Friday, October 30, 2020

ALADDIN AND THE DEATH LAMP (2012)

 





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


Of the combative movies I've started to review for the Supercombative Blog, ALMIGHTY THOR currently holds pride of place as the worst so far. However, ALADDIN AND THE DEATH LAMP is a good contender for second place.

As one might expect from the title, this is a reworking of the simple but evocative Arabian folktale, with a lot of banal SF-tropes grafted on to the story. Here the genies are other-dimensional demons who are constantly seeking to seduce mortals into letting them invade the human world. Years ago, one of the jinn's invasion was foiled by four adults, three of whom were killed. The one who survived, name of Khalil, raised the children of the other three adults, but the kids-- who are now adults by the time of the main story-- have only been told that they are all orphans. But a greedy merchant, more or less serving in the role of "the magician" in the original tale, knows that there are special devices, lamps and/or rings, through which one can control the jinn. The merchant talks the three orphans-- Aladdin, his "sister" Shifa and his "brother" Luca-- into ferreting out the jinn-devices. In the course of things, Aladdin and his quasi-siblings find out their heritage, but where Aladdin is Gallant, seeking to do the right thing, Luca is Goofus, the screwup. (I'm not sure why the bad guy has an Italian name when everyone else sounds vaguely Arabic, but since Luca like the merchant is greedy, maybe the former was named for "filthy lucre.")

The settings don't look even remotely like the Middle East and the CGI is minimal and banal. The three main actors do their best, but the dialogue gives them nothing to work with.


NEXT AVENGERS: HEROES OF TOMORROW (2008)

 








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


Most attempts to forge “legacy versions” of popular established comics-characters fall flat because the authors are trying to recapitulate the elements of the earlier characters in contrived ways, often to make them appeal to a new generation of readers, to political factions, or to various other considerations having nothing to do with the dynamics of storytelling. Not surprisingly, the third original-to-DVD iteration of the Avengers from this particular animation house is poorly named, for the young descendants of the original Avengers are more “heroes of yesterday” than “tomorrow.”

I won’t bother detailing the particular conglomerations of these “Young Avengers,” since at no time do the writers of the story come up with anything inventive. One of the teens is the daughter of Thor, another is the son of Black Panther, another the son of Ant-Man and Wasp, and the last is the son of Captain America and the Black Widow. The writers’ only concern is to make sure the Cap-kid gets the shield, the Ant-Man kid does the requisite shrinking, and so on.  

The basic setup is equally routine. Thirteen years previous, the monstrous mechanoid Ultron slew most of the Avengers. Iron Man fled with the children of his fellow heroes and raised them in seclusion, training them for an eventual reckoning. Ultron finds their hiding-place and sends forth robotic versions of the dead Avengers to slay them and their mentor. The kids learn that one other Avenger, the Hulk, still survives in seclusion, so they go looking for him, aided by yet a fifth Avenger-spawn, the son of Hawkeye.

The Hulk—now sporting the grey hair of an old monster—is the movie’s only saving grace, for he’s allowed to have a rip-snorting battle with Ultron. But all of the rest is just time-killing trivia.  





HELL NIGHT (1981)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*




HELL NIGHT is a lively if somewhat inconsistent blend between the slashers of the early eighties and the “killer in the haunted house” trope that arose in the 1930s and arguably flowered in the 1960s.


Rather than using the name of a holiday like HALLOWEEN, the fulmmakers build their story around an adolescent ritual: that of college fraternities and sororities putting pledges through “hell” to qualify for admission. Four pledges—Seth, Denise, Jeff and Marti (top billed Linda Blair)—allow themselves to be locked into a vacant mansion. Seth and Denise plan to use the hazing-ritual as an excuse to have sex and drugs, while Jeff and Marti are more reserved representatives of adolescence. (Marti, in addition to sporting a name with dominant male associations, is atypical in being versed in auto repair, though she’s not portrayed as being especially unfeminine.) Three “hazers” lurk outside the mansion, planning to hassle the pledges, but all the youths become targeted by two madmen secretly living therein. Most of the collegians are wiped out but Blair’s character gets the honor of being an early “Final Girl” while the two murderers are slain.


Though the college-kids are given some decent lines of dialogue, they’re still vapid characters. There’s a big character shift for fun-and-games Seth, in that he briefly escapes the mansion grounds to summon the cops. Unable to convince the constables that he’s not playing a frat-prank—one of the film’s best scenes—Seth takes on a heroic attitude by charging back to fight the killers again. But the transformation isn’t convincing.


HELL NIGHT’s most interesting aspect is the backstory of the mansion. Before the pledges are locked in, a frat-boy informs them that the domicile’s former occupants, the Garths, consisted of a husband and wife who bore two sons and two daughters, all of whom were developmentally challenged in some way. Supposedly Old Man Garth slew his wife, three of his children, and himself, leaving only one survivor, Andrew Garth—though Andrew somehow escaped the custody of the state. For most of the movie, the audience is led to assume that Andrew has remained hidden in the mansion for years, and that he alone launches the murderous (though not very bloody) assaults on the collegians. Then, late in the film, the writer tries to spring a surprise on the viewer by revealing that Andrew’s brother Mort also survived and has been helping with the killings. This “surprise” allows the students to think that they’ve triumphed over a killer, only to have another waiting in the wings—but given the earlier story about the Garth family, the revelation feels like a cheat. In addition, both Garths appear as nothing but shadowy, hulking figures—the actors playing them don’t even receive billing—so there might as well be just one, since they’re virtually identical. The murders are largely pedestrian until the memorable big finish, where Final Girl Marti manages to slay her attacker in an inventive manner worthy of Laurie Strode. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

BATMAN: “SURF'S UP! JOKER'S UNDER” (1967)

 







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


In realistic terms the premise of Charles Hoffman's "Surf's Up" is as stupid as that of Dwight Taylor's "Louie the Lilac," in that both villains seek as their big scores the adoration of Gotham's young people, as if said adoration can vault the evildoers into temporal power somehow. Also, in both cases the writers sought to contrive situations that might appeal to adolescent viewers. But whereas "Lilac" proves labored and tedious, making it one of the worst "dumb-zanies," the images of Hoffman's episode are just wild enough to elevate it to the ranks of the "clever-zanies."

Once Joker (Cesar Romero) has conceived the notion of becoming the King of Gotham's Surfing Crowd, he conjures up a "transferometer" which downloads a surf-champion's knowledge and experience into Joker's brain. Of course Joker's presence on the beach draws the attention of "the Terrific Trio," as well as that of both Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara. (Making one of their few joint ventures into "the field," the two old fogeys go undercover as a couple of grey-haired hodads who say "Cowabunga" a lot.) For some reason Joker allows the surf-champion to wander around the beach, free to tell everyone what the villain did to him. Yet Batman somehow decides that the only way to defeat the Clown Prince of Crime is to out-surf the fiend-- with the hero naturally drawing on his own insuperable talent for very nearly everything.

The dialogue isn't that clever and the final fight-scene is only average. Still, the episode is saved somewhat by the frequent citations of surfing-terminology and the sight of Joker and Batman competing in a surfing-contest-- complete with wearing swim-trunks over their respective outfits.






THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), THE HILLS HAVE EYES-- PART 2 (1985)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Wes Craven's second directorial effort shows him recycling much the same "savage nature vs. refined culture" opposition seen in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, though to less mythic effect.

The first HILLS HAVE EYES is loosely based on both the historical legend of the cannibalistic Sawney Beane family and the fictional psycho-killers of Tobe Hooper's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  A family of middle-class tourists, driving to California through the Nevada desert, fails to stay on the main highway as instructed by an old desert-rat running a last-chance gas station. When the family gets stranded in the wilderness, they learn that the old man has fathered a soulless reprobate, possessed of the high-flown name "Papa Jupiter." Jupiter in his term has spawned a small brood of freakish scavengers who prey on desert-travelers and who dress like the the denizens of the slightly-later "Mad Max" universe. In keeping with the mythological motif, Jupiter's three sons are named Mars, Pluto, and Mercury, though the one daughter is given the non-archaic name of Ruby. Except for Ruby, who eventually becomes an ally to the beleaguered innocents, the savages continually attack and massacre their victims, until some of the family-members meet the challenge with an equal level of savagery. 

This trope of the interchangeability of the savage and the civilized man is not presented in as schematic a manner as it was in LAST HOUSE, and Craven's alleged critique of "bourgeoise society," such as it was, became diffused because the script includes too many characters, most of whom tend to blend together. Jupiter is the most impressive character. His father, becoming aware of his ruthless nature, tried to kill Jupiter by smashing the youth in the face with a tire-iron, but the predatory paterfamilias survives with an impressive scar. That said, the character of Pluto has an advantage of sorts in that actor Michael Berryman was born with a formative malady, making him look far more "freakish" than the rest of the family, and HILLS HAVE EYES led to a long career for Berryman in assorted horror and fantasy films. Craven's talent for violence pervades HILLS, but the various assaults never become more than the sum of their parts.



Eight years later, Craven made an attempt to promote HILLS HAVE EYES as a series, but though he both directed and wrote the sequel, the results were underwhelming. Though most of the cannibals who died in the first film stay dead, Pluto gets resurrected, evidently because of fan-response to his impressive ugliness. Pluto is joined in his desert depredations by "the Reaper," the hitherto-unmentioned brother of Papa Jupiter, and though he's physically impressive, his character lacks any context.

Craven does try to ring a new setup, for this time the victims are a club of motorcycle-enthusiasts who choose to ride through the same area of Nevada desert where Jupiter's brood once reigned. Two characters are carried over from the first film: Bobby, one of the surviving tourists, and Ruby, now called Rachel. Bobby, though vaguely associated with the bike-club, chooses not to go along because he's been so badly traumatized by his experiences. Yet though Rachel ought to have an equal reason not to go, she joins the others in trekking into the badlands. Presumably the script needed her to go along so that she could explain the situation to the newbies.

Despite the reduced number of savage predators, they still manage to wreak carnage on the bikers, though on average the motorcyclists prove tougher than the first film's victims. This time the savages make greater use of crafty murder-methods like deadfalls to decimate the bikers, though once again the representatives of civilization end up winning the day.

Though the violent set-pieces are competent, the characters are again less than impressive and their deaths don't add up to much. Craven also throws in various flashbacks to the first film, which gives HILLS PART II an aura of chintziness. The "series" came to an end but both films were later remade in the 2000s.


WITCHBOARD (1986)

 






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


Not long after re-watching WITCHBOARD, I viewed a DVD copy of a more current horror-hit, THE BABADOOK. I have no desire to review the latter, since I think it, like many contemporary fright-films, emphasizes prolonged suffering more than honest shocks or dramatic tension. But BABADOOK did end up making this minor eighties flick look better than it really is.

While no classic, WITCHBOARD at least has a substantial dramatic arc. At a party given by Linda (Tawny Kitaen) and her current boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen), Linda's ex-boyfriend Brandon (Stephen Nichols) shows up. Jim and Brandon were friends for years before they met Linda-- one line defines them as being almost like brothers-- but once Linda dumped Brandon for Jim, the friendship of the two men went down the tubes. Possibly with the idea of showing off to Linda, Brandon brings along a ouija board to entertain the party guests. Brandon claims to have had consistent success in contacting the spirit of a deceased young boy, one David, and he invites Linda to help him summon the spirit through the planchette board. David seemingly manifests through the board but the seance has some ominous overtones, even apart from Jim constantly glowering at Linda's renewed contact with Brandon. (It's an interesting side-note that Jim works in construction while Brandon appears to have a more prosperous occupation, to judge from the car he drives.)

A day or so later, Linda-- who believes herself pregnant by Jim-- feels moved to use the witchboard by herself, apparently motivated by a nascent maternal sympathy for the dead boy. However, the spirit she unleashes begins to cause people to die, such as a worker at Jim's job and a psychic brought in to investigate possible possession. The spirit is eventually identified as an axe murderer named Malfeitor who once lived in the dwelling of Linda and Jim, and it slowly takes control of Linda, though unlike some demons this ghost seems to be able to strike at anyone anywhere.

It's not hard to imagine Malfeitor as a surrogate for Brandon, attempting to wreak havoc on the relationship of Jim and Linda, not least by actually taking over Linda's body and using it to try killing Jim. Oddly, in the final scene Malfeitor, speaking through Linda, claims that hard-headed realist Jim is the real portal for the spirit's mischief, which may speak less to the rivalry of the two men over Linda than to their tension toward one another. Jim and Brandon are in fact somewhat reconciled during their attempt to oust the deadly spirit, though Brandon doesn't live to see Malfeiror defeated. Overall the dramatic scenes between the three main characters are well done, though Linda is not as strongly characterized as the two men, since one never knows much about her except that she believes, falsely, that's she's pregnant. But as noted, I would rather watch a decently executed formulaic drama than a movie devoted to the fetishization of suffering.







Sunday, October 25, 2020

BATMAN: “THE OGG AND I” (1967)

 







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

Olga, Queen of the Bessarovian Cossacks, isn’t much of a supercrook, but she’s a decided improvement over the character Anne Baxter played in Season One: Zelda the Not-Close-to-Being-Great. At least with Olga, Baxter has the chance to render a lot of exaggerated line-readings in a standard phony East European accent, so by herself she qualifies as a “clever-zany.” Unfortunately, in all of her appearances she’s teamed with Egghead (Vincent Price), and by her proximity a decent camp-style villain falls into the trap of being a dumb-zany antagonist.


Technically this is one of two segments of a two-parter, though they’re written with very little connection to one another. Allegedly Stanford Sherman meant to write one single-part episode with Olga and Egghead, which would have ended with the events of the second part, entitled “How to Hatch a Dinosaur.” But once Sherman was allowed to expand the one episode into two segments, he came up with a decent opening scheme for Egghead and his somewhat fickle ally. The villains kidnap Commissioner Gordon, and for ransom Egghead demands that every citizen must pay a tax on every egg consumed in Gotham. This conceit gives Stafford Repp one of his few decent scenes in the season. Chief O’Hara goes into a diner for breakfast, and the arrogant Egghead shows up, demanding that the chief should order nothing but eggs for his meal.


Batgirl is naturally perturbed by her father’s abduction, but Batman and Robin pursue a different course to foil the villains: checking out the local Bessarovian Embassy, where they suspect that Olga will seek to shore up her claim to her country’s throne by stealing “the Silver Samovar of Genghis Khan.” The Duo hides in the big samovar, but Olga mousetraps them, and when Batgirl follows, the villains get her as well. Olga plans to make borscht out of Batgirl, Robin and Gordon, but she considers making handsome Batman one of her husbands, much to the displeasure of Egghead. Adam West shows appropriate dread at the thought of being married to such a voracious female, but he’s spared the fate worse than death by a last-minute save from Alfred, who’s only present because of Batgirl The bad guys get away thanks to one of Egghead’s weapons, and by itself this would not be one of the worst of the dumb-zanies.


Unfortunately, in part two Egghead comes up with a resoundingly stupid plan, stealing both a radioactive isotope and a giant dinosaur-egg. He has the idea that he can irradiate the egg and bring the dino, a so-called “Neosaurus,” to life—whereon he will somehow tame the dino and use it to kill Gotham’s trio of costumed crimefighters. Batman, Robiu and Batgirl show up at the villains’ hideout, planning to foil their scheme. Then, for no obvious reason, Batman just disappears from the story, and the other two heroes beard Egghead in his lair. Egghead’s forces overwhelm the duo, agt which point the giant egg breaks open, and out comes a bipedal dinosaur. Egghead makes a weak attempt to “sic” the creature upon the heroes, but when the dino roars at him, he, Olga and the Cossacks all run out of the building, into the waiting arms of the police.


Then, as Robin and Batgirl prepare to conftont the snarling creature, it pulls off its head, and, Holy Improbability, it’s Batman inside a dino-suit. Maybe Sherman thought this nonsense would appeal to the kids who watched the show, but only the dumbest children would not have wondered (1) how Batman got into a dino-egg without anyone noticing, and (2) why he didn’t bother to inform Robin and Batgirl of this lamebrain ploy. He does give a reason as to why he chose this avenue of crimfighting: that he wanted to prevent a big fight so that none of the Cossacks would be hurt! Despite some of Sherman’s superior work on other episodes in the series, in this one he was clearly “writing on fumes.”


BATMAN: “LOUIE THE LILAC” (1967)








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


Mlton Berle played a bit role as a guard in the first-season episode “The Greatest Mother of Them All,” and his few minutes as a guard prove a better use of screen-time that both of his episodes as a dumb-zany supercrook. Dwight Taylor has the honor of creating the third season’s first really execrable guest villain, though even Louie the Lilac may not be the “Lamest Villain of Them All.”


For no particular reason, Louie and his hoods all dress like 1940s gangsters, complete with flowers in their lapels, which image possibly suggested the idea of a fiend with a flower-fetish. Despite looking like the times have passed him by, though, Louie intends to gain a stranglehold on the future, by getting in good with Gotham City’s community of “flower children,” a gaggle of clean-looking youths—never called hippies—who hang around one of Gotham’s parks, assembled around their spiritual leader Princess Primrose. Louie’s plan to somehow gain control over the love generation for some unspecified profit makes even less sense than Penguin’s plan to marry the police commissioner’s daughter.


As it happens, though, Primrose was once a college-buddy of Barbara Gordon, thus giving Barbara a personal reason to nose around. Louie doesn’t like snoops and sends a thug to Barbara’s apartment to abduct her. This leads to an incredibly time-wasting scene in which the thug breaks into the apartment, Barbara hides in another room while changing into Batgirl, and then drives the thug away simply by stepping into the room. Maybe the thug’s heard about her killer kicks, but he acts more confused than fearful. I imagine most viewers evinced a similar confusion, though more in the nature of “What is all this crap?”

Meanwhile, Batman and Robin find their way to Louie’s hothouse-hideout, and he traps them by feeding them to his giant carnivorous plant (not much of a death-trap, but a distinct improvement over the giant tea-bags of ‘Enter Batgirl.”) The crusaders manage to rescue themselves before Batgirl arrives and all three trounce the thugs in a slightly better-than-average fight—if one ignores the silliness in which Batgirl immobilizes Louie by dousing him in a mildewing solution. Sadly, Louie and his floral foolery would return for an encore than nearly no one wanted.


BATMAN: “THE UNKINDEST TUT OF ALL” (1967)

 





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


n an early scene of this one-parter, Stanley Ralph Ross does provide a line reminiscent of the best campy asides of the first two seasons. Bruce and Barbara are seen riding in a limo as both talk about the concert they took in on what sounds like a very decorous (and boring) first date, as Barbara states, “There’s nothing I like better than hearing ‘Lady of Spain’ played eight times.” Regrettably, there are no other lines as good as that one, though at one point, Batman asks his butler, “What’s it all about, Alfred?”


Once again, King Tut (Victor Buono) has reverted from eminent Yale professor to ancient Egyptian despot. However, instead of committinig crimes this time, Tut seeks to win over Gotham by convincing its citizens that his prophetic powers enable him to predict crimes before they occur. Batman and Robin are obliged to shore up Tut’s reputation by personally foiling one of the crimes. It will come as no surprise that Tut sets up all the crimes he predicts with his hirelings, but there’s a method behind his machinations. While the Dynamic Duo are busy fighting a gang of crooks, one of them slips a homing device on the Batmobile. Thus the robed rapscallion actually succeds at the goal sought by many of his peers: he tracks the device’s signal to the Batcave, and correctly deduces that the heroes are Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. However, the crimefighters cleverly contrive events so that no one believes Tut’s assertions.


Batgirl, who was sometimes allowed to overshadow the Dynamic Duo at times, doesn’t have as much to do this time. Sadly, though Buono chews the scenery as well as ever, Ross doesn’t write him any lines worthy of his mouth.


BATMAN: “THE SPORT OF PENGUINS” (1967)

 





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


Charles Hoffman pems the third season’s first two-part episode, but it’s far from a return to good form.

This time the Penguin’s big score at least makes sense as a moneymaking venture. He teams up with Lola Lasagna (Ethel Merman), a horse-owing celebrity whom Penguin knew in her days as a crooked type. The two ne’er-do-wells plot to fix a horse race by doctoring up a ringer to take the place of the favorite in an upcoming contest (sponsored, as almost everything in Gotham is, by Wayne Enterprises). As a visual counterpoint to Penguin and his umbrellas, Lola parades around most of the time with a parasol, and even uses the name Parasol for her horse. However, she’s an extremely minor character, and even an actress more skilled than Merman couldn’t have done anything with Lola.


Despite a better motive this time around, Hoffman constructs the plot poorly. Penguin first appears at Barbara Gordon’s library, though he doesn’t seem to know in advance that she works there. His primary purpose is to abscond with a priceless book about collectible parasols, but Barbara easily chases him away. Later Hoffman’s script laboriously sends Penguin back to the library again, in part to attempt vengeance on the woman who rejected him as a husband, but the clumsy repetition of the same set makes it seem as if the filmmakers were trying to get their money’s worth out of the new locale. Like most multi-parters of the season, there’s no death-trap at the end of the first segment, though Penguin does manage to glue Batman and Robin to the seats of their own Batmobile.


Part Two at least provides a novel new locale, since it isn’t enough for Penguin to fix the race, he has to ride in it as well (which development alone makes this into one of the dumb-zanies, given that Burgess Meredith would not have made a credible jockey under any circumstances). The episode’s only high point is that Alfred is obliged to use his special knowledge of Batgirl’s identity—though without disclosing it to anyone-- in order to line her up to ride in the race against Penguin. Neither the race nor the concluding fight is anything special, and no one gets any standout lines of dialogue.


BATMAN: “THE WAIL OF THE SIREN” (`1967)

 





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


“Wail of the Siren” is far from a great episode, but it’s one of the few third-season outings that doesn’t fall into the trap of over-zaniness.

For one thing, the Siren (Joan Collins) doesn’t make use of the usual villain-gimmicks. She has the closest thing one can find to a “super-power” in the series, in that she can mesmerize men with her voice when she sings a “high C” note (though implicitly this is the result of some arcane training). For another thing, Siren’s big score is simple and logical. Her main plan is to enthrall Bruce Wayne and force him to yield his wealth to her. But to nullify any interferene by Batman and Robin, she seeks out Commissioner Gordon and hypnotizes him. Under Siren’s control, Gordon stows away in the trunk of the Batmobile, undermining the claim in “The Zodiac Crimes” that the car has devices to prevent such infiltratiuon. Once he’s been taken to the fabled Batcave, Gordon is supposed to learn the identities of the Duo and expose them. (Siren seems to have no plans for Batgirl, despite having met her in the previous episode.) Gordon succeeds in his mission, and even meets Alftred, whose voice the top cop recognizes from their many encounters on the Batphone. Alfred saves the day by dosing Gordon with Bat-gas and keeping him out of trouble until he recovers from the Siren-spell.

The other part of Siren’s plan goes swimmingly. Wayne falls victim to her spell, making this episode one of the few times Batman can’t escape a trap. Robin (his ears protected by Bat-earplugs) and Batgirl (naturally immune to the femae of the species) are obliged to rescue Wayne. The episode concludes with a very dull rooftop-fight between the heroes and Siren’s goons, though the advantage of the rooftop locale is that in the melee Siren gets knocked off the side and has to hang on for dear life. Robin—who’s just been forced to kayo the robotized Wayne—proves uncharacteristically hardcore, threatening to let Siren fsll to her death if she doesn’t reverse her spell on Wayne. She does so, ruining her voice and eliminating herself as a future threat. There aren’t that many strong lines, although Siren does disparage both Catwoman and Black Widow as “amateurs” in comparison to her. Certainly. she’s one of the better female villains of the third season, though characters like Nora Clavicle and Doctor Cassandra set that particular bar pretty low. Not surprisingly for the actress who later made it big on DYNASTY, Collins is quite good in the role of a venal villainess.  


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

BATMAN: “RING AROUND THE RIDDLER” (1967)

 








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


Charles Hoffman has the honor of scripting the first of the “clever-zany” episodes, in which the story is fundamentally ridiculous (even for the genre) but enough clever stuff happens to make the experience bearable.

One online source makes the claim that Frank Gorshin returned to the role of the Riddler because the show was finally able to meet his salary demands. Given the cuts in the budget this season, this would only be possible if the producers thought that getting Gorshin back for just one episode—which was his only contribution to Season Three—might give the program a boost in publicity, On the other hand, such publicity might’ve given other actors similar ideas. Whatever the reason, “Ring’ became Gorshin’s last bow as the Prince of Puzzlers, and the actor plays it to the hilt, possibly with the knowledge that this would be his last chance with the role that made him famous.

For unknown reasons the Riddler decides to gain control of the “fight-game” in Gotham City. Nothing is said about making money by betting on fixed fights, but Riddler’s mode of operation consists of fixing fights anyway, by taking prominent boxers and subjecting them to debilitating treatments so that they lose their matches. In addition, Riddler himself masquerades as a Middle Eastern pugilist with the amusing cognomen of “Mushy Nebuchadnezzar,” though this seems to be nothing but a scheme to trap Batman. But this scheme is no better than the first, since it doesn’t do anything to take Robin out of the picture, much less coping with the advent of Batgirl.

Gorshin seems to be having fun with his readings of the riddles—certainly a decided improvement over John Astin’s delivery of same—but the highlight of the episode is when Riddler introduces a villainous ally, the Siren (Joan Collins). Siren, who can mesmerize men with her high-pitched singing, helps Riddler destabilize some of the boxers, but she doesn’t seem to be either his henchwoman or his partner in crime. Further, she departs the episode in the middle, setting up her solo venture in the next story. An amusing goof is that Siren first appears when Batgirl invades Riddler’s gymnasium-hideout, and Riddler orders Siren to paralyze her, just before he and his goons all put on earmuffs to block out the sound. For the first time, everyone there apparently learns that Siren’s song does not affect women—although for some strange reason Riddler’s henchwoman Betsy seems to know this in advance, since she alone does not don earmuffs.

As usual Adam West and Frank Gorshin play off one another’s characters quite well, and the scene between them in a boxing ring is amusing.Following the concluding punch-up, Riddler delivers a riddle that promises his eventual return. Instead this was the villain's final round.


BATMAN: "ENTER BATGIRL, EXIT PENGUIN" (1967)

 







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


BATMAN ’66 entered its third and final season by getting cut back to one episode per week. This didn’t entirely preclude multi-part stories, since the season included one three-parter and four two-parters. But for the most part the show’s writers never seemed to figure out to make “camp Batman” work in this scaled-down structure. Even budget cutbacks and the addition of a third starring character never hurt the program as much as the restrictions on time. Perhaps as a substitute for witty banter, the episodes begin emphasizing pure zaniness, not unlike the turn Batman comics took in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with characters like Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite. Only a few episodes escaped the Zaniness Curse, though even the victimized episodes can be divided into “clever-zanies” (showing at least a little imagination) and “dumb-zanies” (showing the writers tossing out silliness to cover thin scripting).

Stanford Sherman’s “Enter Batgirl” is certainly one of the dumb-zanies. The story introduces the Commissioner’s daughter Barbara Gordon, but the action barely strays either from the young woman’s apartment or a neighboring apartment—patently a money-saving strategy. Penguin (Burgess Meredith) takes up residence in the room adjoining Barbara’s so that he can more easily kidnap her and force Barbara to marry him. The villain thinks that becoming the Commissioner’s son-in-law via a forced marriage will somehow immunize him from the law, which ranks as the Penguin’s most bird-brained plot during the series. Having captured Barbara, Penguin can’t resist boasting to the Commissioner, which gets Batman and Robin on his trail. In addition, the supercrook sends his goons to kidnap a minister. The goons instead abduct Alfred, who substitutes himself for the minister, and though Pengun has met the Wayne butler on two previous occasions, the villain is utterly fooled by the deception.

Alfred then bears witness to Barbara Gordon displaying some un-ladylike behavior as she escapes via a window to get to her neighboring apartment. Therein she’s built her own “Batgirl-cave” with her costume and various pieces of equipment, and she transforms into Batgirl for the first time ever, bent upon fighting crime like Batman for undisclosed reasons. Just as Batman and Robin invade Penguin’s apartment and come to grips with the cagey bird, Batgirl shows up and joins the fight. Penguin gets away with one of his many devices, only to return to the same location once more a little later. He mousetraps the Dynamic Duo and puts them in a cut-rate death-trap (giant tea bags!), but Batgirl rescues them and foils the evildoers. Later she makes Alfred into her confidante, even though technically he never witnessed her becoming Batgirl.


As would happen in many other episodes, Batman and Ronin don’t have that much to do, and Penguin doesn’t get more than one or two strong lines of dialogue. On the plus side, Batgirl’s character is suitably courageous, an attribute not seen in other females in the series. The new setup with Alfred—where he must afeguard both the identities of the Duo and of the new hero in town—works to give Alan Napier a lot more comic business in this season, which is a titanic improvement after such Season Two inanities as “Cousin Egbert” and “the Alf-Cycle.”


VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1963)

 





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








I have not read John Wyndham’s 1957 THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, the source novel for VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. I’m familiar enough with other Wyndham works to know that he frequently utilized the trope of having the mundane world invaded by entities either from beyond Earth (DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) or from beneath it (THE SECRET PEOPLE). The CUCKOOS novel aligns with the former trope, since the thing that menaces the small English village of Midwich is extraterrestrial in nature.


In both book and film, no aliens as such are seen, though the E.T.s are implicitly the “cuckoos” of Wyndham’s title. The real birds reportedly lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, so that the fledgling cuckoos will dispose of the actual offspring of the nest-making mother, and thus the cuckoo-mother doesn’t have to do the work of feeding and raising her own brood. In both novel and movie, the unseen aliens zap everyone in Midwich into unconsciousness, and through some astral force manage to impregnate every woman capable of giving birth. Naturally, this proves upsetting both to married couples and to women who find themselves about to give virgin birth. Nevertheless, the Midwich children are permitted to be born, though the British government, having witnessed this unique transgression, keeps watch on things. A scientist named Zellaby (George Sanders), also both a resident of Midwich and a victim of this cosmic cuckoldry, serves as the story’s viewpoint character, studying the infants as they rapidly grow into young children, all possessed of blonde hair regardless of their parents’ physical proclivities. In the novel the alien kids also have silver skin and golden eyes, and they attain the bodies of teenagers in their childhood years. The film opts to make the kids look ordinary except for their hair—thus making it creepier when they display formidable psychic powers, and when they show evidence that they belong to a hive-mind.


Zenabel learns from his government contacts that Midwich was not the only Earth-community to suffer from “astral insemination.” In an Eskimo village, the resultant blonde-haired offspring were immediately wiped out by the villagers, and while the Russian government allows a contingent of children to grow in order to study them as the Brits do, this experiment ends in catastrophe. Zellaby counsels patience from his fellows, but as he surveys the children—even the one to whom he’s an “accidental father”—the scientist observes that they lack all human emotion and are given to using their psychic powers against anyone who challenges them. The Midwich Children are aware that others of their kind have been exterminated, and everything they do is aimed at survival—and eventually even the sympathetic Zellaby realizes that he must work to make sure his species survives this ethereal invasion.


In addition to the Children incarnating the Darwinian drive to continue their species, their uniform blondeness may, however unintentionally, evoke for moderns the specter of “the blonde Aryan” who, according to Fascist ideology, sought to overthrow all lesser breeds. The title-change was almost certainly made for the sake of luring in filmgoers with a more melodramatic phrase. But who are “the Damned” of the title? The put-upon husbands, wives and unmarried mothers may feel as if they’ve been put through hell, but the reference would seem to be to the Children themselves, since their unnatural powers give them control of the village. Since the Children bear no resemblance to devils, and if anything come closer to the image of godlike cherubs, one may rationalize that they’re “damned” in the sense that their unique species is ultimately destroyed.





Nevertheless, because VILLAGE made money for producing studio MGM, “the Damned” appeared three years later in a different form, not directly related to the first group (presumably so that the filmmakers could create a sequel without being forced to pay author Wyndham for any input). Interestingly, where VILLAGE suggests the possibility that the Midwich Cuckoos may have arisen as a spontaneous mutation, only to drop that idea in favor of alien infiltration, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED advocates that very notion as the explanation for a sudden explosion of psychic children around the world, all apparently arising from their mothers sans intercourse, in a process compared to parthenogenesis. (This scenario raises the question as to what “the damned” in the title refers to this time. Possibly the whole “damned” course of evolution?)


Possibly the filmmakers also wished to distance this quasi-sequel from the earlier film in terms of that film’s most memorable image, for this time the wonder-kids are not all blonde, nor are they all Caucasian. Indeed, the sextet of virgin-born kids includes grade-schoolers whose mothers were Indian, African, and Chinese respectively. Said mothers just happened to be born in different parts of the world, rather than being part of an alien experiment, though the Indian child’s mother happens to live in Great Britain. The governments of those countries with miracle-children bring them to London for a mass study project, overseen principally by psychologist Lewelin and government agent Burke. The two may be seen as embodying the two aspects of the Zellaby character from the first film, since Lewelin wants to study the children and Burke wants to destroy them.


Like the alien kids from the earlier film, these multi-racial children have psychic powers and share a hive-mind that apparently causes them to be largely unemotional. Nevertheless, since they are human beings and not aliens, the children sometimes register very adumbrated reactions to the fear and hostility of ordinary people. When the representatives of the various nations attempt to use the kids as pawns, they join together and flee the government’s surveillance, seeking a purely symbolic sanctuary in an abandoned church, and obliging one ordinary woman, the aunt of a super-boy named Paul, to serve as their figurative “mother.” However, though the kids defend themselves when government agents attempt to imprison them, they have no intention of displacing humanity, and end up sacrificing themselves for the greater good.


CHILDREN, which is more critical of the foibles of ordinary humans, is in some ways philosophically preferable to the xenophobia of VILLAGE. Nevertheless, the characters and situations of CHILDREN have a sketchier quality, and for that reason the later film does not attain the intense mythicity of the 1960 original.     


TARZAN AND THE SLAVE GIRL (1950)

 




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





SLAVE GIRL was the second Tarzan film to star Lex Barker, and the second-and-last to be directed by Lee (“Roll ‘Em”) Sholem. The director’s sobriquet arose from his penchant for cranking out dozens of television episodes, most notably on “The Adventures of Superman.” That said, this 1950 entry in the RKO series of ape-man films is as well-directed as the best in the series. Possibly Sholem benefitted from the lively script, co-authored by Hans Jacoby, who had written the superior TARZAN ANDTHE AMAZONS and would later pen the enjoyable TARZAN’S SAVAGE FURY.


This entry eschews the trope of the ape-man being forced to repulse greedy white invaders from Tarzan’s version of Africa. This fantasy-jungle include no Black Africans, but two ostensibly “native” tribes: the Nagase, who look like Polynesians crossed with American Indians, and the Lionians, a city full of white people who apparently colonized Africa during some pre-Christian era. Tarzan (Barker) and his wife Jane (Vanessa Brown) learn that the Lionians have started raiding the Nagase and stealing women. Tarzan fights with some of the raiders, but despite putting his mark on one interloper—using a knife to give the man a nasty face-scar—most of the raiders escape with their bounty. The ape man takes a prisoner back to the Nagase, but when the Nagase attempt to question the invader, he drops dead from a mysterious disease, one that almost immediately claims the life of a nearby tribesman.


Tarzan now has a double mission: his quest to liberate the stolen women must take a back seat to finding a white doctor who can quell the disease. The ape-man seeks out a colonized city, eliciting one Doctor Campbell to come and treat the Nagase. The doctor brings along his sultry native nurse Lola (Denise Darcel, playing the role as a sort of blonde Polynesian), and Lola lets everyone know that she has a thing for Tarzan. In a matter of days Campbell cures the Nagase with a serum, at which point the doctor volunteers to accompany Tarzan on his rescue mission, with some idea of curing the Lionians of their highly communicable disease. However, the men don’t allow either Jane or Lola to go along, and Tarzan somehow talks his wife into providing Lola with guest quarters. This results in an above-average catfight between the jungle babes, but neither has time to lick any wounds, for another Lionian raiding-party shows up and abducts both women. (Technically, the movie’s title should reference “slave girls,” since the Lionians already have a harem full of pulchritude when Jane and Lola are added to the group.)


By some cinematic legerdemain, the Lionians and their cargo arrive at the city before Tarzan and Campbell make the scene. While Jane and Lola are awaiting rescue, they learn that the Lionians are so called because they worship lions, perhaps making them kissing cousins to a lion-worshipping tribe in Burroughs’ TARZAN AND THE CITY OF GOLD. The disease has taken most of the city’s women, thus motivating the raids, and though the young prince has recently inherited the throne thanks to his father’s passing, the new ruler’s own son is now dying of the contagion. Naturally, there’s also an evil high priest trying to manipulate the situation to his own ends, and who orders the rebellious Lola to be whipped (though the native woman recovers from the ordeal with remarkable rapidity). Thus, by the time Tarzan and Campbell arrive, the scene is set so that the doctor can win the Lionian ruler’s allegiance by saving his son, and the ape-man has a villain to fight. There’s a cool climax, in which Tarzan and the slave girls are entombed but get rescued by the jungle-man’s elephant squadron, and Lola’s blowsy eroticism is defused by pairing her off with a minor comic-relief character.


SLAVE GIRL is mostly just mindless fun, with the bride-stealing trope being the only element that received more portentous treatment in some of the Tarzan novels. Oddly, though Darcel provides one of the more significant support-characters, she gets next-to-last billing. Vanessa Brown, despite paying one of the tougher versions of Jane, was not invited back to the series.  


Sunday, October 18, 2020

TERROR ISLAND (1920)

 




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


Like many silent films of the period, this one's missing some footage. However, because the film-- illusionist Harry Houdini's third bid for cinematic prominence-- is such a broad melodrama, modern viewers would probably never notice the lacunae if not for the latter-day inter-title detailing the missing parts.

One of the collaborators on the script was Arthur B. Reeve, who gained fame in the second decade of the 20th century with the prose character of "scientific detective" Craig Kennedy. The hero of TERROR ISLAND, the winsomely named Harry Harper, follows somewhat in that tradition, in that he's a scientific tinkerer who invents his own submarine, complete with "electric periscope." A young damsel enlists Harry's aid to find a South Sea treasure. The miracle sub, which doesn't get all that much screen-time, is the only source of metaphenomena in this one-hour feature.

As in some silent adventures of the period, the damsel's nemesis is someone close to her, in this case her guardian Job. Some time after the girl persuades Harry to join her cause, Job kidnaps her and sets out, by more conventional travel, to the treasure-bearing island. Harry and a young friend follow in the sub. In addition to altercations with Job's men, Harry and his friends are also menaced by superstitious islanders, all apparently played by white actors. Harry just happens to be a master of stage magic as well as an inventor, and his tricks convince the natives not to mess with the "white gods."

As with many films of this type, I screened largely to see if it provided an example of combative cinema. But though Harry gets into a couple of brawls, they're not as well choreographed as those from his serial THE MASTER MYSTERY. And since the fights seem incidental next to the emphasis on Harry's illusions and escapes from peril, I rate this as subcombative.

AVH: ALIEN VS. HUNTER (2007)




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


AVH is yet another crappy mockbuster from The Asylum, this time imitating the two ALIEN VS. PREDATOR films, the latter of which appeared the same year as this direct-to-video cheeseball. To be sure, neither of the AVP films were all that distinguished, either. But at least there was some basic appeal of crossing over two aliens, each of whom had starred in their own individual franchise-serials. Here, the Asylum satisfies the title by offering two aliens who descend to Earth to fight one another, while catching innocent humans in the middle. One E.T. is "the Alien" of the title, who's nothing but a big spider, while "the Hunter" is just a clone of the original Predator-- different armor of course, but a strong physical resemblance to the what the Predators look like beneath their armor, as well as having the same camouflage power.

Like many Asylum offerings, this one takes place in an unremarkable section of Californian forest, and the victimized humans occupy an out-of-the-way town. The viewpoint character is reporter Lee (William Katt, looking a long way from THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), and while a lot of junk-films could at least put across some basic conflict for his character, we only know that he's retreated to the small town because he's burned out on writing for some reason. He and a young woman witness a UFO crash to Earth and wreck a farmhouse, and they gather other locals to warn them of the danger-- at least once the others are convinced of the aliens' reality. Lee advocates the group's seeking out a local survivalist, Valentine, because he has a stock of weapons, and Lee and Valentine have bad blood, yada yada yada. Amid all the usual dithering the humans eventually figure out that one E.T. is hunting the other for sport, but even the heavy artillery of Valentine and his friends can't overcome alien powers and tech, so the film can't even handle the "men's adventure magazine" vibe put across by the original PREDATOR. From start to finish, it's a dull "humans-run-from-monsters" tale, and the only actor who comes off a little better than average is lead actress Deedee Pfeiffer, playing a woman who's apparently been lusting after Lee for ten years but only makes her move on him when the two of them are in deadly danger.

In the ALIEN/PREDATOR films, both E.T.s are the stars of the show, despite being opposed to one another. But the spider is not a co-equal member of the story, which devotes most of its narrative to the Predator rip-off, thus making "the Hunter" the star of this dismal show.






Friday, October 16, 2020

THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

 


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


Due to the period in which THE FUNHOUSE debuted, the film, Tobe Hooper’s third directorial effort, often gets lumped in with the slashers of the period. But though Larry Black’s script includes a few acknowledgements of the slasher-craze, the film bears greater resemblance to Hooper’s previous two examples of “rural horror.” The story starts off in suburbia—a frequent setting for many slashers. Yet that haven has been figuratively invaded by a traveling carnival. This "Carnival of Terror" (so termed in an alternate title for the film) plays host to the titular funhouse and its ruthless human inhabitants. Thus the carnival is in effect the “star of the show.”

An opening scene in the home of teenaged Amy, our viewpoint character, seems to be both evoking and refuting the opening of the film that launched the slasher-craze, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, not to mention, more jokily, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. Amy’s first seen taking a shower, but the camera cuts to show us a weird figure, face unseen, entering a room full of torture-implements. The stranger enters the bathroom and flings open the shower-door, and the viewer sees the grotesque mask he wears, just before he stabs Amy in the stomach—with a rubber knife. Then the camera pulls back enough to let us see that he’s a kid, roughly the same age Michael Myers was for his first murder. Once she's over her momentary shock, Amy tells little brother Joey that she plans to get back at him for this prank (though she never does so). In later scenes it’s clarified that Joey’s room is full of fake horror-implement, which makes the character something of a stand-in for hardcore horror fans. Black’s script suggests a correlation between the “safe” commercial horrors Joey devours and the “real” horrors of life with which Amy and three of her friends will soon confront.

That night Amy goes out on a four-person date, consisting of her, her gal-pal Liz, and their respective escorts Buzz and Richie. The outing also has the potential to be a transition-point for Amy, in that Liz is encouraging Amy to “give it up” to the burly Richie. It’s Richie who suggests that the group should take in a visiting carnival instead of a mundane movie, and the others acquiesce. Unbeknownst to any of them, kid-brother Joey decides to shadow them, apparently hoping to get an advance taste of adolescent mating-rituals. In his function, though, Joey is just a source of “false scares.” The boy never really experiences the Terror of the Carnival and ends up being sent home to his parents, since, despite his gory tastes, he really is just a kid.

The four teens take in the sights of the carnival as if they have no more reality than Joey’s horror-movies. Some of the sights are animatronic men and women who laugh or scream eerily—indeed, these crude simulacra are seen both in the opening credits and at the film’s conclusion—while other "attractions" are biological freaks, like a two-headed cow. Thus Black’s script confrontss living teenagers with two parodies of normality, and though the carnival is run by hardened professionals, such as the barker Conrad, the sleazy fairground becomes a figurative crossroads for those old friends, Sex and Death.

The four teens decide to plumb the carnival’s secrets by hiding on the grounds after the shows have all closed and the other patrons have left (except Joey, who copies the teenagers' actions). Joey, though, does not see what the transgressing teens do: an attempt at Sex that ends in Death. Gunther, a man wearing a Frankenstein’s Monster mask solicits sex from the aging lady fortuneteller, and though she accepts, she mocks him and he kills her. From then on the teens desperately seek to escape the menace of Gunther—whose mask conceals real horror, that of a distorted freak of nature—and his father Conrad, both anxious to wipe out the witnesses. Joey, not being one of these, gets sent home, but three of the four teens fall victim to the diabolical devices of the carnival’s Funhouse. Amy, an early candidate for the role of “Final Girl,” ends up being the last survivor of the chaos, forced to confront the half-mad monster in the heart of the Funhouse—though the relentless mechanical menaces therein play no favorites. Thus Gunther, despite being born to dark ways of the carnival, perishes while the traumatized teen lives on.

Though none of the teens are deeply characterized, the actors make them relatable enough that they don’t just seem like cannon fodder. John Beal’s score emulates the driving, repetitious music of the carny, underscoring the raucous gibbering of the animatronic figures so that they seem not unlike demons in hell mocking new arrivals.

ULTIMATE AVENGERS: THE MOVIE (2006)




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


I’ve read very few of Marvel Comics’ “Ultimates” line, and none of the ones I did read included any of the Avengers iterations. My partial impression of the line was that the imprint, which gave its creators the chance to “re-imagine” classic Marvel characters with different continuities, was not much more than putting old wine in modern-looking bottles. ULTIMATE AVENGERS is said to have only a loose connection to its comic book source, but nothing about the OAV makes me think the original had any marks of distinction, beyond putting forward some of the concepts and motifs that were used in the MCU’s live-action movies.

In ULTIMATE the superspy Nick Fury becomes the midwife of the Avengers, as he seeks to unite a group of individual superheroes in order to counter an alien threat. Fury’s wish list does not include the Hulk, who has built up his usual rep for mindless rampages. Yet as the story opens the Hulk is temporarily under control by his alter ego Bruce Banner, who keeps the big green guy suppressed with drugs, and who even works as a scientist for Fury’s organization SHIELD. (In this capacity Banner is joined by his sometime girlfriend Betty Ross, also a scientist in this re-imagining.) Fury does want to use the newly reborn WWII hero Captain America to lead the supergroup, but none of the other heroes seem enthusiastic. Iron Man, whose secret identity is not yet known to anyone else, ignores Fury’s overtures. So does Thor, who has apparently been exiled to Earth from Asgard and who spends his time helping out Greenpeace-like protesters. The Wasp is somewhat more approachable, but her partner Giant-Man has had some acrimonious relationship with Fury and rebuffs the first overture. Only the Black Widow seems entirely comfortable working for Fury, though the viewer never knows anything about her except that she has a Russian accent.

Eventually Fury manages to enlist the heroes into investigating the incursions of an alien race, the Chitauri. (These one-dimensional extraterrestrial evildoers were created for the Ultimates imprint and would later accrue greater fame for their role in the 2012 AVENGERS movie.) However, the aliens—who would appear in the one animated sequel to this film—immediately take a back seat to the Hulk’s forceful “audition” for team membership. Unbeknownst to Fury, Banner has been working on a secret project, aimed at nullifying the threat of the Hulk by infusing the monster with his own intelligence. The process works for a time, long enough for the green-skinned goliath to join the other heroes and to stamp out one contingent of invaders. However, the Hulk soon reverts to savagery and the heroes spend the rest of the film subduing the monster. There’s no final reconciliation that makes it feasible for the Hulk to become a member of this rather shaky association, though reportedly he’s on board for the film’s only sequel.

Banner and Captain America get the only character arcs, but both are pedestrian, and thus don’t register much better than the utter absence of characterization for the other heroes. Thus, the only selling points for the video are the fight-scenes, which are adequate but unremarkable. The cartoon’s only significance is as an example of what not to do in crafting an origin for the Avengers, and fans can be pleased that the producers of the 2012 live-action film did not derive anything but a few minor elements from this subpar outing.  

Saturday, October 3, 2020

SSSSSSS (1973)


 


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

In some markets this film was titled SSSSSSSNAKE. A title more honest to its sluggish pace would have been SSSSSSSNAIL.

SSSSSSS feels like a throwback to 1940s B-movies about mad scientists coming up with weird new ways to kill their enemies with killer bats or homemade werewolves. During the fifties director Bernard Kowalski actually made a few SF-cheapies in a similar mode, such as NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES. But even a master of pacing couldn't have done anything with the poky script, co-written by one of the film's producers.

The old-fashioned B-films might have been simplistic, but at least they were generally efficient in getting across the mad scientist's passion for his discoveries and his motives for killing people. SSSSSSS, though, is so preoccupied with giving viewers an in-depth tour of snake-science that it neglects the personality of mad snake-scientist Stoner (Strother Martin). He runs a snake-sanctuary with his grown daughter, and though nothing's said of the presumably deceased Mrs. Stoner, daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies) has apparently grown up following in Dad's herpetologist footsteps. Later we'll learn that Stoner has disposed of one of his daughter's boyfriends by turning him into a snake-man, which might seem to suggest some Oedipal issues. However, Stoner doesn't seem the least interested in his daughter's sex life; he just nurtures some dim, Biblically-inspired conviction that mankind is going to bomb itself out of existence, and the only solution is to turn people into snakes. Yet Stoner doesn't have any grand plan to do so, and he's apparently content just to practice on whoever's at hand-- like his new assistant David (Dirk Benedict), who just happens to form a romantic relationship with Kristina.

The script throws in a couple of minor side-plots-- a scientific rival who gets too close to Stoner's secrets, and a muscle-brain (Reb Brown) who hits on Kristina. Stoner kills both of them with deadly serpents, but the deaths are far from compelling, and merely serve to burn up time until the paltry conclusion, which doesn't even give "monster" David the chance to turn on his demented "creator." There are a few interesting factoids about snakes, and some vague references to the Garden of Eden, but not enough to cause me to give the film anything but a poor mythicity rating.





TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (1964), PICTURE MOMMY DEAD (1966)





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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Though I've taken a few shots at William Castle in various reviews, some of his 1960s rivals make him look like Hitchcock. A lot of directors tried their hands at "Gothic shockers" during that decade, and many of them didn't have even a rudimentary sense of how to stage such entertainments.

I don't know if William Conrad directed anything of note in stage or radio, but his IMDB credits tell me that before GUILLOTINE Conrad didn't get behind the camera for anything but episodes of TV serials. After this film his movies both for large and small screens don't strike me as anything very significant, so I suppose GUILLOTINE may have been the actor's first and last shot at the big time. To be fair, the movie's problem lies less with the director than with the screenplay, taken from a Henry Slesar prose story I've not read. In essence, the script reads like an attempt to do one of William Castle's Vincent Price potboilers, but with as little "Vincent Price" as possible. 

The "Price" character of GUILLOTINE is master stage-illusionist Duquesne (Cesar Romero). He's first seen fatally stabbing his wife Melinda (Connie Stevens)-- but no, it's just part of an act. Following the performance, the script vaguely sketches the idea of Duquesne as a perfectionist and possible egomaniac, more consumed with his next big trick than with the welfare of his wife and his small child Cassie. The opening suggests some familial tension without giving the viewer any substantive clues, and then finishes up with Duquesne showing off his new acquisition: a trick-guillotine-- demonstrating its deadly-looking illusion on Cassie's doll. (Foreshadowing, anyone?)

Twenty years later, reporters gather at the funeral of Duquesne. Still a showman in death, he's left orders that his coffin should be bound in chains before being committed to the earth, though at the same time he's claimed that he'll come back despite the chains. Not much is said about whatever happened to Melinda, though grown-up Cassie (also Stevens) attends the funeral, and viewers eventually learn that she was raised by other hands, and that Melinda is missing and presumed dead. Cassie finds out that the father she barely knew left her the sort of bequest familiar from many "old dark house" movies: she must reside for seven days in the family mansion before she inherits. However, though Cassie is hounded by reporters, one of them, Val (Dean Jones), insinuates himself into her life without telling her of his profession.

It's at this point that the script starts spinning its wheels. Cassie and Val explore the house, finding it full of Duquesne's old stage-gimmicks. One of Duquesne's old associates, formerly baby Cassie's caregiver, comes back into her life, but the movie soon finds itself alternating between dull romantic interludes between two leads with little chemistry and predictable jump-scares in the old house (one of which takes place in Cassie's dream).

Eventually GUILLOTINE trundles to its predictable climax, which is nevertheless the only scene that partly redeems the film-- and then, only because of Cesar Romero's bravura performance. The old caregiver is around at this point, finally deciding to come clean about how Duquesne tried his guillotine-trick on Melinda, accidentally killed her, and so went crazy. Nevertheless, he conveniently waited twenty years before faking his death and luring Cassie to the manse, apparently wanting to get the trick right this time, and somehow believing that Cassie is the same as Melinda. There's a fight, the guillotine comes down. This must have been enough action to satisfy audiences, since Conrad got a seven-picture deal out of GUILLOTINE. But on balance the only good thing that came of the movie is that Romero's portrait of a crazy man might have encouraged the producers of the 1966 BATMAN series to tap the actor for the role of the Joker.




Bert I' Gordon's entry into the the Gothic-shocker subgenre PICTURE MOMMY DEAD is dull and repetitious as well, and barely works out its psychological tropes any better than GUILLOTINE. In addition, MOMMY is a pretty blatant attempt to promote his daughter Susan Gordon to stardom, despite her rather limited talents as an actor. However, MOMMY provides a lot of vivid color photography, with decided emphasis on blood reds, and the movie gets good mileage out of its cast of familiar Hollywood faces.

Like GUILLOTINE, this flick also has a complicated backstory, though MOMMY starts out in real time, with Susan Shelley (Gordon) getting out of an asylum after seven years. Susan had a breakdown because her mother Jessica died in a terrible fire at the Shelley mansion, but now Susan is theoretically cured. She's looking forward to being reunited with her beloved father Edward (Don Ameche), but she receives an unpleasant shock when dear old dad brings along his new wife Francene (Martha Hyer), Edward's former assistant back when Jessica was still alive. Electra-complex issues are immediately suggested. Does young Susan really want to keep Daddy to herself? Did she bring about the supposedly accidental death of Jessica years ago, and will she now kill Francene to satisfy her obsessions?

When the trio arrive at the Shelley's rebuilt mansion, a final main character makes it a dysfunctional foursome: the caretaker Anthony (Maxwell Reed). It's vaguely suggested that he's a cousin to Susan on her mother's side, but the script does little with this element. More importantly, Anthony was around for the fire that killed Jessica, and he was burned by his futile attempt to save her (though the makeup doesn't suggest very strong scarring). With all this exposition, the four of them traipse around the lush mansion, very slowly dropping clues as to the secrets behind Jessica's death. It's still pretty slow going, but a few melodramatic moments and one gory killing spark some interest. The big reveal about Jessica (played very briefly in flashbacks by Zsa Zsa Gabor) proves a letdown, and though I will note here that Susan is not the killer, I tend to view her as the central character. To be sure, she doesn't do a hell of a lot in the film, but she's loosely comparable to the character of Janet in Jimmy Sangster's NIGHTMARE: someone whose psychology informs everything else the other characters do.