might be boiled down to "REBECCA meets THE HOUSE OF USHER." American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasilkowska)-- who matches up loosely with DuMaurier's nameless heroine-- marries a Man With a Past, allegedly wealthy British baronet Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). Despite opposition from Edith's father, and some weird vibes from Thomas's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith marries Thomas and moves to the baronet's ancestral home in England. But whereas the DuMaurier heroine has a beautiful home to inhabit while wondering about her new husband's past and her mysterious housekeeper's hostility, Edith ends up in a decaying mansion out of Poe. In place of the sludgy tarn that consumes Poe's most famous edifice, ancestral Allerdale Hall is built atop a mountain of red clay, the "crimson peak" of the title. In fact, Thomas is even attempting to mine the clay with new technology. But what crimes have he and his sister committed, in their attempt to perfect the technology and to rescue the decaying mansion from total ruin? And what crime do they intend to commit upon the new mistress of the estate?

The aforementioned lack of romance may spring from del Toro's concept of feminism. He wants the women to fight over the man in their lives, but he wants the battle to be all about the heroine's recovery of her sense of self, not simply winning the prize, even though "rescuing the guy" would seem to fit with del Toro's remarks about subverting the "damsel in distress" trope. It's arguable that, even though Thomas has his own character-arc, the movie is far more about contrasting Edith, a positive image of femininity, with the negative nature of Lucille. Del Toro even assigns each of them a sort of "symbolic animal," with Edith compared to the beautiful butterfly and Lucille to a dark and predatory moth.

The one myth-aspect of CRIMSON that del Toro does not discuss in the commentary is the idea of the peak itself. When I read that the mountain was made of red clay, I assumed that the director was playing with the Biblical association of the first man in Genesis, whose name is sometimes translated as-- "red clay." However, del Toro does not choose to speak of any religious influences upon his modern Gothic, sticking only to the literary and cinematic indebtedness. Though del Toro wants a conclusion in which his heroine escapes the horrors of the past, it may be significant that his Gothic is, like the best works in the genre, far more invested in those horrors than in any dull, alternate reality.

NOTE: the only "marvelous" aspect of the film is that a handful of "ghosts" that appear in the story, but exist purely to utter oracular statements that further del Toro's storyline. The ghosts are also the film's main "cosmological trope," since Thomas theorizes that ghosts are not spirits, but simply memory-remnants that "haunt" selected locations.

Thursday, February 20, 2020


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

In memory of the late Robert Conrad, I decided to review one of my favorite WILD WILD WEST episodes. To be sure, Conrad doesn't have any of his best scenes here. "Valentine," written with tongue-in-cheek by female scriptwriter Leigh Chapman, is all about the villain, Agnes Moorehead's "Emma Valentine." This episode garnered one of three Emmy nominations for the show, and Moorehead was the only nominee who won-- though, for possibly political reasons, the actress never won for her famous role of "Endora" on BEWITCHED, though she was on the Emmy ballot nine times.

Chapman begins with a weak premise: an "Alphabet Killer" has slain four rich men, and their last names are in alphabetical order, going A-D. The actual party responsible for the murders has absolutely no reason to organize her victims in this manner, and the script finds some hand-waving reason to drop that premise. Clearly the writer threw in this concept so that agents West and Gordon would have a reason to associate the apparently unrelated killings. The real element uniting the murders is that in each case, one of the rich man recently married a young bride, who now inherits the dead fellow's wealth.

Inevitably the agents track down the mastermind: Emma Valentine, famous socialite and matchmaker. She's been responsible for setting up rich older men with pretty young brides, who will then merge all of these riches together and make it possible for Valentine to RULE THE-- uh, country. The sixty-something socialite vacillates about whether or not she wants to be the first American queen or the first female president. But she's not the least bit hesitant about trying to get West and Gordon out of her way, in order to advance her cause-- which includes a nineteenth-century version of women's liberation. To be sure, Emma's going to be the queen bee in this hive, since she holds a club over at least one of her young brides, who doesn't want to kill anyone and may have actually fallen for her relatively good-looking middle-aged groom.

The best scene in the episode is the confrontation between West and Valentine, which takes place in a drawing-room festooned in pink. West is imprisoned in a chair fitted with mechanical clamps made to look like women's arms, able to tighten upon the victim to squeeze him like a package of Charmin tissue. Since West was endlessly desirable to nearly every woman who appeared on the show, Valentine briefly tries to sway the agent to play drone to her queen bee. James won't swing with a lady old enough to be his grandmother, so he and Gordon end up in one of the series' better death-traps.

Unlike the majority of crazy world-beaters on WILD WILD WEST, Valentine represents a part of society that was genuinely marginalized in the nineteenth century, but Chapman keeps the tone light enough that no one is likely to believe the villainess to be any sort of liberator. One of the script's best touches is that Valentine's method of matching up brides and grooms amounts to a primitive version of a computer designed to match people up in swingin' sixties style.

ADDENDA: I should note that the main reason I rated this episode as "good," even though most WILD WILD WEST episodes are fair at best in their mythicity, is because "Valentine" both evokes and subverts the show's main premise: that West, like James Bond, could seduce almost every woman he ever met. Valentine wasn't the only female mastermind in the show's history. But she's the only one that was such a blatant incarnation of femininity-- and not only in her emphasis of using guile rather than force and her predominantly pink color palette. Note that though the tete-a-tete between Valentine and West does require that the agent be securely bound the whole time, there's no literal reason that the script had to include a scene in which Evil En-- er, Emma-- shows how she can crush him with her feminine-flavored gimmick. The sheer peculiarity of this motif suggests to me that this scene may be referencing another "vicious V"-- which, as it happens, does bear a loose resemblance to the stylized form of the valentine-heart.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Here we have two Italian "Maciste" films linked only by the idea of giving the hero the name "Colossus" in the titles. As was common for these films, Maciste appears at random in different time periods, with no connection between any of his adventures.

HEADHUNTERS' only virtue is that, because it's so dull, it made an above-average episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Without the jokes, though, it's a dreary affair, though of minor interest in breaking with some of the standards of the template.

Usually, Maciste or one of his duplicates wanders into the midst of some dispute between two cities, takes the side of the righteous, and helps overcome the rulers of the unrighteous domain. Here, just as a volcano threatens to destroy the civilization of a more or less Greek-sounding island, Maciste shows up out of nowhere and leads the inhabitants to board a handy ship and escape annihilation.

Once Maciste and the island-people make landfall, they're almost enslaved by a nomad tribe, ruled by Queen Amoa (Laura Brown). However, Amoa's no standard "bad queen." She and her people are simply guilty of bad judgment, as they've been forced to flee Kermes, a renegade member of their tribe who enlisted the titular Headhunters as his henchmen. Maciste is tempted to help the sexy queen with her problems, but first he endeavors to get the islanders to safety. However, Kermes and his head-hunting buddies are aggressive enough to pick fights with both sets of good guys, thus solving Maciste's great moral quandary.

Both the photography and stunt-work here is tedious in the extreme, and although Kirk Morris made a good muscleman-hero in other peplum-films, he just barely performs enough strongman-feats to edge this flick into the realm of the uncanny. The Headhunters are no help here, since the film tells the viewer nothing about their weird society. The only other point of interest is that Amoa is one of the more active heroines, though she just has two or three short scenes of swordfighting.

COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA, set in ancient Rome in the period of the gladiators, is far more entertaining in every way, though Mark Forest's Colossus/Maciste seems here to be an ordinary muscleman. Indeed, ARENA sports a scene in which the main hero actually gets beat up by seven other boulder-shouldered bad guys. This in itself may be deemed a marker of the film's comparative naturalism, even though later on the hero gets to clobber five of his former foes in one big saloon-battle.

The main thrust of the plot involves a nasty plotter seducing Revia, sister of the reigning queen Thalima, so that he can overthrow the rightful ruler. This doesn't sound too much like any historical version of Rome, but I feel sure that the audience of the time allowed Maciste a lot of leeway. The plotter also enlists the seven gladiators-- including both an African and a Mongolian-- to do some of his dirty work. One gladiator (Dan Vadis) ends up siding with Maciste, though this subplot proves of less interest than the one involving the royal sisters. It's incredible that Revia thinks she can depose her sister without running the risk of Thalima's being killed, but putting that aside, the two actresses, Scilla Gabel and Jose Greci, provide a satisfactory helping of pulchritude.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020


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

This is the first horror-film directed by long-time porn director Joe D'Amato, and he may have had hopes that DEATH would advance his career, since he used his real name here.

DEATH, while always visually impressive, seems to be an uneven crossover of the giallo genre launched in the sixties with the various proto-slashers of the seventies, such as Bava's 1971 BAY OF BLOOD. D'Amato shows absolutely no interest in maintaining even the skeletal outline of a detective-plot, such as one sees in the seminal giallo BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Instead, D'Amato jumbles together an assortment of tropes from various classic horror-stories, and concentrates only upon their emotional and kinetic appeal. To this end the director makes heavy use of vertiginous photographic angles and zooming camera-work, and, of course, more than a fair amount of sex.

The story throws a few fragmentary setup-scenes at the opening, though few commercial films have ever devoted so little exposition to similar scenes. In 1906 a brother, Franz, mourns his dead sister Greta, and we're apparently in his head as he remembers a few past events. Franz is seen attacking Greta sexually, but her attitude in the next flashback-scene is ambiguous: Greta allows her brother to chase her playfully through the countryside. She stumbles across a rich fellow, Doctor Van Ravensbruck, and then smiles coquettishly at her brother as he watches Greta chat with the older man. Later it will be suggested that Greta not only had sex with the doctor but also died of a miscarriage as a result.

Three years later, the previously dead Greta has an accident near the estate of Walter Von Ravensbruck, fully grown son of the doctor, and his wife Eva. The wealthy couple take her in so that she can recover from her apparent mishap. Family doctor Sturges examines Greta and just so happens to recognize signs on her body that remind him of a strange Incan ritual for bringing back the dead. But he doesn't suspect the full truth: that Greta is a revenant brought back to life by her brother's combination of Incan sorcery and modern science. Both Walter and Eva fall in lust with beauteous Greta and become extremely jealous of her attentions/

The supposed scientific elements have no real influence on the story: in essence, Greta is both zombie and witch, able to survive murder-attempts and to return the favor with sorcerous curses. (In the film's most memorable scene, she tosses a bouquet of flowers at her lascivious brother, and the bouquet turns into a black cat that claws Franz to death.) D'Amato works in yet another Poe-reference when spiteful Eva tries to kill Greta behind a wall of bricks, but Greta easily escapes and executes Eva in a scene reminiscent of "Masque of the Red Death." Even the name "Ravensbruck" may be something of a Poe-quote. Greta kills various other victims, and according to a review one of them is the original person who wronged her, the older doctor, but frankly I couldn't keep track.

Greta's combination of innocence and malevolence is conveyed by Ewa Aulin of CANDY fame, while top-billed Klaus Kinski collects his check for the supporting character of Sturges.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

I keep a weather-eye on the ongoing "Power Rangers" serials, most of which tend to run together after a while. This one-year series, like all the others, combines new footage with Japanese scenes taken from various incarnations of the "Super Sentai" concept. The successful first series, "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," was the only one in which the producers filmed some better-than-average fighting-stunts for the original footage, while later entries have offered less innovation in the stuntwork department. In general the English-language serials' main virtue of the serials appears in the Japanese scenes, where the Japanese scripters and costumers come up with some truly demented visual concepts for the Rangers' villains.

MYSTIC follows its "Sentai" model by hypothesizing a new set of Rangers who depend on a fusion of technology and mystic powers. The five "clean teens" of MYSTIC receive tutelage from a Celtic-looking sorceress, but their enemies look like the same old goony aliens, albeit with supernatural overtones. In fact, the main reason I searched through the series was because TV Tropes claimed that the season qualified as a "monster mashup" on the basis that some of the aliens have aspects of (a) a werewolf, (b) a mummy, and (c) a Creature of the Black Lagoon (seen above, all in red). If MYSTIC had really built up this concept, consistently making its aliens close analogues to familiar monsters-- be they the Universal fiends or science-fiction freakazoids like those of MONSTERS VS, ALIENS-- then I would consider that a genuine mashup. But the monstrous facets of the various Ranger-enemies are very minor, and at no time did I consider any of them to be anything but "villain-types."

Though some "Rangers" serials maintain some steady subplots, MYSTIC's plotting is erratic at best. The first two-thirds of the serial waste a lot of time with wimpy opponents, and a boring subplot about one of the Rangers finding his parents during the various imbroglios. Only in the last third of the show does the script introduce a set of villains called "the Ten Terrors," who almost have a Lovecraftian Old-Gods vibe once or twice (possibly because the Japanese originals were some sort of Old Gods). But because these somewhat interesting foes are introduced so late, the scripts have to burn through them quickly.

The psychological function comes down to the teens confronting and solving various simple problems, but this is better done than MYSTIC's bland treatment of visual and narrative tropes from various magical systems.

Sunday, February 16, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, sociological*

THE MOLE PEOPLE is not so much the proverbial “silk purse made from a sow’s ear,” as it is a silk purse improbably stuck into a sow’s ear. By that I don’t mean that the directing of Virgil Vogel and the acting of the principal players prove to be as ghastly as some pig’s body-part. But both the performances and the direction remain essentially workmanlike and undistinguished. Lazlo Gorog’s script is the real star of this Universal venture into the “lost civilization” subgenre.

A lot of movies have formulated their own modern myths. However, it’s a rare film that manages to successfully translate the myths of ancient times. Lost civilization stories usually come up with societies made of a hodgepodge of Graeco-Roman motifs. In contrast, Gorog does his best to make THE MOLE PEOPLE a homage to the Babylonian deity Ishtar (called Innana by the preceding culture of the Sumerians). Though there are a few technical inaccuracies in Gorog’s fictional treatment of the goddess, Gorog comes closest to capturing the multivalent symbolism present in archaic cultures.

Though MOLE PEOPLE was not the first American film to deal with a version of the “hollow earth”theory, the film begins with a scientific lecturer elucidating the theory for the audience’s benefit. The lecture’s main points of interest is its validation of inner-earth fictional tales with reference to religious narratives concerning descent into the land of the dead-- appropriate in the case of THE MOLE PEOPLE, whose lost race is metaphorically a culture of the living dead. The lecture mentions both Dante’s Inferno and a similar descent-story featuring the hero Gilgamesh.
Yet surprisingly, the lecture  does not mention that Ishtar—the deity who dominates the main
narrative—is particularly famous for descending into the death-realm of her goddess-sister Ereshkigal. But then, in the film proper, the script’s concept of Ishtar is covalent with the mountain in which the lost race endures, which may be why the lecture-sequence concentrates on images of mortal men descending into a feminine-gendered underworld.

Unlike various mummy-films in which the tombs of the dead never wish to yield up their secrets, the Himalayan mountain Kuhitara sends tokens of invitation to those who venture close. In this case, the explorers comprise an American archaeological expedition. The scientists-- four in number, though only Bradley (John Agar) and Belliman (Hugh Beamont) are principal characters-- are investigating the possibility that Sumerian emigrants, escaping the devastation of the Biblical Flood, may have traveled to the great mountains to found a colony. None of the scientists expect to find anything but relics of those ancient denizens. The archaeologists first discover a cuneiform siele written by an ancient Sumerian king, promising doom to intruders. But before the foreigners even have the chance to trespass, an earthquake—which one of the scientists humorously associates with Ishtar—shakes the entire camp and destroys the stele. However, the quake also unearths an ancient lamp, on which the chronicle of the emigration is related. This second relic encourages the archaeologists—Bradley, Belliman and the other two-- to explore the mountain’s summit. Once there, a third relic, disclosed by a convenient avalanche, points the way to the abandoned portal of an archaic temple. Yet Ishtar-as-mountain proves so impatient for the modern men to trespass on her domain that the ground swallows up one of the scientists. This forces the other three—Belliman, Bentley and Lafarge-- to go on a spelunking journey to rescue the lost man. The lost scientist perishes in the fall, and Lafarge doesn’t live much longer than it takes for the scientists to discover a living Sumerian city beneath the mountain’s rocky exterior.

Up to this point Gorog is clearly drawing upon the Biblical story of the Flood, in which Noah’s Ark eventually comes to rest on a mountain, after which both human and animal denizens stream forth to repopulate a destroyed world. But Gorog's Sumerians offer not rebirth but stasis, in keeping with the majority of lost civilizations ever since Rider Haggard invented the subgenre,
The people within the mountain, who both keep slaves and are enslaved to their superstitions, no longer have any concept of a world outside their domain, believing that everything beyond their borders is the heavenly terrain of Ishtar. The ruling class is a race of albinos, due to their long exile from sunlight, and they are served by humanoids with claw-hands and mole-like features, the “Mole People” of the title. Belliman and Bentley never devote any time to wondering how, even in two thousand years, human beings could have ever taken on such theriomorphic shapes—but perhaps that’s because the moment the scientists are captured, the albino people try to kill them as demons. Only the fact that Bentley has a flashlight—whose radiance can blind both the albinos and the Mole People—keeps the explorers in one piece. The Sumerians honor the three scientists as emissaries of Ishtar, and when Lafarge dies in a mishap, the other two have to cover for his death by claiming that he returned to the goddess.

During this time of relative safety, Belliman and Bentley learn the ways of their worshipers/captors—how they eat and make clothes-- though again, nothing much is said about how the Mole People, known to the albinos as “the beasts of the dark,” came into being. The mole-men—who presumably have females, though none are clearly indicated—harvest mushroom-crops while being lashed by cruel overseers. It’s not clear if the Mole People eat mushrooms as well, though they do consume meat, since at one point they’re accused of despoiling an albino corpse. The albinos are dependent on the Mole People to harvest the crops, which suggests a rewriting of H.G. Wells’ Eloi-Morlocks trope, one in which the effete Eloi maintain control over the cannibalistic brutes. Further, though the albinos worship a goddess, none of the few women seen have any high status, and the only female character, the handmaiden Adad, is despised for being a throwback, having non-albino coloration. Bentley becomes friendly with Adad, and tries to teach her about the freedom of the individual and the wonders of the outside world. She, for her part, does not take long to realize that the two scientists are not gods—but neither does high priest Elinu (Alan Napier), who gets the idea of stealing the flashlight from the supposed “emissaries.”

Before the conflict between the newcomers and the old guard heats up, the script devotes considerable time to working out the system of worship. Ishtar is the mountain in which the albinos live, but she is also “married to the spirit of this world.” She is also the heavenly world beyond the limits of the mountain, and though the albinos have no concept of the sun as such, they reduce their surplus population by hurling sacrificial victims into “the Eye of Ishtar." This means exposing them to sunlight in a sacrificial chamber, so that the sacrifices burn to death. High priest Elinu presides over the executions by invoking a chevron-like symbol, called “the golden rod,”which seems to be a sort of stylized image of a thunderbolt, embodying the sun’s destructive power.

Despite the fact that the albinos are the only living humans still worshipping Ishtar, one gets the impression that she’s invited the scions of modern humanity into her bailiwick in order to ring down the curtain on this corrupt and backward society. Belliman and Bentley don’t confine their emancipatory sympathies to Adad, for they also defend the Mole People against Sumerian cruelty. This indirectly emboldens the monster-men—who possess rudimentary reasoning-powers—to rebel against their masters at last. Ironically, Belliman, Bentley and Adad are spared this violence because they’re sentenced to the sacrificial chamber, where the sun’s radiance has no negative effect upon their non-albino flesh.

However, in the end Ishtar proves to be a jealous god. From the sacrificial chamber the scientists and the ex-handmaiden escape to the surface of the mountain. Yet one last tremor panics Adad, so that she turns, like Lot’s wife, to look back at the place she came from. Adad, instead of getting turned into a pillar of salt, is crushed to death by a falling pillar of the temple’s exterior. Thus, even though two of the four delvers into ancient mysteries are allowed to return to the living world, the world of death claims its last daughter. It’s a conclusion that somewhat undermines the dominant reformatory spirit of the 1950s, insisting that the people of primal times cannot transition into the world of fast food and airplanes, but must, like the goddess, pass back into the domain of fable, legend and myth. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

I saw UNTAMED WOMEN over twenty years ago, and barely remembered anything about it. The flick's reputation on IMDB and elsewhere is that it's just another cheap "prehistoric women in modern times" B-flick. One review claimed it didn't even rate that high among the best of the "so bad it's good" movies.

Certainly UNTAMED can't boast any great creative pedigree. This was the only metaphenomenal film directed by W. Merle Connel, a raconteur best known for fifties grindhouse fare like TEST TUBE BABIES and THE FLESH MERCHANT (though he contributed cinematographic work to THE UNEARTHLY and THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS). Writer George Wallace Sayre worked exclusively in B-level fare. with his best known metaphenomenal credit being 1939's THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, though his best script might be NEARLY EIGHTEEN, a 1943 Gale Storm comedy vehicle.

And certainly Sayre's concept of an amazon society is no better than it has to be. Following the opening part of a frame-story related by Steve Holloway, the only survivor from a lost bomber-plane, Sayre and Connell depict Holloway and three other survivors set adrift after their plane's shot down. The four men find their way to an island rife, like King Kong's skull-shaped domain, with prehistoric creatures. A few of them are recycled from ONE MILLION B,C, though as far as I can tell, the giant armadillos are a new touch.

However, like the title says, the "Untamed Women" present the story's main problem. Certainly it's risible when Sayre's script tells us that these young women are the survivors of a colony of Druid pioneers, not to mention that all of the women speak perfect English, albeit sprinkled with an occasional "ye" or "thou." Moreover, some of these spear-wielding babes have archaic-sounding cognomens like Tennus and Valdra, while others have modern names like Myra and Sandra (the latter being the name of the tribe's high priestess).

In addition, Sayre also seems to be going for something like Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Caspak" books, wherein tribes from different time-frames converged without much rhyme or reason. Though the colony has apparently remained hidden from other civilizations since the days of ancient Rome, within the last few years the tribe's men were all wiped out by an invasion of "Hairy Men" from some other island. While the Untamed Women are wear cute cavegirl cutoffs, the Hairy Men, when seen at the conclusion, look like rude, crude, and extremely lewd Neanderthals.

Yet, despite all the absurdities of the setup, I felt like Sayre and Connell were trying to give the viewer a good ride for his buck. Though the concept is set up to give the modern males a chance to come to the defense of the lissome cave-ladies, Sayre goes in some interesting directions. While most of the women are instantly captivated by the new arrivals-- showing an admirable commitment to monogamy by suggesting that they all draw lots for their future husbands-- high priestess Sandra tries to get rid of the guys by sending them into the "Valley of Monsters." It's not entirely clear why she does so, though one of her lines-- describing soldiers as men who "attack, kill, enslave and exile" the people-- suggests that an early encounter with the Hairy Men embittered her against the male gender. The average "amazon society" would venture to reform the pissed-off matriarch by having the modern-day "alpha male"-- in this case, Holloway-- introduce the high priestess to true love. But though we see a few sparks between Holloway and Sandra, they get no romantic scenes, which are left to the other three guys after the women rescue the men from one of the giant dinos.

The Hairy Men invade, and get routed by the servicemen and their guns. However, Holloway points out that ammunition is limited and that sooner or later, the bad cavemen will win. As if to keep the villains from enjoying total victory, the cave-girls pray to their sun god, who apparently causes a local volcano to erupt and wipe out the whole island, thus giving the Amazons a sort of pyrrhic victory. Only Holloway survives in the same life-raft that brought him to the Untamed Island, and the film ends in real time, with his testimony getting validated by a handy archaeological expert.

Connel's direction is actually pretty good within the limits of his budget, and the actors, mostly minor players who were never even modest "names," generally play the melodrama straight, to reasonably decent effect. There are, to be sure, some goofy lines in the script, the best being "Shoot anything with hair that moves." Yet I think Sayre was pretty creative overall in his take on the Amazon-tribe trope. Though these cave-babes aren't nearly as tough as the WILD WOMEN of the previous year, Sayre keeps working in asides about powerful women  Holloway's story begins with his doctor asking him about "Lucy," who turns out not to be a flesh-and-blood woman, but Holloway's bomber-plane, given more female associations in that its bombs are called "eggs" by Benny, the film's comedy relief. This denizen of Brooklyn also voices a lot of gynophobic remarks, remarking that the Amazons want to turn all the men into "hors d'oeuvres," or talking about he got his ass kicked on a date with a female "wrassler." There's a brief reference to a sacrificial Druid altar, though nothing comes of this. Most interestingly, Sayre devotes several minutes to the Oedipal complex of one guy, Ed by name. After unburdening himself to Holloway about how his mother tried to run his life and keep him away from other women, Ed walks out into the jungle by himself. He pulls out a photo of his mother and casts it to the ground. However, he thinks better of the action and re-pockets the photo-- at which point he's attacked by a man-eating plant that engulfs his face within its leafy fronds. I'm sure the actor doesn't struggle because he would've torn up the phony plant-creature just by breathing hard. But for the character Ed-- whose name even sounds like that of Oedipus--, getting almost smothered by a man-eater seems almost like poetic destiny.

Friday, February 7, 2020


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

"Orson Welles, superhero."

Okay, I just had to write that line, even though it's not literally true. To be sure, at least one intellectual, Antonio Gramsci claimed that the character Welles plays in BLACK MAGIC-- the character of Cagliostro, as fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas's 1846 JOSEPH BALSAMO-- to be an example of a 19th-century "superman." But Cagliostro, a.k.a. the gypsy hypnotist Joseph Balsamo, uses his unique gifts for evil, and thus BLACK MAGIC can be accurately described as--

"Orson Welles, supervillain."

BLACK MAGIC begins with half of a frame-story, not unlike that of 1935's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in that the frame starts out with author Alexandre Dumas as talking about how his great creation Cagliostro seemed to escape him. However, the film ends without returning to Dumas.

Welles, then forty-four years old and not yet as heavyset as he would become in future decades, plays Joseph Balsamo as a crafty gypsy whose people have been perpetually mistreated by the non-gypsy populace of France. As a child Joseph saw both his mother and father executed by the will of a petty nobleman, Montagne, because Joseph's mother predicted a child's death and was therefore accused of being a witch. Child Joseph is spared when his fellow gypsies rescue him from the French soldiers, but vows vengeance on Montagne. Years later, when Joseph has become an adult, he develops a rude version of hypnotic skill, and the real-life French physician Doctor Mesmer (founder of "mesmerism") sees Joseph demonstrate his powers. Mesmer wants Joseph to hone his talents so that the two of them can use hypnotism in medical treatments. Joseph, who's never given his ability much thought, realizes that if he can impress this wealthy gadjo, he can impress others, and so he rejects Mesmer's offer.

Years later, Joseph has assumed the name of Cagliostro, and has garnered fame and wealth through alleviating people's ills with the power of suggestion. This fame brings Joseph back to his long deferred desire for vengeance, for the nobleman Montagne summons Cagliostro to treat a comatose young woman, Lorenza. Joseph represses his desire for immediate revenge, studies Lorenza and realizes that she's a dead ringer for Marie Antoinette, who will ascend to the rank of France's queen when her husband's father Louis XV passes on. Since Lorenza is useless to Montagne unless Joseph can release the woman from her coma, the ambitious gypsy deals himself in on the plot of Montagne and his co-conspirator Madame DuBarry, which involves a complicated scheme to defame the queen.

As part of the deal, Montagne has to get the famed "Cagliostro" an invitation to attend the court of Louis XV. Local Parisian doctors arrange a hoax to expose the supposed healer's fakery, by presenting Joseph with nobles dressed up like suffering wretches. But Joseph has the last laugh, for after the court's had a good guffaw at his expense, the hypnotist places one of the impostors under his mental control, forcing the unwilling nobleman to act like a dog. This impresses Louis XV and awes the court, though this doesn't help Joseph much when, some days later, the current king dies and Louis XVI ascends to the throne. Marie Antoinette doesn't like the alleged healer, so Joseph and Montagne initiate their plan to embarrass the queen, which in a roundabout way is supposed to bring them great temporal power.

On a side note, though Joseph does bring Lorenza out of her coma, he also falls in love with her, and keeps her under his psychic thrall. However, Lorenza has an age-appropriate love, Gilbert of the royal guards, and Joseph eventually hypnotizes the young woman into marrying him, the better to discourage the young swain.

Though the plot proceeds to some extent, Joseph and Montagne are both accused of conspiracy. Joseph easily escapes jail and for good measure forces his old enemy to commit suicide. However, eventually Joseph/Cagliostro is brought to trial, though the authors of the villain's downfall are both Gilbert and Joseph's short-lived mentor Mesmer.

I skimmed the ending of Dumas's BALSAMO-- which probably is no better a rendering of historical fact than BLACK MAGIC-- and I'm reasonably sure the book doesn't end in as combative a manner as the film, which boasts both a hypnotist-battle between the villain and Mesmer and a sword-fight between Joseph and Gilbert. Wikipedia mentions that both Welles and director Gregory Ratoff rewrote the script credited to two other writers, and I would guess that someone behind the scenes wanted BLACK MAGIC to conform to the model of Dumas's best known work, THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Rumor has it that Welles directed parts of the film, but though MAGIC is a better-than-average swashbuckler, its direction isn't all that distinguished. The film's greatest significance may be as a possible inspiration to the Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom. Doom's origin, analyzed here, starts with Doom as a gypsy boy whose dead mother actually was a witch, after which the future supervillain grows to manhood, confounds the local nobles with his scientific wizardry, and eventually rules the country-- only to fall victim to a fate closer to that of Dumas's MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

Thursday, February 6, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*

In this essay I'll look at two films which put lots of female pulchritude on display, yet do so to very different ends.

BLACK ALLEYCATS uses the twin tropes of victimization and vigilante justice to entertain a presumably male audience with lots of female nudity. Though ALLEYCATS is badly filmed, recorded, written and acted, it does accomplish that one goal, and, unlike a number of films from the time period, does choose some young no-name actresses who are attractive even with their clothes on.

Four women-- all clad in identical garments, later seen to be a boarding school uniform-- are minding their own business, walking a street in some big city, when a male gang pursues them. The nasty fellows waylay the girls in a warehouse and rape them (mostly off-camera). The four women then take crash courses in armed and unarmed combat, and then don black masks and jackets. In these outfits the ladies-- calling themselves the Black Alleycats, even though two are white and two are black-- track down the rapists and beat them up, but don't bother filing charges with the cops.

This is the last time the Alleycats show off even badly-filmed martial arts. After the presumed rush they get from vigilantism, the ladies decide to start fighting petty criminals like numbers runners, holding up the crooks at gunpoint. But the script doesn't explore the usual criminal retaliation. Instead, it works as many peepshow scenes as possible, mostly at the boarding school, where they butt heads with another young woman, resulting in a short catfight. However, the four female felines find out that Girl Number Five has been victimized by a criminal doctor and his wife, who are blackmailing her to perform sexual acts. So the Alleycats induct Girl Five into the group and confront the doctor at his home. Finding that the doctor has some aphrodisiac on hand, they force the doc and his wife to take it, so that the two are humping like bunnies when the cops show up to arrest them. Not sure any evidence is presented for a trial, but by that time, who's thinking any more?

The only principal actor known to me was softcore specialist Marsha Jordan, playing the doctor's wife. If these vigilante vixens didn't wear masks, I might demur from considering them within the uncanny domain of the "outre outfit." Still, even though the masks are so large that it doesn't seem that the girls could possibly see out of them-- the only real amusement in the flick-- those accoutrements still put the Black Alleycats in the same category as more laudable creations like Zorro and the Spider.

WOMEN IN CAGES was apparently filmed slightly after Corman's seminal THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, using both the same Philippine locations and three of the same actresses, Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, and Pam Grier. However, whereas Grier played a minor role in HOUSE-- so minor that I don't even consider her a member of the starring ensemble-- she's essentially the star of the show here. I suspect that some person behind the scenes-- be it Corman or director Gerardo de Leon-- instructed the film's writers to build up the warden's part, whether it was to promote Grier or just to vary the formula a bit.

Certainly the viewpoint character Carol "Jeff" Jeffries (Jennifer Gan) doesn't stand out, save in terms of how naive she is. Her gangster boyfriend, about to be caught by the cops while carrying drugs, passes the illegal substances to Jeff and lets her take the rap. Not only does he allow her to be sentenced to a Manila prison, where prisoners are tortured if they don't behave and cut sugar cane, the creep even colludes with another female prisoner, a junkie, to assassinate Jeff.

For some time prior to the assassination, Jeff assumes that her boyfriend will appeal her case, which proves a source of great amusement to her cellmates: Teresa (Sofia Moran), Sandy (Brown), and Stoke (Collins), the would-be assassin-junkie. After Stoke's attempt to poison Jeff fails, Jeff belatedly grows a spine and plans a way to escape imprisonment, even taking Stoke along with her. The convicts face danger not only from the hostile terrain, but also from local poachers, who are awarded a bounty for capturing or killing prisoners. But the alternative is to remain in cages, where the convicts are continually brutalized by Alabama (Grier), the head matron. (A warden is only briefly seen; a dour Filipino woman who barely registers as a character.)

I argue that Alabama is the starring character of CAGES because, even though she's not the head of the prison, she's the one who makes it a hell on earth. The viewer knows nothing about Alabama except that she's an American Black, and claims to have been "strung out on smack" and to have been raped by a white man (though these claims may be linked to a possible prostitute past). She also hates white girls from her country, though she never articulates what they did to her, aside from not having been forced to grow up in the squalor of Harlem. Still, she goes out of her way to subject the white prisoners to such tortures as fire, electrocution, and even a gladiatorial-looking trident. The name "Alabama" is peculiar since Grier's character never sounds Southern in the least, and if she was given the name to denote her low status as the offspring of slaves, one wonders why she kept the name in the Philippines, where she could've called herself any damn thing. Alabama provides the film with the requisite lesbian sex scenes, since she has a regular thing with non-white prisoner Teresa. However, Alabama shows sadistic cruelty even to a fellow "woman of color," taunting Teresa with the possibility that Alabama may reject Teresa from her bed in favor of Stoke-- prompting one of the requisite catfights. In BIG DOLL HOUSE the mysterious warden tortured her female charges just for Sadean jollies. But when Alabama punishes white girls, her sadism seems tied to the idea of revolution against Caucasian hegemony.

When the big break comes, the convicts manage to drag Alabama along as a hostage, though they end up leaving her behind for the poachers to kill. In an oddly emotional scene, Teresa can't desert her former lover, but she and Alabama perish anyway.  The escapees make their way to the gangster-boyfriend's prostitution-boat, possibly with revenge in mind. Yet though two prisoners escape with their lives, the film ends with a harsh scene undermining female empowerment, as a drugged-up hooker on the boat is about to be violated by a Filipino john. It's an odd ending for a film within the generally escapist WIP genre, and seems to be a loose indictment of male hegemony as a whole.

The torture sequences qualify in my system for naturalistic versions of the "bizarre crimes" trope.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I've never read, even in translation, the classic Chinese legend "Legend of the White Snake"-- which was apparently the literary version of a famed folktale-- but I've seen two film adaptations and an American-made novel, so I'm familiar with the broad outlines of the story. In essence, the narrative boils down to a love story between a mortal scholar and a female snake-demon, whose romance is cut short by the interference of a rigorous, and perhaps overly righteous, Chinese monk.

Abbott Fahai (Jet Li) can perform a great variety of magical feats, but one would hardly call him a "sorcerer," as the American title does. Given that sorcerers are often depicted as traffickers in dark magic, Fahai is closer to an exorcist, since he and his assistant monk Neng travel around expelling demons when they impinge on helpless humans. In contrast to the other versions of the legend I've seen, WHITE SNAKE devotes much more time to showing a variety of vicious demons, executed through a combination of CGI and wire-fu. Considering that director Ching Siu-tung began working on Hong Kong fantasy-films back in the eighties and nineties, before CGI came into its own, it's amazing that WHITE SNAKE does so well using computer-animation.

While Fahai and his comedy-relief assistant gambol about hunting for demons, two female snake-demons, Susu (Eva Huang) and Qingqing (Charlene Choi), happen to spot a human physician, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). Qingqing decides to manifest in front of him, so that he takes a fall and plunges into a lake. Susu, more kind-hearted, goes in after him and saves his life with a Kiss of Life. However, by so doing, she infuses Xu with her own essence, and after that, she falls in love with him. She later masquerades as a human being and marries the scholar without divulging her real nature. (One version of the legend has her get pregnant, but WHITE SNAKE doesn't go there.)

Neng is bitten by a bat demon, which transforms him into a similar creature, thus putting him outside Fahai's reach. Nevertheless, Neng remains basically beneficient, and ends up befriending the rash Qingqinig. Fahai discovers that Xu has married a snake demon and attempts to expel Susu. Xu is understandably confused by the revelation that his wife is a snake, and doesn't resist when Fahai attempts to exorcise the demon essence from his body. Susu, aided by her sister and various animal-demons, mounts a frontal assault upon Fahai's temple-- one of the movie's strongest FX scenes-- and Susu pits her formidable magical powers against those of the monk.

Though Xu temporarily forgets Susu, his memory comes back just slightly before Fahai seals the snake demon beneath the temple. As in other versions, Fahai expresses regret for his actions once he realizes that Susu's love for her husband is real, but he remains determined to confine her demon nature for the greater good. I appreciated this take on the story, as other versions have tended to gloss over the malefic nature of Chinese demons generally.

Despite all of the action sequences this is still a romance, and thus Xu and Susu are the main stars of the story, for all that Jet Li's name is the only one that has international sales-potential.