Friday, December 3, 2021

ARTHUR'S QUEST (1999)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


I've screened other "King Arthur" films that I liked less than this one, but this is still a pretty blah DTV flick. To be sure, one has to judge QUEST by what audience it was seeking to reach-- and to judge by the script, the writers knew that they were aiming at fairly undemanding middle schoolers. 

The quick breakdown: back in vague Arthurian times, Pendragon's (never seen) military forces have just been defeated by an equally vague force, "the Dark Knights." Pendragon, seeking to protect his six-year-old son Arthur, summons his two magicians, Merlin (Arye Gross) and Morgana (Catherine Oxenberg). Merlin intends to project Little Arthur through a time-portal into the 20th century, instead of just sending the kid to be raised by some bucolic couple. Maybe Merlin visited the 20th century earlier and got really taken with reading Mark Twain's A CONNECTICUT YANKEE? Anyway, Morgana, Merlin's lover, is also the power behind the Dark Knights, a whole two of whom show up to foil Merlin's schemes. Nevertheless, despite being caught with his pants down, Merlin still manages to send himself, Little Arthur and the sword Excalibur back through time, though Pendragon gets himself killed. 

Merlin stays near Little Arthur only long enough to see him adopted by a worthy young woman, and then he takes off to hide both himself and Excalibur. For no good reason he keeps hidden while Arthur grows to be an average American teen-- which naturally makes it very tough later on to convince young "Arthur Regal" (ugh) that he's really the heir to the throne in sixth-century England.

The writers knew their audience would want lots of silly humor, and so even the characters from the sixth century talk like modern-day TV comics. Just as Merlin reaches out to Teen Arthur, Morgana shows up in the 20th century as well, having considerately waited ten years in order to let Teen Arthur grow to the proper age. This MAY have had something to do with Arthur's fitness to inherit Excalibur, but I can't be sure the script ever makes that much sense. Morgana doesn't even do the logical thing-- immediately abduct Arthur's adoptive mom to ransom the magic sword-- but instead she mucks about pretending to be the principal of Artie's school. Eventually, after a lot of juvenile messing around, there's a desultory sword-fight between Teen Arthur and Morgana (who as shown above dresses like a Comicon booth-babe). After Morgan's defeat, Arthur decides to return to ancient England with Merlin, his mom and his girlfriend.

If I had to say something nice about this farrago, there's just one good line. Late in the film Merlin asks Morgana why she doesn't just stay in the 20th since she's adjusted to that world with ridiculous ease. She claims that there's just too much evil in the modern world, so that her villainy just wouldn't stand out as it does back in the sixth century. And that's the best I can do with this querulous quest. 


RESIDENT EVIL (2002)

 





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


The RESIDENT EVIL series is surely among the most profitable adaptations of a video game into the cinematic medium. With the exception of a 2021 reboot, whose box office may have been affected by the China Virus, all the episodes in the series proved profitable, despite widespread critical disdain.

Since I don't play video games, I come to the series without any investment in the original concept. I know that the EVIL game was a celebrated example of the "first-person shooter" game, and director Paul W.S. Anderson, who had already scored with his 1995 adaptation of the MORTAL KOMBAT game, certainly works a lot of shooting into the first installment of EVIL. In contrast to KOMBAT and the later episodes of EVIL, the first film largely takes place in one facility wherein many SF-themed menaces lurk, and this sense of confinement in a may have contributed to the success of EVIL, Part One. Later films would play up the superhuman prowess of main character Alice (Milla Jovovich), but here the heroine still seems human-sized, so I'm not sure how much her presence had to do with the series' commercial success.

The most mythic aspect of Part One is the opening description of the Umbrella Corporation, a conglomerate with many irons in many manufacturing fires. However, Umbrella unleashes chaos when it experiments with "bioweapons" for the illegal weapons market. Beneath the surface of the risibly named Raccoon City, the corporation maintains a facility, the Hive, in which a bioweapon called the "T-virus" had been developed. A mystery thief both steals the weapon and contaminates the facility with the virus, turning most of the staff into flesh-munching zombies. 

Alice, who is eventually revealed to be an agent investigating the virus, has lost her memory at the movie's opening. She and another resident of Raccoon City are taken prisoner by commandos working for the corporation on general suspicion, and the commandos rather oddly decide to take these two civilians with them into a mission to delve into the Hive's status. Everyone in the group gets trapped in the Hive, not only by the zombies but also by the Red Queen, a computer intelligence controlling the Hive's weapons and security systems. (The name of the heroine and of the computer, though patently referencing the works of Lewis Carroll, don't add up to much of anything here or in future installments.)

I enjoyed the first film reasonably well as a decent timekiller, particularly for the gutsy performance of Michelle Rodriguez as a female commando, one who makes numerous re-appearances later on. But the limitations of the $30 million budget are at times apparent, and so the sequels, given more bucks once the first proved profitable, provided more high-octane action for the audience's dollars.


Thursday, December 2, 2021

THE SPIDER RETURNS (1941)

 






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


Since THE SPIDER'S WEB made money for Columbia, one might have thought that the production team would try to follow the template of that serial closely for the sequel. Instead, RETURNS is a strange farrago of misfires, so much so that one could  almost imagine that it was made by people who had nothing to do with the first entry.

The fact that only one scripter from WEB, George Plympton, collaborated on RETURNS may be the reason the latter film is so aimless, lacking the former's strong set-pieces and dialogue. Another factor may be that this time James W. Horne, who shared co-director credit on WEB with Ray Taylor, was the sole occupant of the director's chair this time. While RETURNS is not rife with as many "baggy-pants" moments of comedy as other Horne offerings, being on his own may have allowed him to be less concerned with quality control. Of the original cast, only Warren Hull and Kenne Duncan, playing respectively the Spider and his aide Ram Singh, reprise their roles. Secondary aide Jackson is now played by Dave O'Brien, who furnished stunts on WEB, while Mary Ainslee steps in as female lead Nita Van Sloane. As in the first serial, there are multiple suspects as to the identity of the main malefactor. But whereas in WEB the Octopus remains in his sanctuary while giving orders to his henchmen, the new villain in town, the Gargoyle, is conspicuous for running around on errands of  violence his men, despite the fact that his cowl-mask and robes make him fairly conspicuous.

Other differences may have been stemmed from the reception of the first serial by audiences. Whereas in WEB the Spider mowed down a goodly number of disposable thugs with his twin handguns, this time the hero barely uses his weapons at all, and there are many more slug-nutty scenes in which the arachnid avenger takes on five-six crooks at once in wild, windmilling battles, often ending with the Spider overwhelmed. Yet the plot of RETURNS might have allowed for more violence, for this time the villains are rooted in a real-world threat. Though the serial was released in May 1941, half a year before the US entered WWII, and though the Gargoyle is not explicitly tied to the Axis, the mastermind and his gangsters are all saboteurs seeking to weaken America's defense systems. Yet, not until the last few episodes does one see the characters make any patriotic speeches.

The Gargoyle does resemble the Octopus in one regard: though most of both villains' weapons are either naturalistic or uncanny, each of them has just one marvelous resource. In WEB it's a beam that zaps airplanes, and in RETURNS it's a bizarre X-ray machine that allows the villain to spy on people over great distances. (The gizmo thus combines not only the ability of Superman's X-ray vision but also his so-called "telescopic vision.") The X-ray machine is a goofy looking apparatus, full of gimcrack add-ons, so its appearance may be in line with Horne's sense of humor. A couple of more "straight" traps include a conveyor belt that almost delivers the Spider to a furnace, and a room gimmicked with both blazing fires and with closing walls lined with spikes.

Warren Hull still gets all the requisite heroic moments, as well as delivering some comic relief as his fake criminal identity Blinky McQuade. But Duncan hardly gets any of his oddball Sikh homilies, while Ainslee is relegated to a much less feisty version of Nita Van Sloan. Nita does handle a gun ably once or twice, but she shies away from fights with the henchmen. Even when pitted against another woman-- a grotesque crosseyed woman-- this Nita only barely manages to overpower her foe by loosely pressing a pillow over her face. The angle about Wentworth telling Nita that he intends to quit being the Spider is only marginally referenced due to the crusade for national security. 

SPIDER RETURNS is certainly not the worst serial ever, and the aimless plot does pick up a little in the end chapters, during which the Gargoyle kidnaps Nita and the hero, assuming his Blinky guise, infiltrates the gang to "reluctantly" take possession of her, a trope later used to great effect in Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED. RETURNS is just one of the many serials where the sum of the parts don't add up into a pleasurable whole.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (1942)


 





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


Though celebrated stuntman Dave O'Brien had enjoyed assorted starring roles before CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT-- such as 1936's BLACK COIN-- this serial about the popular radio hero was probably the closest he ever got to "the big time."

Regrettably, even though the first movie version of the hero-- who had also showed up in comics by 1942-- has a pretty striking, all-black outfit, as a character Midnight leaves viewers "in the dark." At the serial's outset the audience is introduced to esteemed aviator Captain Albright, who maintains-- for no clear reason-- the double identity of the masked Captain Midnight. As in the radio serial Midnight has a "ground crew" called the Secret Squadron, who were supposed to be the only one in on the captain's secret ID. But the serial's script can't be bothered to say how Albright took on the ID of Midnight, and for that matter, a lot of people in the course of the serial find out the secret rather easily.

Though the story revolves around a gang of enemy agents seeking to snag a new bomb-sighting invention, very little is said about the war itself, nor is there much in the way of morale-boosting here. Main villains Ivan Shark (James Craven) and his ruthless daughter Fury (Luana Walters) are never directly tied to the Axis, and there aren't even a lot of aerial stunts to play off the hero's aviator status. Its weak plot is fairly typical of many serials, but even some of the mid-range chapterplays bring in better moments of melodramatic characterization. Thus, Midnight is a cipher fighting other ciphers-- albeit with very well-staged fight-scenes. Of all the villains Craven does deliver a spirited "Big Bad" in spite of Shark's shortcomings as a master planner.

The one thing that saves MIDNIGHT from total mediocrity is the death-trap shown above. Shark catches Midnight in a room where the hero is imprisoned on a rotating disc, while a great weight descends from above and flames spout from the floor below. It's such a perfect trap that the script has to have the hero saved when Shark's blundering henchmen accidentally shut off the power in the trap-room. This is one of the many oddball-humor asides that director James W. Horne brought to many of his serial efforts, and while contrived, they're preferable to the antics of the two goofball members of the Secret Squadron.


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

VAMPIRE JOURNALS (1997)


 




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


Three years after the cliffhanger conclusion of BLOODSTORM: SUBSPECIES III, and one year before mastermind Ted Nicolaou concluded the SUBSPECIES, Nicolaou helmed a "spin off" within his vampire cosmos. There's nothing in VAMPIRE JOURNALS that directly connects it to the SUBSPECIES films, but the writer-director worked a few JOURNALS characters into the fourth and last SUBSPECIES film, though only in a prequel-ish sense, since two of those characters had been killed in JOURNALS.

Regardless of the time-frame, JOURNALS is, like Nicolaou's other vampire-films, set exclusively in Romania, ostensibly in Bucharest. As in the first SUBSPECIES film there's a principal female character from America, in this case a young pianist, Sofie (Kirsten Cerre). Her piano performance attracts the attention of a "music-loving" master vampire named Ash (Jonathon Morris), and he sets plans to draw her into his web of sin, even though he already has a substantial coterie of mostly attractive vampires, principally one Cassandra (Ilinca Goya). He first approaches her with a well-traveled move, a single rose (to whose thorns Sofie loses a little blood), but when that doesn't win Sofie immediately, Ash arranges for a human servitor, Iris (Starr Andreef) to set Sofie up with a private concert.

Fortunately for Sofie, Ash is being stalked by vampire hunter Zachary (David Gunn)-- and when I say "vampire hunter," I mean it in both senses of the phrase: Zachary is a vampire who hunts vampires. Years ago the reluctant bloodsucker was "sired" by one Serena, who turned Zachary and executed his lady love. Zachary destroyed Serena, his "mother," and then decides to go after the vamp who sired Serena, who could be termed Zachary's symbolic father, though the two have never met. Zachary is also immediately attracted to the youthful Sofie-- though Zachary, unlike Ash, does not seem to be the centuries-old type of undead. Zachary stalks Ash to kill him, but ends up seeking to save Sofie from perdition. He succeeds in the first goal, slaying Ash with a legendary sword once owned by Ash himself (symbolic phallus, anyone?) But there's a downbeat conclusion in that Sofie does get turned at the conclusion, and must join Zachary in his dismal existence.

Though Nicolaou's formulation of vampire mythology is just as derivative as it is in the SUBSPECIES films, JOURNALS benefits from a clearer conflict, even if one doesn't invest in the Freudian "jealous father" trope. Oddly, while the SUBSPECIES series pursues the trope of the "repulsive vampire"-- the trope that most informs the original Stoker DRACULA-- JOURNALS is wholly invested in the trope of the "pretty vampire." Both Morris and Gunn portray glamorous male vamps, so that in theory the female viewer may find Sofie's predicament suitably enthralling no matter who wins. There are some odd myth-touches throughout, principally the name of the legendary blade: "the sword of Laertes."  In Greek myth Laertes is the father of Odysseus, and he has little mythic presence of his own, while Odysseus is only tangentially connected to "unquiet spirits" through his adventure in the underworld. Though there's no support for it, I'm moved to speculate that Nicolaou may have thought about borrowing from the more apposite Oedipus myth, which would have led to a "sword of Laius," named for the Greek ruler killed by his own son. But this is just an enjoyable side-notion.

BLOODSTONE: SUBSPECIES II (1993), BLOODLUST: SUBSPECIES III (1995)

 





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

In my review of the first film in the series, I gave away one of the spoilers to the first sequel: that Stephan, Radu's only real competition for the position of SUBSPECIES' main character, gets knocked off. Indeed, as soon as Radu (Anders Hove) is revived, perhaps mere minutes from the conclusion of the first movie, writer-director Ted Nicolaou is quick to have the evil vamp murder his half-brother, who unlike Radu never manages to resuscitate himself. However, through a contrivance Stephan's newly-vampirized lover Michelle not escapes Radu but takes with her the mystic blood-bestowing Bloodstone. The stone once again plays the part of the bone over which good and bad vamps fight, but given how obsessive Radu becomes over bringing Michelle back to him, the "bone" might have dispensed with.

Michelle (now played by a new actress, Denice Duff) flees to Bucharest and tries to contact her sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner), who just happens to have come to Romania looking for Michelle. Indeed, the narrative shifts somewhat away from Michelle's endeavors to survive as a newbie bloodsucker and toward Rebecca's quest to find her sibling-- not least because in her search Rebecca picks up three other support-characters to help her.

Nothing daunted, Radu summons up his own helper: his sorceress-mother, known only as "Mummy," who was responsible for passing the vampire curse on to the royal family that bred both Radu and the late Stephan. The old witch, looking even more haggard and raddled than Radu, immediately lends her skills to the pursuit of Michelle. The scenes between Radu and Mummy, though not particularly revealing of their backstory, at time project some of the same evil-mother-and-son vibe I got from the interactions of Grendel and his nameless mother in the epic poem BEOWULF.

The middle of the film is just a lot of running around to delay the climax, though some of the complications are enlivened by the character of police detective Marin (Ion Hadic), who being a younger Romanian remains staunchly skeptical about vampires. Eventually evil son and evil mother capture Michelle and Rebecca, and Radu tries to make Michelle kill her sister to prove her vampiric loyalty. However, Radu finds that even with newbie vamps, one should never take a woman for granted, and so Michelle turns the tables on both Radu and Mummy. However, though Rebecca takes her leave while Michelle seeks refuge from the sun, the film ends with a cliffhanger heralding the appearance of a second sequel.



At the conclusion of BLOODSTONE, Mummy survives being set on fire, captures Michelle and revives the apparently slain Radu once more. The story-arc of BLOODLUST proves a little more interesting than Part Two, for now Michelle has almost become worn down by Radu's pursuit. She pledges him her allegiance if she will teach him everything she needs to know about living as a vampire. Radu for his part begins to show a softer side, for now he wants his half-brother's former flame to yield him not only loyalty but also love.

Once Michelle goes missing again, Rebecca again saddles up for another sister-hunt, and brings along both Detective Marin and another of the support-characters, who just happens to be a handsome young guy who falls for Rebecca's charms. 

Speaking of charms, whether or not Michelle ever sincerely considered yielding to Stephan's killer, she finally breaks off her lessons and expresses her disgust for his Nosferatu-ugliness. The lovesick Radu carries Michelle back to the family crypt, and Mummy, annoyed by the new girl's disloyalty, tries to kill Michelle, only to be slain by Radu. (She stays dead, not making an appearance in the fourth and last film in the series, BTW.) Once more Rebecca seeks out the hiding place of Radu, bringing along a gun full of silver bullets. Michelle shoots Radu, but this only delays him. The generally useless Bloodstone crops up at the climax, as Radu tries once more to get it back-- a substitute for Michelle's unobtainable love, perhaps?-- but he only gets killed again, though in a more spectacular manner than he did in BLOODSTONE. But he would arise for one last time in the series' final (for the time being) entry.




Monday, November 29, 2021

SUBSPECIES (1991)

 






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


SUBSPECIES is the first of four vampire films with the same cast of characters, as well as one "spin-off" film that takes place in the same "universe." All were written (or co-written) by director Ted Nicolaou, and all were filmed in Romania, which proves to be the best aspect of the series, since Nicolaou takes full advantage of the settings and even the physical attire of the characters to give his films vraisemblance.

I haven't finished re-watching all five films yet, but my memories of previous screenings suggest that these are just lively, atmospheric time-killers. The first sets up the basic characters and their concerns, and then the sequels just repeat the same basic formula; vampires running around fanging people while pursuing an arcane artifact, the Bloodstone. The "subspecies" tag originally refers to little red manikins that the king-vampire Radu creates from his own blood, but they have only minimal impact on the storylines and may have been no more than concessions to one of the film's production companies, Full Moon, which made malevolent manikins one of their signature tropes, a la PUPPET MASTER and DEMONIC TOYS.

Nicolaou's take on vampire mythology, while derivative, is at least somewhat more engrossing than the average low-rent fang-tale. In this world, apparently vampires can breed normally, for SUPSPECIES concerns two half-brothers, begat from a vampire lord from two women, one a vampiric sorceress and the other a mortal. The film starts out with the full vampire Radu (Anders Hove) slaying his father in order to obtain the Bloodstone, a relic able to shed the blood of a saint, and thus empowering any vampire who owns it. (That said, even when he has the Bloodstone in his hands, Radu doesn't seem to hold off on drinking blood from innocent mortals-- though he and his kindred must not have doing much blood-taking, since in modern times, only the older Romanians believe in vampires.) Radu's half-brother Stephan doesn't want the relic, nor does he want anything to do with feeding off people, though it's established that he does have roughly the same vampiric powers as Radu.

Enter two American college students, Lillian and Michelle, who come to a small town in Romania, rooming with Mara, a Romanian college girl whom they met in America. All three are students of Romanian folklore, and when they go nosing around Romanian ruins, they encounter Stephan. Stephan and Michelle fancy each other, and Radu, observing this, decides to use the girls against his hated half-brother. Radu vampirizes first the two "Lucys," Mara and Lillian, and eventually does the same to Michelle, the "Mina" of the story. Stephan attempts to prevent Michelle from being enthralled to his brother by re-biting her and binding her to him. The fraternal conflict comes to a head: Radu and Stephan engage in a long swordfight, after which Stephan beheads Radu, while Michelle overcomes one of her vampirized friends with a canny trick. The swordfight, while not very well choreographed, is the only element that makes SUBSPECIES a combative film, though it's my memory that none of the other related movies qualify for the combative mode.

There's not much psychological depth in this battle for two brothers over one woman, and the film's ending is just a setup for the sequel, which picks up immediately after the events of SUBSPECIES. Aside from the location advantages, the series' main asset is the makeup devised for Radu. With his pale skin, long stringy hair and long clawlike fingers, the evil undead's image certainly owes something to that of silent-film vampire Orlock from 1922's NOSFERATU, and actor Anders Hove gives a spirited performance as the nasty bloodsucker. Had there never been any sequels, I might have found it hard to decide if the narrative centered more upon Radu or upon Stephan and Michelle-- though, since the latter two are fairly bland, I might well have settled on the undead villain, since it's his quest for power that makes the story go. In terms of the series, though, Radu is unquestionably the star, since Stephan is quickly knocked off in the first sequel, Michelle becomes more drawn into Radu's world in all three sequels, and another heroine, Rebecca, is introduced in Part Two to become "the new Mina," so to speak.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

SORCERESS (1982)


 




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


The above lobby card is probably more amusing than the movie itself. There is a winged lion in the movie-- albeit one that looks like a demented Muppet-- but there's no black guy with an axe, and there's no single heroine, as the title loosely suggests, but rather twin heroes, mediocre as they may be.

SORCERESS was one of the first films that sough to coast on the success of CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Unfortunately, it was also one of the many Roger Corman-produced flicks in which Corman decided to cheap out big-time. Veteran exploitation director Jack Hill, who claimed to have co-written the movie with Jim Wynorski, hoped that he might spark his flagging career with this film, but instead it became his final directorial credit.

I tend to believe Hill co-wrote the film, even though its plot is a garbled mess. There are glimpses of anarchic humor here that recall Hill's inspired work on films like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. But even though I'm sure Corman was responsible for a lot of the flaws of SORCERESS by cheaping out on the budget, the plot is flimsy in the extreme and suggests that Hill was just winging it-- which is never a good way to make a comeback.

The villain's bid for power defines the course of the plot. Evil sorcerer Traigon (Roberto Ballesteros) plans to sacrifice his own firstborn to his evil goddess Caligara (a reference to Doctor Caligari, perhaps?) His unnamed wife, having just given birth, flees with her progeny, but Traigon and his thugs overtake her. Though the mother is wounded unto death, she has a surprise for her nasty husband: she gave birth to twins, and she refuses to tell Traigon which one is the eldest. In addition, the wife-- possibly a priestess of some sort?-- summons an ancient mystic warrior, Krona, who fights off Traigon's warriors while the wife herself kills Traigon. However, Traigon will be able to return from death in 20 years-- just enough time for his two offspring to grow to maturity-- and so the dying wife enjoins Krona to have the twins raised in hiding. Krona does so, swearing to endow the twins with special fighting-powers, even though they're twin girls. This setup has some decent melodramatic potential, but Hill blows it with a careless attitude toward establishing characters. 

Twenty years later, twins Mara and Mira (twins Leigh and Lynette Harris) have been raised on a small farm by adoptive parents. The parents tell the twins none of their backstory, nor do they actually inform them that they are not boys. The girls apparently are too dumb to have made any conclusions themselves from looking at their adoptive parents, much less from the behavior of the farm's animals. They're first seen skinny dipping and being watched by a satyr named Pando (who seems intelligent even though he never utters anything but goatlike bleats). The girls catch Pando perving on them and beat him up.

Being off the beaten track is absolutely no help to the girls, for as soon as Traigon is reborn, he easily tracks his daughters down and slaughters everyone on the farm except the twins. The bereaved ladies make it into the nearest town, where they gain allies: a blustery Viking named Valtar, a roguish prince named Erlick, and Pando, who somehow gets involved for no good reason. After some more gratuitous fight-scenes, Traigon manages to lure the girls away from their protectors, and soon dispenses with the whole "who's the firstborn" plot-thread with some magical contrivance. The supporting heroes try to rescue the girls, but Traigon manages to keep hold of Mara, the elder sister, so the rest of the film is all about rescuing her before her mean father can sacrifice her. 

Reputedly the shoot was a jinxed one, so that may explain why even Hill's specialty, that of extravagant violence, didn't come off. The Harris twins come off as blank slates even when they're undergoing orgasmic titillation in tandem (did I forget that they're "Corsican twins" who can experience one another's impressions?) Mara and Mira are the stars of the show, but almost everything in the script places more emphasis on the supporting characters. It's not the worst sword-and-sorcery film ever made, but SORCERESS will leave even the most undemanding viewers un-enchanted.

THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938)


 





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


THE SPIDER'S WEB is one of two serials adapting the adventures of the Spider, one of the more popular heroes of the pulp magazines. It's ironic that although in these two serials the extravagant violence of the prose character was dampened, both movies capture the appeal of the hero better than the sole serial appearance of the more famous Shadow, to say nothing of a handful of cheapjack B-films starring the Master of Darkness. The Spider, though given a markedly different costume design from the one he wore in the pulps, even LOOKS better than the Shadow of the serials.

Some serials start off with showing the hero donning his double-identity for the first time to take on a menace, and then giving up the game once he's quelled that initial threat. WEB, however, establishes that amateur criminologist Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull) has been fighting crime as the masked Spider for some time, and that only at the serial's inception do he and his fiancee Nita Van Sloan (Iris Meredith) contemplate giving up the superhero game in order to pursue domestic bliss. Obviously the audience knows that the hero will put off his retirement once the new criminal in town starts his bid for power. But even though Richard and Nita aren't constantly moaning about their delayed nuptials, the opening sets up some suspense about whether or not they'll even get the chance to retire.

Sure enough, a masked mastermind, the Octopus, begins a campaign to dominate America by exerting control over all of the country's major lines of transportation. Unlike other such world-beaters, the evildoer depends largely on a small army of hired thugs and various uncanny trick-weapons. Only late in the serial does he unveil a special ray with which he can disable planes in flight, which is the only marvelous element in the story, but the weapon then disappears from the narrative, in contrast to the way most fiends depend on one big super-weapon, like the death-ray in the previous year's BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD. 

That said, a lot of serials become tedious when they fixate on one world-beating device, and WEB never becomes dull. The early episodes, while not as violent as the pulps, show the two-gun hero mowing down a fair number of gunmen in self-defense, in contrast to the many serials in which heroes and villains shoot at one another and constantly miss. The Octopus is a pretty immobile villain-- he holds court in his sanctuary, garbed in white robes and appearing to be crippled-- but the number of country-conquering plots he unleashes makes him seem particularly formidable. Adding to the mayhem are the Spider's fighting aides Ram Singh and Jackson, not to mention the cops, who are sometimes in the position of trying to arrest their costumed benefactor as well as the thugs. Even Nita shows that she can handle a pistol, as well as escaping captivity by placing a female crook in an armlock.

Some fans have theorized that this trope of the hero on the outs with the law contributed in no small way to the evolution of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man. Apart from the serial's influence on pop culture, it also boasts a lot of heady, off-the-wall fight-scenes that have a wilder, woolier feel than many of the more mechanical Republic serial-spectacles. Hull and Meredith don't have many romantic scenes, but they generate good chemistry, and in place of a stultifying "comedy relief" we have the turbaned Ram Singh-- who is presumably a Sikh as in the magazine-- swearing all sorts of colorful oaths. James W. Horne, co-directing WEB with Ray Taylor, may be responsible for injecting a number of humorous asides into the mouths of the thugs, but if so, he and the writers don't do it so often that it distracts from the action.

While the producers couldn't have known that this serial was going to prove successful enough to generate a second outing, they left the door open at the conclusion, for despite Nita's protests Richard Wentworth avers that the Spider will strike again-- which he did.

Monday, November 22, 2021

TIGER CLAWS II (1996), TIGER CLAWS III (2000)

 






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

On some occasions, the ascent of a screenwriter to the position of director heralds the dawning of a strong new talent. Of course, within the sphere of American chopsockies, no one expects the advent of a Billy Wilder, or whatever Wilder would have been in some alternate universe where he wrote chopsockies.

All that said, J. Stephen Maunder, the writer of the passable time-killer TIGER CLAWS, displayed the Peter Principle at work when he assumed both writing and directing duties on the second and third entries in this series-- though it's hard to call it that, given that Number Two appeared five years after the first one, while Number Three waited a good three-four years following Number Two.

Both films are thinly plotted excuses for a lot of kung-fu combat scenes with some vague supernatural goal in mind. Jalah Merhi and Cynthia Rothrock again play two karate cops, Tarek and Linda, who get mixed up in fighting martial arts menaces, but in neither film does Rothrock get a chance to shine, despite being top-billed over Merhi. The latter is a mediocre performer whose main attraction was being in control of the production company.

They're both tedious, but I suppose Number Two is worse than Three, simply because the plot makes less sense. There's a Big Bad who wants to open a time-gateway to the days of Imperial China, which gateway has supposedly been a thing that ancient kung-fu masters could access at certain times, in order to send promising young students back for-- their elders' approbation? It's never clear what the villain gets out of opening the time-portal, but he springs from jail the villain of the first film, the Death Dealer (Bolo  Yeung, still barely able to speak English) to help him with this project. The villain stages a lot of tournament matches-- I think to amass supernatural power in order to open the gateway-- and the two cops get involved and kick a lot of butt.

Number Three at least wears its influences clearly on its sleeve: it's essentially SUPERMAN II in kung-fu garb, right down to the way three ancient Chinese evildoers-- two male, one female-- are garbed in filmy black costumes. A villain (Loren Avedon, who's at least a little bit funny now and then) releases the three villains from imprisonment and tries to use them to form a new crime syndicate. Linda appears very little after she's killed early on, which unfortunately means lots more Merhi. However, the "all a dream" conclusion, in which Linda is alive and the whole invasion never happened, is mildly diverting-- on top of which, Maunder even throws in another touch suggesting that the invasion is still going to happen even though Tarek only dreamed it. 

Still, pretty dire all around.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

DC SUPER HEROES: THE FILMATION ADVENTURES (1967/2008)

 





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


                                   

Much as I liked these old interstitial cartoons from the 1960s Filmation Studios AQUAMAN teleseries when I was a kid, I never expected that they’d be given their own DVD. I would have thought that if they showed up anywhere, it would’ve been on a multi-disc DVD for AQUAMAN. For whatever reason, though, there’s now a separate DVD set just for the King of the Seven Seas. Thus, what we have here are six “micro-serials” devoted to popular DC comics-franchises—Flash, Atom, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Teen Titans and Justice League— wherein each franchise got three seven-minute cartoons apiece. Originally each individual cartoon would be broadcast in between two Aquaman cartoons. This program provided the first animated adaptation for all of these features, but the exposure didn’t lead to any spin-offs, though they may have given Saturday morning programming execs a little more familiarity with the DC characters, which MIGHT have abetted the 1970s launch of the long-lived SUPER RIENDS program. That said, whoever produced the packaging of this 2-disc set was apparently confused about who lived in the DC universe, given that the images for the discs’ “main menu” screens include the character Birdman, who originally appeared in his own 1960s show from the Hanna-Barbera Studios.

 

The three ATOM cartoons are among the weakest offerings, since the extremely limited Filmation animation couldn’t really put across the athletic appeal of the Tiny Titan. The one episode of any interest pits the hero against a rogue scientist with control over mutated plants. This villain may have been loosely modeled upon the Plant Master character from the ATOM feature. The other episodes, concerning alien beetle-men and a standard mad scientist, are forgettable.

 

The FLASH cartoons—two of which co-star the hero’s juvenile sidekick Kid Flash—aren’t much better, since the animation couldn’t convey the excitement of running really fast. The biggest trick in the bags of these two Flashes is being able to vibrate through walls, and that trick isn’t enough to give much oomph to episodes about a giant mutated ant and a robot-making mad scientist. Slightly better is a story about an alien criminal speedster named Blue Bolt, who for some reason obtains speed-powers when he touches down on Planet Earth, and who creates havoc on the planet until he’s tossed back into space.

 


The GREEN LANTERN episodes, though, are the best of the offerings, and that may be because the titular hero, in place of fast physical action, employs a lot of fancy rays and energy-constructs in battling other SF-themed foes. It’s the only interstitial cartoon that’s totally faithful to adapting a DC Comics villain, a fellow named Evil Star who has a nice “dueling energy constructs” battle with the hero. The SF-theme also gives this micro-series access to more outre material, such as an evildoer seeking to release space-criminals from a dimensional rift while imprisoning Green Lantern and his friend Cairo in that otherverse. Cairo, incidentally, is a blue-skinned Venusian teenager who works for the Lantern’s other ID Hal Jordan. I assume Cairo was loosely based on "Pieface" Kalmaku, the (fully adult) Eskimo sidekick of the comic-book Green Lantern, though this blue-skinned youth talks hip-talk along the lines of the Justice League mascot Snapper Carr. Cairo provides a small dollop of comedy relief, which is more than Tusky the Walrus ever did for Aquaman.  

 


It was inevitable that a character like Hawkman, with an extremely complicated comics-backstory, would get simplified as much as possible. Thus, this version of the Winged Wonder is an alien scientist who, for no particular reason, lives on Earth masquerading as a Terran scientist while dressing up in hero-gear to fight alien invaders. Filmation rather logically dispenses with the original character’s penchant for archaic weapons and gives him talon-gauntlets that can fire various rays, much like the power bands of Hanna-Barbera’s Space Ghost. (I confess as a kid I quite liked the gauntlets, but I don’t think the comics-character ever used anything comparable.) Hawkman also has an eagle mascot, Skreel, who’s surprisingly not played for any comedy relief. All three episodes deal with routine alien menaces, though one tale boasts an interesting archaic name. Hawkman journeys to an alien world to rescue some Earth-astronauts from the denizens there, who worship a graven image by the name “Pythorex.” This sounds like faux-Greek for “King Python,” so I assume the writer knew of the tradition in which Greek oracles communed with a spirit, sometimes called “Python,” in order to make their predictions. To be sure, neither the statue nor its worshipers predict anything; instead the graven image boasts a forehead-gem that can mesmerize people, which is slightly reminiscent of the three-eyed statue in the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.

 

The Justice League cartoons offer some pleasure in seeing how the scripts juggle the various powers of the heroes—Superman, Flash, Atom, Green Lantern, and Hawkman (but not Aquaman!)—as they ward off more alien threats. The only villain worth mentioning is an extraterrestrial villain named Mastermind, who nearly kills Superman in a kryptonite trap.

 


Sadly, the Teen Titans cartoons boast the dullest scripts, and there’s not as much colorful use of the respective powers of Aqualad, Kid Flash, Speedy and Wonder Girl. These three cartoons’ only distinction is that they’re the first cartoons to adapt a comic-book superheroine, so that Wonder Girl arrived on the adaptation scene before her “sire” Wonder Woman. Not that the Amazon Princess gets much to do, since in one episode, she appears to faint when a huge monster roars in her face!

 

The DVD set also includes a short documentary on the life of Filmation exec Lou Scheimer. However, the set egregiously omits the best thing about the interstitial cartoons: a rousing, albeit extremely corny, theme song, to wit:


SupermanAquaman!
All the super-duper heroes,
They always fight for what is right!
Live with danger and adventure,
They are Men of Might!

Superman, the Man of Steel
Performs super deeds with ease!
Aquaman's the bold and daring
King of the Seven Seas!

Hawkman, from another planet
Swoops down on the foe!
Nothing stops the Teen Titans
Anywhere they go!

Flash defies the eye to follow
With his super speed!
Against the force of evil
The Atom will succeed!

Green Lantern's power ring
Can accomplish anything!

Superman! Aquaman!
All the super superheroes
Are the Justice League of America,
Men of Might!



Thursday, November 18, 2021

MAGIKANO (2006)

 






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


I haven't read the original manga of MAGIKANO, but I've no reason to believe that it holds any deeper currents than the 13-episode anime series. The latter is without doubt a fairly typical "harem comedy," in which a bunch of girls compete for the attentions of a particular, often oblivious male character. Because the anime is so short, there's no resolution to any of the romance-arcs, and so at the conclusion everything ends up at the same status quo as seen at the opening.

One of the main tropes here is that of "supernatural beings trying to remain incognito in the modern world." Of the four children of the Yoshiwara family-- whose parents are conveniently "away" for the whole series-- the oldest, Haruo, is a male high-schooler, while his the three sisters are respectively two teens (Maika and Chiaki) and a young pre-teen, Fuyuno. (All four are named after the Japanese words for the seasons, though this datum has no particular symbolic resonance.) Haruo is blissfully unaware that all three of his sisters are witches possessed of great powers. Nothing much is said about how they got that way-- no allusions to parental inheritance--- though the girls have occasional contacts with some vague "witch's council" along the lines of the BEWITCHED teleseries. Haruo also possesses great potential magical powers-- toward the end of the series it's belatedly revealed that he's the reincarnation of a demon lord-- but his sisters, who assume a quasi-maternal role in his life, have chosen to keep him from becoming aware of their common heritage, or even the reality of magic in his world. Any time Haruo witnesses anything witchy, one or more of the sisters clobber him with "memory erasing hammers," after which he forgets what he saw as well as the hammering experience.

The young women seem content to keep their beloved "big brother" in complete ignorance, which may also ensure that he remains tied to their apron strings. Oldest girl Maika has somewhat stronger feelings for her "onee-san," though her "forbidden love" is played entirely for laughs. Then an unrelated witch intrudes upon their domestic bliss, citing the authority of the Witches Council to become the maid for the Yoshiwara household. This young witch, Ayumi by name, has the ulterior motive of seeking to sleep with Haruo so that she can end a magical curse on her fortunes. There may be more background to this curse in the manga, but in the series it's just an excuse for Ayumi to attempt Haruo's seduction and to butt heads with the sisters, particularly with the overly covetous Maika. To make it worse for the sisters, three other pretty witch-girls start setting their caps for Haruo as well. Through it all Haruo remains unwitting of both the seduction attempts and the magical battles, largely because he's fairly dim even without the application of  the memory-hammers.

Though a number of the episodes are just studies in sexual frustration, the series does boast a substantial number of combative magic-battles, not only between Ayumi and the sisters but also with the four of them allied against such menaces as a ghost-girl, a robotic maid-servant, and Ayumi's power-crazed witch-sister. Chiaki and Fuyuno more or less end up accepting Ayumi's presence in the house even though she never succeeds in seducing Haruo, and while Maika and Ayumi remain intense enemies throughout, there's a sense that the four of them "bond" over their common desire to protect the helpless male. Indeed, I consider Ayumi and the three sisters to be the centric presences of the story, while Haruo seems as much a supporting character as the other girls competing for his affections.

All of the sexy fanservice, with or without incest-motifs, is pedestrian, but the general sense of the absurd rescues even the weaker episodes. The creative animation of the magical battles is the standout aspect of MAGIKANO.





Wednesday, November 17, 2021

SAMSON AND THE SEA BEAST (1963)



 






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

I'm fairly surprised that by all indications this was NOT originally a "Maciste" film in its original form. But as seen above, the Italian title was essentially "Samson against the Pirates." Given the way Maciste got around-- to the courts of the Czar, or to 15th-century Scotland-- why not have him show up in what I assume to be the 17th century, vanquishing pirates? Maybe the producers decided that most Maciste films got turned into Samson or Hercules anyway for the American market, so why not claim that this is Samson doing a Maciste turn?

There's no explanation for the strength of the titular muscleman (Kirk Morris), although one of the villains comments that he must have some supernatural power to be able to toss men around so easily. Samson like most such heroes is not a swordsman, so most of the (rather dull) fight-scenes are just the usual knockabout kind. On the plus side, because the film is trying to suggest the heady adventure of a swashbuckler, SEA BEAST doesn't look as grungy as many muscleman flicks, and the photography is the film's most pleasing aspect, even though most of the action transpires on land.

In addition to Samson's uncanny strength, his chief opponent, the pirate king Murad (Daniele Vargas), arranges a "diabolical device" to test the hero's power: chaining him to two boats whose rowers try to force their way out to sea-- and if Samson can't counter their pull, he'll be impaled by spears. It's neither the best nor worst of its kind. Cute blonde Margaret Lee provides the movie's only pulchritude.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

BATMAN RETURNS (1992)


 





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

(Interesting trivia about the one-sheet above: though it shows the Penguin smoking a cigarette in a holder, I'm reasonably sure that the character in the finished film never smokes anything.)

During Tim Burton's commentary on a BATMAN RETURNS DVD, the director notes that he might not have savored his own "return" to the DC franchise had he not recharged his creative energies by diverting to the production of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Indeed, I speculate that some of the fairy-tale aspects of SCISSORHANDS may have influenced the ways in which Burton and his collaborators orchestrated Batman's interaction with three equally important villains. 

As I argued in my review,  the first film profited by emphasizing "adult" levels of violence (and a modicum of sexuality) in the context of a superhero film. To accomplish this, the script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren grounds the operatic battle of Batman and Joker within the mundane world of organized crime. From the first scenes of BATMAN '89, Gotham City's people seem to have become complicit with the crooks, allowing them to corrupt most of the cops. Thus, when Joker appears in reaction to Batman's personal war on crime, the villain feels like an extension of the noir darkness dominating the metropolis-- which, I also noted, strongly resembles aspects of Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

In contrast, though the final script of RETURNS is credited to both Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters, Hamm asserted on the DVD that most of his contributions were left out. It might be fair to venture that the script represents a different approach to the Bat-mythos, more in line with Burton's enthusiasm for fairy tales with a grotesque spin. Thus both the prologue and the main body of the film take place close to Christmas, full of yuletide imagery with transgressive twists. This Bat-cosmos is more overtly rooted in myth-tropes, from the abandoned baby raised by a flock of penguins to a woman who survives a fall and seems endowed with a cat's nine lives.

RETURNS also set a precedent that many later superhero films followed to bad effect: that of pitting the main hero (once again played by Michael Keaton) against more than one villain. The Waters-Hamm script makes this trope work reasonably well by linking the introduction of the two comics-derived villains, Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), to a third evildoer, original film-character Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). As the Joker in the first film was something of a funhouse-mirror reflection of Batman, Shrek-- though originally intended to be a counterpoint to Penguin-- ends up being more of a mirror-image of Bruce Wayne, with Wayne as a "silver spoon" aristocrat while Shrek is a self-made (but ruthless) success, and he seamlessly takes the place of the simple avaricious career criminals who dominated BATMAN '89.

Shreck is named for the actor who portrayed the king-vampire in the 1922 silent horror classic NOSFERATU, and in a few lines, his likeness to a vampire is underscored, particularly with regard to his "feasting" on the energy-sources of Gotham. Yet in his narrative function Shreck bears a closer resemblance to another silent-film character: Joh Frederson, the righteous overlord of Fritz Lang's 1927 METROPOLIS. Though Shreck is evil while Frederson is merely misguided, both figures preside over a city whose splendor masks the grimy inner workings that keep the metropolis functioning. More importantly, Frederson has a servant, the mad scientist Rotwang, who does the mogul's dirty work for him. This seems not dissimilar to the way in which the freakish Penguin, who was raised in the sewers beneath Gotham by zoo-penguins and (maybe) circus-folk, begins to work hand-in-flipper with Shreck. Indeed, when Shreck gets the bright idea to run the Penguin as a mayoral candidate, the millionaire encourages the villain to make the current mayor look bad with an increased crime-wave-- a strategy that Shreck compares to dirty political campaigns like "the Gulf of Tonkin incident."

I won't pursue any METROPOLIS-parallels between the female characters of the Lang film and the fragmented "leading lady" of RETURNS-- though the silent movie does include a female character whose innocence is reverse-mirrored by her evil robot doppelganger. Where Catwoman is concerned, the writers were more likely influenced by a belated Catwoman origin-story published in a 1950 Batman comic. In that tale, the Princess of Plunder is given a Jekyll-and-Hyde past, in that she was once Selina Kyle, an amiable stewardess, who hit her head and transformed herself (for no clear reason) into a cat-themed criminal. 

In any case, Burton and his writers turn their version of Selina into a critique of overly passive femininity. Selina, personal assistant to Max Shreck, endures a life of quiet desperation, her apartment filled with mementoes of her pre-sexual girlhood. Only by accident does she rebel against Shreck's authority, when she makes the mistake of poking around in his encrypted files. Shreck responds by tossing her out a high window (though strangely, he never sends anyone to dispose of the body). Selina not only survives, she seemingly comes back to life thanks to the ambivalent ministrations of some alley cats-- and afterward, she channels her trauma into the identity of Catwoman. Her first act is to save a female mugging-victim, and then to excoriate the woman for expecting a "Batman" to save her. While Penguin makes (temporary) common cause with Shreck, Catwoman seeks to avenge herself on her murderer.

While Shreck and Penguin provide as much violence as the Joker did in the previous film, Catwoman furnishes RETURNS with a lot more transgressive sexuality than Vicki Vale could have ever brought off. Catwoman shares Batman's desire for vengeance, and though his desire has been diverted into the socially redeeming goal of protecting Gotham, the Female Feline poses a distinct threat to his heroic integrity. All of the battles between the hero and the villainess are staged to reflect "the war between men and women," and even the less violent encounters between Bruce and Selina are filled with their own dark undercurrents.

All of the classic comics-characters are well and truly Burton-ized. If Keaton had not already played the role of Bruce Wayne in a noticeably twitchy manner, here he worries that being too assertive may cause Selina to think him as either the fictional psycho Norman Bates or the (considerably more handsome) real-life killer Ted Bundy. This Catwoman certainly has no interest in cat-burglary, given that she's defined by her lust for vengeance, but not a few later iterations of the character took influence from this transgressive version, who talks about feeling dirty at the thought of "busting Batman." In contrast, the Penguin only works within a Burton cosmos. Through the intensity-- albeit not the subtlety-- of DeVito's performance, one can more or less believe in a Penguin who is both a clever manipulator and a ravening animal. But in later iterations, most creators have leaned toward the idea of a Penguin who's smart rather than a nose-biting looney.

I didn't mind a lot of the minor plot-holes in RETURNS. I don't care how the penguins survived to raise the Penguin given that their above-ground complex was supposedly defunct. The only things that really bothered me were (1) Selina getting kickboxer skills out of nowhere, and (2) the fact that Penguin frames Batman for a murder, and that, although Batman ruins the villain's mayoral campaign, the hero NEVER un-frames himself! All that said, I could wish that the majority of later films with the Caped Crusader had incorporated more of the Burton touch, rather than framing the hero as a hyper-violent vigilante who just happens to wear a bat-outfit. 


THE TERROR WITHIN (1989), TERROR WITHIN II (1991)

 





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


These two post-apocalyptic flicks are little more than another Roger Corman attempt to milk the shocks of the 1979 ALIEN in order to turn out yet more cheapjack thrillers. 

Though in this future the bomb was banned, someone unleashed germ weapons. and most of the world's humans have been wiped out. The script does not explain the status of the remaining humans, except for the small group of survivors in a small laboratory complex out in the wilderness. It's not clear what these scientists are working on, though they've lost contact with a similar lab somewhere-- all of which begs the question as to what authority the labs answer to, given the annihilation of the world's populace. 

Their location is doubly counter-intuitive in that the surrounding deserts seem filled with hideous mutants called "gargoyles." The principal characters-- principally George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, and Starr Andreef-- manage to keep the marauders out. Then one of the scientists comes across a young human woman in the wilds and brings her into the complex. Sad to say, she's been raped by a gargoyle, and her mutant spawn comes to term in a matter of hours, growing into a man-in-a-rubber-suit monster. Most of the resulting violence, tediously directed by Thierry Notz, takes place in the complex and almost everyone wears tacky looking uniforms.




For the sequel, which feels more like a near remake, Notz was replaced as director by Stevens, who also wrote the script. Stevens may have sensed the lack of visual appeal for those tacky uniforms, for his character David Pennington goes outfitted like one of the many Mad Max imitators, and when he leaves the compound he carries a crossbow to fend off gargoyles. None of the other characters from the first film are on hand, so it's also likely that Stevens wanted to start afresh. In addition, though WITHIN II is still junk, the plot at least gives the various actors-- Clare Hoak, Barbara Alyn Woods, R. Lee Ermey and Andrew's own mom Stella Stevens-- a lot more stuff to do than just run around corridors shooting at rubber-suited monsters.

This time, the trope of monsters replacing humans is made more central. While Stevens is out of the complex foraging for materials that may help against a deadly virus, he meets a young woman, Ariel (Hoak), and they travel together while kindling a romance. Unfortunately, in this world as in most Mad Max ripoffs, there exist human enclaves with freaky customs. One such enclave has become bonded to the prowling gargoyles, and the natives of the enclave sacrifice Ariel, letting her be raped by a gargoyle. David takes her back to the complex, where she gives birth to a gargoyle. Mayhem ensues.

Though the rubber-suit follies are no better than before, Stevens as director does try to visually jazz things up, and Barbara Alyn Woods stands out as a researcher who selfishly keeps a vaccine remedy away from her allies, just to have it for her personal use. I debated as to whether or not WITHIN II qualified as a combative film, given that David does decimate five of the natives who sacrifice his girlfriend. But in the end, the climactic struggles against the monster I judge to be no more than disorganized violence.

SON OF ZORRO (1947)

 








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


Of the four Republic serials made with the character of Zorro, SON OF ZORRO was the third in line. The first two appeared prior to America's involvement in WWII, while this one and GHOST OF ZORRO only showed up in the postwar years. Almost all of them take place in modern times rather than in Spanish California, as did the original novel and the silent film adaptation MARK OF ZORRO.

In essence, SON is a very basic, albeit well-engineered, take on the familiar B-western trope of "cowboy hero rides into town and saves everyone from evil bankers and businessmen trying to bilk the townfolk." It's set slightly after the end of the Civil War, which is important only because hero Jeff Stewart (whose name sounds a bit like that of Confederate officer "J.E.B. Stuart") returns to his ancestral ranch after serving "the call of his colors"-- by which the writers mean a flag, of course.

In Jeff's absence, evil slickers have taken over much of the town and the surrounding ranches, bleeding the people dry with taxes and fees while simultaneously giving shelter to an outlaw-gang. A local judge with the fitting name of "Hyde" seems to be in command of both the outlaws and the crooked lawmen, though in the course of the serial another individual will be revealed to be the "secret mastermind" behind all the crimes.

Jeff (George Turner) naturally objects to all of the crooked goings-on. He makes a couple of allies-- his ranch-hand Pancho and the local postmistress Kate (Peggy Stewart)-- but his greatest asset is that just happens to have had the famous Zorro as an ancestor. The career of the earlier Zorro is not explored, it's just an excuse for the existence of the original hero's costume hanging around Jeff's ranch. Jeff starts out claiming that he doesn't believe in vigilante action. But before the first episode is done, he's donned the mask of Zorro to battle the evildoers. At first Pancho is the only one who knows of Jeff's double identity, but at some early point he reveals it to Kate as well, though it must have gone past me in the blink of an eye, since it doesn't get much narrative emphasis.

Since lead actor Turner had been a boxer before becoming an actor, he qcquits him well in the lively Republic fight-scenes. Since the villains are entirely mundane, the cliffhangers often involve the bad guys trying to blow someone up with dynamite. The most interesting trap is an accidental one, when Kate gets knocked unconscious and falls into the path of an ordinary mill-wheel. 

Western serials are generally a little better than B-western features as far as giving the womenfolk some heroic action, but SON OF ZORRO doesn't allow Kate much agency. In the first segment she draws a gun to protect Jeff while he fistfights a thug, and in one cliffhanger she saves herself by jumping from a driverless stagecoach. But despite the moxie Stewart brings to her simple character, she's just another damsel in distress. I was familiar with many of the supporting actors, but not with Ernie Adams, and I was pleased by the way he played Judge Hyde with welcome touches of oiliness and bad temper. In essence, SON is just a B-western with decent production values and cliffhangers tossed in, and adds nothing at all to the mythos of the original Zorro.





Monday, November 8, 2021

TRANCERS (1984)


 






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

I'm kind of surprised that the above poster pictures the hero with a helmet. I don't believe the main guy Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) wears such gear in the original film or in any of the five sequels, and neither did Harrison Ford when he played the template for Deth: Rick Deckard in BLADE RUNNER.

One of the first scenes is a pretty fair riff on the "android interview" from BLADE RUNNER. Deth, a retired cop in the 23rd century, attempts to suss out which occupant of a run-down diner (that looks like it belongs in the 1950s) is actually a "Trancer." Deth guesses wrong and gets attacked by the titular creature, a human who instantly mutates into a bloodthirty savage.

After Deth makes short work of the creature, we get the exposition as to how Trancers have been unleashed on the future-world by evil psychic Martin Whistler. It's not clear as to how Whistler was going to gain world dominion by infecting random people with the Trancer condition-- which is limited in that it only works on weak-willed people-- and so the villain is forced to flee the forces of law and order. He does so by using a special chemical that hurls his consciousness back in time, so that he can occupy the body of an ancestor. Deth, who for some reason has a real mad on against Whistler, uses the same technology to zoom back to an ancestor's body in 1984. 

Most of the remaining film consists of copious "duck out of water" scenes as Deth tries to accommodate himself to the 1980s. By chance his ancestor happens to have got lucky with a young woman named Leena (Helen Hunt, a few years from mega-stardom), and after the usual misunderstandings, Leena becomes fully enmeshed in Jack Deth's quest. I think something was said about what Whistler meant to do in his new body, but it escapes me at the moment. Clearly the writers, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (best known by me for the 1990 FLASH teleseries), knew that the main appeal of the film was letting Tim Thomerson run around beating up people and spouting tough-guy lines, so that's pretty much all there is to TRANCERS. I like Thomerson, but based on the first film I wouldn't have thought it would have spawned a six-flick series.




WILLARD (1971)


 





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


WILLARD may be seen as a bridge between the psycho-killer flicks of the sixties and the "nature gone wild" movies of the seventies. In most of the later films, like 1972's FROGS, it's the capricious critters who are the stars. But to the credit of director Daniel Mann and screenplay-author Gilbert Ralston, the character of the titular Willard carries the film. (As I remember the human viewpoint character of the sequel BEN does not far so well and is overshadowed by his rodent comrades.)

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is a repressed twenty-something who works at a shipping company. At one point Willard's late father owned the company, but the father's partner Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine) has somehow taken over the company. Martin constantly finds fault with Willard, claiming that only a promise to Willard's widowed mother Henrietta binds Martin to keep the young man on. But Martin's real motive is that he feels free to push Willard around, requiring him to work nights and weekends but never giving the youth a raise in his salary. Over the course of the film it will become obvious that Martin is the sort of grifter who's not satisfied with bilking his partner of his company: he has to continue tormenting the late partner's son to make himself feel powerful. Further, the crumbling old house in which Willard and Henrietta reside becomes another target for Willard's greed.

Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester) has become something of a smother-mother by dint of her illness and her total dependence on her son. Willard lives in a bubble, defined by his work and his mother's needs. Yet the antiquated house also becomes the source of Willard's only friends: a nest of rats that take up residence there. Willard, starved for a real connection, befriends the rats and makes a home for them in the basement, all without the knowledge of his rat-hating mother.

The 1971 film develops its narrative slowly but deliberately, depending less on violence than on mounting frustration and the occasional shocks from the squirming rodents. When Willard does take action against his nasty boss, it's on the level of a prank, letting loose his ratty allies in a party hosted by Martin. However, Henrietta dies the next day, and Willard finds himself swamped in debt, not least to pay for the upkeep of the burgeoning rat colony. Not even a little romantic attention from Joan, a sweet young temporary at the shipping company, can reduce Willard's troubles.

Willard takes the next logical step: employing his rat army to help him rip off one of Martin's clients. But Willard makes the mistake of taking one of his friends to work, for Martin sees the rat and squashes it. This pushes Willard to full metal psycho, bringing about the movie's key scene, with Martin suffering the death of a thousand bites. However, Willard then tries to divest himself of his former buddies, particularly the one called Ben, who for some reason becomes the pack's new alpha-- and the biter gets bit, literally. I've not seen the 2003 remake, but it will have to go the extra mile to beat out Davison's subdued psycho-rat-wrangler.