Sunday, November 29, 2020

CYBER SIX: THE COMPLETE SERIES (2014)

 



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


As I’ve mentioned in this ARCHETYPALARCHIVE essay, Cybersix, a comics-feature published in Italy but originated by two Argentinian creators, was considerably darker and more mature than most American crimefighters. At present there’s no official English translation, so in the U.S. the character is best known from this thirteen-episode teleseries. CYBERSIX did not succeed in the American market, which success might have brought about at least one more season of episodes. Being a Canadian-Japanese co-production, the short-lived series enjoyed greater circulation in Canada and in parts of Europe, though I would guess that the black-garbed heroine never became a recognizable icon worldwide.


Despite being animated in Japan, the show was notable for being remarkably faithful to the art-style of Carlos Meglia, as well as grounding the heroine’s adventures in a quasi-European milieu, the city of Meridiana. As in the comics, Cybersix is an artificially created superhuman, who has come to Meridiana to oppose the world-conquering schemes of Von Reichter, the evil geneticist who created her. The action scenes between the athletic heroine and the varied monsters cooked up by Von Reichter prove a match for any comparable scenes in the contemporaneous BATMAN teleseries, and the heroine receives ample assistance from a “sidekick,” a bio-engineered black panther named Dataseven, whose presence lends Cybersix an extra level of coolness. Many of the dramatic encounters register strongly, particularly between Cybersix and her confidante Lucas, whether she’s in her hyper-feminine “superhero” identity or posing in her “Clark Kent” civilian persona of male teacher Adrian Seidelman. The only visual aspects that don’t work especially well are the comedic ones, such as the overly cute street-kid Julian and the hyperkinetic son of Von Reichter, Jose. The latter, though generally working under the aegis of his father, is the main face of villainy on the series, and he’s characterized by endless and repetitive temper tantrums.


Since the animated TV show was aimed at “tweens,” there wasn’t room for the adult material from the comics feature. In the comic the heroine can only endure when she has access to a life-enhancing serum, “sustenance,” which she sucks out of the bodies of Von Reichter’s other genetic minions. Obviously, a TV cartoon could not show the character vampirically preying on people’s bodies, so the subject of sustenance is only mentioned in a couple of episodes, and Cybersix obtains it from canisters that her genetic “brethren” carry on their persons. Similarly, elements of sexuality had to be toned down. The series certainly does not mention that Cybersix acquired her costume from a prostitute, However, that history is signaled in the episode “Yashimoto Private Eye,” wherein the titular snoop visits a demimonde shop (run by a very masculine looking woman) and sees parts of Cybersix’s costume in the shop’s display-window. The romantic attraction between Cybersix and her human confidante Lucas begins strongly, when she visits him in his apartment seeking to obtain a missing canister of sustenance, but their attraction only occasionally plays into the other twelve episodes.


Only in the episode ‘Full Moon Fascination” does Cybersix have to deal with a sexual threat, as well as a frontal assault on her cross-dressing double identity. Glamorous lady teacher Elaine arrives at the school where “Adrian Seidelman” works with Lucas and puts the moves on the burly biologist, inciting Cybersix’s first bout with jealousy—a thing she can’t do anything about, without endangering her imposture as one of Lucas’s male buddies. Elaine also happens to be a product of Von Reichter’s lab, which means that she knows about Adrian’s other identity, and she can morph into the form of a scientifically bred werewolf. In the grand werewolf tradition, she can also infect others with her nature, a fate she’s not slow to visit upon Lucas. Cybersix must try to bring Lucas back to humanity, in part by reminding of their history as friends and potential lovers. A high point of the episode occurs when Cybersix visits Lucas’s apartment in an attempt to suss out his feelings for Elaine. Lucas, expecting Elaine for a date, rushes the heroine away, but when Elaine shows up, she instantly senses the presence of her competition, perhaps as much from woman’s intuition as from her werewolf senses.


Too often, episodes merely focus upon “the menace of the week,” and though the heroine shows a certain amount of alienation in her first episode, often she becomes a typical superhero, cracking jokes once a menace has been defeated. The mythicity of the episodes overall is no better than fair, but then, one could say the same of that baby-boomer adventure-toon classic, the original JONNY QUEST. And like QUEST, CYBERSIX boasts a really cool theme song jam-packed with adventurous snippets—though since the protagonist of CYBERSIX is female, the triumphal song (composed by Robbi Finkel) speaks to the heroine’s fervent desire for normal love amid her striving for pure survival.


In addition, the DVD collection boasts numerous strong commentaries regarding both the history of the comics-character and her animated avatar.





THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE (1957)

 





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

Following writing the screenplay for THE EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon penned two B-horrors for producer Sam Katzman, this film and ZOMBIESOF MORA-TAU.  I gave ZOMBIES a lambasting in my review, but it’s a masterpiece next to the other film, which is so slow-paced that it would have been more accurately titled THE MOVIE THAT TURNED TO STONE.

Most of the movie takes place on the grounds of a young woman’s detention center. STONE may be the only “girls’ prison” film in which none of the inmates discuss the crimes that put them in stir. The prison-girls exist only to be victims of their administrators, Doctor Murdock (Victor Jory), his female accomplice Mrs. Ford (Ann Doran), and four others. Though the exact chronology remains fuzzy, all of the administrators have been alive for over 200 years, because in the late 18th century they stumbled across a scientific method for leeching vital energy from victims, enabling the six of them to become immortal. They appear to be entirely normal unless they don’t get their allotment of energies, at which their bodies petrify before they perish.

For two centuries this coterie of mad scientists has preyed upon the bodies of young women, who for no stated reason are the only viable donors. By the 1950s, they’ve set up shop in the detention center, where they plan to keep themselves by occasionally draining young women and passing their deaths off to heart attacks.

But the best laid plans of mad scientists don’t make good movies unless they start to get bollixed up. One of the immortal men, Eric (tall, gaunt character actor Frederick Ledebur) can’t simply renew his energies every few decades like his compatriots, and he begins needing more treatments as his body becomes more stone-like. This means that more young prisoners must die and have their deaths covered up, which in turn causes another of the immortals, one Cooper, to become morally conflicted about the project. In addition, two social workers, one male and one female, start nosing into the suspicious deaths. While the actors playing these roles get a lot of lines, their characterizations are almost non-existent, excluding even the predictable romantic angle.

Only two scenes relieve the tedium. One is a Frankenstein-style scene in which Eric breaks into the girls’ dormitory to abduct a victim because he needs a transfer badly and his colleagues are taking too long. (This also may be the dullest dorm-raid ever committed to film, given that all the girls wear concealing robes and PJs.) The other scene involves actor Paul Cavanagh as the unfortunate Cooper, who gets denied his treatment when he shows reluctance, and the other immortals callously watch him die before their eyes. However, Cooper leaves behind evidence that alerts the protagonists to their true peril, and thus leaves the men who turn to stone between a rock and a hard place.     

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

OMAMORI HIMARI, DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND (both 2010)

 






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


I’ve no acquaintance with specific changes in the business of making anime serials for Japanese TV. However, it seems that during the 21st century it’s become common for production companies to adapt manga serials, often serials that ran for several years, with a very conservative production of twelve to fifteen episodes for a single season. Without reading the original serial, one can’t be sure that the brevity of the adaptation necessarily resulted in a rocky translation. I suspected that this might be the case with the adaptation of DATE A LIVE, but for all I know the original manga might not have been much more coherent than the anime. One anime serial, CORPSE PRINCESS, ended its only season without a clear resolution, suggesting that the creators were hoping for a second season that didn’t materialize. Yet it must be admitted that for many years a lot of television shows, animated or otherwise, have been prematurely terminated before reaching a stopping-point, so perhaps this is simply an innate problem with the television medium.


I’ve not read the manga-series OMAMORI HIMARI, though since it lasted about four years it’s certainly likely that the twelve-episode TV show left out a lot of stuff. The show looks in most respects like a cookie-cutter “magical girl” show. Yuuto, a completely average high-school boy, lives an ordinary life, with parents who are either deceased or never seen, and a pretty neighbor-girl who acts like a girlfriend even though she’s not defined as such. Then Himari Noihara, a busty teen girl with cat-ears, bursts into Yuuto’s life. She reveals that he’s the descendant of a line of demon slayers, and that Himari is one of those demons. However, because one of Yuuto’s ancestors spared Himari’s life, she swore fealty to defend the last remaining scion of the line from other demons. In Himari’s first interaction with Yuuto and Rinku, she gives a graphic display of demon-slaying when an insect-creature briefly possesses one of Yuuto’s classmates.


In addition to Himari moving into Yuuto’s house and constantly threatening his virginity, OMAMORI quickly becomes a cookie-cutter harem comedy as well. Yuuto, despite being a nebbishy non-entity, attracts numerous cute girls into his sphere: a cute water-demon, a cute “tea demon” (who plies her trade in a Japanese “maid café”), and a cute demon slayer from another demon-slayer family. It’s possible that in the original manga these secondary love-interests may form an ensemble where they’re as important to the series as the primary couple. However, because the show only has twelve episodes to work with, I would rate all of the other girls as supporting characters.


I’m not even sure Yuuto qualifies as a central character. Despite descending from demon fighters, Yuuto doesn’t become versed in the ways of battling boogiemen. Himari states that Yuuto possesses an inherent talent to bring forth a mystical phenomenon called “the Passing of the Light.” He finally manifests this talent in the final episode, but his power consists of being able to “power up” Himari so that she can slay the main demon-villain, one Shuten Doji (an authentic Japanese boogie, for what that’s worth). Though manga and anime are replete with dozens of everyman protagonists, Yuuto is one of the dullest out there, so that I tend to view Himari as the show’s only central character.


The TV show has one ingenious idea. Though at first the show seems concerned only with rooting out malicious goblins, the true threat is that the demons are also in danger. Shuten Doji can only restore himself to full power by consuming demons with the use of a voracious minion, so the demon-girls in Yuuto’s harem have a vested interest in making common cause with Yuuto and Himari. Both the supernatural action-scenes and the humorous erotica are average, so another season probably wouldn’t have revealed any profound depths.





DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND, also a one-season wonder with just twelve episodes, had a much greater capacity for spectacular failure. The manga-series DANCE has ranged over several years and several volumes and still has not reached a stopping-point. Nozomi Tamaki’s manga is as layered as any of the best prose adventure-novels, with two strong leads and a wealth of impressive supporting characters. DANCE takes place in a world where vampires and werewolves have existed since antiquity, but only in modern times has Mina Tepes, the Queen of the Vampires, established a self-sufficient kingdom for the vampire people. But Mina has countless enemies, and her strongest ally in preserving the Vampire Bund is her werewolf bodyguard Akira. The two of them, who possess both a nascent romantic bond and a figurative “daimyo-samurai” relationship, embody the heart and the soul of this extraordinary serial, to which I’ve devoted two essays, here and here.

Happily, the DANCE teleseries does not make the error of attempting to condense this sprawling saga into a single season, as did (for instance) the second season of ROSARIO + VAMPIRE. Although DANCE elides a lot of plotlines and supporting characters, and changes one support-character from male to female, the twelve episodes faithfully adapt the essence of the first two or three major arcs. The show references Mina’s three main enemies from the early continuity and concludes by causing the trio to be stymied though not precisely defeated. In addition, the final episode alludes to yet another major evildoer, but anyone who wants to learn more about that character would be forced to seek out the manga-stories.


It’s almost standard for anime serials to faithfully emulate the artistic look of the manga-art, and DANCE effectively mirrors Tamaki’s lush designs of characters, locales and attire. Tamaki’s series was more vulnerable to being censored in one respect: that the character of Mina, seeking to protect herself from being forcefully married to some vampire-lord, has transformed herself into a pre-teen girl. For this reason, the potential romance between Mina and Akira remains merely a wish-dream, even though one episode makes it clear that under the right circumstances Mina can transform into a mature form, albeit temporarily. I’ve argued that Tamaki was not playing to the “lolicon” undercurrents in Japanese manga and anime but that he was in fact deconstructing that cultural meme by showing that Mina’s immature body was not on display for the purpose of erotic stimulation, and might in theory even discourage anyone so inclined. Even in Japan, though, this meme could have been censored for television consumption. DANCE not only keeps the meme but is true to Tamaki’s handling of it. Since this accuracy might not have lasted over the long haul, the brevity of this particular anime series might be a blessing in disguise.





Sunday, November 22, 2020

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964)

 




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


Someone has said that artists are like sorcerers who can be bound by their own spells. Certainly this is true of those creators who become so enraptured by certain themes that they repeat them obsessively. That said, obviously there are also creators to whom spell-casting is just a job, and they use magic after the fashion of Mickey Mouse’s junior magician in FANTASIA.


This line of thought comes to me as I grapple with the fact that the film under review seems to reproduce the esoteric aspects of an archaic Egyptian story, “The Tale of the Two Brothers.” Yet the career of the movie’s primary architect Michael Carreras does not seem to follow any thematic pattern in the various films that he wrote and/or directed for Hammer Studios. In contrast, some of the films that Carreras simply produced, such as HORROR OF DRACULA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, qualify as two of the most mythic films in the Hammer oeuvre. Based purely on the works that Carreras did write or direct, then, I tend to think that Carreras merely flirted with the esoteric content of the Egyptian myth—that of a sibling rivalry expressed through ancient magic—in order to sell a new mummy-movie. Carreras deserves some credit for finding a novel approach to this subgenre of monster-films, since it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Hammer to grind out a simple pastiche of Universal’s mediocre Kharis-flicks. But Carreras’s use of the fresh material is still executed with the style of the journeyman filmmaker.


Certainly CURSE starts out with one standard trope of most mummy-movies. Circa 1900, the tomb of an ancient Egyptian royal, Ra-Antef, is unearthed by a team of European archeologists, consisting of French professor Dubos, his daughter Annette, her British fiancée John and another scholar, Sir Giles. When the archeologists clash with a representative of the Egyptian government, the possibility of a mystic curse comes up. In addition, ill fortune, not explicitly mystical in nature, befalls Dubos, who is captured by Bedouins who kill him and cut off one of his hands. These raiders, whose antipathy for the expedition remains mysterious for much of the film, also arrange a surprise for Annette, leaving the severed hand in her bedding to shock her.


But even though these developments disturb the Europeans, the man financing the expedition, a money-minded promoter named King, won’t allow anything to interfere with his plans to exploit the unearthed mummy. Much to the displeasure of both Sir Giles and the Egyptian emissary Hashmi, King plans to take Ra-Antef on tour, charging yokels a quarter to view the remains of the mummified prince. Giles breaks off relations with King, but John and Annette continue to work for the exploitative American financier, helping him plan his traveling sideshow. It’s possible that the two of them stay with King in order to build up their monetary reserves in preparation for their planned marriage, though neither character makes this justification.


The members of the expedition depart Egypt for England, and two incidents take place on the ship. A knife-wielding assassin assaults Giles, and when John interferes, the young man throws the killer overboard to his presumed death. As a result of this scuffle, John, Giles and Annette make the acquaintance of another traveler from England, a well-to-do nobleman named Adam Beauchamp. No one can explain the assassin’s attack, nor does anyone connect the incident with the murder of Professor Dubos by Egyptian fanatics. Beauchamp for his part professes a great interest in Egyptology and once the group reaches England, the nobleman invites John and Annette to have dinner with him. In the ensuing days, it becomes evident that Beauchamp is putting the moves on Annette whenever John is too busy to accompany her, due to his work on King’s exhibit. At one point, someone breaks into said exhibit, stealing a list of the Egyptian artifacts, but at this point nothing has transpired that might not be the relatively mundane activities of a murderous cult.


Annette relates to the fascinated Beauchamp the history of the mummy. In Pharaonic Egypt Ra was a great scholar fascinated with the occult preservation of life. Ra’s jealous brother Be, reputed to have been a self-indulgent sensualist, poisons the minds of the people against Ra, forcing Ra’s father to exile the sinless prince. Ironically, it’s in this exile that Ra stumbles across a nomadic tribe that possesses knowledge of the secrets of life and death, embodied in a sacred medallion—which also happens to be one of the items recovered from Ra’s tomb in the present era. However, the archaic tale ends with Be taking preventive action against Ra’s return to the throne, by sending assassins who slay Ra, cutting off one of the prince’s hands as proof of the kill. There the ancient tale ends, or seems to end.


In her conversations with Beauchamp, Annette discloses a bit of a father-complex, mentioning that she followed in her father’s archeological footsteps to catch her negligent parent’s attention, and Beauchamp responds by flattering her for her intellect. John, apparently not knowing how to regain his fiancee’s wandering affections, busies himself investigating the medallion in the possession of Sir Giles, but someone breaks into John’s house, knocking him out and stealing the artifact. Immediately thereafter, the mummified corpse of Ra-Antef goes missing from the exhibit, presumably stolen by the same person(s) who attacked John.


But the mummy wasn’t stolen; rather it was revived with the use of the mystic medallion. The bandaged behemoth begins stalking all those who violated his tomb, killing both King and Sir Giles. And at last Annette learns Adam Beauchamp’s true reason for following the members of the expedition: he’s not only responsible for reviving the mummy, he wants Ra-Antef to kill him. It seems that Beauchamp is none other than Ra’s evil brother Be, rendered immortal by the curse of his Pharaoh-father so that his life can only end at Ra’s hands. For some reason—antipathy toward the modern world, perhaps? —Be wants Ra to slay Annette as well. However, the mummy still possesses some of the good prince’s better nature, and spares Annette while destroying Be (after significantly crushing one of Be’s hands). Then Ra brings down the roof on his own head, so that he will be once more entombed and removed from the living world. There’s no guarantee that John and the straying Annette will be united once more, and the film’s final spoken words consist of an unexplained phrase: “Rest, my father, rest.”


In a script less concerned with piling up mysterious occurrences to be solved by the Big Reveal, some of Carreras’ motifs—particularly the quasi-Freudian emphasis on severed hands—might have sustained a deeper symbolic discourse. Yet CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is mostly concerned with just solving a mystery rather than delving into psychological or metaphysical mysteries, so its mythicity can only be judged as “fair.”

ENTER THE NINJA (1981)

 





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


Ninjas had been kicking around in both Eastern and Western entertainment-venues for roughly twenty years before this film, and Chuck Norris’s THE OCTAGON, appearing in theaters the year before ENTER THE NINJA, may have kicked off the eighties craze for black-suited assassins on both sides of the good/evil spectrum. Yet ENTER, despite some sizeable shortcomings, proves a more entertaining film than the majority of ninja-flicks of that decade.


I’m not making any great claims of profundity for ENTER. It’s one of dozens of unassuming B-films to have issued from the production studios of Golan and Globus, sometimes (but not always) under the imprint of Cannon Films. ENTER has the distinction of being one of the few films in the directorial oeuvre of Menachem Golan (forty-plus flicks in all) that anyone remembers, aside from the 1986 Chuck Norris vehicle THE DELTA FORCE. Like THE OCTAGON, ENTER offers the spectacle of a Caucasian protagonist becoming initiated into the mysterious Eastern discipline of ninjutsu. Protagonist Cole (Franco Nero) graduates from some secret ninja school over the protests of a fellow student named Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), who maintains that true ninjas can only be Japanese. But apparently Cole completes his course without being required to become an assassin in the service of anyone, Japanese or otherwise, and he then departs to visit Landers, an old war-buddy at Landers’ home in the Philippines.


The bulk of the film emulates one of the most popular tropes of western films: the mysterious stranger who rescues an embattled family, whose property is desired by one or more grasping money-men. When Cole arrives at Landers’ home, Landers’ wife Mary Anne holds a rifle on him, and he disarms her, all of which goes to proving how much the two owners of the property are under siege by an evil millionaire, Venarius (Christopher George). Venarius keeps throwing nasty henchmen at Landers and his wife, and Cole devastates all comers, until the rich guy finally gets an emissary to find him another ninja. One guess who.


Though there’s nothing original about the plot, Golan and scriptwriter Dick Desmond toss in a lot of mildly amusing business in between fight-scenes, particularly in the depiction of Venarius’ comical henchmen. In contrast, most ninja-flicks are pretty short on amusing bits, and thus ENTER’s biggest flaw is not the dull parts between the fights, but the star of the show. For some reason, Franco Nero, despite having essayed the role of Django, one of the most memorable spaghetti-western heroes, walks through his role, looking perpetually annoyed rather than seeming to be a tower of strength. Even when his buddy’s wife begins an affair with him—something Shane certainly would never have done—Cole always looks sour and maybe a little dyspeptic.


There aren’t a lot of exotic ninja weapons here, so the uncanny phenomenality inheres wholly in the costumes worn by both Cole and his opponent. Strangely, though Sho Kosugi’s performance isn’t much better than Nero’s, Kosugi was promoted to hero-status in the next two “ninja-hero” films from Golan and Globus, one of the few times an Asian got to portray such a protagonist in an American film.


RAWHIDE: “INCIDENT OF THE PALE RIDER” (1963)

 





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






The programs RAWHIDE and WAGON TRAIN ran roughly concurrently. Both were westerns, and both concerned the business of transportation across the frontier. Both tended to deal with naturalistic story material, but occasionally devoted a few episodes to uncanny occurrences that happened either the regular characters or to guest-stars. Yet WAGON TRAIN, even in its uncanny moments, always projected a rational outlook. The wagon-master and his allies were in the business of conducting settlers to find new lives in the Old West. Thus, even if there were times when their progress was impeded by unusual events or even just melodramatic tragedy, WAGON TRAIN always emphasized the theme of progress. In contrast, RAWHIDE’s main characters, though also engaged in a hardnosed business, had but one task: to move herds of dumb, easily panicked beasts to waiting markets, where the beasts would be used, in one way or another, to provide food for humans. Rather than reinforcing the notion of progress, most episodes of RAWHIDE, uncanny or not, portray the lives of the drovers as peripatetic and repetitious, with figurative specters of death haunting their peregrinations.


Trail boss Gil Favor sends some men—including his ramrod Rowdy, the Mexican drover Hey Soos, and a non-regular named Calhoun—into a small town for supplies. Hey Soos, who often acts as the voice of superstition on the series, intuits the threat of death in the area. Rowdy scoffs and seeks out a Wells Fargo office. He spots a stranger mournfully singing the elegy “Streets of Laredo” but thinks nothing of it until the man, later identified as an outlaw named John Day, draws on Rowdy with the intent of robbing him. Calhoun walks in on the scene, Day shoots him and Rowdy shoots Day. Calhoun is only wounded, and as Day perishes, he pronounces an ambiguous curse on Rowdy.


Rowdy, Hey Soos and Calhoun—whose wound continues to plague him—return to the drive and acquaint Favor with the occurrences. To Rowdy’s disquiet he learns that in his absence Favor has hired a drover named Rivers, who looks exactly like the late Day. Favor believes the resemblance is a coincidence, Hey Soos believes Rivers is an agent of death, and Rowdy doesn’t know what to believe—particularly when Rivers has the habit of singing “Streets of Laredo” and making enigmatic remarks about death.


Favor wonders if the lookalike might be a twin brother, and somehow he comes across an old man in the area who knew the Day family, and who attests that although John Day had a twin, he’s supposed to have died long ago. But this news exacerbates Rowdy’s fears. The strange fellow even agrees when Rowdy wonders if the name “Rivers” suggests some barrier that he Rowdy has to cross. Further, Calhoun dies, apparently of his festering wound, and Hey Soos injures himself in trying to avoid contact with the double.


Rowdy finally confronts Rivers, and the non-supernatural truth is revealed: he’s Jim Day, and his apparent death was faked to save him from a false legal charge. To sell the illusion of death, Day even allowed himself to be buried alive, after which he lived a life apart from men, becoming a pariah. To avenge his brother, he pretended to be a ghost in the hope of provoking Rowdy into killing him—which would have led to Rowdy’s hanging, since Day could not physically draw a gun. Favor allows Day to leave the camp, since he can no longer harm anyone, and he’s condemned to a living death by his own hate.


While the explanation of the “haunting” might seem rational, Day’s ability to generate fear with his illusions qualifies as an uncanny version of the phantasmal figuration trope, since the fear of death is in no way lessened by the revelation. Favor pronounces the closest thing the episode has to a “moral,” emphasizing the importance of showing courage in the face of fear. But the fear is no less for all that, and the title’s use of the Christian term “pale rider”—which does not otherwise appear in the episode-- suggests an archetypal dimension to such apprehensions. Day’s illusion is more subtle than most similar types, since it’s accomplished through suggestion, not unlike a more pervasive hoax perpetrated in the 1944 film WEIRD WOMAN.


Though RAWHIDE boasts a few combative episodes, “Pale Rider” conforms to the overall subcombative tendencies of the series.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

AMERICAN NINJA (1985), AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987)

 





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


I commented in one of my reviews of the later "American Ninja" films that I thought the first two were decent timewasters. However, my re-screening of the first two films has revealed that they were pretty dull affairs overall, and are mostly interesting for having launched the action-career of Michael Dudikoff, who definitely went on to better vehicles.

Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) serves as am Army private with a unit stationed in the Philippines. He was conscripted into the armed forces after some minor crimes, but Joe has an excuse: he's a high-functioning amnesiac who doesn't remember his own background. He's a monosyllabic loner with no friends in his unit, and this status becomes worse after an army platoon is attacked by black-garbed ninjas. seeking to kidnap the daughter of the base colonel. Joe saves the young woman, but everyone else in the platoon is slain. He returns to his unit under a cloud of suspicion, since no one knows where the hell this gang of ninjas came from.

Joe then makes a friend the hard way, when one Corporal Jackson (Steve James) challenges Joe to a fight. Despite Jackson's martial talents, Joe smokes him easily, and the two become buddies. Over time the duo investigate the provenance of the ninjas, who are working for a gang that steals army ordnance and sells it on the black market. Why this gang decided to use ninjas is anyone's guess.

Sam Firstenberg's direction is pretty dull except in the fight-scenes, and these are far from top-rate, since Dudikoff shows himself a novice at fake-fighting. 




Firestenberg's direction doesn't get any better for the second entry in the series, but Joe looks much better in the fight scenes, as does returning partner Jackson. This time, the main villain (Gary Conway) is a drug-dealer who has a side operation: that of using genetic manipulation to create an army of "super ninjas." (Thus I find out why the fourth and fifth films in the series made a big thing about giving their respective protagonists "super ninja" antagonists; the writers were trying to coast on whatever very small charge viewers got from this film.)

Once again the good guys must rescue a rather uninteresting damsel in distress, who in this case is the daughter of the villain's imprisoned geneticist. Everything not involving the fights is dull, and though the bad guy talks about his pet ninjas having super speed and being reinforced with steel limbs, it doesn't appear that his existing ninjas have been so enhanced. Still, since the doctor's genetic program appears to be a work in progress, I judge the second film to be marvelous in nature. Joe Armstrong doesn't use many special weapons, and those that the bad ninjas utilize are pretty mundane, like nets and ropes.





Wednesday, November 18, 2020

BATMAN: “MINERVA, MILLIONAIRES AND MAYHEM” (1968)

 





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


The final episode of BATMAN ’66 ends the series on a “clever-zany’ note. Villainous Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor) runs a spa for celebrities. Writer Charles Hoffman may have derived her name from the general association of the Roman goddess Minerva with health in general, and thus with concepts like Roman baths. To Minerva’s spa go such many wealthy men—two of whom are played by showrunners William Dozier and Howie Horowitz—and she then uses a machine called the “Deepest Secret Extractor” to, uh, suck the secrets out of the men’s minds regarding the places where they hide their valuables. This big score depends entirely on the millionaires hiding their goodies in all sorts of easily accessible locations, though at least, when Minerva uses her device on Bruce Wayne, she has to harvest a combination number to Wayne’s safe to steal a trove of diamonds. Wayne doesn’t remember having this particular secret sucked out of him—which one would not think to be his “deepest secret”—but he becomes suspicious of Minerva’s operation.


Bruce and Dick change to Batman and Robin, and they show up, requesting Minerva’s massage treatment, though they don’t even doff their costumes for the process. Minerva’s feminine intuition tells her to get rid of these quasi-cops by having her henchmen shove them into a deadly pressurizing machine. Naturally, the heroes escape while the henchmen are looking the other way, and when they charge Minerva with the crime, she claims that it was all just an innocent mistake. Batman, having overheard that Minerva’s planning a rendezvous with another millionaire, attempts to set up the sinister spa-owner so that they can catch her in the act. Once again, Alfred, sans any makeup, is sent into a villain’s hideout in order to impersonate a famous figure. Minerva is initially fooled by the imposture, but her Extractor reveals that Alfred is a phony. In addition, the machine comes close to revealing the butler’s knowledge of three secret identities, but Batgirl makes the scene and interferes. Minerva has her thugs pop Batgirl and Alfred into the pressurizer, but by that time Batman and Robin move in, and the heroes wipe up the gym with the henchmen, after which Minerva is taken prisoner. Minerva, while only a modest supercrook, is certainly an improvement over Doctor Cassandra, and Gabor, never known for superlative acting skills, imparts an appealing combination of charm and deviousness to the character. The episode ends with Batgirl disappearing once again, and Batman ends the series with the quizzical query about her: ‘Who knows, Robin? Who ever knows?”


BATMAN: “THE ENTRANCING DOCTOR CASSANDRA” (1968)

 






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


Bad as Louie the Lilac was, at least the role didn’t require sixty-something Milton Berle to dress up in mod hippie garb. Such is the unfortunate fate of Ida Lupino and Howard Duff for having agreed to play the sinister swingers Doctor Cassandra and her henchman Cabal. According to Stanley Ralph Ross’s script, Cassandra is a master of the “occult sciences” and of alchemy. In contrast her compatriot, despite having a “cabalistic” name, seems to be a jive-talking dullard. Cassandra comes from a long line of old-time witches and alchemists who were scorned as failures, and now she seeks to control all of Gotham City. One of her devices is an invisibility pill, which sounds positively sane next to her other “dumb-zany” contrivance. The latter is her “Alvino Ray Gun,” which seems to borrow its principles from animated cartoons, since the gun has the power to turn flesh and blood humans into flat cardboard cutouts. (As with the episode “A Piece of the Action,” writers of the show liked the idea of turning the actors into two-dimensional figures like those seen in comics.)


Cassandra and Cabal obligingly drop the flattened fighters off at police HQ, the better to show off their power. This proves a big mistake, since the cops transfer the figurines into the custody of Alfred, and he again uses a Bat-miracle device to restore all three crusaders to normal.


Meanwhile, Cassandra enacts her plan to make all of Gotham’s supercrooks into her allies, by releasing them from the prison. All of the arch-fiends are played by doubles, though some of the sound-effects, like the laughs of Romero and Gorshin, are recycled to sell the illusion. The three heroes track down Cassandra’s hideout, but the evil alchemist has given all the crooks her invisibility pills. For a few moments the crimefighters are on the ropes against an invisible horde, but after Batman puts out the lights, the odds are evened and the good guys win out.


Lupino and Duff are pretty bad in their roles, though the actors have little to work with in these dumb-zany roles. This might qualify as the worst episode, except that Ross does throw in a few clever lines. In one scene, when Robin seems to fancy Batgirl, Batman remarks that Robin may be experiencing “the first oncoming thrust of manhood.” Similarly, when the three heroes are being zapped by the ray-gun, Batgirl claims that she feels herself being “flattened,” Batman makes the not-quite non-sequitur remark, “What a pity.”


BATMAN: “THE JOKER’S FLYING SAUCER” (1968)

 






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


A flying saucer appears over Gotham City, and a not-so-little green man invades the library of Barbara Gordon, causing very minor disturbances. Both events have their source in the machinations of the Joker, whose green hair may have suggested to Charles Hoffman an association with green-fleshed aliens.

Once again Joker employs advanced technology, claiming that he got his saucer from a mad scientist cellmate. Batman and Robin confer with Gordon about the crisis, while the green man (former teen actor Richard Bakalyan) plants a bomb in the Batmobile. While the bomb ticks away, Joker explains to his minions how he plans to terrorize first Gotham, and then the world, into bowing down to his authority. Batman deduces Joker’s hand in this game and figures out that the fiend will need access to precious metals, the sort kept in one of Bruce Wayne’s many research facilities.

Both Batgirl and Alfred pursue separate courses to learn Joker’s plans, which proves necessary because the Batmobile-bomb finally goes off in the Batcave. Neither Batman nor Robin are killed in the explosion, but it does take them out of the action for a time, allowing Joker to take both Batgirl and Alfred prisoner. Joker threatens to shoot Batgirl into space on a solo rocket, but she foils this trap, after which he simply keeps her around as a hostage. A timely broadcast by Alfred brings the Duo to Joker’s hideout, with the usual concluding fight. Not even the flamboyance of Cesar Romero and a brief appearance by the Bat-copter can keep “Saucer” from being one of the dullest episodes.



BATMAN: “I’LL BE A MUMMY’S UNCLE” (1968)

 






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


King Tut, back for his last outing, conveniently forgets that he had ferreted out the true identities of Batman and Robin, even if no one believed him. This time he’s seeking Nilanium, a super-metal which once existed in ancient Egypt, and which can be used to build “an indestructible empire.” There’s also a Nilanium deposit far beneath stately Wayne Manor, and since that land is not for sale, Tut buys the land next to Wayne Manor, planning to illegally drill his way onto Wayne’s land.


Though Batman pretty much deduces Tut’s plan, Barbara Gordon happens to be on hand when Tut makes contact with a land agent to buy the land. This development comes about simply to give Batgirl a pipeline to the situation, even though she doesn’t know that Tut’s real threat is not that of purloining Nilanium, but of tunneling his way into the Batcave.


Stanley Ralph Ross has the Duo take their sweet time about countering Tut’s foray, and thus Tut invades the Batcave with barely any opposition. The heroes erase the memories of Tut’s henchpeople with the usual Bat-gas, but Tut escapes, and almost manages to reveal the Big Secret to Batgirl and other onlookers. That hoary old device, a falling chunk of rock, robs the Felonious Pharaoh of his memory. The only noteworthy joke in this weak sauce is that when the amnesiac professor is collared by cops, he calls them “Harvard people.”


BATMAN: “THE GREAT ESCAPE” (1968)

 





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

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Western villain Shame (Cliff Robertson) shows up for the third season’s final two-parter, courtesy of Stanley Ralph Ross. The frontier felon is accompanied by a new posse: a mostly silent Indian, a Mexican bandido who talks with a British accent, new girlfriend Calamity Jan (Dina Merrill, one of the few moll-actresseses to get top billing), and Calamity’s mother (ensuring lots of mother-in-law jokes). Calamity breaks Shame out of jail with the help of a tank, the first jailbreak seen since “The Joker is Wild.”

Shame sends the Terrific Trio a clue to his next crime: that he plans to rob the Gotham Stage. This proves to be a feint: instead of holding up the attendees at a stagecoach recreation, the owlhoots assail the local theater (where the doorman is played by Jerry “Leave It to Beaver” Mathers). The three heroes show up and battle Shame’s gang, but the women’s auxiliary—Calamity and her mom Frontier Fanny-- paralyzes the crusaders with fear gas. With all of the heroes scared of their own shadows, Shame takes Batgirl hostage as protection against the cops. Though Batman and Robin are almost incapacitated, they somehow manage to drive to the Batcave, where Alfred neutralizes the fear gas with a convenient antidote. The two heroes figure out Shame’s hideout, but the villain deserts the hideout with his henchmen and his hostage. By chance Frontier Fanny gets left behind, and this leads to the heroes’ attempt to trade Fanny for Batgirl. The first segment ends without an explicit death-trap, though the apprehension of Fanny sets up the action of the second segment, wherein Shame tries to assassinate his enemies during the hostage exchange.

One of Batman’s many Bat-toys preserves the heroes’ lives, but though the villains escape again, Batgirl, who’s recovered from the fear gas sans antidote, is liberated. Batgirl reveals that she heard Shame talking about a “great train robbery,” and Batman deduces that the frontier felon plans to hijack a load of discarded bills being sent by train to the treasury for destruction. The information comes too late to prevent the heist, so Batman seeks to draw Shame by challenging the vain villain to a personal duel. Shame accepts with the intention of bushwacking the crmefighter. Batman honorably goes it alone, but Robin and Batgirl trail him, knowing that Shame won’t play fair. While Batman’s allies neutralize the henchmen, Batman and Shame enact the series’ only one-on-one battle.

In fact, all of the fights in the episode are above-average for the third season, and this may testify to the pervasiveness of the western-hero myth and all of the concomitant tropes. The script doesn’t come up to the mythicity-level of “Londinium Larcenies,” but like “Wail of the Siren,” “Escape” is as well-constructed as any of the better episodes of the first and second seasons.



BATMAN: “PENGUIN’S CLEAN SWEEP” (1968)

 






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

For Penguin’s final appearance on the show, Stanford Sherman gives the villain a more venturesome plot than his antics in “Enter Batgirl” and “Sport of Penguins.” Penguin (Meredith), his moll and his henchmen infiltrate the Gotham Mint, but the villains’ purpose is not to take anything away, but to leave behind the poisonous effluvia of the lethal Ligerian fruit fly, so as to contaminate the money being printed at the mint. Despite evidence that the mint’s employees have been stricken with sleeping sickness, it takes the heroes a while to work out the specifics of Penguin’s plans. However, when Penguin steals the only vaccine in Gotham that can cure the disease, the good guys make the connection. Because some of the contaminated money is issued to Gotham residents, every citizen is forced to toss his paper money into the street—and Penguin is just the bird prepared to collect this windfall, in the episode’s most memorable image. Batgirl is first on the scene, but Penguin subdues her, though he doesn’t bother to kill her.

However, Bruce Wayne puts a crimp in Penguin’s plan by informing every financier in the world that the Birdman Bandit’s money is tainted. Batman then fears that the frustrated fiend will unleash all of the flies upon Gotham, but he takes preventive measures. Thus, when Penguin emerged from hiding to gloat over a city stricken with sleeping citizens—including his nemesis—the Terrific Trio spring to life and batter the villains into submission in an above-average end-fight.





BATMAN: "NORA CLAVICLE AND THE LADIES CRIME CLUB" (1968)

 






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


Whatever good feminist vibrations BATMAN ’66 may have generated with its use of powerful females like Batgirl and Catwoman, some might find those vibes wiped out by the insipidity of the “Nora Clavicle” episode. While an intelligent spoof of second-wave feminism is certainly feasible, Stanford Sherman’s script is merely reactionary and stupid.


Clavicle (Barbara Rush) is established as some sort of feminist activist, though her reasons for turning to crime are never addressed. She shows up in Gotham, garbed in a somewhat mannish suit, and attended by two statuesque blondes in archaic Greek attire. Said blondes don’t do much of anything except function as eye-candy—and perhaps suggest some naughty allusions to the Isle of Lesbos. On the night that Commissioner Gordon is honored with a dinner and a gold watch, Clavicle puts a feminist bug in the ear of Mayor Linseed’s wife, who haraunges her husband into firing Gordon and installing Clavicle in his place. Chief O’Hara is also out of a job, as Mrs. Linseed takes his place, and Clavicle also replaces all the male cops with completely inexperienced women. (Nothing is said about the disposition of any female officers.)

Clavicle anticipates that the Terrific Trio will become nuisances, so she sends her henchwomen to hold up a bank. The new female cops are too preoccupied with makeup and recipes to bother enforcing the law, so Clavicle manages to lure the crimefighters into the entire series’ chintziest death-trap. Batman, Robin and Batgirl are locked together into a “Siamese human knot,” so that they can’t move without mutually strangling one another. Once again, the villains then depart without killing the heroes, so that eventually Batman frees them all thanks to his uncanny knowledge of human anatomical responses.

Clavicle also explains her insidious plot to the heroes. The female fiend has bought a high-ticket insurance policy on the safety of Gotham City, and she plans to cash in by unleashing on Gotham a horde of mechanical mice, all primed to explode in one great cataclysm. It’s not clear whether or not Clavicle models her bomb-robots upon rodents because all the lady cops will be scared of mice. Neither Clavicle nor her henchgirls fear the mechanical mice, and neither does Batgirl, though the heroine seemingly agrees with the stereotype, stating that “You can’t get policewomen to help you catch mice.” (Given how incompetent Gotham’s cops usually are, it’s difficult to imagine them faring much better.) Batman naturally comes up with the solution: he contrives electronic pipes for himself and his compatriots, and the tunes they play guide the robots to Gotham’s docks and into the ocean. Dumb as the politics of the episode are, the image of the heroes playing Pied Piper is a memorable image in the episode. There is of course no final punch-up; Gordon, O’Hara and Alfred receive instructions from Batman to corral the three women. (No one asks why Batman would summon the aid of Bruce Wayne’s butler.) It may be of passing interest that while most villains never try to kill anyone but the starring heroes, Clavicle’s plot depends upon the wholesale slaughter of everyone in Gotham—though the script treats this enormity as if she were only assailing Gotham’s property values.



BATMAN: “LOUIE’S LETHAL LILAC TIME” (1968)

 





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


I’m reasonably sure that no one begged for a return of Louie the Lilac. Still, Charles Hoffman’s script for the character is marginally better than Dwight Taylor’s original outing. Once again, Milton Berle struts around in forties gangster garb, ordering his similarly garbed minions about their duties—but this time the villain’s big score makes a little more sense than suborning hippies. This time Louie hopes to gain control of Gotham’s perfume market, with particularly emphasis on perfumes made from lilacs. To this end the floral felon lays in a supply of the many animals (muskrats, musk deer) or animat substances (ambergris) used in perfume-making. (Given the show’s budget, Louie’s zoological acquisitions are never seen on camera.) Louie also has this thugs kidnap Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson because the crook knows that Wayne has the expertise to extract the glands of perfume-bearing animals, and apparently Louie would rather get a millionaire dilettante, rather than an expert, to perform his operations. Dumb as this is, the episode generates a tiny bit of suspense from the fact that Bruce and Dick remain captives for most of the story.


Barbara Gordon, not aware of the Dilettante Duo’s secret identities, coordinates with Alfred in order to figure out the location of Louie’s hideout. However, in order to burn up screen time while Batman and Robin are nullified, Barbara gets delayed at her apartment by an officious maintenance man who comes close to discovering the heroine’s change-room. Thanks to Alfred’s help, Batgirl shows up at Louie’s hideout, where the villain captures her and dooms her to be scalded to death in boiling oil. Bruce and Dick escape, change into their work-clothes and briefly confer with Gordon’s cops, who make a rare appearance outside a villain’s hideout. (Possibly Hoffman was channeling old Jimmy Cagney movies.) Batman and Robin break into the hideout and engage their foes, while Batgirl gets herself free of her death-trap and joins in the low-energy “fun.” Louie repeats the phrase “lilac time” about four times in the episode, but I doubt this story ever inspired anyone to check out the provenance of the phrase in Walt Whitman’s poetry. (Batman also calls Louie’s gang a “lavender mob,” a reference to a British crime comedy film.)


BATMAN: “THE FUNNY FELINE FELONIES” (1967-68)

 






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


“Funny” opens with yet another instance of Warden Crichton’s “revolving-door” policy with regard to hardened felons, when the Clown Prince of Crime (Cesar Romero) is once more paroled. At least one previous episode showed Batman becoming slightly frustrated with Crichton’s methods, but here Stanley Ralph Ross decides to have Bruce Wayne sponsor the Joker’s early release. Wayne’s sponsorship serves no purpose in the overall plot, so Ross may have included him in the scene simply so that Batman would find out quickly what was going on—particularly when Joker is openly abducted—right in front of the prison—by Catwoman (Eartha Kitt) in her attention-getting Kitty-Car.


Naturally, Joker is complicit in this kidnapping, which is a second plot-element that comes to absolutely nothing. Joker and Catwoman later rendezvous in a sleazy hotel—whose actual name is Sleazy Hotel—because the room overlooks the commissioner’s office, where Batman and Robin are conferring with Gordon. In keeping with the way most Bat-villains broadcast their intentions, Catwoman sends Batman a message via her “catgun.” The message doesn’t amount to much, but when Batman and Robin suss out the room from which it was shot at them, they—and late arrival Batgirl—somehow dope out that Joker and Catwoman are working together.


Whereas Joker dominated his partnership with Penguin in “The Zodiac Crimes,” Catwoman’s in charge here—although it’s not a particularly impressive plot, in that she wants to get hold of an ancient cache of gunpowder in order to assault the Gotham Mint. Joker himself points out how dumb this “dumb-zany” scheme is, noting that it would be a lot easier just to blow the Gotham vault with dynamite. Catwoman’s response comes down to admitting that they just have to follow the asinine plot.


The episode takes a slight upswing when Batman and Robin next overtake the villains and their goons, though the only improvement is that the resultant fight takes place in a decent set, that of a flamboyant record producer. But then the story takes a huge dip in quality when the Duo fall for a ridiculous Joker-ploy, and the heroes have to rescued by Batgirl, who almost doesn’t arrive in time due to Gotham’s traffic laws. (“You wouldn’t have wanted me to speed, would you?”) The first segment of this two-parter concludes with another lame quasi-cliffhanger, as the villains prepare to ambush the three heroes.


The second segment doesn’t even deliver on this mild promise of excitement. Joker and Catwoman wait until Batman and Robin take their leave, and then ambush only Batgirl. The villains leave the heroine in what counts as the third season’s second least expensive death-trap: rawhide cords that will slowly strangle Batgirl to death. Lame though the trap is, at least Batgirl escapes it on her own resources.


Joker and Catwoman utilize their recent plunder to buy a treasure-map, and this leads them to the storage-place of the gunpowder cache, that of a lighthouse run by a husband and wife who are both eccentric and incredibly unfunny. The heroes show up for a second battle, but following the heroes’ triumph, Joker accidentally drops a match amid the gunpowder. Batman pulls an essentially magical device out of his belt and keeps the explosion from decimating the lighthouse-set and everyone in it, though it is stated (not shown) that the rest of the structure still gets destroyed.

In most Bat-tales this would be the end of the story. But Joker, Catwoman and their henchmen are tried as a group in the next day or so, and the felons engage the services of famed attorney Lucky Pierre. (This is one of the few sex-jokes in the series, given that this name carries various disparate connotations in erotica.) Batman worries enough about the trial’s outcome that he volunteers his services as prosecuting attorney. He makes his case, but the jury finds the fiends innocent. In no time at all, Batman, Robin and Batgirl discover that the jurors are all disguised criminals hired by Lucky Pierre. A goofy courtroom free-for-all transpires, and this mediocre episode marks the last outing for any version of Catwoman in BATMAN ’66.


BATMAN: “THE OGG COUPLE” (1967)

 






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


Egghead and Olga make their third and final appearance, and for the first time Stanford Sherman attempts to come up with a plot that melds Olga’s Cossack criminality and Egghead’s egg-obsession. It just so happens that the Gotham Museum is hosting a pair of conjoined Cossack artifacts. One is “the Silver Scimitar of Taras Bulbul” (a pun on the novel “Taras Bulba” and the Eastern word “bulbul,” meaning “nightingale”), while the other is a gigantic sculpture, “the Egg of Ogg,” in which the scimitar is impaled like Excalibur set in a boulder. Once Olga has the sword, she plans to use it as a rallying-point to help her regain the throne of Bessarovia, which in theory ought to lead to her and her Cossacks splitting from Gotham. However, Egghead can only prove himself worthy of marriage if he brings a substantial dowry to the table. So Egghead and Olga plot to steal a load of precious caviar (i.e., “fish eggs”), and thus incur the wrath of the Terrific Trio.


This is a Batgirl-centric episode, for she tracks the Ogg Couple to their hideout while Batman and Robin spend most of the episode floundering about. Yvonne Craig gets to show off her dancing-skills when Olga orders her Cossacks to treat Batgirl to a sword-dance, in which the heroine gets to dance out of the way as the goons try to stab her tootsies. Further, though BATMAN ’66 was not exactly a haven of feminist thought, the episode includes a exchange between Batman and Batgirl, in which the hero opines that crimefighting isn’t woman’s work, to which the heroine replies, “But I’m no ordinary woman.”


Sunday, November 15, 2020

THE PRINCESS BLADE (2001)

 




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


This swordplay film is billed as a re-imagining of the seventies manga LADy SNOWBLOOD and its cinematic adaptations. Regrettably, PRINCESS BLADE lacks the earlier works’ strong characterization and period flavor. Indeed, BLADE essentially takes place in modern times, though a vague SF-apocalypse is conjured up to account for the absence of firearms. (That said, if one can judge the original film by the English-dubbed version, the script doesn’t even come up with a future-history as elaborate as that of BUNRAKU.)


Heroine Yuki (Yumiko Shaku) resembles Lady Snowblood in sporting a name that means “snow” in Japanese. In addition, this Yuki is also out to avenge an injustice done to her parents, though here the parents have some aristocratic background. Some old retainers address Yuki as “princess,” though it’s never clear as to why the scion of a royal house is first seen running around assassinating enemies with her samurai sword. The script has so little interest in establishing Yuki’s backstory or the ambitions of her enemies that both concerns are largely ignored in favor of a romantic subplot. Early in the film Yuki is wounded by her foes, but in escaping finds her way to a Japanese farm and takes up residence for a time with a handsome farm-boy, who’s even less well characterized than Yuki.


Though the script pays some lip-service to the conflict between normal life and the existence of an action-hero, BLADE’s only strong elements are the swordfight-scenes, and these are far from top of the line. Yumiko Shaku delivered a powerful performance in GODZILLA AGAINSTMECHAGODZILLA—a perf strong enough that she almost outshone the Big Green Guy—but in BLADE she has nothing to work with.


THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)

 





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


This film, shot quickly to take advantage of the horror craze of the early thirties, is an amiable timewaster, notable today for its re-use of actors with horror-reputations (Dwight Frye, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray) as well as the use of not-yet-A-level Melvyn Douglas.

My guess is that the producers told the writers to come up with something that had the appeal of both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Both the movie’s title and the casting of Frye as a creepy bat-loving character seem to promise the audience a DRACULA type of experience. That said, the script seems more in sympathy with such vampire-debunking works as Browning’s lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. People in a German village are dying of exsanguination, and many burghers believe that real vampires, possessed of magical powers, have come to town. Policeman Karl (Douglas) mocks their superstitions at every turn, and since the movie presents Karl as smart and level-headed, the script more or less telegraphs its verdict on the question of the supernatural. Further, even though Frye’s bat-lover capers around scaring old ladies, he doesn’t actually do anything, and even in 1933 most viewers probably recognized him as a red herring. (It also helps that he dies roughly at the film’s halfway point.) Since the only other characters are Karl’s girlfriend (Wray) and the girlfriend’s physician mentor Von Niemann (Atwill), there aren’t exactly a wealth of suspects for the identity of the vampiric killer.

After the climactic reveal Von Niemann rants about his Frankensteinian aspirations, but viewers don’t see anything of the artificial life he wishes to bring about. One only sees his low-tech method of committing vampire murders, which aligns the film with the phenomenality of the uncanny.

The debate between Karl and the burghers over vampirism is the film’s only high point. Though the repute of the actors has ensured that this film is director Frank Strayer’s best known work, I quite preferred the pulpish intensity of THE MONSTER WALKS.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

BATMAN: “CATWOMAN’S DRESSED TO KILL” (1967)

 





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


Though in earlier seasons Stanley Ralph Ross was given to a good deal of cornball humor, his script for “Catwoman’s Dressed to Kill” proves cleverer than the majority of third-season episodes. When we’re told that Batman plans to meet with the queen of Belgravia to discuss “the rise inf Belgravian misdemeanors,” we’re briefly back in the world of camp rather than pure zaniness.

Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman debut hinges on an outrageous spectacle of femininity. The Kitt-Catwoman first appears in the coda to “The Londinium Larcenies,” where the heroes witness the villainess invading police HQ in order to steal a bunch of “mini-uniforms” intended for Gotham’s policewomen. Not surprisingly this incident is utterly forgotten in the Catwoman episode proper, which begins with the feline felon interrupting a ladies’ luncheon dedicated to Gotham fashion. Since the luncheon is extolling Batgirl, Catwoman claims that the heroine’s charms run a “distant third” next to Catwoman’s, and she sabotages the luncheon with a “hair-raising bomb” that ruins all the ladies’ hairdos.

Despite appearances, Catwoman really nurses no particular animus toward Batgirl; the villain’s real target is the riches of the Belgravian embassy. She commits her fashion-crimes with the plan of capturing Batgirl and placing her in a death-trap. Once she’s done this, she telephones police HQ to let Batman and Robin know where they can rescue their comrade. The idea is to keep the crusaders from being at the Belgravian Embassy when Catwoman robs it. It never occurs to the villainess that the heroes could just send a bunch of Gordon’s cops to effect a rescue—and indeed, this stratagem also doesn’t occur to Batman and Robin either. But Batman, rather than personally coming to the salvation of an imperiled maiden, does entrust the task to a third party: that of Alfred. But the butler, to obscure his connection to the crusaders, dons his own “costume,” freeing Batgirl under the guise of “the world’s oldest hippie.” Thanks to this timely intervention, not only can Batman and Robin show up at the embassy to punch out Catwoman’s thugs, Batgirl also makes the scene as well. (Question: if the distance between Catwoman’s hideout and the embassy was supposed to keep the Dynamic Duo from protecting the Belgravian treasures, why didn’t it keep Batgirl from attending the final punch-up? Answer: none that would matter.)

o be sure, despite the “clever-zany” aspects of the episode, there’s a dumb-zany moment when Catwoman hides from the male crimefighters in a ladies’ change room. The heroes bumble about in pursuit with their hands over their eyes before one of the ladies bothers to tell them that no one in the eoom is even partly unclothed.



BATMAN: “THE LONDINIUM LARCENIES” (1967)

 





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


The best BATMAN episodes in terms of mythic discourse are those in which the heroes, despite playing their adventure-tropes “straight,” encounter ironic versions of real-world cultural constructs. “Death in Slow Motion” lampoons Old Hollywood, while “Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend” takes on both contemporary Hollywood and the American military. For whatever reason, “The Londinium Larcenies” is the only third-season episode that succeeds in blending action with absurdity.


The production team behind “Larcenies” makes skillful use of limited sets and props to convey the illusion that the Gotham heroes have picked up and moved to a crazy-mirror version of modern London, called “Londinium”—the only time, indeed, when the show’s action takes place outside Gotham City. Writers Elkan Allen and Charles Hoffman provide a fine cross-section of typical English locales—a smoky pub full of “footpads,” a simulacrum of London Bridge, and “venerable Ireland Yard.” (The latter is the set of Commissioner Gordon’s office given some minor revisions and explained by the notion that police commissioners’ offices around the world are all pretty much the same.) At the same time, these icons of Merrie Old England are counterpointed by images of “mod London,” exemplified by the fashions of what the show calls “Barnaby Street.” More importantly, the three villains are also divided along the lines of age and youth. The effect is that Allan and Hoffman’s script succeeds in depicting the British sea-change in culture than any Bat-episode was able to accomplish re: American cultural changes.


Batman and Robin are summoned to Londinum to investigate a rash of big-ticket crimes, but naturally, they’re not the only ones who make the trip. The Duo travel under the identities of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, along with Alfred, while Commissioner Gordon and daughter Barbara take the same ocean liner. Gordon’s ostensible reason is to be Gotham’s liaison, though he ends up doing almost nothing, while Barbara’s motive is implicitly to change into Batgirl and render aid to the Duo. Bruce Wayne also arranges for the Batmobile to be shipped to the ersatz England, and he, Dick and Alfred even whp up a junior-league version of the Batcave as a base of operations. (Later in the episode, Aunt Harriet also journeys to Londinium for no good reason. Since this was just one of actress Madge Blake’s two appearances in the third season, possibly the producers were just shoehorning her in whenever it proved convenient, given her ailing status.)





The British villains don’t sport outrageous costumes, though they do have a small arsenal of weird weapons. One such device, the Pipe of Fog, allows its master to make concealing fogbanks more impenetrable than the real ones in Old Blighty—and thus two of the villains, Lord Marmaduke Ffogg (Rudy Vallee) and his sister Lady Penelope Peasoup (Glynis Johns) are free to plunder the vaults of other aristocratic scions without anyone suspecting their ilicit activities. Batman seems to figure out Lord Ffogg’s guilt right away, though the Londinium Commissioner refuses to believe ill of any peers of the realm. The script never gives any reason for these representatives of the British class-system to pursue a career in crime, though one bit of circumstantial evidence suggests that maybe they’re stealing from their richer cousins because Ffogg Manor has fallen on hard times. In general, rich aristocrats don’t have to host finishing schools in their homes, as Ffogg and Peasoup do, even though their institution doubles as a school for crime. But it’s Ffogg’s daughter Lady Prudence (Lyn Peters), the villainous representative of Young Mod England, who runs the school, consisting of herself and four trainees in the art of shoplifting. (Thanks to these young ladies, Robin gets more favorable feminine attention here than he does in all the other episodes combined.)


Ffogg and Peasoup (wonder what happened to the man who gave her that surname?) present a united front against the colonial crimefighters. Yet Prudence has some vague aspirations of undermining her father and aunt, since she confesses to Robin right away that she runs a school for crime. However, the script never clarifies her endgame, though one might guess it has something to do with making sure her own hands stay clean while her father and aunt do time for their criminal activities.

Ffogg himself is not much more consistent. Once he realizes he’s under suspicion by the crusaders, he sends his liveried thugs to ambush (and presumably kill) the heroes. With the providential aid of Batgirl, the heroes fight off the thugs. Later, though, Batman is overpowered by Ffogg’s goons after a raucous pub-brawl, and Ffogg is content to annihilate Batman’s memory and let him wander off instead of killing him. (Alfred restores the crimefighter’s memory with the usual miraculous Bat-gadget.) Peasoup uses her girl students to abduct Robin (who’s too much the gentleman to fight girls) and then puts him a death-trap, to be cut in half by a winch in Tower Bridge. Even Prudence, despite her intent to play both ends against the middle, can’t resist getting in on all the scrumptious villainy. Robin, having survived the death-trap, makes his way back to Ffogg Manor and promptly stumbles into the hive of an African “death bee” that resides on the grounds. Prudence, something of a “queen bee in training” herself, takes avid pleasure in the sight of Robin with a deadly bee squatting on his hand, preparing to sting him—not to mention the aftermath, when he’s been stung and is supposedly awaiting extinction. (Naturally, he has an “African death bee antidote pill” and so escapes death.)




There’s a lot of other cheerful tomfoolery throughout this three-parter, including a dungeon, poison gas pellets that don’t work right, Alfred jogging and Batman performing the Indian rope trick. To be sure, most of the humor falls into the clever-zany category rather than into the bailiwick of true camp. That said, “Larcenies” would be the last time an episode successfully displayed a wealth of imaginative situations characteristic of the comic books from which they drew.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)

 






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




THE BLACK SCORPION, while not one of the great classics of 1950s science fiction, is certainly one of the era’s better “giant creature” films. Such films continued to appear throughout the sixties, but many of them—KONGA, GORGO—seem to follow the model of the Japanese Godzilla franchise, rather than focusing on the purely animalistic threats seen in THEM and TARANTULA.


SCORPION’s direction by Edward Ludwig is as crisp and efficient as any of the works of Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas, and the movie is well served by the familiar faces of Richard Denning and Mara Corday, even though the predominantly Mexican cast mitigates against the game of “find the familiar actor.” The film’s primary weakness is the formulaic script. Though both of the scripters, Robert Blees and David Duncan, produced some better-than-average original stories, it’s clear that neither of them was capable of equaling the cosmological and sociological myths found in the Sherdeman-Hughes THEM. Blees and Duncan may have taken a page from the first GODZILLA film, since SCORPION’s oversized beasties also emerge from Earth’s subterranean core. But the ways in which the scripters have Denning’s geologist character gradually discover the presence of giant monsters in Mexico are predictable, and the main viewpoint-characters played by Denning and Corday are both one-dimensional. And whereas THEM has Edmund Gwenn to inform the audience about all the fascinating aspects of ants, there’s no advocate for arachnids in SCORPION.



All that said, to fans of fifties SF, SCORPION is most notable for the stop-motion effects of Willis O’Brien, which were also presumably the main selling-point for fifties audiences. O’Brien, of course, is justly lauded as one of the co-creators of the classic 1933 KING KONG, and most of his subsequent work seems like a footnote to KONG. SCORPION is no exception here, but IMO it provides a much more interesting footnote than either THE SON OF KONG or MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.


Consider: one aspect of ’33 KONG that barely appears in the later giant-ape films is the sense of “nature red in tooth and claw.” King Kong, apparently the last of his species, reigns over an island full of beasts constantly preying upon one another, and Kong is no less savage than any of them, even if his heart is softened by the emotion of love. Such visions of brutality are played down in O’Brien’s other ape flicks, and even the ’33 KONG cut an O’Brien scene deemed too violent for contemporaneous audiences, in which sailors were slaughtered by a congeries of giant spiders and insects.


Did either O’Brien or someone else conceive of SCORPION as a recapitulation of that long-vanished scene of insectoid mayhem? This theory is supported by the scene in which Denning’s character descends to the underworld to learn the nature of the giant scorpions, and he sees a handful of other big insects. The other big beasts are only there to provide a skein of logic for the long-term survival of the prehistoric scorpions in their subterranean Skull Island. For that matter, though there are some effective scenes in which several big scorpions attack the surface world, the star of the show is the biggest, meanest, and blackest member of the brood. The Black Scorpion asserts his sovereignty late in the film, when for no explicit reason all the scorpions go mad and attack one another, until the Big Black One is the only survivor. This simplifies the mission of the humans, who now have only one Achilles Heel to attack instead of several.


Though the Black Scorpion is too far from humanity to inspire any of the sympathetic aspects of the original Kong, he does at least emulate Kong’s sheer ferocity. The climactic scene, in which the big bug fights off tanks and helicopters with his invincible stinger, might be seen as the capper to O’Brien’s career, given that nothing he did in later productions—THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, THE LOST WORLD—equals the sublime wonder of this scene. If everything else in the film had been this good, SCORPION could have surpassed THEM.


On a minor note, though some viewers find themselves uncomfortable with racial images in KING KONG, the script for SCORPION is blameless in this regard. Some fifties films might be fairly accused of ethnocentrism, but all the Mexican characters in SCORPION are simply pictured as normal people reacting to a fantastic situation. Even the cute Mexican kid is nothing but a kid who happens to live in Mexico, and since he barely interacts with Denning’s character, SCORPION easily wards off any accusations of cultural paternalism.