Monday, September 28, 2020

DESERT PHANTOM (1936), THE RANGE BUSTERS (1940)





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


Following the muse of completism as always, I screened these two oaters, both ostensibly remakes of the 1932 NIGHT RIDER

In my review of the Harry Carey production I mentioned that the Night Rider was just an outlaw dressed in black, who made no pretense about being a ghost. In DESERT PHANTOM, the masked outlaw is frequently called a "ghost"  or a "phantom," though I didn't notice that the villain had taken any special pains to make himself seem spectral. He's trying to force a pretty young girl to sell her ranch by pot-shotting her ranch-hands, in contrast to the 1932 outlaw, who was just a bandit. 

The hero here is Billy Donovan (Johnny Mack Brown), not a traveling marshal like Carey but a man looking to avenge his sister's murder. Whereas Carey's marshal masqueraded as an outlaw to find his quarry, Donovan pretends to a dude trick-shot artist, impressing all the folks in town, especially the pretty young thing, who invites him to be her bodyguard. The dude outfit is tossed aside for more manly attire, but Brown's scenes in foppish garb are the film's highlight.

In place of NIGHT RIDER's comic sidekicks, PHANTOM builds up a red herring, the girl's crippled stepfather, who may or may not be truly crippled. Eventually the Phantom is rounded up with no great surprises, though for a B-western this one has some nice action-sequences.



THE RANGE BUSTERS keeps the red herring-- a blind man this time-- and the potshotting masked figure, but though the word "phantom" gets tossed around, there's no consistent sense that anyone thinks he's a ghost. The disguise just barely shunts this flick, the first of a series called "Range Busters," into the realm of the metaphenomenal. This time much more emphasis is placed on the three members of the Range Busters team, who float around solving or avenging crimes for no particular reason. (For some reason the characters all sport, more or less, the same names as the actors.) Of the three westerns based on this script, this is the least interesting.




Saturday, September 26, 2020

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009)




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


In my previous X-film reviews, I've noted that the filmmakers showed little ambition with regard to building a stable X-MEN brand. Instead of implementing scripts that allowed the major franchise-characters to play off one another, the filmmakers chose generally formulaic storylines, the better to plug in whatever new characters suited their grab-bag fancies. The producers never seemed to think that a stable ensemble might be a good thing, and so X-characters would come and go with little discernible pattern. Some of them, like Cyclops, left simply because the actor became engaged by other projects, and Fox Studios, already stuck with one breakout star in the franchise, probably did not want to put any of the other thespians under a long-term contract, given their opinion that they could plug in just about any character into any situation without alienating the superhero-movie fan.

The “breakout star” to which I referred is of course Hugh Jackman, whose talents made certain that the character he played outshone all of the others in the fluctuating ensemble, just as the comic-book character had outstripped his comrades in four-color popularity. Presumably one or more of the filmmakers anticipated duplicating the Wolverine popualrity, since the first film in the series makes the question of his dubious origins a primary narrative concern. Two films later, Fox decided to do a film centered only upon the character's origins, while tossing in a few random X-characters in order to lure in suckers who thought they were getting another mutant-ensemble film.

I've not re-read any of the “Wolverine origin” tales in some time, so I'll make no comparisons between the comics and ORIGINS. But the movie script seems concerned with little more than connecting some of the narrative dots established in the previous films.

Take for instance the sketchy picture of Wolverine's earliest-seen years, growing up in rural Canada circa 1845 alongside two vague parents and a half-brother, Saber-Tooth. (Obviously both characters have everyday names, but I'll stick with their superhero cognomens for clarity's sake.) After a hazy family falling-out, the brothers venture out into the cold, cruel world, and learn that they both have mutant powers, slowing their age-rates and gifting both with “healing factors” that allow them to heal all wounds. In addition, both have “claws” of one sort or the other, though the film must grunt and groan to get viewers to the place where the hero gets his adamantium upgrade.


Wolverine and Saber-Tooth both display animalistic rages, though the hero naturally seeks to control his more than does the future “evil mutant.” To judge by the film's temporal montage, the two brothers do absolutely nothing for the next hundred-plus years but serve in assorted military conflicts-- until we get to the latter part of the 20th century. Aroundthis time, the brothers are co-opted to join an American “Black Ops” team, composed entirely of mutants and headed by William Stryker, familiar to viewers as A Guy Who Knows Stuff About Wolverine's Mysterious Past.


The other mutants are, for the most part, randomly chosen minor players in the long-running X-saga, with one exception: Wade “Deadpool” Wilson, whose comic-book version enjoyed breakout success as well. However, the writers make this version of Deadpool into a figure of little importance, existing largely to provide a formidable opponent for the end-scenes, but not one well integrated into the story.


The Black Ops team spells the end of Wolverine's military career, as he finally gets disgusted, leave the team behind, and gets a lumberjacking job in Canada. He even gets a beautiful girlfriend, who, since she's not in the earlier films, practically has “red shirt” tattooed on her skull. No moviegoer will be the least bit surprised that the bad spymasters don't just leave Wolverine to his own devices. Stryker pays a call on the Canadian hero, relating that Wolverine's half-brother has started targeting the other members of the old team for no particular reason. In addition, most moviegoers, having already seen Stryker in a bad light, will suspect that he's not doing Wolverine any favors with this warning.


Sure enough, Saber-Tooth appears to kill off some people, including the lovely girlfriend, but it's all part of a larger deception, aimed at giving Wolverine a desire to upgrade his powers so as to be avenged on his half-brother. Stryker's plans make very little sense in terms of achieving any real-world goal; they're all about connecting those continuity-dots. Once Wolverine has his adamantium claws, the film devolves into an unholy mess about Stryker trying to create the ultimate mutant by crossbreeding powers, or something equally stupid. Supposedly the whole scheme is being funded by the U.S. Government, though they've only sent one general to oversee the operation, whom Stryker simply knocks off when it's convenient.


The film's only saving graces consist of Jackman's incredibly committed performance, shining through the dreck like a light-beam through fog, and a boxing-scene between the hero and the film's version of long-time X-enemy The Blob. The rest of it is just a big farrago of clumsily-executed FX-scenes and lots of poorly executed characters. The nicest thing one can say about ORIGINS is that it was so bad, the series had nowhere to go but up after this.



Friday, September 25, 2020

AVENGERS GRIMM (2015)

 



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


There’s a long if not vernerable tradition of cinematic piggybacking, wherein a cheaply made film emulates some aspect of a more expensive production in order to profit from the latter film’s high profile. On occasion the imitative film occasionally to be something of a mirror image to the film imitated, as when THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN was followed by THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. A few such imitators are at least deent if unexceptional entertainments, as is the case with COLOSSAL MAN. However, some imitators—particularly the “mockbusters” of recent years—don’t offer even rudimentary story values.

It goes without saying that most of the piggybackers are derivative crap. AVENGERS GRIMM, though, seems to have been undertaken to see if it could win some reputation for being crappier than the crappiest. I imagine some conversation wherein the head of the Asylum Studios floated the idea of mockbusting Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS franchise. He would’ve been duly advised that Disney, the owners of the franchise, would have sued the company into the ground if they even attempted doing mock versions of the Marvel superheroes, even if the Asylum did get away with mockbusting THOR. Then, in this imaginary conversation, the studio head gets the idea: instead of mocking superheroes, they’ll use the public-domain characters of folklore as their heroes. One critic alleged that the Asylum scripters might have also been swiping from the ABC series ONCE UPON A TIME. Yet, given that Disney built its empire in large part on adapting folklore and children’s stories, that alone may be the reason the heroes of AVENGERS GRIMM are all a bunch of folkloric princess-types.

The makers of GRIMM manage a rare feat: they select five model-beautiful actresses to be the “Avengers” of the title, yet make all of the heroines so dull that they sustain no erotic interest. The five actresses playing the heroines—combative versions of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood—are partly responsible, since their line-readings are inexcusably tedious. But the script is the prime culprit.

Like many mockbusters, the narrative consists mostly of a lot of pointless running around. Rumpelstiltskin (Casper Van Dien) tries to take over the fairy-tale kingdom ruled by Snow White. As the two rulers battle in Snow’s courtroom—the only part of the kingdom the viewer ever sees—both of them fall through a portal that takes them to the more mundane, and less expensive, realm of Earth. Three of the other heroines—Cinderella, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty—follow to assist their queen, while the one badass girl in the group, Red Riding Hood, goes to Earth in search of her enemy the Wolf. For no particular reason, six months go by between the two portal-jumps, so that by the time fhe other four heroines arrive on Earth, years have passed for Snow and her enemy. She hasn’t done a whole lot with herself during that time, but Rumpelstiltskin has assumed a human identity, Mayor Heart, with his own supernatural police force and plans for conquering the whole world. This leads to a lot of poorly organized and poorly choregraphed battles, with the heroines being joined by a man who literally turns to iron, Iron John (Lou Ferrigno).

Ferrigno and Van Dien, the sole name actors, are also the sole attractions in this mess. And of the two, Van Dien is the only one who has a little fun with his villainous role, while Ferrigno is, as always, Ferrigno.



THE GREEN SLIME (1968)

 



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


Like the following year’s LATITUDE ZERO, THE GREEN SLIME had its origins in a collaboration between an American producer and the Japanese studio Toei. Japan supplied the location shooting, the director and the crew, while MGM provided funding and a handful of American actors (though most of the support-cast was made up of Caucasians who lived and worked in Japan). SLIME was also conceptually connected to a series of space-opera films helmed by Italian workhorse Antonio Marghiretti, though the finished product was not given any explicit ties to the Italian series. (Whether or not the Italians contributed leading lady Luciana Paluzzi, I do not know.) American producer Ian Reiner contributed the basic story idea, but the finished screenplay earns some marks on the trivia-meter because one of the three authors was Bill “co-creator of Batman” Finger. Sadly, all of these notations on SLIME’s behind-the-scenes production are more interesting than the film itself.


Nearly all of SLIME’s action takes place in outer space, at a time when the forces of Earth have successfully tamed the solar system with spaceships and space stations. (So little action takes place on Earth that there’s no indications as to the planet’s sociocultural makeup, though it sounds like Americans are pretty much on top of everything.) A giant asteroid careens into the solar system, threatening Earth. An expedition takes off from Space Staiton Gamma, co-commanded by two officers, Rankin (Robert Horton) and Elliott (Richard Jaekyl). The astronauts successfully land on the asteroid, plant explosive charges on it, and take off again, after which that particular threat to Earth ends with the asteroid’s explosion.

However, one of the crewmen steps in some “green slime” while on the asteroid. The slime—rather than being wiped out when exposed to radiation in the station’s decontamination chamber—is actually strengthened by the radiation, and grows into a one-eyed, tentacled green monster. The first time the creature is shot by ray-blasters, its blood propagates into more of the Slime-kind, slowly overwhelming the astronauts.

Director Kinji Fukasaki, unlike his contemporary Ishiro Honda, had far more success with down-to-earth drama than with the metaphenomenal genres. However, he does keep the action constant, though the rubbery, pop-eyed slime-monsters probably didn’t give too many American kids any nightmares. There is an amusing theme “Green Slime” theme song that bookends the film, but the script is too pedestrian to birth any worthwhile “so bad it’s good” moments.

I re-watched the film in part to see if the monsters of the title were the actual stars of the show, but the main character is actually Commander Rankin. He and Commander Elliott are romantic rivals for Lisa (Paluzzi), though at the time that Rankin is assigned to Elliott’s station, Lisa has thrown Rankin over and become engaged to Elliott. But even that aspect of the commanders’ relationship pales beside their roles as the spacefaring versions of Goofus and Gallant. Elliott is Goofus, constantly making bonehead errors and never learning from them, while Rankin is Gallant, who’s inevitably right about everything—even though his uncompromising rightness costs him a girlfriend for a time. However, the invasion of the Green Slime works out well for Rankin, for Elliott, haunted by his failures, sacrifices his life to rid the universe of the Green Slime—implicitly clearing Rankin’s path straight back into Lisa’s arms.



JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER (2008)

 



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

This adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s 2004 graphic novel, DC: THE NEW FRONTIER, received the implicit imprimatur of the artist, in that Cooke is credited with providing “additional material” to the script by Stan Berkowitz. Nevertheless, most of the things that made the graphic novel unique have been sacrificed for the 75-minute running time, and possibly also in order to earn the PG-13 rating.


I can appreciate the efficiency with which the sprawling graphic novel has been condensed. For instance, the Lovecraftian menace of the Centre—a dinosaur-inhabited island derived from a DC Comics’ Silver Age feature—benefits from the condensation, providing a more consistent sense of danger to the heroes. Not surprisingly, the film also purges all of Cooke’s callbacks to DC’s history of non-superheroic adventures, though some of them—the Blackhawks, the Challengers of the Unknown—make glorified cameos that may confuse newbies to the DC Universe. Since the title of the film does not celebrate DC Comics in general, but rather the specific history of the Justice League, the costumed characters get almost all of the attention.


JLTNF is still essentially faithful to the major story-arcs of Cooke’s narrative, particularly those arcs involving the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, the Barry Allen Flash, and the Martian Manhunter. JLTNF does drop one of the important subplots involving Superman and Batman, and in compensation the two heroes get some extremely minor new scenes. In addition, the film is careful to keep all the key emotional scenes that involved any of the major superheroes.

What most hurts the film as an adaptation is that the script fails to provide context in terms of two histories, both real-world history and the history of the DC Universe. Cooke’s graphic novel built on established continuity, in which all of the costumed heroes of the 1940s, including but not limited to the Justice Society, find themselves forbidden to keep operating by politicians and postwar paranoia. Within the history of DC Comics, this retroactive continuity was introduced to explain why so many 1940s heroes quit fighting crime in the 1950s (the real-history reason being that superheroes fell out of favor and simply got cancelled). Cooke elaborated on the 1950s outbreak of fear about Communists, people of color and “little green men,” and used it as a springboard to celebrate the rebirth of DC costumed heroes in the late 1950s. However, JLTNF speeds past the expository section, so that a viewer not already familiar with the comics would barely understand what happened to the Justice Society. The matter of American paranoia is watered down, and most of Cooke’s comments, insightful or not, regarding the marginalization of colored people just disappear. The only scene that adequately captures the sense of governmental overreach appears when federal agents attempt to capture Barry Allen—the quintessence of the straight-arrow superhero—and put him in some black-ops prison for his vigilante actions.

A few of the non-superhero characters—spy-master King Faraday and commando-commander Rick Flagg—still appear in supporting roles. But Cooke elaborated a vision of heroism that included both ordinary, skilled mortals and the characters with godlike powers. But JLTNF doesn’t even suggest such a vision, and the result is that it’s just another animated adventure of the Justice League--admittedly with better graphics-- but nothing more.




Monday, September 14, 2020

THE ADVENTURES OF ZATOICHI (1964)





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



Everyone’s favorite blind samurai-masseuse made his ninth appearance in this amiable if unremarkable melodrama.

The itinerant hero, journeying through medieval Japan on his way to a sacred festival, meets a man who asks the blind fellow to deliver a message. Zatoichi presumes that it’s a love letter. In truth the young man is in hiding after having been implicated in Yakuza business, and the recipient of the letter is the fellow’s sister. Once Zatoichi knows the truth, he’s unable to keep from involving himself in the young man’s troubles, even though the local Yakuza have their own pet samurai.

There’s a second family-oriented subplots, though they aren’t as persuasive as the main conflict, or even a throwaway moment when Zatoichi reminisces about his being abandoned by his father. Perhaps that’s why he travels around, lending his talents to the needy-- not just out of altruism, but as a deferred act of familial defense?

The only downside is that the blind hero’s uncanny swordfights are usually over too quickly to prove very impressive.


ALMIGHTY THOR (2011)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*




I’m no fan of Marvel Studios’ largely botched adaptation of Marvel Comics’ franchise character The Mighty Thor. Still, even the least of the three big-budget films, THOR RAGNAROK, offers a little more entertainment than this straight-to-DVD mockbuster.

Director Christopher Ray—son of Fred Olen Ray, whose credits also include reams of undistinguished schlock—hangs his narrative on that most popular of Nordic myths, the threat of Ragnarok, the utter destruction of the world. And how does he handle this portentous matter? With lots of tedious photography of people either running through woods, or running through some big city (presumably L.A) whose streets have no nearly no people in them. Loki (Richard Grieco) kills off his father Odin and one of his brothers in order to possess the Hammer of Invincibility. Younger brother Thor (Cody Deal), who manages to seem callow in spite of his impressive pectorals, swears vengeance on Loki. However, since he doesn’t know how to fight, a Valkyrie named Jarnsaxa (Patricia Velasquez of the MUMMY movies) succors the son of Odin. The two of them spend most of the movie running from pillar to post on a formless quest that the writer seems to be making up as he goes along. The script tosses in a few raggedy versions of Norse myths-- the weavers-of-fate known as the Norns, and some hellhounds given indifferent life by bad CGI. For what it’s worth, “Jarhsaxa” is the name of Thor’s wife in one myth. However, the writer’s book on Norse Mythology for Dummies must have been missing some pages, since he also works in the non-Norse name of “Hrothgar,” maybe just to prove he’s read BEOWULF.

The only actor who even tries to bring a little chutzpah to this mess is Grieco, who does his level best to exude unremitting malice, since this version of Loki is no trickster, but just a really mean, mean guy. The actor’s close-ups are most effective on those occasions when the film’s makeup department succeeds in keeping his skin a deathly shade of white.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

BATMAN: “ICE SPY” (1967)






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


The last episode of the second season is also the last hurrah for Mister Freeze (this time played by Eli Wallach) on BATMAN ‘66. I would assume that the sci-fi villain and his icy motifs would have proved too expensive for the scaled-down budget of the series’ third season. But it may be just as well, since, to judge from Charles Hoffman’s script, nobody on the show had anything much to say about the cold-hearted crook any more.

The episode at least starts well, as the frigid fiend assails an ocean liner in his own private iceberg, a visual reference to every “Titanic” flick ever made. On board the liner is famed ice skater Glazia Glaze, who’s working hand in glove with Freeze to locate a passenger, Professor Isaacson. Isaacson has perfected a formula that would make possible the construction of an ice-ray powerful enough to immobilize an entire city. Freeze captures Isaacson and subjects him to icy torments to gain the formula, but the professor courageously holds out. Meanwhile Freeze also demands a ransom for the scientist, though he intends to keep both money and prisoner. Batman and Robin track Ffeeze to his lair, and after the usual fight his gang shoves them into a freezing-chamber. Freeze promises Glazia that she will be able to skate over the icy bodies of the crusaders, which is about the only outstanding dialogue in the narrative.

In the second segment, the duo escape through another lame contrivance, but Freeze and his gang have deserted the hideout. Freeze worms the formula out of the professor and demonstrates it on select portions of Gotham. The heroes overtake Freeze once more and win the second fight. Batman shows a particular desire to put down the beautiful Glazia by revealing that he knows her inglorious real name, Emma Strunk—which action presumably marks her as one of the many molls lured into crime by the promise of an instant path to fame and money.

Sadly, though I tend to consider Eli Wallach a better actor than Otto Preminger, Wallach brings no real personality to the villain. Sometimes Wallach raves about his grand plans a la Preminger, and other times he’s a little more low-key. There’s no trace of the careful planner portrayed by both Preminger and George Sanders, and so “Ice Spy” is relegated to the position of the least of the three Freeze outings.

BATMAN: “POP GOES THE JOKER” (1967)

 




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


                             

With more work, Stanford Sherman might have turned this episode into an irony-laced assault on modern art—including, with even more irony, the fad of “pop art” that helped sell BATMAN ’66 to studio heads. But though Sherman does include a number of wry comments about the art scene, the whole never proves greater than the sum of its parts.


The opening scene, for once, doesn’t show the Joker executing some carefully laid plot. He appears at a modern art galley with some thugs, and proceeds to spray-paint several alleged masterpieces. Given that the character never justifies his actions, one can only suppose that he’s a traditionalist, and just doesn’t like what he deems bad art, at one point crying, “Away with dullness.” Batman and Robin show up and clean his clock. However, before they can take the supercrook to the pokey, an esteemed artist proclaims that the mutilated paintings are better art after being spray-painted (a possible sneer at Jackson Pollock, perhaps). Similarly, without the villain even making any effort, various empty-headed art-lovers attach themselves to the alleged New Face in Art, and Joker immediately forms his own art-school to take advantage of these dunces. The biggest duncecap goes to heiress Baby Jane Towser, who helps Joker gain acceptance in the art world, by claiming that his banal paintings signify things like “the emptiness of modern life.”

The Clown Prince of Crime naturally can’t content himself with simply sponging off rich fools, and Batman suspects as much. In the identity of Bruce Wayne the crusader goes undercover as a student at Joker’s art school, and the best scenes are those in which the two old enemies snarl at each other, even though Joker has no idea of Wayne’s true identity. Sure enough, Joker decides to hold all the rich fools for ransom. Wayne isn’t able to get away and don his Bat-garb, so Robin charges in alone. Despite assistance from the millionaire playboy, Robin is overcome and put into a deathtrap, while Wayne is tied to a chair so he can watch. The trap and the escape are both just average.


In the second half, Joker is apprehended but Baby Jane helps him dodge any charges because he’s just an eccentric artist. Indeed, Joker himself remarks on the moral neutrality of art, claiming that, “We artists aren’t required to be nice, only talented.” The script then loses its focus in the last few scenes, as Joker flees Batman’s wrath, seeks out Wayne’s mansion to swipe some easy cash, and gets summarily humiliated by Alfred.  


BATMAN: “BLACK WIDOW STRIKES AGAIN” (1967)



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




Robert Mintz’s script ptopounds a new villain with whom the Dynamic Duo have already contended: the Black Widow (Tallulah Bankhead). However, whenever the villainess interacts with the duo, none of them really seem to be well acquainted with one another, in contrast to the way the heroes interact with other first-time fiends like False Face and Bookworm. When the Widow tells the crimiefighters that she finds them to be crashing bores, she acts as if it’s the first time she’s ever encountered them.

Black Widow falls into the same category as Archer, Sandman and Marsha in being a collection of villainous “tics” with no hint of psychological consistency. Possibly Black Widow’s dominant motifs—brainwashing bank officials with a memory-gadget, and using various spider-based weapons—found inspiration in the fate of her presumably late husband Max, since she would be a literal “black widow” if she killed him off. But all we know of Max is that he was wont to uttering clich├ęs like “Money can’t buy happiness,” to which the Widow replies, “Happiness can’t buy money.”

For no particular reason, Black Widow uses her memory-gadget to rob all the banks in Gotham, going in alphabetical order. (Convenently, Gotham happens to have a bank for every letter from A through H.) After the duo consult their Bat-computer—once more, a source of dopey sub-juvenile humor—they trail Black Widow to her hideout with an “olfactory detector.” As usual the villain mousetraps the heroes and subjects them to a deathtrap without either removing their utility belts or staying to watch them perish, with the usual results.

The villainess, who speaks all of her lines with a droll attitude suggesting she considers herself above this folderol, does perpetrate one humiliation on Batman. By subjecting him to her memory-gadget, the crimefighter temporarily loses his moral compass, so that anyone can t\alk him into anything. While Robin is a captive and Batman is incapacitated, the villainess goes out on another bank-robbing caper, this time dressing up as Robin and taking along a dummy Batman. Robin does reverse Batman’s mental ennui by encouraging the crusader to sing something. The world presumably will never know why the Gotham Guardian chooses a selection from “The Mikado.” But if anything proves memorable about this dull episode, it would be the sight of Adam West singing, “Poor Little Buttercup I.”

BATMAN: “KING TUT’S COUP” (1967)





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





The third outing for King Tut, scripted by Stanley Ralph Ross and the team of Leon and Pauline Townsend, starts off with the Egyptian evildoer back in his identity as a Yale professor. However, some crumbling masonry hits him on the skull—as well as clobbering a couple of nearby students. Thus King Tut lives again, and two of his servants are even in on the delusion.

The script doesn’t trouble to give the royal robber a scheme for dominating Gotham City. This time, the obese overlord just wants someone to love. Tut decides that Lisa Carson, daughter of a rich Gothamite, is the reincarnation of Cleopatra, simply because she dresses as Cleo for a masquerade party. No one bothers to point out that the historical versions of Cleopatra and Tutankhamen lived in different eras, naturally. For once Tut “counts coup” on Batman, in that millionaire Bruce Wayne has been dating Lisa occasionally—which is very nearly the only time Wayne comes close to justifying his image as a “playboy.”

There’s also an odd touch in that Tut already has a moll, one Nelia (Grace Lee Whitney), and there’s a brief suggestion that Nelia and Tut have done a little more than verbal dalliance. This suggestion plays a minor role in the script when Nelia actually tries to free Robin from captivity so that he’ll remove Lisa from Tut’s overbearing attentions, purely with the idea of saving the king for herself. There’s a decent enough deathtrap and trap-escape, but I suspect that the priority of the writing-team was to come up with as many acidulous lines as they could for Victor Buono—and he chews the scenery in grand form, particularly in describing the terrible things he’d like to do to Batman.

That said, the hero, in both of his identities, gets two of the best lines. After the climactic fight, Tut reverts to his normal persona, and bemoans his fate in the legal system—whereon Batman borrows from an old Teddy Roosevelt speech, solemnly declaring that, “no man is above the law, and no man is below it.” On a much lighter note, the coda shows Bruce concluding a date with Lisa, accepting her invitation into her apartment for “milk and cookies,” because (as he tells the audience) “Man cannot live by crimefighting alone.”

BATMAN: “A PIECE OF THE ACTION” (1967)




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


By the time this crossover episode aired, it probably came too late to boost the ratings of THE GREEN HORNET, which the same producers had launched in response to the success of BATMAN. As TV crossovers go, it’s satisfactory enough, though Charles Hoffman’s script suffers from a weak villain—created to be weak, one might think, so as to not distract from the four crimefighters too much.


Though the Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee) have their own city to patrol—wherein they pose as wanted criminals in order to get the goods on real crooks-- for unspoken reasons they decide to investigate a criminal in Gotham City. Said malefactor is Colonel Gumm (Roger C. Carmel), the foreman of a stamp-making factory owned by heiress Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain). Gumm’s main perfidy is that using his employment as a cover for counterfeiting rare stamps and selling the illicit items to collectors,,though by the episode’s conclusion he also plans to rip off a famous rare stamp known as “the Gotham Gothic.” He’s apparently outfitted the factory with super-villain weapons in case of crimefighters, though for once we have a villain who's not trying to garner attention for his crimes. 

Gumm's boss Pinky is somewhat of an anomaly in the Bat-series. Though she acts like a society airhead, dressing all in pink and pretending to talk with her Maltese dog Apricot, Pinky proves to be reasonably clever. She's suspicious of Gumm early in the episode, and when the villain kidnaps her, she finds a way (however preposterous) to leave a trail for the crimeifhghters. Moreover, she’s socially acquainted with both Bruce Wayne and Britt Reid, the respective civilian identities of Batman and Green Hornet. The precise backstory between Bruce, Britt and Pinky is not laid out. It's only stated that Bruce and Britt have been “rivals” for some time, possibly over Pinky, though she never makes romantic overtures toward either man. Thus their attempts to charm her may reflect more male rivalry than actual interest in the woman. Of course, the main purpose of the rivalry is to prefigure the inevitable conflict of Batman and Robin with the Hornet and Kato-- though in some ways the Bruce-Britt conflict is more interesting.

All four crusaders turn up in Gumm’s factory and get mousetrapped. Having Gumm trap Batman and Robin on an “undetachable glue pad” is no worse than many other larger-than-life perils in the series. However, the Hornet and Kato are subjected to one of the series’ stupidest deathtraps: feeding them into a machine that will supposedly turn them into giant stamp-reproductions of themselves. It’s a minor consolation that this does not actually happen, though the villain seems to believe it’s actually possible—and once again, we see a writer indulging in cartoony silliness, such as would become common in the third season.


There are a handful of moderately clever moments amid this tomfoolery. The “window-climbing” guest-star, actor Edward G. Robinson, makes an appearance in order to hype his reputation as a real-life art expert, which involves sneering at the very “pop art” that helped give rise to the BATMAN series. Robin does a role-reversal in which he assumes a dominant attitude toward his senior partner, though at the episode’s end Batman’s still the only one astute enough to guess that Hornet and Kato are really good guys. But the episode’s highlight is the big climactic fight, in which the Dynamic Duo battle both Colonel Gumm’s goons as well as Hornet and Kato. It’s a better choreographed fight-scene than the average Bat-battle, even if the heroes of the two respective serials are obliged to fight to a draw.

BATMAN: “CATWOMAN GOES TO COLLEGE” (1967)






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




This was the last Catwoman appearance for Julie Newmar, and scripter Stanley Ralph Ross seemingly decided to ignore the continuity he had established (assuming, of course, that he was not told to pursue a different direction).

Catwoman’s apparent fatal fall is entirely forgotten, and as the episode begins, she’s in prison—but this time, Bruce Wayne himself is responsible for securing her early release. Though in other episodes Wayne is seen extending the hand of the philanthropist to erring criminals—mostly females like Blaze in “True or False Face”—this is the first time he personally sponsors a repeat offender. In both of the hero’s identities, he seems a good deal more smitten with Catwoman than in earlier episodes. In contrast, Catwoman’s affections for Batman seem to have cooled somewhat, since she attempts to kill him off when he wrecks one of her criminal schemes.

The moment Wayne springs Catwoman, she apparently has her next gambit all plotted out, for she remarks that she was a college dropout and plans to return to the halls of education to better herself. While she does attend classes—including one where Batman himself gives a lecture—her real plan is twofold.

First, she has her three flunkies—named for the colleges Penn, Brown, and Cornell—steal a statue of Batman.Though other villains didn’t need any such model to produce exact copies of the crusader’s costume, Catwman apparently requires one, in order to make a Bat-costume, so that one of her hoods can impersonate the hero, commit a crime, and get Batman arrested.

Second, she somehow gets in good with the entire student populace—though this is not shown—and encourages them to hold a sit-in. Naturally, no political grievances are cited for the protest: to some viewers in the sixties, protesting was just what students did all the time. The demonstration serves to distract the police while Catwoman and her gang steal a priceless set of gems known as “cat’s-eye opals.” The protest doesn’t keep Batman (who escapes jail on his own) and Robin from skirmishing with the gang. The heroes are captured, and Catwoman, despite having shared a romantic soda with Batman earlier, puts both crimefighters in the obligatory deathtrap. They escape with the obligatory lame effort, accompanied by Robin’s making some tedious comments about the “destiny” guiding their escapes.

Catwoman then has the displeasure of learning two hard facts of life. The first is that the fabulous opals are too hot to fence, so she can’t sell them. The second is that Batman somehow figured out Catwoman’s object—though the viewer is not privy to his logic-- and that he substituted phony stones for the opals. Having gone through a lot of trouble for nothing, the villainess throws profit to the wind and tries to use her sex appeal to lure Batman into a fatal trap. Again, she now seems utterly indifferent to the prospect of killing the man she supposedly loves—a sentiment she reaffirms at episode’s end—not to mention the fact that she had nothing specific to gain from Batman’s death at that time. Julie Newmar still gets a lot of sassy lines as always, which she delivers with aplomb, but once again scripter Ross gives in to cutesy humor. After her second deathtrap fails, the female felon makes a show of fighting Batman with “cat-rate,” and the hero sentenetiously replies that “karate” is purely a defensive martial art—which doubtless would come as a surprise to actual practitioners of the art. There are other oddball aspects of the script, as when Batman seems vaguely superstitious, and bumbling Commisioner Gordon even tells Batman that he Gordon once suspected that Bruce Wayne might be the masked manhunter—which gives the top cop more acuity than he ever had before. It’s a mixed bag at best, redeemed largely by the interactions of West and Newmar.

BATMAN: “THE JOKER’S LAST LAUGH” (1967)




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

Next to the vapidity of “The Impractical Joker,” “Laugh” is at least a return to decent form. Peter Rabe and Lorenzo Semple provide the villain with one of his more worldly operations—a simple counterfeiting scheme. It’s a nice touch, though, that Joker’s cover for the project happens to be that of publishing the sort of periodicals in which he and his opponents were born: comic book magazines. To be sure, the script never lets viewers see what sort of comic books the Clown Prince unleashes upon Gotham, and the script doesn’t really exploit the connection between the medium and the characters cavorting on the small screen.

The villain’s venture into super-science is also given a comic rationale, in that Joker now controls three super-strong robots, which he learned how to make thanks to some prison educational class, according to what he tells his moll Josie Miller (patently named for “Joe Miller’s Joke Book.”) Though this time Joker doesn’t issue any teasing clues to the heroes, he does provoke the good Commissioner by setting up a recording of his manic laughter in the aggrieved top cop’s office. This action proves enough reason for the duo to connect the fiend with the ongoing appearance of counterfeit money. They make the connection to the comics-company on the assertion that the comics use the same hues found in federally printed currency.

Joker is somewhat pro-active this time, trying to track the crusaders back to the Batcave, only to be foiled by Batman’s “Bat-deflector”—giving Cesar Romero the opportunity to wax wroth at his foes. Nevertheless, the crimefighters are forced to compile evidence of Joker’s crimes. Assuming the form of Bruce Wayne, the Cowled Crusader barges into the villain’s publishing house, spinning a story about his facing embezzling charges for speculation with Wayne Foundation funds. He then attempts to persuade Joker to print him some funny money to get himself off the hook, and rather bizarrely, both Joker and his moll seem to buy it. However, as soon as Joker has printed some counterfeit bills, Robin charges in, attempting to arrest the villain and his coterie of hired thugs. Even with Wayne surreptitiously helping the Boy Wonder, the bad guys triumph—and the deathtrap proves appropriate: attempting to use a comic-book printing-press to make Robin as flat as the character from whom he descended,

In addition to not getting the goods on the Clown Prince, Batman’s gambit backfires in a number of ways. First, in order to gain Joker’s co-operation, Wayne had to offer him the position of vice chairman at a Gotham bank where Bruce Wayne has pull. Thus Joker and his robots set up shop at the bank, apparently dropping the counterfeiting scheme—and the heroes can’t figure out the villain’s next move. Joker tries to gain a hold over Bruce Wayne by playing a recording of the millionaire’s supposed infamy, but when Wayne refuses to be blackmailed, Joker resorts to a backup plan: having Josie pounce on Wayne and claim that the two of them were secretly affianced. On top of all this, Gotham’s top cops decide that Bruce Wayne must have gone crazy when he appointed Joker to the bank, so Batman briefly suffers the humiliation of being sentenced to a loony bin. Joker’s plans for the bank are never fully revealed, for the heroes find a way to short-circuit the robots so that they commit criminal acts—which is technically called “framing,” though no BATMAN viewer probably really cared. After Joker and his robots are vanquished, there’s a small turnaround in that for once a villain’s moll doesn’t go goony over Batman. Rather, she tells the crusader to tell Bruce Wayne that she would’ve liked to know him better—which might strike some people as “six of one, half dozen of the other.”


BATMAN: “BATMAN’S ANNIVERSARY” (1967)



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

 Numerous reviewers have faulted actor John Astin for his one turn as the Riddler, during the period when Frank Gorshin was holding out for more money. It’s true that Astin is not as manic in the role as Gorshin. Still, the former “Gomez Addams” makes a valiant effort to capture the villain’s combination of egotism and daredevil flair. “Anniversary” biggest flaw is William D’Angelo’s weak script, which doesn’t really propound any good riddles for the Prince of Puzzlers. For instance, Riddler’s first challenge to the heroes tells them to look for “an engaging page”—though the conundrum doesn’t actually take the form of a riddle, and seems more appropriate for that one-shot foe, the Puzzler.

The “big score” this time comes close to stealing from Batman himself, though what Riddler actually rips off are assorted charity donations, being made by Gothamites to celebrate the anniversary of Batman initiating his anti-crime crusade in the city. The episode’s opening may the best scene in the show, since Batman is once again put in the positon of modestly refusing the accolades of Gotham citizens. To be sure, D’Angelo gives the Gothamites’ first contribution an odd form; that of a “golden calf,” which inevitably hearkens back to the pagan idol in the story of Moses. Like Catwoman in “That Darn Catwoman,” Riddler’s collecting dough in order to garner even greater power, Riddler uses the charity-cash to buy a pen-sized disintegrator from a destitute physicist. With this wild SF-device, the villain plans to hold the entire city ransom., but of course Batman has his own super-scientific resources, and once again the villain meets defeat.

One highlight is an amusing slow-motion battle between heroes and villains in the vault of a flooded bank. The deathtrap also proves visually inventive, in that Riddler lures the heroes into standing on top of a giant-sized commemorative cake, and the two crusaders almost sink into a cunningly arranged pit of quicksand.

BATMAN: “PENGUIN IS A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND" (1967)



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




Though I deem “Marsha, Queen of Diamonds” to be one of the weakest villains created for the Bat-series, her creator Stanford Sherman accomplished a minor feat in this episode, for in her last appearance I found the character at least bearable.

To be sure, she wouldn’t have worked so well had she been teamed with another weak villain, such as Sandman. But here she’s teamed with the Penguin, and for once, the Birdman Bandit gets a script worthy of his character-strengths. Both on the TV show and in the comic, it’s easy for writers to write Penguin as a buffoon. But he works best when he’s shown to be capable of inventive crimes. His ingenuity is the proximate cause of his tremendous ego and resultant pomposity, and both of these can trip him up. Given the role of ironic humor in BATMAN ’66, it’s not surprising that many of the scripters chose to emphasize Penguin’s foolishness, which gave Burgess Meredith the chance for assorted comic turns, from slow burns to squawking rants. But “Friend” manages to concoct a clever scheme for the archvillain while still permitting him plenty of opportunities to fume and fulminate against his caped opponents.

Where “Death in Slow Motion” provided a light-hearted salute to the history of early cinema, “Friend” spends a great deal of time taking shots at then-contemporary Hollywood. Penguin, once more on parole, organizes a movie company and hoaxes Batman and Robin into signing contracts to perform in a film. Or rather, he thinks that he hoaxes them, for Batman perceives the setup and goes along with Penguin’s plot in order to smoke out the evildoer’s plans. As for the Queen of Diamonds, Penguin needs Marsha to finance his phony movie venture. There’s no indication that she went to jail as the result of her last caper, so one might speculate that an expensive lawyer might have got her off. In any case, Marsha’s still flush enough to finance Penguin’s picture, as long as the Queen gets the chance to play love-scenes with the Cowled Crusader. The first segment is replete with many spoofy refereneces to the opulence of Hollywood historical epics. Perhaps the most erudite of these in-jokes is the mention of a “milk bath,” which is probably Sherman’s recollection of a similar piece of exotica in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS. That said, Penguin puts a particularly salacious scene in his historical epic, and though Sherman never reveals the nature of the objectionable content, one assumes that it might be less in line with DeMille than with a seventies production like CALIGULA. However, a local decency club, headed by the redoubtable Aunt Harrier, shuts down Penguin’s attempt to become the founder of “porno chic.” Madge Blake and Meredith play well off one another, though neither seems to remember having encountered the other in “The Penguin’s Nest.”

Though Marsha fails to enslave Batman with her love-potion lipstick, Penguin has better luck overcoming the duo and sticking them in a medieval-themed deathtrap, from which they escape in improbable fashion. When the crusaders return to the studio, attempting to mend fences with the villain, Penguin abandons whatever plan he had to use them in his movie project and kicks them out. However, the astute senior crusader hoaxes the villain into believing that the noble Batman has been bitten by the acting bug, which gives Penguin enough confidence to invite them back—which in turn leads to a second deathtrap, this being the second of the season’s three-parters.

The escape from the second deathtrap registers no better than the first, but Penguin’s insidious plan begins to come together in the third segment. Perhaps the best thing about Sherman’s script is that in contrast to many other Bat-plots, neither the heroes nor the viewers know the villain’s scheme until the last part of Segment Three. In short, Penguin makes a very special assault upon Gotham’s subtreasury building, in order to emulate Goldfinger and spirit away all the gold therein. Contrary to the first segment’s claim that Penguin onlywanted Marsha for her money, the diamond-queen plays a vital role, performing a “dance of the seven veils” to get past the subtreasury’s guards. In addition, Marsha’s Aunt Hilda, the dotty would-be witch, also makes substantial contributions to the big score, and even though she’s still not funny, at least this time she’s much more integral to the narrative.

In addition to the jokes about the movie biz, “Friend” also tosses in a few barbs agains the military, here represented by the officers of “the Hexagon.” But the most outstanding aspect of the episode is that it gives Meredith his best outing in the role of the Birdman Bandit. As for Marsha, at least she’s not like some fickle villainesses, turning her back on crime at the sight of Batman’s manly physique,

Thursday, September 10, 2020

NEW BLOG ANNOUNCEMENT: TRULY SUPERCOMBATIVE

 For any interested readers: I've started a new blog devoted to shorter and less analytical reviews than what I do on NATURALISTIC UNCANNY MARVELOUS. The new one focuses only upon movies or TV shows in the superhero idiom, and for the time being will only address those beginning with the letter "A." I decided on this limitation to see how well it would work for me to focus only upon movies involving fantastic combat-- "supercombative," to advance a possible term-- with that restriction.
The link for THE SUPERCOMBATIVE BLOG is in the blog list.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

ASTERIX THE GAUL (1967), ASTERIX AND CLEOPATRA (1968), TWELVE TASKS OF ASTERIX (1976)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*



While I generally like films adaptations to be reasonably faithful to their source material, there’s such a thing as showing too close a fidelity.

The French comics-series ASTERIX might be described as “Popeye the Sailor in ancient Europe.” Set in the days when Imperial Rome had conquered most of the continent, Julius Caesar—the series’ most frequent “villain”—learned that all of the Romans' military power could not vanquish one small tribe in Gaul. The hardy Celts of this tribe possess a super-strength potion, brewed by their local druid, and just as Popeye would be invigorated by his spinach, the warriors only need drink a swig of the potion to obtain strength that can pummel whole legions into submission. In fact, not only do the Gauls not require messy weapons like spears and arrows (this being very much a juvenile series), they only need two fighters to repel all hostile forces—namely, the titular Asterix, a diminutive but canny combatant, and his hulking but not too bright buddy Obelix.

The reader of the first comics-album learns about the characters of the tribe(most of whom have the suffix “-ix” in their names), and observes mighty Caesar sending a spy into Gaul to learn the tribe’s secret. The spy succeeds insofar as the Romans learn that the Gauls have a special strength-potion, but after a lot of slapstick antics, the invaders are right back where they started: they may know how the Celts can beat them back, but they can’t do anything to break the stalemate—which thus becomes the status quo for the remainder of the series.

And as for the animated film. Well—it’s the exact same story, from first to last. I didn’t do a scene-by-scene comparison, but I’ve rarely seen a film adaptation that followed its source so accurately. Given that the original story is not any sort of classic, even within the halls of popular culture alone, ASTERIX THE ANIMATED FILM proves something of a bore.




Possibly I enjoyed the next film in the series, ASTERIX AND CLEOPATRA, a bit more because I hadn’t read the album in some time, if at all. However, I noted that the filmmakers seemed to have had a freer hand in this adaptation. For one thing, while the original certainly would have supplied its fair share of slapstick violence, CLEOPATRA the film shows a greater will to come up the sort of slapstick that can only work in animation. For instance, one scene pits Asterix and Obelix against a ship full of marauding pirates. While the comics-album may have featured some of the same stunts, the movie surely expanded on the action, simply because an animated film has the luxury of suggesting real motion.


The setup again testifies to the serial’s juvenile focus. While older readers might be fascinated with the alleged romance of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, here the emperor and the Egyptian queen are concerned not with getting bedded but with winning a bet. For no apparent reason, Caesar disparages the Egyptians’ ability to build ordinary houses, claiming that they only excel with pyramids. Cleopatra swears that she will have her chief architect construct for Caesar a fabulous palace within three months. However, chief architect Edifis knows that he can’t pull this off with the workers and materials he’s got, even though the price of failure will be his own life.

Fortunately, Edifis somehow has a personal acquaintance with Getafix, the druid of Asterix’s village. The architect voyages all the way to Gaul and convinces the druid and the tribe’s two favorite warriors to come to Egypt. (Nothing is said as to who’s empowered to stave off the Romans while Asterix and Obelix are gone.) After various hiccups, the foursome return to Egypt, and Getafix distributes the magic potion to the Egyptian workers, so that they can work super-fast. However, Edifis has an architect-rival, Artifis, who seeks to block the building project—and Caesar, when he finds about the presence of the Gauls, enlists his own forces to prevent his losing the bet with the queen.

It’s all very silly stuff, but at least it’s silly-clever rather than silly-stupid. The film even sports a couple of songs that almost certainly were not in the comics-album.



THE TWELVE TASKS OF ASTERIX appeared about nine years later, and stands as the only Asterix animated film to be produced from an original script. That said, this did not signify a deviation from the vision of the comic's creators, since those creators, Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, authored said screenplay. Arguably, TWELVE improves upon the two films that adapted comics-stories in terms of coming up with clever jokes-- though it's still a pretty simple juvenile tale, as well as one that more or less "rewrites" the serial's status quo for the sake of an end-joke.

Just as CLEOPATRA started with an absurd bet, TWELVE begins with an absurd proclamation by Julius Caesar. Since his forces have for years tried and failed to overcome the Gauls of Asterix's village, Caesar-- who in previous installments had been made aware that the Gauls have a magic potion that makes them superstrong-- suddenly posits the idea that the Gauls may be gods, which would mean it's pointless for Rome to fight them. Caesar then travels to the Gaulish village and issues a challenge. He proposes that Asterix and Obelix should attempt to complete a series of twelve tasks-- inspired by, but not patterned after, those of archaic Heracles. The stakes: if the Gauls lose, they bend the knee to Rome, while if they lose, their little tribe will take the reins of the Roman empire. The Gauls don't especially want the Roman empire, and it would seem that the status quo works to their benefit, but for whatever reason our heroes accept the challenge.

What follows is inevitably a very episodic film in which Asterix and Obelix overcome various opponents. Most of these are simple jokes, like showing the Gauls' encounter with Far Eastern judo (through the medium of a German practitioner) or having Asterix reverse the hypnotic spell of a mesmerist. The strongest segments are the episode in which the duo must resist the blandishments of the sultry Sirens, and the one in which they must seek to escape the terrors of a mammoth bureaucratic office. Naturally, the doughty warriors complete all of their tasks, and win control of the Roman Empire-- which, as Asterix notes, is possible because "it's only a cartoon."





PHANTASM 3-5 (1995, 1998, 2016)




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



The last three installments of the PHANTASM saga (thus far) demonstrate that no one can fairly accuse Don Coscarelli of over-repetitiousness. True, the writer-director has a number of favorite tropes that appear throughout the series. But few writer-directors, with the exception of Australian George Miller, try as hard to knock the viewer for a kinetic loop even in the midst of relatively simple narrative structures. Like Miller, Coscarelli rarely devotes much time to scenes of talking heads, and the few to be found in the PHANTASM series never allow the viewer respite from tension, but bristle with a sense of unremitting peril.

Now, although installments three, four and five are no less relentless in tone, Coscarelli does take the franchise in some unexpected directions. The first film focuses upon young Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin), in that he’s the first character to become aware of the sinister activities of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Mike’s also the one who convinces both older brother Jody and family friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) of the danger. Jody dies in the first film, and Mike appears to succumb to the Tall Man at the first film’s conclusion. However, PHANTASM II rewrites this ending, asserting that Mike (now played by James LeGros at the insistence of studio heads) has remained in an insane asylum for years. As soon as he’s free, he continues his vendetta against the Tall Man, and enlists Reggie as well. Coscarelli positions Mike and his implicit brother-surrogate Reggie as fearless ghoul killers, and when at the climax Mike and new girlfriend Liz are seized by the Tall Man—a virtual reprise of the first film’s conclusion—the viewer would be justified in assuming that Mike and Reggie will be back in the sequel, kicking ghoul butt.

But PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD throws a wrench in the narrative gears. While Liz dies as a result of the Tall Man’s attack, Reggie gets Mike (again played by Baldwin) away from their spectral enemy. However, Mike is then hospitalized for two more years. Then the young man beholds an apparition that seems to be his dead brother Jody, transformed into a slave of the aliens—which apparently means that he has a silver ball inside him, animating his corpse. After Jody shows up and makes some vague oracular statements, the Tall Man reappears, banishes Jody (though he continues to show up in subsequent films) and spirits Mike away.


Coscarelli then puts the narrative weight of this film and its sequels on the middle-aged shoulders of Reggie, everyman-turned-hero. Following one of Jody’s allusions, Reggie goes looking for the Tall Man’s next victims. He stumbles across Tim, a boy of middle-school age, who like Mike in the first film ferreted out the weird nature of the insidious mortician. Reggie and his new accomplice locate one of the Tall Man’s funeral homes, but they also encounter Rocky and Tanesha, a pair of (implicitly lesbian) black women, armed to the teeth for some vague reason. Tanesha’s killed by one of the Tall Man’s spheres, and Rocky joins Reggie and Tim’s crusade to gain vengeance.

Coscarelli gets a lot of comic mileage out of the interplay between tough girl Rocky and perpetually horny Reggie (whose lubricious nature gets him in trouble with at lest one demon-woman per film from Part Two onward). Indeed, one such demon-woman even takes on Rocky’s form in order to lure the horny fellow into a literal fatal attraction. However, Jody is still capable of manifesting wherever he pleases, and he conducts Reggie to one of the Tall Man’s hideaways, from which the two of them rescue Mike. To be sure, though, even in the finale Mike doesn’t really do very much, by which neglect Coscarelli again signals his preference for Reggie. The four heroes attack a mausoleum where the Tall Man conducts his experiments, and during their attack on this base, Mike learns from Jody that the Tall Man seeks to amass a conquering army, which certainly seems more logical than simply raiding the Earth for day-laborers. Though the good guys vanquish the villain’s minions, and Rocky takes her leave of the group, the Tall Man once more puts in a final appearance, nullifying Reggie and seemingly executing Tim, who does not appear in the following films.


PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION, filmed for less money than any of its predecessors, relies less on ultraviolent battles and more on jarring imagery. Mike and Reggie are separated, and although the spectre of Jody can still appear to Reggie and offer guidance, Mike seems more than ever under the thumb of his gaunt nemesis. While Reggie searches for Mike and encounters yet another sexy demon-woman, Mike flees the Tall Man and blunders through a gate in time. He ends up in the America of the late 1800s, where he meets a man, Jedediah Morningside, a dead ringer for the Tall Man. Coscarelli never spells things out, but since Jedediah is working on a dimensional-door device, he’s either transformed into a monstrous being or, more likely, he becomes the template for a whole series of monsters, given that every time the heroes destroy one Tall Man, another crops up to take the dead one’s place.

OBLIVION proves a fitting name for the fourth film. The distortions of time and memory constantly play havoc with the viewer’s expectations, so that, where an ordinary “origin story” would make things clearer, this one only confounds the viewer’s desire for clarity. Mike and Reggie are seemingly reunited after another temporary defeat of the Tall Man, or one of his clones. But even this minor triumph remains questionable, as if it may be a fantasy born from the oblivion of the subconscious.




Sure enough, at the beginning of the final film, Reggie is on his own, with no reference as to where Mike went. Reggie wanders along an open country road, where he meets a man driving a car that belongs to Reggie. After Reggie tosses out the car-thief, he’s chased by two silver flying spheres. Though the middle-aged warrior escapes this threat, he’s then subjected to a half-dozen changes of scenery and situation—stuck in an asylum telling his wild story to Mike (reversing their relationship from the first film), traveling back in time to talk to Jedediah Morningside, meeting another hot young woman—who, rather than morphing into a demon, later turns up in another time-continuum as an entirely different person. To top it all off, the Tall Man’s invasion of Earth, using both various slaves and gigantic silver spheres, has transpired, reducing the world to chaos—unless, of course, the chaos is purely a product of Reggie’s delusions. Mike and Jody are even more peripheral to the story here than in the previous two films, although Coscarelli gives fans of the Rocky character a quick cameo at the film’s end.

Since the first film started with the psychic chaos fomented by untimely death—i.e., the result of the “monsters getting you”—I find it fitting that the series meets its (probable) end by confronting the waking world with a new apocalypse. Angus Scrimm passed in 2016, and while in theory any actor can be replaced in any role, I doubt fans of the franchise would welcome such a substitution. Further, since RAVAGER was the only one of the films that Coscarelli did not direct, in that he ceded that chore to co-writer David Franklin, I think one would be justified in suspecting that the creator has nothing more to say with his characters, and thus the series might be allowed a quiet and dignified death.




Sunday, September 6, 2020

LATITUDE ZERO (1969)



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


As I know the science fiction oeuvre of Ishiro Honda fairly well, my revisit to LATITUDE ZERO had me wondering if he selected the script-- which included a genius with a special subtmarine-- because he wanted to relive his experiences on the serious sf-drama ATRAGON. The truth, naturally, proves more prosaic. American producers approached Toho Studios with the script to a 1941 radio drama, “Five Against the World,” and Honda was simply assigned to the movie because he’d enjoyed success with FX-movies. Possibly Toho greenlighted the adaptation because they believed that the viewing public in Japan might relate to the mystique of submarines, with or without SF-elements, though the 1964 success of ATRAGON probably would have been far from their minds.

Though various sub-chases take place during ZERO, the story doesn’t center upon the main character’s possession of a super-submarine. In ATRAGON, the central character, a former WWII submarine commander, fakes his death in order that he and his confederates can construct a marvelous submersible capable of avenging Japan’s defeat. However, the appearance of a greater menace, the undersea kingdom of Mu, obliges the commander to use his super-sub to protect the surface world as a whole. ATRAGON’s tone is necessarily dark and adult.

In contrast, ZERO is pretty obviously designed for audiences of kids and adolescents. Three deep-sea explorers—two scientists and a journalist—descend beneath the ocean waves in a bathysphere in order to analyze the prevailing currents. An undersea quake almost spells their doom, but a mysterious sub rescues them, though one scientist, Masson, is injured. (Ostensibly French, the character is played by Japanese actor Masumi Okada.) The commander of the craft is one Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotten), and he takes them to an underwater city, named Latitude Zero after the imaginary intersection of the equator and the international date line. The other two explorers, oceanographer Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and reporter Lawton (Richard Jaekyll), then get the grand tour of the subsea city, which has apparently been in existence for some two hundred years, even as Captain McKenzie himself has. Though nothing is said about how such a city came to be—possibly because such details would have lessened the film’s gosh-wow impact—Latitude Zero has become a hidden refuge for peaceful people seeking to escape the outside world’s turmoil. That said, the only city-inhabitants directly encountered are McKenzie, his aide Kobo, and a blonde female scientist, Doctor Barton.

However, there’s a few serpents trying to ruin this aquatic paradise. Chief among them is Doctor Malic (Cesar Romero), who is said to be as old as McKenzie. He and his allies—his lover Lucretia (Patricia Medina), his submarine commander Kuroiga, and various genetic monsters—live on a nearby island and continually mount attacks on Latitude Zero. No reason is given for Malic’s enmity. Since McKenzie has one sub, the Alpha, and Malic has another, the Black Shark, one might suspect Malic of “submarine envy”—except that early in the movie, McKenzie unashamedly admits that the Black Shark is more powerful than his craft.

Whatever Malic’s motives, he and McKenzie have evidently reached a stalemate. However, Malic kidnaps a surface-world geneticist and his young daughter, and by threatening the daughter Malic forces the scientist to create a radical new monster, a cross between a lion and a condor. Moreover, for some perverse reason, Malic also has the scientist transplant the brain of Kuroiga into the monster’s head.

Before Malic can use his new monster to attack the city, McKenzie, Kobo and the three surfacemen elect to rescue Malic’s captives. They all soak themselves in a special bath to give themselves temporary invulnerabllity (with the lovely Doctor Barton joining them in this “mixed bath,” even though she never takes part in the rescue mission proper). Then the rescuers all don golden suits which can shoot lasers from the fingers. They use the Alpha to beard Malic in his lair, and while Barton stays on the ship, the men stage a commando raid, fighting their way through giant rats and mutated bat-men. It’s cheap but lively superhero-style action, and I confess I derived a mild pleasure in seeing Joseph Cotten playing the part of an action-hero, despite his age and his many more reputable credits. (In addition, the actor was combating a bad case of the flu during filming, but managed to complete all of his scenes without throwing the film off schedule.) The heroes succeed and liberate the captives, while Malic and Lucretia fall victim to their own evil designs. At the conclusion Tashiro and Masson elect to remain in Latitude Zero, while Lawton returns to the surface world—though Lawton then encounters some doppelgangers that make him wonder if he just dreamed the whole thing. (Since a WIZARD OF OZ ending isn’t really viable, maybe one could imagine that Latitude Zero exists in a parallel dimension—though even that rationale may be giving the matter more thought than the scripter probably did.)

Though ZERO was aimed at younger audiences—and the older kids probably appreciated best Barton’s never-quite-nude scene—the film does resonate with many of Honda’s other films, from space operas in which the Earth’s warring nations come together against an external threat to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, wherein humans and giant monsters have come to live in peace. True, Latitude Zero is more akin to Shangri-La, removed from the workaday world. But even amid all the pulp-style action, the script does emphasize the importance of a peaceful and contemplative way of life, even if it may be more ideal than real.


PHANTASM (1979), PHANTASM (1986)



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



In two essays, here and here, I spent some time showing how one subcombative horror-film, Sam Raimi’s 1983 EVIL DEAD, started out as a story about demons wasting a cabin-ful of disposable victims. Then, after the first film's success, the next two film sequels moved into combative territory, building up one character, Bruce Campbell’s Ash, as a formidable demon-slayer. I was aware of a similar transformation in Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM series, but I hadn’t realized that Coscarelli was ahead of Raimi in both departments. That said, except for sharing some of the same “splatter” techniques, PHANTASM does not greatly resemble the EVIL DEAD series in tone.

In Stephen King’s book DANSE MACABRE, he claims that his son defined death as “when the monsters get you,” and Coscarelli’s PHANTASM embodies that attitude toward fatality. The film opens in a downbeat manner, as three small-town residents—Mike, his older brother Jody, and their mutual friend Reggie—mourn the loss of another friend, Tommy. Unlike the mourners, the viewers of the film know that Tommy was murdered by a strange demon-woman. However, Mike observes suspicious activity on the part of the funeral home's head mortician—a gaunt old fellow billed as “the Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm). Young Mike’s investigations reveal that the funeral home conceals a gateway to another world, and that the corpses of those interred at the graveyard are not allowed to rest in peace. Instead, the corpses are revived and mutated into dwarf-sized minions later called “Gravers,” and they’re sent through a dimensional portal to another world, where they serve as slave labor. However, when Mike tries to reveal his discovery to Jody and Reggie, they think he’s come unhinged, due to the effect of grief upon his young mind. Meanwhile, the Tall Man seeks to silence the boy who has uncovered his alien secrets.


Despite some fast-paced and ultraviolent scenes—particularly when the Tall Man unleashes unique weapons, silver spheres with knife-like attachments—PHANTASM always keeps a dream-like feeling of shifting realities, even after Mike finally manages to convince Jody and Reggie to the looming danger. Coscarelli’s script does not attempt to justify the Tall Man’s operation in terms of logical motivation, and thus, despite the science-fiction trappings, the monsters of the Morningside Funeral Home might as well be demons from the world of death, preying upon the bodies of the deceased simply out of general malice. In a similar manner, the later Freddy Krueger, nominally a vengeful revenant, would take on the stature of a child-killing demon. Jody perishes, leaving Michael and Reggie to struggle against the depredations of the iniquitous otherworlders. The film ends by suggesting that the heroes are ultimately defeated by the emissaries of death.




Seven years later, Coscarelli gives two of his characters, Mike and Reggie, the chance to become “fearless ghoul killers.” Mike was not killed as the end of the 1979 film suggested, but was declared insane and institutionalized for seven years, making him nineteen at the start of PHANTASM II. Reggie, for his part, has more or less forgotten his experiences of the first film, and when Mike once more tries to probe the mysteries of the funeral home, the older man tries to keep the younger one from exposing his obsessions. However, the boundaries between dream and reality break down once more. Mike has dreamed that Reggie’s house will blow up—and then it does, killing the older man’s family committing him to the cause.

The first film has no significant female characters; it’s purely a tale of men fighting demons. But here Mike also dreams of a young woman in another city, Liz, and tells Reggie that she too is being victimized by the Tall Man’s operations. Armed with a variety of weapons—a chainsaw, a drillbit, and various guns—the two men set out to prevent the death-demon from claiming more victims. For her part Liz suffers the loss of her grandmother, later made into a dwarf-thing by the aliens, but she acquits herself well in fighting back against the phantasmal evils.

Despite the sequel’s greater emphasis upon combative action, Coscarelli maintains the first film’s sense of oneiric dread, the feeling that at any given time the forces of the irrational can invade the waking world and sweep everything down to dusky death. In future posts I plan to examine the other three sequels, the better to judge their combative elements. As for the mythicity of the first two films, Coscarelli’s sci-fi rendering of the Great Unknown proves ingenious, but he never elaborates his general notion into a concrescent concept, which may be the overall result of his emphasis on unpredictability. And though many films about killing monsters center primarily on the monsters, here the monster-killers, both in their subcombative and combative phases, are the stars of the shows.