Friday, June 26, 2020

KUNG FU: SEASON 3, EPISODES 22-24 (1975)

PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2,3) *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

I’m sure that somewhere there exists a record of the order in which KUNG FU’s episodes were filmed, as opposed to the order of their airing (which is how they’re organized on the Warners DVD set). Since I don’t have access to such a record, I can’t fully substantiate my opinion that the last three episodes aired were probably not the last ones filmed. However, the next-to-last episode, “Ambush,” is clearly out of order, since in it Serenity Johnson references Caine’s search for his brother, whom the hero had located in the preceding four-part story. The DVD set includes commentary from David Carradine about the filming of “Full Circle,” the last section of the aforesaid four-parter. Carradine discusses a conversation with a producer as to how he, the actor, would like to end the series. Carradine thought it appropriate to end with Caine walking off into the distance, just as he does in the closing credits, but the producer said that the last scene had to be shot on a soundstage. Carradine does not expressly say that this was the end of the episode he’s discussing, but the description fits the somewhat awkward denouement of “Circle,” in which Caine stands apart from the happy families and bows to them with a closing remark. The last three broadcast episodes, in contrast, have nothing about them that would signify the series’ conclusion.

“The Thief of Chendo” is one of the few all-in-China stories to include both Young Caine listening to his master (though not for very long) and Mature Caine taking on another adventure. Master Po sends the hero to render aid to the Duke Li Yien, but when Caine reaches the noble’s fortress, he’s told Li Yien is dead. However, Po gave Caine an apparently magical ring that glows as long as the Duke is alive, and the ring shows that Li Yien has not yet joined his ancestors. While Caine investigates the situation, he becomes allied to a young master thief, Sing Tao, and the priest even demonstrates his bar-bending abilities when the two are briefly in prison. The upshot is that the Duke’s wicked cousin Chun Yen has imprisoned Li Yien while trying to wrest from him the location of some treasure. In addition, Chun is such a busy bee that he’s also forcing the Duke’s daughter Min Ming to make a political marriage. Some romance between her and the young thief, together with a big fight between Caine and a hefty bodyguard, make this a tolerable episode.

“Ambush,” the last outing for Serenity Johnson, doesn’t come close to his previous episodes. It’s another “find-the-treasure/loot” episode, and in this case the loot is money that an old girlfriend conned Serenity out of years ago. Anti-materialistic Caine is only persuaded to help the itinerant preacher because he wants to use the dough to build a new church, though not much regarding religion of any kind figures into the tale. Jenny (Rhonda Fleming) has her agenda about the money, but a greater danger looms when tough guy Bix Courtney (Timothy Carey) enters the picture. Naturally, Caine doesn’t even work up a sweat trouncing Bix and his fellow owlhoots.

“The Last Raid” in many ways is just as mediocre as “Ambush,” and as the next-to-last story brought back Serenity to scant effect, the last one has Caine pay a visit once more to the Brown family, last seen in the superior second-season episode “The Well.” When Caine visits, Daniel Brown is off fishing with his white friend Jimmy Cooper, but they’re waylaid by the villains, Major Bealson (L.Q. Jones) and his men, all attired in Confederate grey. Are these specters of America’s racism, appearing in response to the innocent union of black and white?

Ah, no, the Rebs don’t even care about Daniel, even though they take both boys captive, and send a note into the nearby town demanding ransom from Jimmy’s father Doctor Cooper. Both of the boys’ fathers are naturally worried as heck, though the female members of the Brown family aren’t let in on the news. Cooper organizes the ransom, while Caine tries to find the raiders. Eventually it’s revealed that Bealson cares less about money than about avenging an old grudge against Cooper, because the two of them were opponents during the Civil War. Bealson is easily the weakest villain in the whole series, and he presents no real threat against the Shaolin superman. The only redeeming facet of the script is the final scene, even though Caine has apparently moved on by then. The Coopers and the Browns, happy to have escaped tragedy, sit down to dinner together, laughing and joking together—and though there’s nothing extraordinary about the writing, the scene at least sums up one of the key themes of the program: the hope that people of all colors can learn to understand one another and find common bonds. This was the aspiration of Classical Liberals back in the seventies, and, though I suppose this ameliorative view would be anathema to modern Progressives, it’s an aspiration that can never be allowed to fade from the ethos of the American people.     

KUNG FU: SEASON 3, EPISODES 18-21 (1975)

PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

“Barbary House” begins a four-part serial in which Caine finally does catch up to his long-lost half-brother. Despite Caine’s having seen Danny’s portrait in “Vanishing Image,” the Shaolin doesn’t recognize his sibling when they pass one another, Danny leaving San Francisco even as Caine enters. Danny had to leave after inciting the wrath of saloon-owner Corbino (Leslie Nielsen), who now wants Danny dead. Caine’s inquiries lead him to Corbino’s saloon, where brutal boxing-bouts are held for the entertainment of the masses, and where Danny’s son Zeke works to assist Corbino’s own stable of fighters. Because Zeke knows nothing of the enmity between his father and his boss, Corbino hopes to con Zeke into making contact with Danny and then going after him. Caine is one of two elements that disturb Corbino’s plot, the other being a woman named Delonia, who in keeping with the story’s high melodrama, turns out to be Zeke’s long-lost mother. Caine fights one bout as “the Shanghai Kid” before he, Zeke and Delonia flee the city in search of Zeke’s father.

“Flight to Orion” largely functions to pad out the story’s running time. Though there’s a token attempt to form a bond between Zeke and his newfound mother, Delonia must have seemed something of a distraction from the main purpose: that of both uniting father and son and uniting two siblings. Thus Delonia dies. The tears on Zeke’s face hardly have time to dry thanks to another improbable twist. Caine, seeking food for his companions, filches some provender from a tribe of Indians, and though he leaves an item of trade, the Indians only want vengeance. Fortunately, they have a “trial-by-ordeal” custom that gives the priest an out, as well as allowing for a nice four-on-one dust-up. While this goes on, Zeke—whom Caine rather unwisely sends away—gets caught by Corbino, and the gambler tricks the boy into revealing Danny’s general locale.

“The Brothers Caine” brings the Shaolin and his nephew to Orion, but Danny isn’t in the town, having fled to an unknown refuge in the neighboring mountains. Caine and Zeke get a clue from a local lady named Lulu, another of Danny’s lady friends, who (just to really pile on the melodrama) turns out to be Zeke’s surrogate mother, in that Danny had Lulu raise Zeke during his infant years. Corbino brings another ally with him, for somehow he’s made contact with General Cantrell, the father of Zeke’s mother, who doesn’t seem nearly as interested in his daughter’s death as in having a chance to take control of Zeke, in effect stealing Danny Caine’s son as Danny stole the general’s daughter. Additional developments include Corbino employing an assassin who claims magical powers but demonstrates none in his battle with Caine. In addition, Corbino attempting to hoax Danny into killing the brother he didn’t know he had.

By the time “Full Circle” opens, Danny has accepted Caine’s claim of kinship. However, Zeke, in order to protect his father, agrees to return to Cantrell’s ranch as heir apparent to the general. In a complication that’s more or less rushed out, it turns out that Cantrell already a real son on his ranch, name of Tigre. Tigre was the son of another vanished mother, and the implication is that Cantrell could be an “Indian-lover” but not a “squaw man.” Nevertheless, Tigre craves his father’s approval and his name, in contrast to Zeke, who doesn’t want what Cantrell offers. Cantrell is also aware that Corbino plans to set a trap for Danny, but not until Zeke is placed in danger does the general pass that knowledge on to Caine. In the end Danny’s life is saved and Corbino is defeated. The episode’s ending looks as if it might’ve been intended as an ending for the whole series, but three more episodes remained to be aired.

KUNG FU: SEASON 3, EPISODES 13-17 (1974-5)

PHENOMENALITY: (1-3, 5) *uncanny,* (4) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1, 4) *good,* (2,3,5) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

“The Vanishing Image,” though nominally tied into Caine’s search for brother Danny, feels more like a first-season episode, delving into the complex ways that individuals create the meaning in their lives. In a small town Caine sees a group photograph purporting to include Danny’s image, but since Caine does not know which one is his half-brother, he seeks out the person who originally took the picture. Out in the wilds Caine finds Beaumont (Lew Ayres), an aged man who has devoted his entire life to the art of the photograph. A wandering Indian, Matoska, attacks Caine, but after the priest easily trounces the young fellow, Matoska pledges friendship with Caine. However, Matoska doesn’t appreciate the photographer’s art, and eventually becomes consumed with the idea that his soul was stolen by Beaumont’s camera. On top of that, yet another agent of the Avenging Dragon Order also dogs the Shaolin’s tracks.

Despite all of these complications, “Image” displays an elegiac tone with regard to Beaumont, for he has begun to die for his art, from exposure to mercury during his years of developing photos. At no time does the script fault Beaumont for his life-choice, even though it’s clear that he’s sacrificed human attachments. Indeed, in the valley where he makes his home, he venerates a “daughter of the mist” who represents for him the spirit of all the elusive wonders he’s tried to capture with his camera. Caine never sees the alleged spirit, but he does encounter a chimerical wind that suggests an otherworldly presence. Similarly, Caine never scoffs at Matoska’s simple beliefs, but rather helps the youth exorcise his personal fears of having lost his soul.

“A Lamb to the Slaughter” feels like a more subtle take on the basic setup of the “Magnificent Seven” movie. Caine wanders into a town dominantly inhabited by people of Mexican extraction. The Shaolin encounters Mateo (Alejandro Rey), his sister, and his sister’s husband Jaibo. Thanks to a certain token, Caine realizes that Mateo is the son of a sea-captain who lost his life in China protecting both Young Caine and the boy’s father. Caine, remembering his mentor’s words about the paying of debts, wants to repay the debt he owes to Mateo’s late father, but Mateo wants nothing to do with the priest.

However, the town has an ambivalent relationship with its alleged protectors, Zanjero and his small group of gunfighters. In past years, bandits repeatedly ravaged the town. Zanjero drove off the bandits, but he insists on a heavy toll for his services. Zanjero’s high-handed ways lead to Jaibo making an attempt to kill the gunman, but Jaibo perishes by accident. Nevertheless, Mateo, having seen Caine’s skills, enjoins the priest to pay his debt by teaching Mateo to fight. Much to his regret, Caine does so, but while this could have led to the death of either Mateo or Zanjero, Caine manages to forestall any fatalities while at the same time discharging his debt. The ending, while not precisely a cheat, proves something of a letdown.

“The Forbidden Kingdom” is another China-tale, and proves the weakest episode of the entire series. It’s belatedly revealed that when Caine first sought to flee the wrath of the Emperor, his initial plan was to flee not to America but to Tibet. To get there, Caine solicits the help of a beautiful young Chinese woman—who, like similar characters before her, provides the priest with a short-lived love affair. There are assorted fights and escapes, all of which lead to tedium given that the viewer knows that the hero must change his mind and go to the U.S. There’s a modestly amusing scene where Caine confronts a huge bearded fellow who shrugs off Shaolin punches, but the possible fight comes to nothing, much like the episode.

“One Step to Darkness” propels the hero back into metaphysical territory. Back in Young Caine’s time, he experiences an unreasoning fear of a tapestry portraying a demon named Kuei—a fear that seems based in familiarity, though the youth has no memory of having seen the image before. Flashforwarding to the present, Caine intercedes between a young woman, Amy, and an uncouth fellow named Cross. Cross escapes, and Amy’s husband, cavalry commander Starbuck, arrests Caine under the impression that his wife has enjoyed some illicit assignation with the wandering priest. In the course of sorting out the misunderstanding, Caine learns that Cross is Amy’s pusher, supplying her with morphine after she became addicted to it iii China. Indeed, Amy has a token from China that connects the hero with the experiences of his younger self: a joss stick hollowed out for the smuggling of morphine, and topped with the ghastly demon-image of Kuei. There seems to be nothing of the supernatural in Amy’s plight until Caine becomes involved, whereupon Kuei becomes debatably “real.” While the possibility of a shared illusion is never beyond consideration, Amy briefly seems possessed, after which she and Caine are trapped in a sealed cave. Caine frees Amy by seeming to sacrifice himself to the demon, but then finally realizes the early event in his younger self’s life that bound him to Kuei—at which point the Shaolin frees himself from his darkness.

“Battle Hymn” is a pretty mixed bag, apparently concocted to take advantage of the celebrity presence of pop-singer Jose Feliciano. Caine flees a bounty hunter from a nearby town, but the man dies when his horse shies. Caine does the responsible thing and returns the man’s effects to the people in town, but because the bounty hunter also happened to have the clue to a silver mine, some of the residents go after the hidden treasure. Around the same time the priest meets two itinerant musicians, Jonno and Trim, who are seeking a site blind Jonno remembers from his childhood—which just happens to be the aforesaid silver mine. The script piles on the coincidences and doesn’t even have any outstanding fight-scenes.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

KUNG FU: SEASON 3, EPISODES 10-12 (1974)

PHENOMENALITY: (1,2) *naturalistic,* (3) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1. 2) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

The next three episodes of Season Three were all directed by David Carradine.

“Beseiged” is yet another two-parter set in China, and once again, the starting-point arises from the vagaries of the Imperial will toward the Shaolin priesthood. A huge hairy hermit named Tamo (Victor Sen Yung, nearly unrecognizable in the makeup) comes to Caine’s monastery in Honan, announcing that one of the Emperor’s warlords, Sing Lu Chen, has razed the temple in Fukien with an imported Western device, a long-range cannon. Only a few survivors escaped to take refuge with Tamo, and since some are injured, Tamo needs help to transport the fugitives to Honan for sanctuary. Both Caine and Master Po accompany the hermit back to his lair.

However, the warlord’s soldiers, directly commanded by a secondary villain named Shao, remain on the lookout for escapees. Thus Caine, Po, Tamo, and the two remaining Fukien disciples have a rough time of it, though they eventually make it back to Honan. Caine gets some personal trouble from one of the disciples, a girl in boy’s garb, name of Nan Chi and played by Barbara Hershey (who then went by the name “Barbara Seagull,” as well as being in a short-term romantic relationship with the star of the show). Nan Chi has been given some informal training in martial arts, and, given his upbringing, Caine is rather offended by seeing a female encroach on male prerogatives. The two of them spar briefly, though they produce more romantic sparks than split lips. (For some reason Caine seems to get a lot more action in old China than in the Old West.)

It’s belatedly mentioned that Warlord Sing, in addition to destroying the Fukien Temple in service to the Emperor, also sought to take possession of Nan Chi. Thus he’s presumably acting on his own when he and his subordinate Shao besiege the Honan Temple. Nan Chi does the heroic thing and surrenders herself, but Shao still wants to destroy the Shaolin sanctum. Caine succeeds in foiling the plot, but Nan Chi is written out of Caine’s life with a convenient death-scene. It’s a decent enough adventure, but meager in terms of philosophical aspects.

“The Demon God” weaves a more complex tapestry, as well allowing Radames Pera (the actor playing Young Caine) his most challenging episode. Usually Pera didn’t get to do anything but stand around allowing the Shaolin masters to bounce Taoist observations off his shaven skull. This time, he and Master Kan visit the home of an unnamed old mandarin, who feels himself near death and has spent his declining years plumbing the mysteries beyond the grave. Shen, the mandarin’s son, gets the idea to poison Young Caine, so that Shen can garner knowledge from the young postulant as he nears death. Young Caine, though suffering the effects of the poison, must find a way to manipulate his enemy into saving his life.

In a sort of “flash-forward” loosely connected with the adventure of his youthful self, adult Caine is caught in a cave-in and stung by a scorpion. He then suffers what initially seem like delusions brought on by the poison, as a high priest materializes in the cavern, exhorting Caine to become a worshipper of the fire-god Athil. Caine resists both the violence of the priest and the blandishments of a beautiful seductress, who claims that all of her people once worshipped the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, but deserted him for Athil, who gave them everlasting life. This bit of backstory seems to transport the tale out of the realm of the “delirious dream,” since there should be no way that a Shaolin priest of the 1800s should know even the name of an Aztec deity. The script does not attempt to rationalize the mystery, but given all the talk about being on the verge of death in both plotlines, but it’s possible to imagine that Caine has been in contact with the ghosts of a long-dead people, and possibly that of a vanished “demon god” as well.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2,3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

“Cry of the Night Beast” scores as one of the most artful uses of the Shaolin priest’s ethic of empathy. This time, the hero’s flashbacks to the days of Young Caine are integrally linked to the experiences of Mature Caine, for it’s in his childhood that the former experiences strange dreams of meeting a very un-Chinese animal, and seeing a “red door.” Because of that dream, Caine interferes when Branch, an aging bounty hunter, attempts to shoot a buffalo calf. Branch is irate with Caine but Caine is convinced that the calf is the creature he saw in his dream, and, further, that the calf’s fate has an importance beyond the animal’s own survival. Caine, though currently on the run from bounty hunters, takes up residence in a nearby town and tries to nurse the unweaned calf. He gets some help from a local named Grace (Stephanie Powers), formerly a prostitute and currently the lover of Branch. The hunter scorns Caine’s endeavor, but swears that he’ll cut the animal down if he sees it in the wild, for Branch defines himself as a hunter first and foremost. To his credit, he refuses to betray Caine to the trackers, since he considers hunting men to be a low profession, but he doesn’t realize how his own profession has laid waste to the buffalo herds that once roamed freely. Naturally, the activities of white slayers are justly contrasted to the greater frugality of Indian buffalo-hunters, though happily the script doesn’t make Branch a stock villain, since his ethic of hunting remains rooted in a heritage as old as humankind. But though there’s no explicit mention of karma, something like that concept proves to be the key to Young Caine’s dream, for Grace carries Branch’s child, and if he kills the calf, his own offspring will perish as well. In addition to teaching an old hunter a new way of life, Caine gets the chance to clobber a bunch of no-good bounty hunters.

“The Devil’s Champion,” the first episode to take place wholly during Caine’s Shaolin days, is a tolerable but unambitious tale of demon-possession. A seemingly invincible fighter named Yi Lien (Soon Teck-Oh) shows up at the temple-gates, challenging Master Kan to battle. Since Kan does not know the man, and since Caine has seen visions of a weird laughing monk (Richard Loo) in the presence of Yi Lien, the priests theorize that the younger man has been possessed by some diabolical influence. This theory receives confirmation from Yi Lien’s sister, who claims that her brother is normally a gentle man. She’s also aware of the location of the unnamed evil monk, and while one of the Shaolin students fights Yi Lien, the sister leads Caine to a confrontation with the villain—more of a sorcerer than the “devil” of the title. Though not unpleasant to watch, “Champion” is definitely one of the least philosophical episodes of the entire series, though of course the writers manage to work in a fair number of psuedo-Taoist profundities.

“The Garments of Rage” opens with what appears to be Caine having a premonitory dream, though later indications are that the priest may have received a sending from another former Shaolin. The dream features Caine running along a railroad track and almost being run over by a train—which does not bode well for the hero’s next job, laying track at a nearby construction site. Most of the laborers are Chinese, all working for little pay and for no amenities, not even a camp doctor. The main person in authority is not a straw-boss in the ordinary sense, but a troubleshooter sent to investigate acts of sabotage against the project.

Caine is, to say the least, not pleased when a Chinese youth is injured by a dynamite explosion—nor by learning that the mystery saboteur is one of his old Shaolin teachers, Master Lee. Lee’s family was condemned by the fiat of the Emperor, and only luck enabled Lee and his nephew to both survive the attack and to flee to America some time before Caine did. But Lee and the nephew ended up joining the work-crew. A flashback depicts the nephew being run down by a real train as Caine almost was in his dream (and neither scene shows any reason why the victims couldn’t just jump off the track.) Lee devotes himself to destroying the railroad project, and while Caine won’t betray his old preceptor to the authorities, he does fight Lee to make him see reason. This time the revolutionary gives up his fruitless quest without being apprehended by the law, and the overall verdict is that even Shaolin skills don’t immunize their possessor from the assaults of either imperial tyranny or rampant capitalism. The garments of the title, by the way, belonged to Lee’s late nephew, and he gives them to Caine, who continues to wear them intermittently through the remainder of the season.


PHENOMENALITY: (1,3) *marvelous,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good,* (3) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

“This Valley of Terror” continues Season 3’s emphasis on elements of the marvelous phenomenality. Whereas Season 1’s “The Brujo” was ambivalent about the actual existence of the supernatural, Caine’s encounter with a madwoman named Gwyneth (Sondra Locke) leaves no doubt as to the veracity of psychic powers. The madwoman has just escaped an asylum when Caine encounters her in the wilderness, and he’s instantly convinced that the visions she sees have some great import. Initially, Caine tries to return Gwyneth to her family, but her aunt and uncle don’t really know the young woman, having only lived with her briefly. As a child Gwyneth was one of two survivors of an Indian attack, and though Gwyneth and her sister grew to womanhood in the tribe, only Gwyneth had special status, since the Indians believed in her visions. The sister passed away, and at some point Gwyneth was ransomed back to her relations—but they looked upon her gifts as manifestations of witchcraft. Indeed, while Gwyneth is at the farm of her white relations, she foresees a fatal accident, and finds herself accused of being a sorceress. Caine guides Gwyneth back to the grounds of her adoptive red family, and by so doing, helps her prevent the slaughter of another homesteader family like her own. Once Caine has aided Gwyneth in achieving her destiny, he asks for her help in returning to his long-deferred quest for his half-brother Danny. She assures him that Danny is at least still among the living.

In “The Predators” Caine seeks to achieve a measure of justice for himself. Prior to the story proper, Caine is falsely accused of a new murder, and he goes seeking a witness to clear his name, at least of extraneous charges. He knows that a man named Rafe witnessed the true killer, but Rafe (Anthony Zerbe) is the head of a gang of ruthless scalphunters. Caine is more than equal to the task of separating Rafe from his gang in order to drag him to town. However, it’s almost more than a Shaolin priest can cope with, when he also has to nurse-maid Heyoka, a wounded Apache youth, one who would like very much to kill a hunter of scalps. Further, the other scalphunters give chase, among them an Indian of another tribe who’s killed as many Apaches as the whites, and who’s hot to kill Caine after Caine regards the tribesman as a sort of “race-traitor.” For Caine’s sake Heyoka agrees to a temporary cessation of hostilities, but Rafe professes that he has no honor and will betray the other two at the first chance. Caine manages to give both the reprobate and the would-be avenger a lesson in brotherhood. This time Caine’s temple-flashbacks deal with a priest named Tehsoong, who attempts to use the disciplines of the Shaolin to bring down the hierarchy of the Chinese rulers, an act of rebellion that’s interpreted as being mere self-aggrandizement.

“My Brother, My Executioner” returns Caine to his quest for literal brotherhood. Since he didn’t get any specifics from Gwyneth, Caine consults an old Chinese oracle, and she gives him, like many an oracle before her, an ambivalent prophecy. Caine seeks out a certain farm run by a man calling himself Danny Caine (James Wainwright). At the same time, Danny’s being stalked by a pair of gunfighters who claim he’s someone else, whom they want to outdraw for fame and glory. There’s no big surprise about the farmer’s true identity, but the tale does culminate in a rather subtle use of Caine’s skills to defuse the threat—though, in retrospect, one may argue that the threat remains “in play.”


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1,2) *fair,* (3) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

To judge from the increased emphases on Kwai Chang Caine’s family relations, it seems possible that the showrunners suspected that the third season would be the last one for KUNG FU, and that there was some thought of giving the hero some closure to his wanderings.

“Blood of the Dragon” begins with a dynamic two-part adventure. Hitherto, whenever Chiina sent imperial assassins after Caine, each celestial hitman appeared to be a solo operator. “Blood” reveals that for some time the effort to capture or kill Caine has been coordinated by a “school of assassins,” the Order of the Avenging Dragon. The episode opens with a short intro to this school, showing a cowled, whisper-voiced leader calling together three of his best students for a concerted attack on the Shaolin preist.

At the time, Caine is forced to solve the mysterious death of his only known American relative, his grandfather Henry Raphael Caine, played by Dean Jagger in the first-season episode “Dark Angel.” Caine finds his way to a town in California with little explanation as to how he knows he’ll find his late grandfather there, which may be the scriptwriters exploiting the priest’s on-again, off-again psychic proclivities. The mystery takes something of a backseat to Caine’s duels with the three killers, though the bulk of the action transpires in the episode’s second half. The best assassination-attempt is saved for last, as the third assassin conjures up a duplicate of Caine himself to battle the priest. The script does not choose to explain this fairly vivid manifestation of the supernatural. Personally I’ve speculated that the writers might’ve been referencing the Tibetan idea of the *tulpa, * a process by which an adept can bring to life a creation of mental energy that seems both three-dimensional and alive. Needless to say, Caine triumphs over all comers, though the episode ends by suggesting that the Order’s enmity will go on.

“A Small Beheading” brings the priest into contact with the family member of an enemy: Lady Chi Ching (France Nuyen), niece of the Emperor and thus the sister of the youth Caine slew in anger. Chi wants to kill Caine outright, but her husband, the raffish sea captain Gage (William Shatner) brings the priest a unique offer from Chi’s uncle. Supposedly the offended monarch has been moved to offer Caine clemency for his crime, so that he can return to China in safety (which proves tempting to Caine even though he’s yet to find his half-brother Danny). But as a surety of his devotion of China, Caine must undergo the titular “small beheading,” to have one of his little fingers cut off.

Though there’s no literal supernaturalism here, Caine does seem to have an uncanny affinity with a crow. Later Chi Ching exhibits an extreme fear of crows, which turns out to be an indicator of her guilty conscience (perhaps the writer had in mind another bird of ill omen, the raven of Poe’s famed verse). It should surprise no reader when I reveal that Gage’s offer is a fake-out, and Chi Ching is obliged to reveal this fact to keep her personal sense of honor, even though she desires Caine’s death. In a B-plot, Caine is briefly employed by Ellie (Rosemary Forsyth), a ranchwoman who clearly would like the priest to settle down with her. There’s a short dramatic encounter between Ellie and Chi Ching, and while the incident isn’t exceptional in itself, it does make one realize how rarely one sees in this series a conversation between two or more women, for all that many episodes have strong depictions of female characters.



In MANTIS IN LACE director/writer William Rotsler produced a rarity in the annals of psycho-killer films: one in which the script has absolutely no interest in what makes the psycho kill. There are no submerged traumas, no Oedipal conflicts. Lila, the “mantis” of the title, simply kills people whenever she goes on a “bad trip” from LSD.

This might sound like a promising premise on which to base a late sixties exploitation, but the rest of the film is just as one-note as stripper Lila’s motivation. Lila beds men and then kills them. The cops bumble around looking for the killer. At the end the cops get the wrong guy and Lila escapes, presumably to kill again. In other words, whatever director Rotsler’s accomplishments in other domains—not least that of being a Nebula-nominated SF writer—here he was just grinding one out.

To be sure, I’ve only seen one of the film’s two incarnations. MANTIS emphasizes Lila’s violent murders, while an alternate version, LILA, emphasizes softcore sex-scenes. I’ve seen two of Rotsler’s other grindhouse efforts, and since the sex-scenes were decent in those, perhaps I would’ve liked LILA better than MANTIS. The film I did see, however, may be one of the worst psycho-killer films out there, in part because it has a killer title and does nothing with it. Susan Stewart, while not a gifted actress, proved at least competent, and the theme song proves catchy, even though it’s played so often that it becomes tiresome.

THE GIRL AND THE GEEK—which also appeared under the more romantic-sounding PASSION IN THE SUN—scores better than MANTIS in the “so bad it’s good” category simply by virtue of outrageousness. Director/co-writer Dale Berry throws together a bunch of nudie-style stripper-scenes with two sources of “roughie” peril to the starring stripper, and then lets them all bounce off one another in the barren desert.

This is yet another film with a narrator-voiceover rather than a sound-track. In theory, this might make some of the ellipses in continuity easier to understand, such as how it happens that stripper Josette, on her way to a new job in Vegas, gets kidnapped by two Cuban gangsters. But no, one minute Josette’s on her way to new employment, and the next, the gangsters have her in captivity. If they plan to despoil her, it’s not evident in their actions. The kidnapping does lead to a notably awful scene in which one gangster drives a car along a desert highway, while in the back seat the other crook repeatedly slaps Josette around, and she keeps popping up from his blows like a punch-doll.

Meanwhile, an unnamed, somewhat deformed geek escapes his captivity at a roadside amusement park. Nothing is said about how the managers of the park came to acquire the geek, but he runs around grunting and making wild gestures until encountering Josette. By this time one of the gangsters has killed the other, and the geek knocks off Josette’s other captor. Then she’s on the run again, though she does find time to bathe in a local spring.

GEEK doesn’t rate with the really brain-fried products of the grindhouse era. But at least, having promised the audience the spectacle of a monster chasing a girl for about an hour, that’s what the film puts out there, complete with a last-minute save that eradicates the monster and lets the stripper go on to her rightful reward.

PETER PAN (2003)

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

As a kid I was only mildly interested in the stories of Peter Pan. I dutifully watched the TV special, with Mary Martin following the trend of having Pan played by smallish women. I found myself a little bored with the Disney animated movie, because that version of Captain Hook was too goofy and effete to pose any real threat. I didn’t read J.M. Barrie’s classic novel until after childhood had long flown, and the novel gave me a greater appreciation for some of the more accomplished adaptations of later years, and even offbeat takes like Spielberg’s HOOK.

In contrast to works that require considerable fidelity in translation—say, the Harry Potter series—Peter Pan films are probably at their best when the creators treat Barrie’s text as a grab-bag of evocative motifs, which can be rearranged in many pleasing ways without doing violence to the basic story. This U.S.-Australian adaptation, directed and co-written by P. J. Hogan, exemplifies such an approach, and at present it’s the best “Peter Pan movie” I’ve seen, not counting a prequel-film like NEVERLAND.

Though Barrie’s book is rather ambivalent about Peter’s age, the dominant image has become that of a puckish pre-adolescent, if only to justify the scenes of burgeoning puppy love between Peter and Wendy. Jeremy Sumpter hits all the right notes, showing Peter as heedlessly energetic, mercurial, forgetful, and both envious and leery of the bonds of familial love. Rachel Hurd-Wood’s Wendy has been crafted to be more of a tomboy, first seen telling wild stories of pirate adventure, as opposed to being the demure figure from Barrie’s book. Nevertheless, the script doesn’t overplay Wendy’s swashbuckling fantasies, and her interactions with Peter are marked more by feminine persuasion than by any contemporaneous notions of empowerment. Even more thankfully, Jason Isaac’s Captain Hook is a genuine threat to Peter and the lost boys, and manages to project sinister charm without falling into the effeteness trap. The actors playing the Lost Boys and the various members of the Darling family all fill their roles admirably, and the only false note comes from Ludivine Sagnier’s Tinkerbelle, whose jealousy of Wendy is too often used for “baggy-pants” comedy.

Both the mermaids and the Kaw Indians put in appearances, but the emphasis here is the age-old quarrel between youth and age. Thus Wendy finds herself somewhat caught between her desire to mold ageless Peter into something of a ‘husband” and her realization that even a charming pirate like Hook has been corrupted by the adult priorities of ruthless acquisition. To boost the spectacle of the book’s climax, the evil pirate captain gains the power to fly via fairy-dust, and he and Peter lock horns in both physical and psychological combat. This reworking allows the filmmakers to dispense with the way the book got rid of Hook’s men—implicitly they’re all knifed to death by the Lost Boys—and instead, magical fairy-power simply blasts them off their own ship, after which they’re never seen or spoken of again. Hook does still meet his crocodilian doom, but Hogan’s version is in some ways more interesting than Barrie’s, in that the former reinforces that “age vs. youth” conflict.

I don’t remember whether or not Barrie had the Lost Boys return to Earth, but Hogan does let this scene go on a little too long. Still, the ending, with Wendy bidding farewell to the Boy Who Never Grew Up, does credit to the poignancy of Barrie’s tribute to the last years of childhood.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

SHE (1965)

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

As I’ve not revisited the 1935 RKO adaptation in some time, I tend to rate Hammer’s version as second to the 1925 silent. While the characterization of central character Ayesha is never more than adequate, Ursula Andress wins the beauty contest between the first three actresses to essay the role in feature-length films. Moreover, whereas Andress in most of her films seems to have only two expressions—angry and sexy—there’s some evidence that she did try to put across Ayesha’s majesty, even without a lot of help from the script. (To be sure, Andress was given the same dubbed voice used in DOCTOR NO, so one can only judge her acting through expression.) In addition, long-time Hammer composer James Bernard devised a haunting Ayesha-theme that easily surpasses any musical accompaniment in the other two adaptations.

Those are the film’s foremost pluses. The minuses are more numerous, though they tend to be more like minor aggravations than insuperable difficulties.

I didn’t mind very much that the script altered the relationship between Holly (Peter Cushing) and Vincey (John Richardson). To keep things simple, now they’ve become acquainted through serving in a war, and Holly’s former manservant Job (Bernard Cribbins), who goes along for the ride, is now Holly’s wartime orderly. The script thus situates their quest to find a “lost civilization” as a sort of escapism from the horrors of war, which I found rather reductive. In addition, since the protagonists are not that invested in delving into archaic mysteries, the scripters resort to having an emissary of Ayesha (Christopher Lee) come looking for Vincey, the purported descendant of her ancient love Kallikrates. This plot-ploy weakens the high drama of Ayesha patiently waiting for the reincarnated return of her lost love.

The film is faithful to the development that Vincey, while accompanying his friends on their quest, meets a young Arabian woman, Ustane, with whom he falls in love prior to meeting Ayesha. The questers also meet the Amahagger, the African tribe under Ayesha’s dominion, and though the book gave a decent reason for the tribe to be dominantly white, Hammer chose to have the majority of the tribesmen played by what I assume to be Afro-British actors. One result of the change is that later, when Ayesha consighs a number of tribesmen to a fiery pit, it makes the film appear to have a racial bias that probably didn’t occur to the filmmakers.

Most of the plot-events are reasonably true to the book: Vincey’s mesmerized reaction to Ayesha, her relation of her history with Kallikrates, her assertion of authority over her rival Ustane. The main problem is one of attitude. Director Robert Day, perhaps due to his long history in television production, films everything in a very flat, lusterless manner, so that even though Hammer spent a pretty penny on the budget, the sets and costumes remain underwhelming. With the possible exception of John Richardson, who has the look but not the dynamism of Vincey, all of the actors acquit themselves fairly well. But only Andress seems invested in her role, possibly because she was the center of the story. And not even Day’s banal direction takes away the commingled beauties of Ayesha’s reunion with the Flame of Life, as accompanied by Bernard’s lilting strings.

Unlike the novel, SHE ’65 felt the need to go out with a bang, so at the climax the Amahagger revolt against the people of Kor and Vincey has a fight with Chris Lee’s envious high priest. This makes SHE ’65 the first combative version of the story, with Ayesha functioning as the combative type whose power is largely in her retinue of soldiers and servants.

SHE (1925)

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

This silent film stands as not only the first feature-length version of H. Rider Haggard’s 1886 novel SHE, but also the only one to which Haggard himself contributed, writing the descriptive intertitles—though the author passed away before seeing the film released.

The original novel, long and slow-paced with only occasional action-scenes, would be difficult to adapt to cinema with complete fidelity. Given that Haggard had lived in Africa for years, the trek of the main protagonists, Horace Holly and his ward Leo Vincey, is described with considerable verisimilitude in the novel, but obviously this must be adumbrated for a feature-length film. The 1925 film also skirts the unspoken conflict between Holly and Vincey, which arises from the fact that the former is a homely old fellow and his ward is an Apollonian figure (at least in the novel). To be sure, Holly is acted by Heinrich George, a gnarly, bearded fellow—an intertitle even calls him “the baboon”—but the other half of the conflict would have been doomed had the filmmaker sought to exploit it, since Carlyle Blackwell, the actor playing Vincey, was almost forty—eight years older than the actor playing his “symbolic father.”

In the novel, some of the Oedipal conflicts between Holly and Vincey are brought to the fore when they seek out the legendary city of Kor, and find that it’s ruled by a fabulous queen: Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Ayesha rules over a local tribe, the Amahagger, said in the novel to “more white than black,” and she does so because she’s literally immortal, thanks to her encounter with a mysterious “flame of life.” Ayesha has incredible intellect, and enjoys conversing with the intellectual Holly, but of course most of the arcane discourse must be left out of a movie-adaptation. But Ayesha does aspire to a more permanent union with Vincey, whom she believes to be the teincarnation of her former lover Kallikrates, whom she murdered in jealousy back during the Roman era.

Though the film is only able to suggest bits and pieces of the novel’s romantic grandeur, on the whole its co-directors manage to suggest at least some of that grandiosity despite the lack of dialogue. They did so by resorting to silent cinema’s potential for suggesting more than it shows, and as a result the city of Kor, of which we see very little, comes alive through the bearing of the queenly Ayesha.

I speak of “bearing” rather than beauty, because actress Betty Blythe is only fair in the looks department, never seeming to be a truly bewitching figure. But the script does let this version of Ayesha be a true sorceress, rather than just a sexy white queen. For all the divergences between book and movie, I was impressed by the fact that the script kept a vital scene, When Ayesha curses a female rival, she does so by touching the other woman’s hair, so that the imprint of the queen’s fingers whitens the hair touched.

Though I checked out the resumes of the directors and the principal actors, absolutely none of their other works in silent cinema were familiar to me. One of the two directors continued to act into the sound era, appearing in a couple of serials, while Betty Blythe herself chalked up a long resume of supporting roles throughout the sound era.


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


Despite the “second wave of horror” at Universal Studios in the 1940s, the bosses who succeeded the Laemelle regime invested most of their efforts in other genres. Some genres appealed to the 20th-century moviegoer’s yearning for exotic times and climes, usually far outside the civilized worlds of Europe and the U.S. A popular subgroup of such exotic adventures took place on isolated islands, in places like Tahiti and Pago Pago.

Most of these island-movies were ephemeral, but COBRA WOMAN is one of the few that’s kept some kind of cinematic reputation, even it’s of the “so bad it’s good” variety. It’s also a little better remembered today than most of the oeuvre of Maria Montez, who achieved stardom after the success of 1942’s ARABIAN NIGHTS. COBRA WOMAN featured an array of Technicolor sets and costumes, all under the aegis of A-list director Robert Siodmak, so Universal certainly wasn’t cheaping out on this particular bit of exotica. If COBRA WOMAN is “bad” at all, it would only be in comparison to less escapist fare. It’s a film full of romantic excess, and on its own terms it’s not so much bad as somewhat derivative.

The film begins on a particular South Sea island where young Tollea (Montez) has been raised from childhood. She’s soon to be married to a young white sailor, Ramu (Jon Hall, who had co-starred with Montez in ARABIAN NIGHTS and who would later play a guy named “Ramar” in a 1950s teleseries). On the eve of her nuptials, her sole parent, a Scottish skipper, descants on how he discovered Tollea as an infant foundling, smuggled aboard his ship after the skipper left the fabled Cobra Island. Despite having had a crusty old Scotsman as her father and mother, Tollea seems every inch the sarong-wearing South Seas siren, and apparently her future husband plans to settle down with her in her own territory rather than his taking her back to the States. As part of the package deal, Ramu also gets the equivalent of an annoying “little brother”—Kado (Sabu), who hangs around Ramu and the Scotsman whenever possible. It’s Kado who first encounters a mysterious stranger on the island, a mute giant named Hava (Lon Chaney Jr).

Prior to her wedding-day, Tollea disappears from her hut, and the man who was guarding her—against what, one never knows—is slain. The assailant leaves behind his murder-weapon: a two-pronged knife that leaves wounds on the victim’s throat like the marks of a cobra’s bite. This, and the skipper’s reminiscences about Tollea’s foundling history, lead Ramu to figure out that someone has abducted Tollea and taken her back to the place of her birth. With Kado tagging along, Ramu sets sail for the mysterious isle.

Before the rescuers can arrive, Tollea meets the person responsible for using mute Hava to abduct her: Tollea’s grandmother. (This means that she’s also responsible for the nameless guard’s murder, though everyone pretty much forgets that bit of collateral damage.) Grandma explains that Tollea is one of two twin princesses of Cobra Island, and that one of them was destined to become the high priestess of the cobra-religion. Both girls were exposed to cobra venom. The younger sister, Naja (also played by Montez, sporting a name that means “snake” in Hindu), survived the venom, but little Tollea became sick. Ordinarily this would mean that she would be slain out of hand, but the grandmother preserved the babe’s life by smuggling her aboard the Scotsman’s ship. Now, however, Naja has become a wicked and murderous high priestess, and Grandma, having read her Alexandre Dumas, hopes to replace a bad sister with a good one.

There’s certainly no shortage of wild incidents to keep the tension high. Kado kills both a panther and a cobra with a blowgun. Ramu runs across Naja while the latter’s taking a bath, mistakes her for Tollea, and proves himself so charming that Naja wants to ditch her high priest (Edgar Barrier) for the American stranger. Eventually the twins meet, proving that Montez couldn’t act playing either heroine or villainess. Naja dies, and Tollea is forced to stand in for her sister in performing the perilous Cobra Dance. The local volcano even blows its top when the ritual is botched, but then calms down when the good guys win over the bad guys. The cantankerous volcano doesn’t register as metaphenomenal, but the fictional religion of the island certainly does, as does the peculiar fang-weapon Hava uses.

I called the film “derivative” earlier, and at least one critic, John Stanley, apparently came to the same conclusion, erroneously attributing the original story to H. Rider Haggard. The film clearly credits the story to long-time Hollywood scribe Scott Darling. Yet it’s extremely likely that Darling borrowed a couple of major ideas from Haggard.

One has to do with the specific form of Naja’s tyranny. While doing her cobra-dance before a crowd of worshippers, she goes into an ecstatic state and begins pointing out victims who must be sacrificed to the god. This idea is almost certainly borrowed from the Haggard novel KING SOLOMON’S MINES, wherein a witch-finder—who is, to be sure, a decrepit old African woman—randomly picks out victims from a crowd, simply as a means of maintaining absolute control of the tribe.

The other major idea is that of centering the story around the exotic evil queen, as Haggard did in his equally immortal novel SHE. In the previous Hall-Montez vehicle, the lead actors were the central players, and everyone else in ARABIAN NIGHTS—from the villains to the comedy relief (also played by Sabu)—proved secondary to the story of the lead actors’ romance. But Tollea and Ramu are more like the viewpoint characters of SHE, who exist to introduce the readers to a formidable, somewhat fearsome figure. To be sure, Naja is not a character able to measure up to She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. However, if we assume that Scott Darling alone was Naja’s creator, rather than the writers of the screenplay, Darling did come up with something more than your standard evil queen. Her ritual dance with the cobra may take some inspiration from the Balinese rite in which a young woman actually tries to kiss the venomous serpent without being bitten. Failing that, though, she can also be compared to any number of pagan queens who are ritually “married” to a beast-god, though the god is usually just the product of archaic imaginations. Once Naja is dead and her evil regime has been defeated (in a better-than-average action-scene for this type of film), Tollea and Ramu depart Cobra Island for their marriage. But neither of them captures the audience’s imagination as does evil Naja, the “Cobra Woman” of the title. And just to remain consistent on my combative classifications, Naja represents a combative central character by virtue of the soldiers she controls, since she has no literal power beyond the ability to survive cobra venom.

Sunday, June 14, 2020




Mega-prolific Jesus Franco directed SUCCUBUS (original title NECRONIMICON) as part of a deal for three pictures, all featuring model-turned-actress Janine Reynaud. I’ve reviewed the other two flicks—the so-called “Red Lips”movies—and my verdict was that they were cheapjack excuses for adventure-films. However, they have one virtue that SUCCUBUS does not: they were not excessively pretentious.

In a DVD interview about the film, Franco talks about SUCCUBUS being the first film over which he had real creative control, and about how it debuted, unlike most of his movies, at some film festival. I noticed, though, that he didn’t discuss any of the ideas that informed the film, despite the fact the script drops names of literary luminaries like Sade and cinematic celebrities like Godard. In the interview he claimed it was a virtue that he’d made a film that he himself didn’t understand. But viewing SUCCUBUS didn’t leave me with the impression of an artist filled with visionary fire. I might not like a lot of Godard, but there are always some ideas swirling around even in his worst films. Franco is just a con-man, dealing in phony-baloney surrealism.

Lorna Green (Reynaud) initially seems to be some torture-happy psycho akin to other Franco fiends, for she’s first seen tormenting a man and woman in chains. But it’s soon revealed to be a Grand Guignol act for an audience. However, Lorna’s manager Mulligan (Jack Taylor) thinks some decidedly odd thoughts about how he’s molded her into an evil being he can manipulate. The two of them indulge in lovemaking, but this too is erotica for the extrinsic audience of the film, and in contrast to some of Franco’s earlier films, the viewer never has a definite sense of what the controller has in mind for his unwitting puppet. Lorna experiences some odd encounters with Spanish monks, with a dead man at a funeral, and some wild sex-games at a party—and at some point, she loses her ability to separate herself from the sadistic character she plays on stage. Lorna hooks up with a hot blonde lady, has some brief Sapphic sex, and then murders her. Similarly, she attacks the two actors she normally pretend-tortures on stage. She seems to get killed by police, but returns long enough to kill Mulligan. The end.

Strangely, though Franco name-drops the Marquis de Sade three times, neither the sex nor the violence ever has Sadean overtones. I believe that Franco may have making some ill-considered attempt at Sadean fantasy, since one of his next projects was a loose adaptation of the French author’s PHILOSOPHHY IN THE BOUDOIR. But the references to Godard seem more telling, for on the whole SUCCUBUS is all about Franco trying to mimic the distancing effects of the French New Wave. Godard’s 1965 ALPHAVILLE tosses out light-hearted references to Marx and to comic strip heroes. So in SUCCUBUS Franco has Lorna and Mulligan drivel a while about which authors or musicians are “in” these days. More absurdly, Mulligan plays a word-association game, asking Lorna for her opinion of various horror-icons, represented by small plastic toys of the Frankenstein Monster, the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, and a dinosaur that slightly resembles Godzilla. Regardless of the subject, Franco really has nothing to say about any topics, he’s just trying to impress people with his Godardian devices. (In the interview, Franco claims that he didn’t take the original NECRONOMICON title from Lovecraft, but a real ancient manuscript on which Lovecraft based his fictional text. This could well be a literary hoax, but it’s not interesting enough to investigate.

There are various scenes in which reality seems to get temporarily out of whack, and clearly Franco doesn’t care whether the viewer interprets it as demonic agency or Lorna losing her mind. The only time this stratagem becomes visually interesting takes place during the murder of the blonde, in that a bunch of clothes mannequins come to life at the same time. Since most of the reality-bending scenes don’t connote anything, I choose to view them as evidence of Lorna’s mental disintegration. But Reynaud is too bland an actress to earn much empathy for her plight. Indeed, her attitude renders even her nude scenes boring.

There was just one act of name-dropping I appreciated, probably because it was the last one. As the film ends, a voiceover compares Lorna to the character “Faustine” from one of the poems of masochistic poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Since this may well be the only time Swinburne ever got any exposure in cinema, I guess that’s some sort of accomplishment.

Friday, June 12, 2020


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

Though FURY OF ACHILLES may look like your average historical peplum, it’s likely to be the only one to which I assign a high level of mythicity. That’s because, even though it’s a severely adumbrated, ninety-minute version of THE ILIAD, director Massimo Girolami and his scenarists happily focus on certain key elements of the epic poem.

One key element is the frank admission that when Greek heroes go to war, they go with the expectation of plundering not just cities and treasures, but also any women who cross their paths. Achilles (Gordon Mitchell) isn’t as bad as the rest of the invading Greeks, though. When he takes prisoner lovely Trojan maiden Briseis (Gloria Milland), he doesn’t deflower her, but instead regales her with the story of his invulnerability (one thing you WON’T find in Homer’s epic). Still, it’s implied that the other Greeks may not be quite so withdrawn, as one sees in a conversation between Briseis and another captive, when the latter rationalizes that at least they haven’t been taken by gross old men.

The poem also doesn’t in any way imply that a real romance might evolve between Achilles and Briseis. The Greek commander Agamemnon foolishly takes one of Apollo’s temple-maidens for his amusement, and all of the Greeks suffer for this action. Apollo sends down fiery shafts to ravage the Greek camp, and Girolami stages the havoc more ably than many directors of big-budget efforts. (A nice touch is that while all the helpless mortals flee the gods’ vengeance in utter terror, a robed woman, implicitly Apollo’s sister Artemis, stands around watching the chaos.) Following this chastisement, Agamemon surrenders the priestess and then assuages his ego by taking possession of Achilles’ prize Briseis.

All of the resulting action follows the poem closely—Achilles’s sulking in his tent during battle, Hector slaying Achilles’ best friend, Achilles taking vengeance and then eventually surrendering Hector’s body to his father. Obviously, to keep the audience’s sympathies, this version of Achilles does not degrade Hector’s body quite as much as the hero of the poem did. But on the whole, even though the humble budget doesn’t allow for any grand performances, I preferred this version of THE ILIAD to such Hollywood efforts as “the Brad Pitt TROY.” Muscleman Mitchell is the only weak link here, as he’s not capable of more than simple thesping.

SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD is at least half right. Though the hero in the original Italian production was another incarnation of wandering hero Maciste, at least the scenarists have the hero doing Samson-like feats, such as pulling down pillars and fighting wild beasts (here a tiger rather than the lion of the Biblical stalwart). However, there aren’t seven separate miracles in the story. At one point the English translation attempts to rationalize the title by having a character claim that Samson already did six other miracles and that the movie will climax with the seventh.

I got my hopes up for this re-viewing, having noticed that the director was horror-favorite Riccardo Freda. However, Freda can’t do much with this routine adventure-tale. Maciste/Samson shows up in 13th-century China during the Mongol dominion, and shows the Chinese people how to fight back against a ruler with the un-Mongolian name of “Garak.” Similarly, since an Italian guy plays the leader of the Chinese rebels, the script also has to rationalize him as having had foreign parentage. There’s also another Italian actress on hand as one of Garak’s concubines, and the only Asian actor of note is Japanese-born Yoko Tani, playing an imperiled princess.

Despite the charisma of Gordon Scott, he doesn’t get any good fights or any romance from any of the actresses. The film was shot on sets left over from a couple of more expensive projects with Chinese settings, one being MARCO POLO, so I imagine Freda and everyone else put in minimum effort, knowing the movie was mostly made to amortize the costs of other movie sets. Helene Chanel’s breasts were the only visual effects I cared about herein.


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

One IMDB review of this low-budget Taiwanese chopsocky asserted that it was a response to an earlier film, DRAGON GATE INN, which I have not seen. This seems very likely, since CHIVALROUS is filled with scenes in which actors bounce off one another with even less setup than one sees in the most average kung-fu flick. On top of that, the titular inn—a site where Ming loyalists converge to plot against the tyrannical Manchu dynasty—barely figures into the story after the first thirty minutes, after which the heroes and villains are just running around through caves and forests most of the time.

There’s a vague murder-mystery plot about loyalists being killed off by a Manchu general (Chang I) who’s a master of “the bloody stroke,” a kung-fu move he uses to kill people instantly with his outthrust fingers). Aside from the fact that the villain is made up to look like one of many hundreds of “white eyebrow” evildoers, the only other halfway interesting element is that female lead Lung Chung-erh—teamed up this time with male lead Carter Wong—belongs to an all-female tribe living in a hard-to-reach domain called “Cloud Valley.” Lung’s character introduces herself to the hero by killing off a bunch of his enemies with flowers that exude poison. Apparently all the women in her tribe are masters of floral poisons, although they’re not exactly possesses of good memories. When Wong asks Lung how her people came to live in the valley, she can’t seem to recall. Good thing he didn’t ask her how their male-less tribe renewed its ranks.

Carter Wong is just average in the fight department here, but there are some nice scenes by Lung Chung-erh and by Chia Ling, playing a side-character.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*


Director Bob Kelljan’s ACT OF VENGEANCE contributes a minor contribution to the annals of “female action-cinema,” pursuing a predictable path in showing a group of women taking arms against the male of the species. Arguably, because the main villain is a serial rapist, his presence might be deemed a borderline example of metaphenomenal horror. But despite the rapist’s choice of using a hockey mask about six years before Jason Voorhees, the movie is entirely naturalistic in nature.

Linda (Jo Ann Harris) is an innocent woman to suffer rape by a masked man who demands that she sing “Jingle Bells” to him before he takes her. This peculiarity might suggest a demented mind, and thus qualify the malefactor as a “perilous psycho.” However, there’s no real suggestion that the rapist, who in regular life uses the somewhat appropriate name “Jack” (Peter Brown), is insane, and his use of the Christmas song seems to have no purpose to further break down any resistance from his terrified victims. After being attacked, Linda immediately reports her assault to the police. Linda finds the cops less than sympathetic, as they’re largely concerned with protecting themselves from frivolous accusations. In fact, in a development that could only happen in a movie, the cops even set Linda and other victims up with a phony police-lineup, purely to prove to the women how difficult the cops’ job is.

The police station serves one good purpose: five women who have all been attacked by Masked Jack meet one another and decide to form a “rape squad.” To that end the women take a handful of karate classes. As a warmup for going after Jack, they take on a handsy seducer and a pimp abusing his hooker on the city-street. In both cases, though, most of  the women confine themselves to wrecking the bad guy’s property, though in the latter case the ladies bring along their female karate instructor (Lada Edmund Jr.) to kick hell out of the pimp. In his secret identity, though, Jack gets wind of their plans and sets up the Rape Squad for a fall.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a film following a set formula, but VENGEANCE does so in such a way as the undercut the visceral appeal of its premise. Despite setting up the audience to expect that all five women will be empowered, most of them are not seen engaging in brawls, which suggests to me a directoral attempt to avoid the headache of involved fight-choreography, Aside from the scene with the pimp, where the karate instructor does all the heavy lifting, most of the other actresses give no evidence of having obtained any self-defense skills, and none except the Linda character are given any decent character-scenes. Linda is also given the honor of defeating Jack in a competent one-on-one battle, while the rest of the women are either killed or ignominiously trapped.

Forget coming up to the empowerment-level of FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL—this merely watchable opus isn’t even on the level of THE BLACK ALLEYCATS.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I’ve seen none of the other films directed or photographed by C. Davis Smith, all of which seem to be low-budget exploitation works. But my re-watch of GIRL FROM SIN convinces me that he’s one of the few toilers in the grindhouse trade who was able to have fun with his material.

Most softcore features of the fiftes and sixties are, to use Somerset Maugham’s term, such “monuments to the obvious” that even the ones that have a grim attitude tend to seem laughable to modern audiences. In contrast, when grindhouse filmmakers shot for comedy, many of these prove tiresome retreads of old burlesque routines.

Not GIRL FROM S.I.N., both directed and co-written by Smith. The title references the U.N.C.L.E. TV shows of the period, which in turn evolved from the mega-success of the James Bond movie franchise. Such superspy antics depend on lots of expensive sets, stunts and costumes. Thus it was fairly audacious for Davis to come up with a micro-budgeted spy spoof, shot mostly in dingy apartments and using a narrator voiceover to avoid the expense of a soundtrack. Of course, Davis certainly knew that the only real effects desired by the “raincoat crowd” was lots of naked female flesh and simulated sex scenes. Still, the director does a good job of emulating the same tongue-in-cheek absurdity that made the two U.N.C.L.E. shows memorable.

GIRL opens with its titular seductress, Poontang Plenty (Joyanna, who only made one other film) doing what comes naturally with a nameless victim. She spends a lot of time massaging or pouring liquor on the guy’s feet, perhaps to distract from two facts: that she never lets the action get hotter than kissing, and that she remains clad the whole time, albeit in lingerie. Finally, she kills the guy with two long needles—did they know about acupuucture in 1966?-- and the movie starts.

Poontang proceeds to the headquarters of S.I.N., which happens to be one of the aforementioned apartments. There she meets her boss Doctor Sexus, his aide Bigjob, and one new recruit, “Silk Suit,” the “man from M.A.F.I.A.” The Mafioso is just there as a viewpoint character through which the omnipresent narrator can help explain the rules of
the game. The sinful spies are out to steal a formula for invisibility pills, produced by a scientist named Professor Drake, currently carrying on his experiments in the same apartment building.

Why did Drake and his cute blonde assistant Karen (Mary O’Day) come to an apartmet building for the experiments? Well, it seems Karen has a photographer-boyfriend, Sam, whose studio is the same building. Having Drake’s makeshift lab next door to the studio serves two equally absurd purposes: making sure that Sam can come to the rescue if necessary (no cops or federal agents needed here), and enabling Karen to “keep an eye”on Sam, who photographs a lot of nude women for advertisements—presumably in Playboy Magazine. We also get to see Sam hard at work, taking pictures of a nude woman drinking milk. (Another fetish heard from?)

While sitting around deciding what to do next, Sexus shows off Poontang’s abilities to their new recruit, as she both kayos Silk Suit with karate and beats up the towering Bigjob. But that’s the last time this Pussy Galore wannabe uses martial arts. Her next mission is to get a job with Sam, and though she still doesn’t take off her clothes, she does somehow make a wax impression of the keyhole to the lock next door, so that Silk Suit and Bigjob can invade the lab with no fuss.

However, in the film’s comic highlight, one of the experimental mice, newly made invisible, gets loose in the lab. The deadpan narration tells us that though Karen isn’t afraid of mice she can see, she’s terrified of invisible vermin. So she takes a pull so that the mouse can’t see her. Logical, yes? Also fortunate, since Karen goes invisible when Bigjob and Silk Suit invade the lab. Though they clobber Drake, Karen repels the spies with invisible punches and kicks until they flee without their prize.

That’s probably all I need say of the plot—and yes, it is a real plot, farcical though it may be—to convey the pleasures of S.I.N. Poontang does get two more lovemaking scenes, and she even takes off her bra for a second of two—though her funny attempt to seduce and/or rape Drake makes up for the lack of tit-action. Mary O’Day pretty much carries the burdern for the film’s T&A appeal, though during a lengthy (and unconvincing) torture sequence, she’s allowed to keep her bra on. There’s a big fight between good guys and bad spies at the end, which Davis tries to make exciting with lots of zooming close-ups. The film simply ends with Poontang dying of knife-wounds, with no attempt at a final wrap-up. I doubt that this film gave the raincoat crowd the kind of sin they really wanted, but for modern voyeurs on the hunt for things “so bad they’re good,” this GIRL has the goods.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

Seventeen years after the fact, X2 remains the Gold Standard among live-action X-Men movies. To be sure, one can also see in Byran Singer’s second outing many of the same mistakes that plagued later entries in the series. Most of the “problem areas” arise not from any intrinsic faults of Singer, though.

In an ongoing comic-book series, it rarely matters whether or not every character in a super-group gets a defining moment in a given episode. In the graphic novel GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS—a major source for the script of X2—the nature of the story places so much emphasis on the conflict between mutant terrorist Magneto and religious fanatic William Stryker that the starring heroes are somewhat sidelined. Readers of such serials, though, don’t necessarily expect Cyclops or Storm don’t act as much more than spear-carriers, for they’re invested enough in the series to expect that eventually the creators will devote more time to Cyclops, Storm, or whoever.

A big-budget movie franchise, however, may not have a sequel for another two or three years. So if, say, Storm doesn’t get a defining character-moment in her first two live-action films, there’s every chance that she never will—and indeed, the Fox series never succeeded in capturing the resonance of the X-Men’s foremost heroine.

Rogue is another fan-favorite who suffered a downgrade in importance. The youthful mutant garnered a great deal of empathy in the first film thanks to her interactions with Wolverine. But because her powers are downgraded to the simple ability to drain the powers of others—rather than being able to use them herself, in contrast to the comics—Rogue just doesn’t have a lot to do here. To an extent, she’s used to set up the introduction of another “classic X-Man,” the Iceman. However, he too is limited with respect to his importance to the script, remembered mostly for the camoflagued pro-gay joke, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” X-MEN set up a possible conflict between Wolverine and Cyclops over their mutant love interest Jean Grey, but, as if to herald the series’ growing fetishization of Wolverine, Cyclops’ status as team-leader is played down, and his most forceful scene takes place when he’s under the control of one of the villains, attacking Jean with his eye-beams.

On the plus side, the script—from which many other characters and concepts were cut-- does give good scenes to Jean Grey, Wolverine (of course), Professor Xavier and new addition Nightcrawler. The latter’s opening scenes, in which the mind-controlled mutant attempts to assassinate the President of the United States, provides an excellent display of Nightcraeler’s atheletic abilities, and Cumming’s heavily accented Teutonic mannerisms never descend to the level of parody. Like its predecessor, X2 continues to explore the mystery of Wolverine’s origins, but the revelation is once more postponed. However, the villain Stryker uses his knowledge of those origins to offer Wolverine a devil’s bargain-- so that when Wolverine nobly refuses, the audience is put in the position of experiencing something of the character’s fictional frustration.

In a sense Professor Xavier is placed in the centermost position. As the mentor to the X-Men and the founder of the School for Mutants, he takes a meliorist position with respect to the ongoing conflicts of mutants and humans. As such, the professor becomes the focus of attacks from both sides—one from the pro-mutant faction, including earlier foes Magneto and Mystique, and the other a proponent of a “humans only” attitude. This version of Stryker, who’s responsible for all the mind-control missions seen herein, is more of a military hawk than a religious fanatic, but the script keeps the character’s reasons for mutant-hating essentially the same, as well as building up the role of Stryker’s mutant son Jason. Both factions seek to use Xavier’s technology to ace out the competing species, which brings back into focus the Holocaust imagery invoked in the first film. Indeed, in contrast to certain progressive works, such as US, Singer scrupulously avoids demonizing “normals” in order to prop up his vision of the alienated other.

Though many subsequent X-films talked the talk about reaching some rapprochement between humans and mutants, X2 proved a hard act to follow, both in terms of theme and heady special FX. By and large, most of the follow-ups fell into the bad habit of simply introducing new X-characters willy-nilly, with no long-term plans as to how the newbies would fit into the cinematic X-verse. Thus, instead of building on the Nightcrawler character with a new actor (Alan Cumming having refused to return), the next entry simply brought in versions of the Beast and the Angel, who also didn’t take on any consequential significance in the franchise as a whole.

Still, when X2 first came out, it seemed like it opened new cinematic doors. Instead, the nature of big-budget filmmaking just kept opening the doors and closing them again, as would be evident with the parallel problems of the MCU’s AVENGERS films.