Friday, May 29, 2020

LOGAN’S RUN (1976)

HENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I’ve not read any of the three novels written about Logan and his world by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, but I wouldn’t have any trouble believing the statement that the movie doesn’t borrow much from them but the bare situation. In every way, the film LOGAN’S RUN seems like a bad imitation of the better dystopian novels found in prose science fiction.

RUN puts forth an idea that was well-traveled even in 1976. Following a nuclear catastrophe, a group of human beings take refuge in a city where their entire destiny is controlled by a computer. In order to maintain the city’s fragile ecosystem, the computer or its long-deceased programmers have engineered a “Big Lie” to prevent overpopulation. At the age of thirty, all citizens must participate in “Carousel,” in which their bodies are destroyed but their souls are later reincarnated. The other citizens watch the spectacle and cheer as if witnessing arena-fights, possibly because the old bodies of Carousel-victims appear to get blown up. Nevertheless, most citizens believe that their fellows will come back renewed—though there are a few unbelievers.

Said apostates, called “Runners,” seek to evade their fate in the ritual by escaping the borders of the city. While one might think the city-computer would welcome such desertions to get rid of surplus population, apparently the machine has been programmed to persecute such dissidents by sending enforcers called “Sandmen” to execute the Runners. Two such enforcers are Logan (Michael York) and his buddy Francis (Richard Jordan). In addition to genuinely believing in their mission, the two city-cops enjoy all the privileges of sybaritic life, which includes swanky living-quarters and getting hooked up with potential temporary mates, actual marriage being unknown. Logan makes an attempt to hook up with a young woman named Jessica (Jenny Agutter). When she doesn’t come across like most city-women, Logan is mildly intrigued by Jessica’s refusal.

Not only does the computer not want any dissidents escaping its reach, it keeps tabs on the beliefs of the Runners. The computer enlists Logan for a special assignment, to find the place called Sanctuary, to which refuge many escapees have supposedly migrated. To sell the idea that Logan wants to be a Runner, the hapless Sandman’s own life-cycle is cut short, so that he can infiltrate the dissidents and locate Sanctuary. The Runner-ranks just happen to include Jessica, who despite her earlier refusal is quite taken with Logan and helps him make contact with the “underground.”

Sadly, the script’s idea of the Runner-underground is even more poorly worked out than the rationale behind Carousel. Logan and Jessica experience an assortment of disjointed adventures—one of which includes Farrah Fawcett, prior to her star-making breakout on CHARLIE’S ANGELS—and eventually, with no real help from other Runners, the two fugitives succeed in escaping the city. However, Logan’s comrade Francis hasn’t been let in on the deception, and he relentlessly pursues the escapees, intending to terminate both of them. Passing over some of the more pretentious experiences of the fleeing couple, eventually the two of them return to the city and liberate all of the gullible citizens from the computer’s control.

To misquote John Lennon, LOGAN’S RUN sports enough plot-holes to fill up Albert Hall. Such inconsistencies don’t automatically doom a film, though, and I can find various plot-problems with the 1968 PLANET OF THE APES. Yet in RUN’s case, the only thing the movie has going for it is its (rather minor) ability to conjure with the audience’s fears of such fantastic eugenics-programs, and that appeal is cancelled out by the script’s artless coincidences and dramatic posturing. Actors York, Jordan and Agutter all project utter sincerity in their thinly-drawn roles, but none of them are able to infuse life into the ramshackle structure.

Arguably, though RUN was not quite the last of the “didactic sci-fi problem films” that proved popular in the sixties and seventies, the movie may represent a temporary culmination of the form for that time-period—or maybe a burnout case, since RUN is in no way equal to the best of that tradition. By the next year, STAR WARS temporarily became a major, if not exclusive, model for big-budget science fiction films. Perhaps coincidentally, STAR WARS’ careful attention to physical detail—whether with respect to space battles or comical robots—makes LOGAN’S RUN seem even more hackneyed, especially when the post-STAR WARS viewer gets a look at “Box,” RUN’s extremely cheesy version of a mouthy robot.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020



Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are almost never adapted accurately by the cinema, and for good reason. Many of them, including THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, are strong on mood but weak on the sort of narrative drive that commercial movies require. Thus it’s no surprise that when director Roger Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson attempted to do a tony rendition of Poe’s “sort-of-haunted-house” story, they changed many aspects of the original tale. Given Corman’s reputation for having never met a dollar he didn’t like, it’s surprising that from the standpoint of production values, the Corman USHER looks extremely good. Even more startling, the script shows a great deal of care regarding what Matheson kept from Poe and what he replaced with material more accessible to movie audiences.

One concession to such expectations was that when most moviegoers went to see a haunted house film, they expected to see one or most potential victims constantly harried by unseen, often deadly forces. In the Poe story the forbidding appearance of the house symbolizes the decayed nature of its occupants, but the house itself doesn’t do anything to anyone. One sizeable change is that throughout Matheson’s screenplay, the house seems to menace viewpoint character Philip Winthrop. To Matheson’s credit, he never explicitly attributes the Usher house’s poltergeist-like activity to ghosts as such, even though Winthrop is given some reason to suspect the existence of ancestral specters.

Winthrop himself usurps the place of the nameless viewpoint character of the Poe story. The narrator is a nearly disinterested observer, whereas Winthrop follows in the tradition of the earnest young man seeking to win a young woman from a tyrannical family. Further, Matheson inverts the narrator’s relationship to the two main characters. In the prose tale, the narrator knows nothing of Roderick’s sister Madeleine, but was acquainted long ago with Roderick when the two men went to school together. In the movie, Winthrop comes to Usher House knowing nothing of Roderick, having met Madeline when she, for unspecified reasons, lived for a time in Boston. Whereas Nameless Narrator arrives at Usher with no foreknowledge of Roderick’s current ailment, Winthrop shows up with no inkling that Madeline or her brother suffers from assorted congenital problems.

In the prose tale, the emphasis focuses on Roderick’s amplified senses, which are linked to his nature as a cultured aesthete, rich in literary and musical knowledge. The narrator barely sees Madeline at first, almost as if she were Roderick’s shadow, and indeed the two are said to be twins. Matheson’s Madeline makes more of a show of independence, implying that she may've sought to avoid the death of the Usher line by finding an exogamous mate in Boston. Yet the script never gives an outright reason for her return to her brother’s side. Roderick comes closest to explaining the discontinuity when he tells Winthrop that neither he nor his sister dare marry, precisely because they possess so many degenerative illnesses.

Poe never attributes the frailties of the Usher line to that usual suspect, inbreeding, though it’s impossible not to read some subconscious incest-vibe in the relationship of the siblings. Poe, given his love of rarified aesthetics, might well have accepted inbreeding as the necessary consequence of keeping the line pure. Poe would have had even less interest in the notion of the Usher family being degenerate due to “the sins of the fathers,” and it seems likely that Matheson borrowed this “sins of the fathers” trope from another famous quasi-haunted manse, Hawthorne’s HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES. Matheson’s Roderick ties in the degeneracy of his ancestors to the prevalent illnesses of his family, and though Winthrop intellectually rejects this notion, it’s he who dreams of the ancestors rising up to prevent him from rescuing Madeline.

But one can forgive all the digressions from the original, given that Matheson ably captures the essence of the interdependence of Roderick and Madeline with regard to that favorite Poe-trope, the fear of being buried alive. The prose tale and the movie have this much in common: that Roderick entombs Madeline because he perversely wants to see the Usher line perish with the two of them. Matheson was perceptive enough to keep Roderick’s perversity more intellectual than sexual, eschewing the Freudianisms that later crop up in PIT AND THE PENDULUM. And the film’s big climax also involves making Madeline more overtly vengeful for her burial. In the Poe story, though she somehow claws her way back to the living world, the author is circumspect about the way that she kills Roderick, almost as if they perish in a mutual paroxysm. Matheson is careful to mention early on that the mad Usher line can sometimes manifest fantastic strength, leaving no doubt as to the forces unleashed when the petite Myrna Fahey falls upon and strangles towering Vincent Price.

Putting aside one spear-carrier figure, the film is essentially a drama between the three principals. Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey are decent in their roles, but Price is clearly the centerpiece of the story. The actor may have foreseen the challenge of Roderick, for Price’s performance is at once mannered and restrained. Though a purer version of the Poe story is certainly conceivable, the Corman HOUSE OF USHER is unlikely to be overshadowed any time in the near future.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*

Though the Italians had already established their own “muscleman film” tradition dating back to the silent cinema years, these two spectacles put the genre of the peplum on the world map as never before. Because so many imitators stemmed from these two films, both starring chisel-chinned Steve Reeves as the Greek demigod, it would be nice to say that one or both were at least small masterpieces of their subgenre. Sadly, only stronger production values really separate the two Reeves films from dozens of bargain-basement Italian adventure-flicks. Just as contemporary superhero films often mix and match elements from disparate comic-book stories, the scripts of the Reeves films jumble together tropes from various unrelated classical myths.

HERCULES has more script-problems than HERCULES UNBOUND, but the first film has better action-scenes and better sexual byplay. After the demigod enjoys a leisurely meet-cute with Greek princess Iole (Sylva Koscina), he goes to work for her father Pelias, little suspecting that Iole’s father murdered his brother to attain the throne of “Julco” (Iolcus). Of course Pelias belongs properly to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, which did involve Hercules as one of the ship’s heroic crewmen. Here, Hercules precedes Jason into the lair of his enemy, who then sends Jason off to seek the Golden Fleece in the hope that the young hero will lose his life. The involved backstory of Jason’s relation to Pelias is passed over quickly, the better not to take the focus off Hercules. The demigod then joins Jason and other heroes on their quest. It’s forgivable that the film doesn’t follow the epic in writing Hercules out of the main story. What’s not redeemable is that the movie drags for a long time, having the Argo’s crew delayed by an ardent Amazon tribe, and then quickly wraps up the quest by fighting a dragon to acquire the fleece. (For the time, the dragon looks pretty good, but he barely interacts with the human actors.) Having produced this dumbed-down version of Jason’s quest, the film somewhat redeems itself at the climax. Hercules and company return to Julco and fight the forces of the evil Pelias, during which scene Reeves performs his most noteworthy feat. Chained to a pair of pillars, Hercules not only pulls down the pillars, he uses the chains hanging from his wrists to lash any soldier fool enough to attack the indomitable demigod. One of the standout anachronisms is that Jason’s crew includes a teenaged version of Ulysses, who, according to the ILIAD, was not born until several generations after Hercules’ life.

HERCULES UNBOUND takes place a little after the first film, in that now Hercules and Iole are married. Accompanied by Teen Ulysses, the trio set out for Hercules’ traditional home of Thebes, though the hero has been away so long that he still thinks King Oedipus is on the throne. On their way, the travelers are beset by a robber named Antaeus (celebrity wrestler Primo Carnera), and Hercules has a good prolonged struggle with a man who can regain his strength every time he touches the earth.

The film never discusses the scandalous events that caused Oedipus to lose his kingdom—perhaps not wanting to offend officious parents—but at any rate, Oedipus (seen briefly, as if he’s on the brink of either dying or being translated to heaven) has been succeeded by his two sons, who are supposed to alternate their rule of Thebes. Thus the film sets up the main action as a retelling of the “Seven Against Thebes” narrative, with Hercules injected as a possible mediator between the two opposed brothers.

However, the hero accidentally drinks from a river containing “forgetfulness water” (traditionally, a characteristic of an underworld watercourse), and he’s then seduced by a mysterious queen, Omphale. Thouigh traditionally this character is queen of the country of Lydia, the movie-version seems more like a character out of Celtic faery, or from the European stories of "the Venusberg." The latter trope probably influences Omphale’s tendency to preserve her discarded lovers in wax (by one account, the medieval goddess preferred ice). Teen Ulysses justifies his existence by helping Herc restore his memory. Once Hercules fights free of Omphale’s kingdom, the distraught ruler can’t cope with rejection herself, and consigns herself to a vat of hot wax. Hercules and his allies rush back to Thebes, but despite lots of soldiers fighting, and a few Herculean stunts, the two sons of Oedipus kill each other. The film doesn’t trouble itself with laying out the complicated history of Thebes’ next ruler, and contents itself by having a final romantic reunion of Hercules and Iole.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I used to resent the way that producer George Lucas and his cronies had dumbed down Steve Gerber’s HOWARD THE DUCK comics-feature for movie audiences. However, having seen the way the MCU took some very classy Thor-stories and put them through a formula-making meat grinder to concoct THOR RAGNAROK, Lucas’s light-hearted kerfluffle seems like a much more piddling crime against pop-fiction.

The foremost complaint against HOWARD usually comes down to, “midget in a duck suit.” True, the suit’s not great, but those were the technical limitations of the time. I can envision a CGI Howard who would’ve been at least as good as the nineties’ “live-action” Ninja Turtles. Then again—Jar Jar Binks used the same technology, and failed to capture much appeal except for small kids. So maybe “duck suit” isn’t so bad.

More or less like the comics, Howard (Ed Gale) gets flung out of his anthropomorphic animal-universe into the world of “hairless apes,” and becomes friends with lady-ape Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson). Considering Lucas’s diffidence regarding sex, it’s surprising that director Willard Huyck, working from a script assembled by Huyck and Gloria Katz, injects a fair number of jokes about the possibility (though never the acutality) of some human-duck interaction. 

(Side note: one of the odder sex-jokes has Howard looking at a copy of PLAYDUCK and taking pleasure in the model being "airbrushed." Airbrushed to get rid of what, an extra layer of feathers?) 

As in the comic, Howard’s natural sardonicism is only heightened by his exile from his own world, though he finds some comfort with the kind-hearted Beverly, who as an eighties gal definitely has no problem with having a he-man, or he-duck, come to her rescue. Though this Howard is a lot less petty and nasty than the comics-version, he does have a falling-out with Beverly for a time, which added a little conflict to their vanilla relationship. Thompson plays Beverly with a lot of bouncy enthusiasm, and in many scenes “sells” the duck-suited midget far better than do the rest of the actors.

I used to feel that the film misfired by not following the more satirical aspects of the comic. That said, even Gerber wasn’t totally averse to baggy-pants comedy, and that’s what Huyck is all about here. There are no laugh-out-loud lines here, but at times Howard’s quips are mildly amusing. The slapstick scenes, like a lot of the straight action-sequences in Lucas's own directorial efforts, often go on too long and tend to burn out this viewer.

Oddly, Lucas’s duck is somewhat more macho than the original. Gerber had his Howard learn “quack fu” for one story, but on the whole the duck’s conflicts were emotional and intellectual. Lucas’s Howard knows enough mallard martial-arts to kick the asses of bigger humans in three separate scenes, and he’s not really any more reluctant to play hero than, say, Han Solo.

The biggest problem with Howard’s heroics is that Katz and Huyuk tossed together a “big bad” in the form of a Lovecraftian "Dark Overlord" who has also escaped his dimension, and who must be duly prevented from menacing Earth. All the scenes with the demon-- in a clunky stop-motion form, or while possessing an unfortunate human-- are supremely dull, functioning as little more than excuses for more Lucasfilm light-shows.

If the original Howard suffered from living in “a world he never made,” this Howard suffers from living in a world Huyck and Katz made. That said, he might still get worse treatment if the MCU ever gets its hands on him.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though THE MUNSTERS series both started and concluded inn the same seasons as did its competitor THE ADDAMS FAMILY, the former series got a slightly longer lease on life when Universal chose to give the family of Herman Munster a big-screen outing. To be sure, the Addamses got their revenge later, in that they garnered far more revivals over the years than did the inhabitants of 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Speaking of that euphonious address, HOME could have easily have been set in America once more, the better for the producers to get a little more value out of that expensive-looking series-set. Instead, Universal decided to send its family of friendly monsters to Merrie Old England. During that same decade, England’s Hammer studio had been remaking (with Universal’s permission) a fair number of classic Universal horrors, albeit with a characteristically British spin. Maybe sending funny versions of the classic fiends to the shores of Albion could be seen as an act of revenge against the British upstarts..

Most of the actors from the series—Gwynne, DeCarlo, Lewis and Patrick-- once more donned their ghoul-getups. This time out Debbie Watson played Marilyn, the “ugly duckling” of the family, and it should be noted that her character gets considerably more to do than she did in most series-episodes. If any of the main characters was ill-served, it would be Patrick’s Eddie Munster, who only gets a handful of moderately funny lines but no real physical business. Still, overall the lion’s share of the good scenes naturally go to the other three performers, which was equally typical of the series.

The plot is simple and devised with kid-viewers in mind: out of the blue Herman inherits both an English castle and an English lordship. The whole devil’s brood packs up and leaves their house behind (including Spot, left alone under the stairway), and nothing is said about the now-wealthy Earl of Munster tendering his resignation to “the parlor.” Marilyn is a bit confused about this turn of events, having been told that her uncle, although a “man of many parts,” was put together in Germany. However, it’s explained that at some point Herman wandered onto English shores and was adopted by the Munster clan, from whom he gets his name.  

Assorted hijinks transpire once the American Munsters cross the ocean, but the only significant event is that Marilyn enjoys a meet-cute with Roger, a handsome scion of Old Blighty. Not until reaching English shores does Marilyn learn that Roger’s family has old grievances against Clan Munster.

Further, even the English Munsters don’t like this American breed, not least because the British members of the clan were expecting to inherit everything—on top of which, the Brit-Munsters are conducting certain illegal activities at Munster Hall. Thus matriarch Lady Munster (Hermoine Gingold) and her two grown aristo-brats Freddy and Grace (Terry-Thomas, Jeanne Arnold) plot to either scare off or kill off their adoptive relations. Moreover, these comic connivers are aided both by a grotesque butler (John Carradine) and a mystery villain known as “the Griffin.”

Lots of silly things happen during the visit of Herman and company, not least their discovery that locals consider all Munsters to be “rotters.” (So, the continuity-buff asks, how did Herman, if he was raised by reprobates, turn out to be such a goody two-shoes?) However, all the in-between business, including Marilyn’s fights with her prospective boyfriend, comes down to nothing but marking time until the big finish. The comic climax is certainly more spectacular than anything the series ever attempted, as Herman engages in a cross-country drag-race against assorted opponents, including Roger. The Griffin takes this opportunity to try offing Herman, and both the stunts and the attendant musical score prove top-notch for this level of entertainment. On a side-note, both Lily and Grandpa are more active this time out, feverishly trying to come to doltish Herman’s rescue. (DeCarlo even gets to exercise her skills in horse-riding, presumably honed during her B-western days.)

In the end the script returns the Munsters to their old status quo, and it’s back to Mockingbird Lane.. Presumably the producers did so with the idea of keeping the concept going for at least one more feature-film, as had occurred with two earlier teleseries, “the Lone Ranger” and “McHale’s Navy.” But when these Munsters went home, they wouldn’t again emerge from their crypt until the 1981 telefilm THE MUNSTERS’ REVENGE.

Sunday, May 17, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1 *good,* (2) *superior*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

On re-screening 1984’s TERMINATOR, I noticed how dependent writer-director James Cameron was on an FX-staple of American action-films in the eighties: vehicular mayhem. This was a necessity, since the film’s budget was only 6.4 million, a far cry from the budgets of most if not all sequels in the franchise. And though all of the mayhem is well executed, it’s a little on the pedestrian side. Still, certain action-scenes, like the oft-referenced “precinct invasion,” exemplify Cameron’s genius for portraying relentless, driving motion—be if of barreling vehicles or blasting projectiles—and place him with America’s best “masters of motion,” from Hawks and Witney to Lucas and Spielberg.

At base TERMINATOR is an extended chase-film, and thus the plot is stripped down to its essentials, like a regular automobile being customized into a dune buggy. Thus the audience learns almost nothing about its modern-day heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), only that she becomes the quarry of two travelers from the future: human Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who wants to save Sarah, and the inhuman Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who’s programmed to kill her. The future from which both travelers hail is likewise sketchy: an apocalypse in which the computer-system Skynet has created a hierarchy of machines to supplant, rather than enhance, the rule of man. Skynet is overthrown by a rebel-group led by John Connor, but the computer seeks to reverse the tide of events by sending the Terminator back to eliminate the womb from which John sprung. Providentially, future-JC is expecting this, thanks to the intelligence given to him by his future-mom, and he sends Kyle Reese through time as well, not only to fight the cyborg killer, but also to make sure that John comes into being in the first place. Cameron’s script labors to provide a rationale to keep the time-door closed to any other tampering, which rationale he himself had to demolish in the ensuing sequel.

Sarah Connor embodies a trope that Cameron would use again in both ALIENS and TITANIC: that of an inexperienced young woman who must emulate the heroic example of a courageous man, even though his labors on her behalf end with the male’s demise. To be sure, TERMINATOR is the only film in which there’s another man stage-managing the courageous male’s inevitable sacrifice. It wouldn’t be hard to read the narrative as a thoroughly secular rewriting of the Christian trope of a heavenly father sending his only begotten son to Earth, though Cameron has shifted roles so that it’s the son sending the father to the mundane world—and not only to die for a higher destiny, but also to copulate with the son’s own mother. Of all the many stories in which children are placed the position of choosing their own parents, TERMINATOR may be the most audacious.

  Though Sarah’s transformation from “zero to hero” proves integral to the film, the Terminator is the main star of this show. This cyborg-assassin might not have been the first major “hardbody” in cinema, but he’s almost surely the first who was harder on the inside than the outside. Even in 1984 it was routine for filmgoers to observe that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s limited thespian skills made him the perfect fit for an affect-less android, while his Germanic accent contributed to the stilted feel of his delivery. Yet Schwarzenegger’s tight rein on emotional expressivity is not the same as “not acting,” and his reserve allows the audience to speculate on what a malevolent machine might be thinking or feeling. Had Schwarzenegger never played this iconic role, it’s hard to imagine the actor remaining a Hollywood superstar throughout the nineties, to say nothing of his having a gubernatorial career. Though a sequel could’ve kept the stoic cyborg in his role as evildoer, it’s a mark of the Terminator’s deeper resonance that Cameron chose to place him on the side of the angels.

TERMINATOR is a very good action-film, but TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY—henceforth DAY for short—is more than just “a sequel that’s better than the original.” In his collection FILMS AND FEELINGS Raymond Durgnat speculated about a possible “wedding of poetry and pulp,” and DAY provides its audience with just such a consummation.

DAY is still a chase-film, though Cameron finds time to interpolate an involved search-and-destroy mission. He also “quotes” from TERMINATOR numerous scenes and dialogue-passages, but here it seems less like recycling and more like repurposing. There’s just as much vehicular mayhem as before, but Cameron finds more inventive (and expensive) ways to stage his “poetry-of-motion,” which maintains its drive regardless of whether the action takes place in narrow confinements or in wide open spaces. To be sure, the old style of visual violence is subsumed here breakthroughs in CGI effects, which would soon usher a new era of big-ticket Hollywood entertainments.

The setup wastes no time explaining how Skynet, who was supposedly destroyed by the events of TERMINATOR, can now send back a new improved Terminator, the T-1000, to a time-frame eight years later, this time with the mission to extirpate young John Connor (Edward Furlong). The JC of the future, nothing daunted, sends back a reprogrammed T-1 Terminator (Schwarzenegger again) to defend young John—this time presumably depending on his own memories to decide what kind of “surrogate father” his younger self needs.

In the Old Testament, the “Sarah” who mothers the race of Israelites has a husband as her ostensible protector (even if he sometimes seems to be pimping Sarah out). But Sarah Connor has no one to help her raise young John, and ironically her search for such a co-parental figure ends up making her seem less than motherly. Sarah apparently sleeps with a lot of men in her search, thus mirroring a common predicament for single mothers, even those without cosmic destinies. Young John for a time enjoys having such a destiny, but when the authorities put Sarah in an insane asylum, he’s even more pissed off than the average American kid.

Then the Terminators enter his life: one a liquid-metal monster able to morph into assorted shapes, and the other a laconic, gun-toting hulk programmed to protect John—and to obey the orders of any version of John Connor. Young John, upon discovering that his mother really wasn’t crazy, enlists the T-1 in liberating Sarah—who, in the ensuing years, has become as much of a hardbody as a mortal woman can be. In the midst of copious scenes of fighting and shooting, Cameron devotes ample time to sorting out the relationships between Sarah, John, and the Terminator, now also called upon to learn the feelings of the beings he was created to annihilate.

The search-and-destroy subplot, in which Sarah and her allies seek to “terminate” the roots of Skynet’s future existence, goes on too long, though it’s nice to see the evil computer get a taste of its own medicine. By so doing, Sarah and company are finally given the chance to obviate not only the computer’s reign, but also the nuclear holocaust that it unleashes—even though, as the famous coda indicates, this remains a possible future for humankind, even with Skynet’s demise. And it is must be admitted that without the subplot, it would be impossible for the film to have executed its heartfelt conclusion—which yet again involves another male sacrifice for the sake of the future.

This time Sarah, John and the T-1 enjoy co-starring status, in that no one in the ensemble proves more important than anyone else. Neophyte actor Furlong captures all the impertinence and insouciance the character needs, and Hamilton arguably improves upon her earlier performance, in that now she’s a mother sometimes forced to turn against her own maternal instincts for the sake of her child’s survival. Once again, Schwarzenegger has to tread a fine line between mechanical precision and an artificial intelligence’s fitful stirrings toward humanity.That leaves Robert Patrick with the job of playing the role of an affect-less cyborg-assassin like the first Terminator, though Patrick also gets his share of “almost human” moments.


PHENOMENALITY: (1,3) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*

Though the silent adaptations of FANTOMAS are lauded by many critics, the most accessible movies featuring the master criminal are these three French productions of the sixties. All were directed by Andre Hunubelle, and all star Jean Marais as this version of Fantomas, who still assumes many disguises but now wears an expressionless blue face-mask much of the time. Marais also plays the role of the evildoer’s most formidable foe, the journalist Fandor, while Mylene Demongeot plays his stalwart girlfriend Helene and Louis de Funes plays a very comical version of Inspector Juve.

A Wikipedia article assets that these movies were greatly affected by the then-current craze for superspy movies. There are dollops of Bondian content here and there, but on the whole the scripts don’t attempt to emulate the linear storylines of the Bond films. Though the trilogy places more emphasis on swashbuckling action than the silent films did, Hunubelle appears to be following the lead of Feuillade in showing the action evolving in a haphazard manner. I spotted a few srory-elements borrowed from the first “Fantomas” book—particularly the villain’s aristocratic mistress Lady Beltham-- but I tend to doubt that any of the films are direct adaptations.

The first book gives the reporter Fandor a personal reason for pursuing the super-crook, from whom the journalist takes his nom de plume. FANTOMAS dispenses with this conceit. Fandor, having heard of the criminal’s depredations, and to stir things up, files a phony interview with the fiend in his newspaper. The enraged Fantomas captures Fandor, rather incredibly railing at the journalist for abusing “the public trust,” and promising to force Fandor into a career of crime, in part by impersonating him. The first film starts off strong and shows Fantomas using some low-level gimmicks like the Bond villains, but falls apart with an overly long chase scene.

FANTOMAS STRIKES AGAIN is the closest thing in the series to a Bond film, since it’s the only one where the villain eschews his more limited operations and seeks to rule the world. He plans to usurp control of a scientist’s research, which can be applied to massive brainwashing of citizens, though the mind-control angle gets far less emphasis than the villain’s tricky masquerades. But there are far more Bondian gimmicks, in that Fantomas has a secret hideout in a volcano and a car that turns into a plane. Even goofy Juve gets in on the superspy action, using a cigar with a gun in it to good effect.

FANTOMAS VS. SCOTLAND YARD finds the villain returning to relatively penny-ante schemes, trying to force a cabal of rich businessmen to pay him tribute. This leads Fandor, Helene and Juve to rendezvous at a Scottish castle, where various spooky things happen. I frankly couldn’t follow whether or not the villain’s plans had been foiled by the time he made his inevitable escape.

Unlike the first novel and the silent film-series, all of which I’d class as subcombative dramas, the film series proves a little harder to pin down. All three films definitely fall into the combative mode, with Marais playing a very two-fisted reporter, even if his blue-masked foe lets his pawns do most of his fighting. Yet despite some impressive spectacles, the film never seems all that invested in the adventure-aspects. Juve is constantly played for baggy-pants comedy—which proves amusing in small portions—but the trilogy is not primarily a comedy either, and it’s certainly doesn’t have a dramatic angle. My finding, then, is that Hubesmith is playing all of this high adventure with the kind of arch, removed humor characteristic of the irony.


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

Robert Bloch may not have provided the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, but he indubitably profited from the association. For many years afterward, films in America and Great Britain adapted a plethora of Bloch stories, even many that had absolutely nothing in common with the type of horror exemplified by Norman Bates.

HOUSE, another of the many anthology-films that the Brits do so well, is a conglomeration of Bloch stories from various eras, and as in Amicus’s earlier TORTURE GARDEN, the tales are linked by a dubious device. Here it’s an English manse that a number of doomed characters have rented over the years, and though there’s no specific malign entity in the house; the place seems to be fantastically unlucky. This idea might have worked well enough, except that not enough of the tales center upon the doomed characters residing in the house.

“Waxworks,” for instance, barely shows the victim dwelling in the house at all. Philip (Peter Cushing) mourns the memory of a lost love, but while tooling around the town, he comes across a waxworks, where the wax-sculptor has crafted a bust of Salome, reminding Philip of his beloved. This conceit might have worked reasonably well, except that Philip brings in an old friend who knew the lost love, and he too is amazed and astounded by the likeness. I don’t know if the friend was in the original story, but the effect here is of padding, since the crux of the narrative is the never-explained conflict between Philip and the weird wax-man. It’s a pretty haphazard plot, though it’s the only story to register in the uncanny phenomenality.

Similarly, when horror-actor Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee of “Doctor Who” fame) moves into the house, he spends very little time there. Henderson is sort of a fan’s idea of what a horror-actor ought to be like, in that he’s obsessive about being an authentic titan of terror. When Henderson finds the young punks running his next film are insufficiently invested, he goes out looking for a cape befitting a master vampire. When he finds such a garment, Henderson begins to believe it has the power to make him into a real bloodsucker. Instead, he finds that his devotion to verisimilitude has earned him a fandom that includes actual vampires. Here too, the purported “twist ending” doesn’t track even at first glance, and the episode’s main attraction is the joined appearance of Pertwee and the delectable Ingrid Pitt.

At least Charles (Denholm Elliott) of “Method for Murder” moves into the house, along with his wife, for a specific reason. He’s a professional horror-mystery writer, and he wants a spooky joint to enhance his creativity. While there, he starts a new novel, and shows his tolerant wife a sketch of his new villain, a sttangler named Dominic. When Charles starts seeing Dominic around the house, he thinks that he’s either insane, or that the creation of his mind has come into corporeal being. The denouement moves into “Diabolique” territory, but again there’s a big twist conclusion. It’s not really any clearer than the other two, but a devoted filmgoer can, if he pleases, cook up a rationale that might make a little bit of sense.

“Sweets to the Sweet” also has its muddled aspects, but it’s the only one that shows a little symbolic potential. A strict-seeming fellow named Reid (Christopher Lee) rents the house for himself and his little girl Jane, and he also engages a local nanny, Ann (Nyree Dawn Porter) to give Jane lessons, as Reid has deep, dark reasons for not wanting the girl to attend regular school. Ann observes that Jane has a terrible fear of fire, and the nanny helps her get over it, though this has the unintended effect of unleashing certain demons in the girl’s psyche. Reid confesses to Ann that Jane’s mother, of whom Jane is a spitting image, was evil, and though he stops short of claiming that his late wife was a witch, clearly he’s been sequestering Jane because she’s inherited her mother’s hex-powers. Possibly the original story somehow involved the witch-mother suffering some sort of death-by-burning, though this remains a murky point. In any case, Jane’s evil nature comes to the fore, and she ends up killing her father with a wax effigy, though her animus is similarly vague. Lee’s presence expunges the story’s shortcomings, and Chloe Franks makes an adorably creepy junior witch.

On the whole, though I’ve not read any of the original prose stories, I suspect that they all deserved to be left on the shelf. Good performances alone make this house worth a visit.



MAN IN THE ATTIC was the fourth film to be based on Belloc-Lowndes’ novel THE LODGER, and the first remake of the Barre Lyndon script used in 20th-Century Fox’s 1944 adaptation, also called THE LODGER. Lyndon’s version discarded any concern about the possible innocence of the titular character, and ATTIC follows the same path, signaling early on that the mysterious lodger is none other than Jack the Ripper, hiding out from his serial murders in 1888 London.

Though ATTIC also appeared under the aegis of Fox, director Hugo Fregonese doesn’t seem to have nearly as stellar a budget to work with as John Brahm did with the 1944 version. Still, if Fregonese is not quite as stylish a director as Brahm, Fregonese makes his entry just as tense as the earlier film. There’s less use of the sort of close-ups one gets in “A-level” pictures like the ’44 film, but I only felt their lack at the film’s end. In the Brahm film, I never questioned that the killer died by drowning, largely because the film shows him drowning, but the ending of ATTIC is not quite as explicit.

The script this time out is credited to both Lyndon and another writer, and the latter may be responsible fo ATTIC’s only major divergence from the earlier film. Putting the twist aside for last, the same template applies. A mysterious fellow named Slade (Jack Palance) seeks lodgings in the home of an ordinary British family. Slade specifically requests to take up residence in the house’s small attic, ostensibly so that he won’t disturb the family with his medical experiments. The mother and father find him slightly odd, particularly when he expatiates on “scarlet women,” but they rent him the room nonetheless. Shortly afterward, he meets the couple’s only child, their daughter Lily (Constance Smith), who works as an actress in a London music hall. Despite Slade’s negative feelings toward actresses, he’s enthralled by Lily, even though his night-time activities consist of stalking streetwalkers and slaying them with medical precision.

Palance’s depiction of the psycho-killer is markedly different from Laird Cregar’s. From start to finish, “’1944 Slade” seems unceasingly twitchy and troubled, and though this lends Cregar’s characterization great intensity, it does make one wonder why the renters seem so blithely accepting of his overall creepiness. In contrast, “1953 Slade” just seems eccentric, and even his rants about women seem more misogynist than psychotic. Palance also gives his version of Slade a more overtly masculine nature, so that his love-scenes with Smith are somewhat more credible than Cregar’s with Merle Oberon. And though neither version of Lily is really in love with the peculiar fellow, it’s a little easier to see why the ’53 version of the character might find ’53 Slade attractive.

In both films, Slade associates women, particularly actresses and prostitutes, with a world of unregenerate sinfulness, and the murderer seeks to cut that sin out of himself by cutting up women. In addition, as I noted earlier, there are indications that Slade’s first act of murder may have subconsciously titillated him so much that he felt compelled to repeat the act. In 1944, Slade, witnessing the suicide of his beloved brother, kills the latter’s fiancée, since her faithlessness caused the brother’s demise. ’44 Slade speaks so fervently of his lost sibling that some critics have speculated that he had some suppressed homosexual impulses—though any feelings of pleasure at the murders would have necessarily fallen into the hetero division. In ATTIC, ’53 Slade still hates actresses, but the offending woman is not Slade’s prospective sister-in-law, but his natural mother, and the cuckolded male is Slade’s father. Slade’s monologue doesn’t really say much about his father, for the Lodger is too focused upon the sinful figure of his actress-mother, of whom Slade says that she “never met a man she couldn't entice” (which logically might include the speaker). The actress’s culminating offense is to go off with a “young rich Frenchman”—implicitly, a young man who’s not Slade—which results in the father’s death. Slade finishes his monologue by saying that he knows that his mother ended her life as a prostitute—thus forging the link in his mind between actresses and prostitutes—though Slade doesn’t happen to say how his mother’s life terminated. The logical extrapolation from the ’44 film is that the mother of ’53 Slade was his first murder, and that the pleasure of killing her led to the rampage of the Ripper—which may be for some viewers an even creepier moment than anything in Lyndon’s original script.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Of all the many cinematic takes on the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” LETHAL WOMAN had the most potential to provide a novel take on the venerable concept. I’m not talking about the obvious twist of the script, which makes man-hunting into a scheme for female empowerment. Rather, I’m thinking of the movie’s one venture into mythopoeic waters; that of naming its villainess “Diana,” after the Roman name for the Goddess of the Hunt.

To be sure, the film’s first third doesn’t seem like it’s going to delve into matters mythic or, for that matter, metaphenomenal. In this pair of reviews I noted that the “human-hunting” scenario doesn’t automatically qualify a given film for metaphenomenal status; that like many other such tropes, it’s uncanny or naturalistic depending on the way it’s handled. LETHAL’s set-up initially seems staunchly naturalistic, as protagonist Derek Johnson, retired army major, is compelled to return to active service by his superiors. The army’s become aware that about twenty of their officers have gone missing, and the only thing that allows investigators to connect the dots is that all fhe missing men had some contact with an enterprise on a Caribbean island (presumably outside the U.S.’s sphere of control). An ad promises customers an “erotic adventure,” and army intelligence has tracked down the island as belonging to a former officer, Christine Newhouse (Merete Van Kamp). The army brass wants Johnson to masquerade as a customer, to expose whatever’s going on.

As the officers brief Johnson on Christine, however, the film shifts into her viewpoint, showing the events of the past in a way that doesn’t exactly flatter the army. Christine, an army brat from childhood, has shown such formidable skills in firearms and in unarmed combat-practice that she’s called to confer with her current superior, Major Maxim. But Maxim hasn’t summoned Christine to praise her, but to order her to stop showing off her skills, because they’re bad for the morale of the male soldiers. When Christine refuses to submit to Maxim’s will, he resorts to overpowering and raping her in his office. Two subordinates outside the office hear the commotion but don’t get involved. When Christine brings charges against the Major, he claims that the sex was voluntary on her part, and even Christine’s boyfriend testifies against her so as to avoid being penalized by the Major. Christine loses her case and leaves the army, justifiably bitter against all men (though at least one woman is implicated in the corruption, since Christine’s best female friend reacts by falling into bed with her traitorous ex-boyfriend).

Thus far, the backstory seems very naturalistic, particularly in the harrowing rape-scene, which would not have been out of place in any melodramatic movie-of-the-week. But since this is a “Most Dangerous Game” riff, Christine somehow sets up a covert man-hunting operation on the aforementioned island. How she paid to purchase the island, or recruited to her service a half-dozen other female victims of rape—the script does not trouble to ask. Further, since Christine—who has rechristened herself Diana—is only focused on military men, she and her people have no particular reason to accept Johnson as an applicant. At the end of the briefing, an officer says that Johnson was somehow associated with the trial Christine lost, but his status at the time isn’t explained, nor does Christine/Diana recognize him when the two meet. Nevertheless, Johnson’s application for the erotic adventure is accepted.

Before he arrives, though, the viewer gets to see Diana’s modus operandi played out. One might’ve thought that the woman-hating Major Maxim would have been one of Diana’s first targets, but instead, he’s the last one to get hunted before Johnson arrives on the island. Obviously, had he been killed offstage, this would have deprived the film’s audience the pleasure of seeing the despicable fellow offed on-camera. Initially Maxim comes to the island, thinking that he’s going to have sex with all the island-women, who are, inevitably, equally gorgeous. Instead, they all don archaic hunting-outfits—complete with non-feminine “war paint”-- and chase Maxim through the woods. The huntresses all utilize archaic weapons as well: knives, spears, and crossbows, and it’s at this point that the film forges an interesting connection between the “Dangerous Game” trope and the Greek myth of Actaeon. While that venerable Greek hunter wasn’t precisely guilty of rape, he did, however unwittingly, commit an act of sexual voyeurism against the goddess Diana, for which offense she changed him into a hart, who was then destroyed by his own hunting-gods. The Diana of LETHAL WOMAN takes a more personal tack. Having wounded Maxim with an arrow, Diana personally grapples with him, and before killing him blinds him by stabbing his eyes with barbed earrings. Can you say “displaced sexual symbolism?” Knew you could.

Now, at this point, viewers are likely to feel more sympathy with Diana’s Amazons than they ever would’ve experienced toward Count Zaroff and his close imitators. So, when Johnson arrives on his mission of investigation (and maybe assassination), the script has to work hard to make the society of rape-victims less sympathetic. Diana sets up a demonstration of martial arts for Johnson’s benefit, and one of the tough girls beats up on a girl named Tory (Shannon Tweed), whom Johnson already likes. Johnson’s decent intentions toward Tory may have been intended to represent normative male-female relations, but the romance between Johnson and Tory is too bland to offset the intense melodrama of Christine/Diana’s maltreatment. The writers also strenuously avoid giving more than incidental characterization to the other huntresses, probably so that when Johhson has to kill some of them, the viewers won’t think of him as a Bad Guy.

Inevitably the hunt is on, and though Johnson takes out some of his pursuers, he ends up falling to his apparent death, just like the protagonist of the original Condon story. He survives, sneaking back into Diana’s compound. Here appears another small twist on the original, for Diana very nearly kills Johnson, and he’s only saved because Tory, “the good woman,” stabs Diana with a spear. Here, too, the script gives Diana the sympathetic edge, for though the spear goes right through her, she comes close to stabbing Johnson with the very weapon that has killed her.

The film ends quickly, before anyone raises the question as to whether Tory’s last-miute change of heart overturns her earlier participation in twenty murders. There’s no real question that Diana, the “Lethal Woman” of the title, is the star of the film. The only interesting aspect of Johnson is that twice the script remarks on how short he is. For a time I wondered if this also had a sexual subtext. Now I think it was just the script’s way of reminding viewers that Diana almost wins her fight with Johnson partly because he’s not that much bigger than she is.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1 *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

You have committed a crime and are presumed guilty. You have the right to die. --John Tucker, FUTURE FORCE.

If the writer of FUTURE FORCE had concocted more brain-fried lines like this one, the film might deserve inclusion in the Edward Wood Hall of Fame. Certainly the basic idea is more ambitious—albeit in a dumb way—than dozens of other direct-to-video flicks, both with and without David Carradine. It’s because of that idea that FORCE even earns a “fair” mythicity rating, though the execution is no better than it has to be.

Tough future cops with “Dirty Harry” delusions of grandeur were nothing new even in 1989, but FUTURE FORCE, rather than directly imitating some popular model, inverts its chosen template. The original ROBOCOP of 1985 was noteworthy in that it gave viewers a futuristic conflict between a government-sanctioned police force and an ambitious corporation seeking to privatize police services. Director David A. Prior, scripting with another writer, ignores this sociological conflict and posits a near-future setting in which sanctioned cops simply don’t exist any more. What’s taken their place are COPS—Civilian Operated Police Services—which are nothing more than bounty hunters, generally dressed in the grungy fashion seen in contemporary reality-shows about the profession. Prior’s script has no interest in asking how such an organization can be deemed in any way accountable to society, for this is just a particular incoherent take on “frontier justice” transferred to a not very futuristic setting. The first ROBOCOP played to this myth-trope as well, but it did so with intelligence, as did the British comics-series JUDGE DREDD, whose penchant for instant justice also resembles the attitude of Carradine’s hero John Tucker.

There’s no evidence that Carradine had any special regard for the project: throughout the film he’s a pretty lame hero, looking paunchy, wasted, and bored. But Prior, though unable to spring for a robotized cop on his budget, does give the private cop a rather memorable assert: a robot glove. When John wears the glove, he can shoot laser beams and other rays at his opponents (mostly low-life crooks). And near the film’s conclusion, after John’s been knocked silly by a big plug-ugly, the hero manages to pull out a special remote, looking like some fancy TV-control, and summons his glove into battle. The sight of Carradine lying on the ground and working the remote while the glove flies to his aid, both punching and strangling the thug, is the film’s one memorable scene.

Prior also directed the sequel FUTURE ZONE, and this time he borrows from THE TERMINATOR rather than ROBOCOP. John, who suddenly has a wife this time out, is going about his bounty hunting business when Billy, a twenty-something hunter, joins the force and starts pressing John to become his partner. The older man responds to the younger one’s enthusiasm by insulting and slugging him. But Billy won’t take subtle hints, and eventually John lets the guy work with him. Little does John realize that Billy is his own grown son, who’s not been conceived in the film’s present, and that he’s somehow traveled back in time to prevent John’s being slain.   

Overall the film is better shot and directed, and Ted Prior (brother of David) is a good enough actor that he seems to enliven Carradine as well. But the external threats to the father-and-son team are even more forgettable than the first film’s villains, and minor appearances by old pros (like Charles Napier) fail to alleviate the overall tedium.

Friday, May 1, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*

Defenders of the Spanish director Jesus Franco have sometimes championed the “oneiric” quality of certain films. I wouldn’t deny that a few of his horror-films capture this quality, however erratically. But as far as I can tell, Franco had no similar feel for the adventure-genres. Not unlike Joseph Losey on MODESTY BLAISE, Franco shows a basic contempt for the genres by simply filming a lot of exotic locations while his actors walk around spouting inane dialogue.

SADIST EROTICA and KISS ME MONSTER were shot back-to-back with two starlets, Rosanna Yanni and Janine Reynaud, playing a couple of sprightly lady detectives, sometimes called “the Red Lips.” Following a very loose approximation of the hardboiled genre, there’s no real detection here. Either the girls bop around to clubs, where their suspects eagerly seek them out, or people get murdered on their doorstep and furnish some vague clue to follow.

There’s not much to choose from either flick, though SADIST EROTICA is a little more organized in terms of Franco recycling his influences—a henchman named Morpho (after the one in Franco’s breakout film AWFUL DOCTOR ORLOFF), or having Reynaud dress up in a Diabolik-like outfit for nearly no reason. The opponent in this one is a mad sculptor who kills women and encases them in plaster. KISS ME MONSTER pits the lady dicks against a cult of sexy girls who (I think) are trying to steal a formula that makes zombies from another cult of masked men. I watched these things twice, and I think they made even less sense the second time through.

It’s almost hard to term these flicks “combative,” since the girls never get in a real rough-and-tumble fight. But they both know how to shoot down evildoers, and their favorite schtick is to have one of them kiss up to some malcontent while the other missy karate-chops him from behind, so I guess they qualify. If a viewer ever wanted to see what the Matt Helm films would look like if they were made for no money, here’s the answer to that question.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

The moldy jungle-adventure KONG ISLAND—which sports neither any islands nor any entities named Kong—is moderately lively. though Roberto Mauri’s direction is sloppy in the extreme. Burt Dawson (Brad Harris, famed for peplum and Eurospy flicks) participates in a payroll robbery, but he’s betrayed by his partner Turk and left for dead. The vengeful Burt—who becomes the film’s de facto hero despite his unsavory past—tracks his enemy to Kenya, where Burt begins stumbling across other old colleagues. One is middle-aged Theodor, who has a grown son and daughter, the latter being at once sexy and innocent. Despite his daughter’s evident affection for hunky Burt, Theodor finances an expedition into the Kenyan jungle. Ostensibly the seekers—who include not only Burt, but Theodor’s two kids as well—is supposed to look for a creature whom the natives dub “the Sacred Monkey,” but Burt’s real purpose is to find Turk.

Unfortunately, Turk is now working for a mad scientist named Muller—ALSO an old colleague of Burt’s—and Muller’s current project is to insert computer discs into the heads of gorillas to create obedient ape-servants. Theodor’s son is killed and the sexy daughter is kidnapped, but Burt escapes. While roaming the jungle, he stumbles across a mute jungle girl who’s apparently the Sacred Monkey herself. He calls her Eve and persuades her to lead him to Muller’s compound, where the scientist has operated on one of Eve’s ape-buddies. In the big low-budget climax, Theodor shows up to reveal that he’s Muller’s secret backer, Eve catfights a little with a henchwoman, and Burt somehow destroys Muller’s installation. It’s all pretty stupid, but might have been fairly diverting with better photography. Significant only as one of a handful of Euro-jungle films of the period.



Just as high-schooler Billy is thinking about dating a cute girl he’s known since childhood, he gets some possible Graduate-allure from sexy twenty-something Lisa (Shannon Tweed, a little prior to her string of nineties softcore nuggets). Unfortuuately, not only is Lisa a call girl, she’s summarily murdered by “the Call Girl Killer,” a serial murderer who just happens to be (a) a Satanist, complete with devil mask, and (b) one of Billy’s high-school teachers.

This smorgasbord of jarring conceits should by itself show that NIGHT VISITOR (a singularly meaningless title) doesn’t exactly have all its ducks in a row, which keeps it from being even a decent formula-thriller. Though I’ve seen many worse films, VISITOR is still among the duller offerings of its kind. In terms of categorization, both the teacher and his equally Satanist brother (Michael J. Pollard) conform to the “bizarre crimes” trope, but since they’re sacrificing hookers for Satan, they don’t seem to line up with the “perilous psychos” as much as with “weird families and societies.” Indeed, the two brothers are both a weird family AND a weird society!


MYTHICITY: *superior*

As long as I’ve been reading film criticism, I’ve been exposed to the prevalent notion that Robert Weine’s CABIINET OF DR. CALIGARI was primarily a political allegory about the state of authority in Weimar Germany. Had I never encountered the idea before, though, the Kino restoration of CALIGARI provides a commentary that cites all the basic propositions: that the titular doctor represents the same corrupt authority that would later turn one of Europe’s most cultured countries into a nation of Nai fanatics.

I would not question that sociological factors in Weimar culture had a tremendous effect upon CALIGARI’s genesis, to say nothing of wider European artistic trends like the cubist and futurist movements that ostensibly influence on the film’s unique set-design. Yet I don’t think CALIGARI lends itself to a strict allegorical interpretation. First and foremost, CALIGARI is one of the world’s first major horror-films, which means that it would’ve derived most of its horror-tropes not from other films, but from the horror genre as it existed at that time: mostly (a) recordings of folkloric horror-tales or (b) original prose works. I’ve never encountered any ruminations by either director Weine or scripters Mayer and Janowicz about CALIGARI’s origins. But since all of them were educated Europeans, I think it’s likely that one or more of them were familiar with the works that I think could have influenced that genesis—two major works published one year apart, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” (1817) and Mary Shelley’s novel FRANKENSTEIN (1818).

Of the two, “The Sandman” bears the greater structural resemblance to Weine’s film. Both narratives, when seen in the entirety, concern the dooms of earnest young men who are undone by strange older men who control forces outside the realm of nature. In both narratives there’s initially a distancing factor. The doom of Hoffmann’s young man Nathaniel is related not by him but by a friend chronicling Nathaniel’s misfortunes via letters, while in Weine, young Francis lays out his own story to a listener, and the bulk of the film is told within this frame, before coming back to present-time Francis for a “twist ending.” In “Sandman,” Nathaniel meets his bizarre antagonist twice in his life, first when Nathaniel is a child, and then when he’s a young man on the cusp of marriage. Francis meets Caligari only once, when he Francis is seeking to make a young local woman his bride. Nathaniel’s antagonist assumes two somewhat separate identities, that of “Coppelius” and Coppola,” and only in the latter identity does he have access to a mysterious young woman, later proved to be an automaton. Francis encounters Caligari just once, when the doctor travels in the guise of a carnival mountebank, attended by a somnambulist whom the doctor controls like a robot. To be sure, within the context of the internal tale, the Caligari of 1919 also has a “double identity” of sorts, in that he’s based his nefarious deeds on those of a magus of the same name from the late 18th century. In “Sandman,” Nathaniel is so love-stricken by Coppola’s female companion Olympia that he throws over his real fiancée, and when he finds out how he’s been deceived, he kills himself. Throughout the internal story of CALIGARI, Francis seems to have triumphed, in that he exposes Caligari’s crimes and uncovers his identity as the manager of an insane asylum. However, when the frame-story finishes up, it’s revealed that Francis is actually insane himself, and has been telling his story to another occupant of the asylum where they both reside. Moreover, in the final “gotcha,” the head doctor of the institution is a real-world version of Caligari, and all of Francis’s delusions have been projections of evil upon a devoted healer who’s trying to help his patients.

One anecdote asserts that the original plan of the film’s producers was to tell the story “straight,” without the frame-story and its (rather modest) concessions to rationality. This may well be true, but had the frame-tale been omitted, the resulting film would in some ways bear a greater resemblance to Hoffmann’s story, in which Caligari and his somnambulistic servant existed, with all their bizarre aspects, within the real world. Unlike Nathaniel, Francis presumably would have triumphed over his antagonist, though said triumph would have been muted by his having lost his best friend to a fiend. So it’s not impossible that “the Sandman” was the structural model for the internal story, and that the quasi-rational frame-tale was injected to give the viewer some of the same sense of desolation that Hoffmann’s tale gave to its readers.

The influence of Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, if valid, would be confined entirely to the internal tale. Many commentaries have emphasized the influence of Weine’s Cesare upon later versions of the Frankenstein Monster, courtesy of James Whale’s cinematic borrowings. But the Monster of Shelley’s prose is not a lumbering engine of destruction. Rather, Shelley’s Monster has roots in Germanic stories about doppelgangers, some of whom are known for doing all the nasty things that their real-world originals would never do. The doppelganger template only roughly fits Shelley’s narrative, but at the very least the hideous Monster does on occasion murder people whose knowledge might be a threat to Victor Frankenstein.

Within the internal tale of CALIGARI, the viewer is told that Caligari has traveled to other cities before that of Francis, and that the mad doctor has used Cesare to murder other helpless victims. However, within the internal story, the viewer only witnesses two victims of Cesare's violence, both of whom have strong ties to Francis. It’s first established that Francis and Alan are best friends despite the fact that both of them are courting Jane. Then, when the two young men visit Caligari’s show, the doctor claims that Cesare possesses prophetic powers due to being in a continual state of sleep. Alan asks “How long will I live,” and Cesare predicts that he won’t live past that night. Then, for no particular reason, Caligari makes the prophecy come true by sending Cesare to Alan’s apartment, where the somnambulist knifes Alan to death. At no time does Francis realize that his best friend’s death leaves his way to Jane clear-- though he has another opponent of sorts. For equally obscure reasons, Caligari sends Cesare to kill Jane as well—but in a justly famous scene, Cesare more or less “wakes up” and tries to make Jane his own. The police, egged on by Francis, overtake Cesare before Jane is violated. The sleepwalker simply dies during the pursuit, and later Francis is able to expose Caligari’s true identity within the internal tale. But the salient point is that though Caligari has no real motives and thus does not sustain a doppelganger relationship with the mad doctor, everything the viewer sees Cesare do can be seen as a manifestation of Francis’s evil nature.

Given my view that CALIGARI is more strongly inspired by other horror-texts than by Weimar social forces, I find it further validation in the script’s few details about “the first Caligari.” Rather than imagining that the modern Caligari takes his model from some character out of preliterate folklore, “Original Caligari” is said to have appeared—complete with somnambulistic slave—in 1783. By my reckoning, this falls within the time-period when the rationality of the eighteenth century met its literary nemesis in the flowering of the Gothic story from 1760 to about 1796. The first phase of the Gothic gave way to the more generalized form of the prose horror story, ranging from the works of Hoffmann and Shelley to the equally consequential accomplishments of LeFanu, Stevenson, Stoker and many others. Modern-day Caligari’s horrific nature lies not in his vague emulation of the ways of tyrannical authority, but in his challenge to the forces of modernity in the dawning twentieth century. He appeals to the fear that, even with the supposed explanations of rational psychology, the worlds of the irrational yet endure.