Friday, January 29, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*

Over the past forty years it’s become common for authors to add high-fantasy elements to the generally naturalistic folklore-tropes of the Robin Hood mythos. Not many of these combinations have displayed high quality with their high fantasy, and BEYOND SHERWOOD FOREST is no exception, being nothing more than a decent formula-fiction. But this SYFY Channel movie is exceptional in two other ways: unlike most such efforts, it actually has a coherent plot rather than a lot of running around, and it’s one of the few Robin Hood films in which the archer and his romantic interest Maid Marian are equals in narrative emphasis.

In fact, Marian (Erica Durance) gets a little more backstory here than the Sherwood hero. She’s a feisty maiden who in younger days shared a little romance with a younger version of “Robin of Locksley,” but her father started keeping her cooped up (dare I say “in durance vile?”) for the purpose of marrying her off to the reigning (and much older) king of Austria. In her confinement, though, Marian practices with the quarterstaff to learn self-defense, and then bolts for the forest, disguising herself as a man.

The archer (Robin Dunne), for his part, has his traditional story whittled down to make room for the fantasy-plot. Young Robin of Locksley witnesses his father and two others being attacked by a winged demon. The creature slays one man and flies off, at which point the second man, name of Malcolm, slays Robin’s father. The boy runs off to the forest, assuming no one will believe him about the prestigious Malcolm, who as a result of the deaths becomes the new Sheriff of Nottingham. In the ensuing years Robin teams up with other forest-outlaws and starts the legend of Robin Hood. It’s at this point that Robin and Marian cross paths once more—as well as crossing quarterstaffs in a meet-cute reprise of the famous duel between Robin Hood and Little John upon a river-bridge.

Meanwhile, Malcolm has captured the demon-creature and has compelled the beast to attack his Sherwood foes. After an assault results in the death of Friar Tuck, Robin, Marian, and three other outlaws seek the Dark Woods to learn the secret of the demon, and to find a way to depose the evil Sheriff, who has long-range plans to gain power over the regent Prince John. (John and another familiar Robin-foe, Guy of Gisborne, are demoted to minor threats in this telefilm.)

Though there’s nothing strikingly original about the Sherwood Team’s venture into Tolkienian territory, the script invests some decent drama in the plight of the demon-creature. In the Dark Woods she is Alina, a human-looking “faerie,” but because she’s the result of her mother mating with a mortal man, Alina is cast out of faerie society. When she ventures into the mortal realm, sunlight causes Alina to morph into the winged demon. The only solution is to take away Alina’s immortality with a special plant, but that will mean the death of the mostly innocent marauder.

There’s some decent drama and occasional comic bits, so BEYOND, while never remarkable, offers a reasonable thrill-ride. Robin Dunne is not a very good Robin Hood, but Erica Durance makes a gutsy Marian, while Julian Sands chews the scenery nicely as the fiendish Nottingham nogoodnik.

Sunday, January 24, 2021




For the most part THE GHOST WALKS is just another ccokie-cutter “old dark house” film, possibly a little better filmed than many others, and the last metaphenomenal film by journeyman director Frank R. Strayer. GHOST was one of several films Strayer directed following the 1933 VAMPIRE BAT, and there’s no indication that Strayer regarded his last foray into horror as anything special.

Unlike VAMPIRE BAT, GHOST boasts no big names, either from the world of mainstream films (Melvyn Douglas) or from the world of horror (Lionel Atwill), and so there’s not a lot of spot-the-actor fun here. I recognized only the names June Collyet and Johnny Arthur, the latter given a degree of immortality by dint of playing a nasty Japanese villain in the serial MASKED MARVEL.

The setup involves a playwright and his assistant (Arthur, playing a somewhat sissified character) who take refuge at the mansion of the playwright’s friend. Some of the occupants act strangely, but they’re revealed to be actors playing roles for the playwright’s benefit (a possible borrowing from SEVENKEYS FROM BALDPATE). No one pretends to be the “ghost” of the title, though one actress claims to be a medium in touch with spirits. But when people start disappearing, it’s not a phantom who’s responsible, but a madman from a local asylum. The loony is convinced that he’s a doctor who can perform facelifts on his unwilling subjects. This might have provided some grotesque moments, were the filmmakers not playing the film for comedy.

One review claims that Arthur’s character would have been understood as gay. Though there are various references to homosexuality scattered throughout 1930s films, I think the character is just meant to be a standard comedy-relief who overreacts to the semi-spooky events.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*

Most of DC’s DTV releases are at best serviceable time-killers, and even the duds, like JUSTICE LEAGUE VS.FATAL FIVE, at least have some decent action set-pieces. But the WONDER WOMAN BLOODLINES video lacks even a bracing fight-scene.

Of course, the Wonder Woman franchise started out by having more to recommend it than fast action. Whatever a given viewer might think of William Moulton Marston’s conception—that of an Amazon princess playing superheroine while attempting to reform the male chauvinist ways of “man’s world”— there’s no question that he did produce some standout stories on that theme, as did some (though not many) of the comics-creators following in his wake. The Amazing Amazon didn’t enjoy nearly as much success in other media, but prior to the successful live-action adaptation, DC’s animated 2009 WONDER WOMAN video at least touched on most of the salient aspects of the Amazonian mythology.

In BLOODLINES scripter Mairghread Scott crafts a new debut for the Hellenic heroine, but she manages to get everything about the Amazon’s origin wrong. Most retellings build on the 1941 original: U.S. pilot Steve Trevor crashing on Paradise Island and falling in love with Diana, princess of the Amazons. Often the plane-crash is caused by inimical forces, and Diana, ruled by both general altruism and personal affection, decides to become a heroic crusader to defeat those forces. I’ve not read every retelling of the WW origin. But I tend to suspect Scott is alone in having Trevor’s plane besieged by a particular group of inimical forces—in this case, the Parademons of the world Apokolips—who never appear in the rest of the video. Thus, even though these demons are supposedly the reason Diana chooses to leave her ancestral home, this ostensible menace is dropped in favor of a bunch of supervillains from the heroine’s far-ranging comics-history.

In most retellings, Diana leaves her home with the blessing of her mother Hippolyta, who stresses the greater world’s need for an Amazon hero. But in Scott’s telling, all of the Amazons but Diana want nothing to do with man’s world, and Diana leaves over the violent protests of her mother. Possibly Scott thought this would be a new twist on an old formula. But I for one knew that this falling-out would prove a dramatic flop, and indeed, Hippolyta has a simplistic reconciliation with her daughter by story’s end.

While waiting for the never-seen-again inimical forces, Wonder Woman becomes a superheroine with vague ties to the U.S. government, during which time she meets many of her standard enemies: Giganta, Doctor Cyber, Doctor Poison and the Cheetah. (The group is styled “Villainy Inc.” after a similar organization created by Marston in Wonder Woman’s original run.) Scott makes none of these venerable villains interesting in terms of characterization or modus operandi. Drawing on the 1980s comics by George Perez, duck-out-of-water Diana stays for a time with Classical scholar Julia Kapatelos and her daughter Vanessa. This family drama leads to yet another hoary cliché: when Wonder Woman fails to prevent Julia from being slain by Cyber’s soldiers, Vanessa blames the Amazon. In addition to other crimes, Vanessa consents to a scientific experiment by Cyber, the result transforming the bereaved girl into yet another villain, the Silver Swan. The Swan, originally another character in her comics-debut, is at least a little more visually impressive than the other villains, but that’s not saying much, and her dramatic arc is just as tedious as the Diana-Hippolyta conflict.

As if Scott’s script was not already a case of “too many crooks spoil the broth,” Cyber’s ultimate plan involves reviving the mythic maiden Medusa. Yet Scott can’t be bothered with expounding upon the heroine’s relation to the ancient Greek gods, so the fact that a magical being like Medusa even exists at all comes out of left field. This Medusa is patterned like one of the titular behemoths of CLASH OF THE TITANS, in that she’s a colossus in addition to being able to change people to stone. Because Medusa bears some old grudge against the Amazons, the fight against the petrifying giantess gives Diana the chance to save the day on Paradise Island and thus make amends with her mother.

Though some viewers didn’t like Steve Trevor in the 2009 animated video, since he was portrayed as something of a player, at least that was more of an identity than the neutered zero posing as Trevor in this offering. The most I can say for BLOODLINES is that some of the voice-work is good, even though the script is abominable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical*

As bad as AVENGERS GRIMM was, with its unholy crossbreed of superheroes and fairy tales, SINISTER SQUAD—which uses some of the same characters-- manages new depths of rottenness. Presumably the title was inspired by the successful DC Comics film SUICIDE SQUAD, but with fairy-tale heavies taking the place of career supercriminals. GRIMM had already used one such folklore-meanie, Rumpelstiltskin, and he’s at the center of an evil plan that pits the forces of Death Himself against that Wonderland chick Alice. In response she brings together a band of evildoers to “fight fiends with fiends,” said band including Bluebeard, the Big Bad Wolf, and some lesser lights.

SHREK 3 did something a little like this as well, and as imperfect as that film was, even one minute of that animated adventure is more entertaining than the entirety of SQUAD. AVENGERS GRIMM was boring and predictable, but once or twice the writer seemed engaged with the idea of bringing badass princesses to life. Here the script tosses together its villains with no idea how to play them off one another, except to have them betray one another for random reasons.

All of the actors emote horribly, and there’s no opportunity to see whether they can fake-fight any better than the GRIMM princesses, because the script plays the thin plot more for scenes of grue than for action. There are some very short, one-sided battles—Bluebeard stabs the Wolf to death and Alice punches out a prisoner, but there’s none of the back-and-forth I associated with a combative film.

I watched AVENGERS GRIMM TIME WARS before viewing SQUAD, so if I have a slightly higher opinion of the (hopefully) final film in this godawful series, it’s not in reaction to SQUAD’s awfulness. TIME’s merits are still small ones. Since GRIMM couldn’t afford the bucks for big-budget superheroics, it tried to suggest grandeur tossing in a few minor name-actors and filming most of the scenes in empty streets and office buildings. TIME doesn’t attempt grandeur at all, and so the mise-en-scene looks closer to that of a low-budget softcore flick—which is certainly more appropriate.

One of TIME’s humble merits is that its writers chose to sponge off another successful DC Comics film, AQUAMAN. The Big Bad this time around is “Magda the Mad,” ruler of Atlantis, who walks around in a skin-tight costume like that of AQUAMAN’s Mera character—and for once, her evil motivation is slightly relatable. Long ago she kidnapped Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Charming, keeping the prince in durance vile for some years before he escaped. When Magda invades the surface world, her main motivation is unrequited love, and there’s a tiny bit of suspense as to whether she can manage to seduce the prince before he reunites with Sleeping Beauty.

The guy playing the price speaks some long lines of dialogue that must have required some practice, and he seems to have some fun with calling Atlantis both “abyssal” and “abysmal.” Not all of the “Avengers Grimm” (yes, they use that name once) surface to oppose Magda—only Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Red Riding Hood—but Alice from SINISTER SQUAD re-appears, this time joined by a thoroughly uninteresting version of the Mad Hatter. There are one or two quarter-decent fights, so TIME WARS registers as combative. Its main good points—a sexy villainess, a slightly more comprehensible plot—still don’t provide much relief from the overall tedium.   


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Even if these two projects didn’t start off with names evoking the big-budget COWBOYS VS. ALIENS, both ended up copying the title but, for once, not the exact content. For one thing, while the earlier film actually took place in the Old West, pitting Daniel Craig against extraterrestrials, these two low-budget flicks stayed in modern times—though the first one at least benefited from use of a famous movie-set used to film a lot of westerns.

Johnny Dust (Jasen Wade) is an actor who’s supposedly come to fame playing almost nothing but westerns. (That alone tells the viewer that the actor must live in some alternate world where westerns didn’t die out in the 1980s.) However, Johnny’s cinematic glory days are behind him, and now he pays the bills by enacting western-playlets for an Old West theme-park. Implicitly he’s in his forties, as is his ex-wife Sarah, by whom he has a teenaged daughter, Kim. Johnny continues to angle for a cinematic comeback, which brings a younger woman, Gloria, into his orbit. This incites Sarah’s jealousy, who refers to Gloria as a “kid.” (Age stats: at the time the Gloria-actress was pushing thirty, while the Sarah-actress was pushing fifty. Not exactly a huge transgression there.)

For some reason, a vampire decides to make the tourist trap his stomping-grounds, and proceeds to vampirize various locals, including Gloria. Writer-director Douglas Myers seems so preoccupied with his celebration of the West in the person of Johnny—who is, of course, not a real cowboy in any way—that he devotes nearly no attention to the vampires and their modus operandi. Eventually, amid Johnny’s family and career problems, he notices the presence of real bloodsuckers. Instead of heading for the hills, Johnny decides to play his role of “western hero” for real.

As of now VAMPIRES is Myers’ only movie credit. It’s nothing special, but it’s a better timewaster than a lot of other pedestrian efforts, if only thanks to actresses Angelique Celaya and Shannon Whirry.

COWBOYS VS. DINOSAURS doesn’t have even the pretense of a grand theme; it’s just another moldy tale of dinosaurs erupting from prehistoric slumber and menacing a small town full of contemporary Westerners. Like VAMPIRES, this tv-flick’s best appeal is not the phony CGI dinosaurs but a handful of cute girls. There are a couple of B-movie favorites in the cast—Eric Roberts and Vernon Wells—but none of the actors, well-known or obscure, have anything to work with but a lot of bland melodrama.

There’s one half-decent scene in which a married couple who don’t believe the reports of dinosaurs start joking around, with the husband playing “raptor” to his wife—only to have a real raptor chow down on both of them. However, I take points away for a scene in which a lady with science-chops explains how the defenders can blow up the dinos by igniting the methane in their systems—a revelation which means absolutely nothing, since the modern cowboys still end up shooting the big reptiles to death. I take away an extra point for gratuitous use of a JAWS-style heavy—making this subcombative movie literally pointless.

Saturday, January 16, 2021




The dearth of horror-flicks in the late 1940s and early 1950s meant that Boris Karloff was largely relegated to supporting film-roles after 1946’s BEDLAM. But when horror bounced back in the middle fifties, so did Boris, and HAUNTED STRANGLER has the distinction of being one of a half-dozen films where he was once more the headliner among his thespian co-workers. It’s arguably his best performance in the 1950s as well.

However, STRANGLER’s story is never more than adequate, being a mishmash of motifs, mostly that of “serial killer on the loose” and of “amnesiac criminal helps the law track himself down.” The script suffers from a rewrite that elided the original screenplay’s notion of a 19th-century writer possessed by the spirit of a killer. STRANGLER was the fourth feature film directed by Robert Day, but cineastes will search in vain for either the well-paced adventure of his slightly later TARZANTHE MAGNIFICENT or his stylish AVENGERS episodes.

James Rankin (Karloff) has been a happily married novelist for some twenty years, given that he and his wife Barbara have a grown daughter, Cora. Cora has a romantic relationship with Rankin’s friend on the police force, Superintendent Burk, but though Rankin jokes about trying to distract Burk from his goal, the kindly old codger doesn’t really have a problem with his daughter’s choice in men. Rankin’s real difficulty arises when he becomes obsessed with proving that the notorious “Haymarket Strangler,” supposedly tried and convicted over twenty years ago, was never truly caught, and that an innocent man was hanged in his place.

Skipping over a lot of colorless set-up material, eventually Rankin gets ahold of a knife, the Strangler’s murder weapon. (Why was he called a “strangler” if he killed with a knife?) As soon as Rankin comes in contact with the knife, he transforms into the Haymarket Strangler, who has a paralyzed arm and a sunken-in cheek (Karloff removed his dental bridge to accomplish this effect). Then the reborn Strangler decides to return to his favorite passion of killing random women.

Possibly the original intention was to have Rankin be possessed by the Strangler’s spirit, which is the sort of “magic” that might explain his physical transformation. However, the script was retooled so that Rankin actually was the Strangler twenty years ago but lost his memory and was taken in by his future wife Barbara. She knew of his true nature but hoped Rankin had escaped his demons through family life; she ends up being one of the Strangler’s prime victims. The obvious problem with this rewrite, though, is that if there’s no reincarnation magic then there’s no good reason for Rankin’s appearance to alter, except that the script wants to put across a “Jekyll-Hyde” vibe. In one scene, a witness to one of the Strangler’s recent murders describes the murderer in Rankin’s presence, yet never comes close to recognizing Rankin in his “natural state.”

In contrast to assorted previous psycho-films, the script devotes no attention to the factors that made Rankin lust to kill. But then, all of the other characters are extremely bland, without even a bad comedy relief to break up the speechifying.

Nevertheless, STRANGLER is arguably Karloff’s best fifties performance, since despite his age he throws himself into the physical demands of the role—the polar opposite to his bland, self-satisfied acting in VOODOO ISLAND two years previous. That alone gives the movie a small but valuable cachet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*

DIABOLICAL DOCTOR Z was the last of Jess Franco’s black-and-white movies, and one of the last of his “Euro-horror” films to be relatively free of the eroticism he began exploiting with 1967’s SUCCUBUS. The 1965 film, scripted by Franco under a pseudonym, boasts one of his more rigorous plots, resembling a cross between a low-budget Universal thriller from the forties and Cornell Woolrich’s 1940 novel THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

As in many low-budget horror-flicks, revenge serves as the plot’s driving force. Aged Doctor Zimmer invents a machine that has some vague ability to suss out the nature of good and evil by sticking needles into people’s brains—sort of a mechanized version of Doctor Jekyll’s serum. Zimmer—a student of Doctor Orloff, a mad scientist from Franco’s earlier films—gets questioned about his device by a coterie of established physicians. They claim to have concerns about Zimmer having used the machine on human subjects (although no victims are seen or mentioned by name), and they hector Zimmer until he suffers a fatal stroke. His devoted daughter Irma (Mabel Karr) becomes obsessed with avenging her father’s death by slaying the principal mockers, and since she too is a scientist—the real “Doctor Z” of the title—she decides to use the mind-machine to do it.

Early horror-flicks are rife with mad scientists who turn innocents into catspaws to serve as assassins, but few of these pawns were female. If theories about Franco’s influence by Woolrich are correct, then the director decided to keep the general idea of a beauteous woman systematically killing victims, but by making her the weapon through which the scientist achieves her ends. Irma happens to be in a nightclub where she witnesses an erotic dance by a performer named Nadia (Estella Blain), who uses a stage-name, “Miss Death,” as part of a loose S&M routine. Franco tells the audience almost nothing about Nadia, for Irma transforms her into a killer almost as soon as the two cross paths. As viewers would see over the years, Franco cared little for evoking pity for the maltreated victim of evildoers. Once Miss Death has been changed by the machine, there are few if any signs of her attempting to regain her normal persona. She stalks down each of her designated targets, slaying them with her long, pointed fingernails—arguably Franco’s best touch, insofar as this death-method builds upon the socio-sexual fetish for women to possess long nails.

I don’t know if any prior horror-film had played with the potentially lesbian image of one woman mastering another, but Franco doesn’t do much with this possibility. Miss Death’s killings are interspersed with scenes of plodding cops trying to figure out what’s going on. In contrast to many later Franco films, though, here the cops do succeed in tracking down the malefactors to Irma Zimmer’s lab, so that the film concludes in a chaotic fight-scene and the defeat of the deadly doctor.

Diverting as DIABOLICAL is, one must admit that if Franco had continued to turn out films like this one for the remainder of his career, he probably would not have been as well-remembered. He benefited immensely from the liberalization of sexual depictions in the 1960s, so that all the things suggested in DIABOLICAL—lesbian dominance, sadism and masochism—could be jacked up with the addition of copious nudity and softcore sex. In addition, Franco displayed a minor genius for spotlighting gorgeous women as his central characters, building up their cinematic personas in a way one would never have seen in the humble grindhouse productions of the early sixties.

Since SHE KILLED IN ECSTACY (alternately titled MRS. HYDE) was produced roughly three years after Francois Truffaut’s 1968 adaptation of BRIDE WORE BLACK, Franco may have felt comfortable with increasing his movie’s similarity to Woolrich. Like BRIDE, ECSTACY concerns an obsessed woman seeking to kill a group of people she deems guilty of her lover’s demise, in place of a daughter seeking to avenge her dead father. Franco also dispenses with both the super-scientific brainwash-device and its victim seen in DIABOLICAL, and he gives both the avenger and her dead husband the extremely mundane name of “Johnson,” in contrast to the more exotic cognomens of “Nadia” and “Irma Zimmer.” Like the first Doctor Z, youthful Doctor Johnson comes up with a new scientific practice, though the script (at least as rendered in the subtitles of the German-language print I saw) doesn’t really explain Johnson’s radical new idea, except that it somehow involves embryos. But Johnson deeply believes that his experiment will help people—we know this because he repeats this belief over and over—and when four local German doctors—three males and a female—toss Johnson out of their ranks, the young man takes his life.

Mrs. Johnson (Soledad Miranda, in one of her few starring roles before her early and untimely death) decides to avenge him personally, principally by stalking down her husband’s persecutors and stabbing them. Mrs. Johnson is even less well-defined than Miss Death. Prior to her husband’s death, Franco tells the audience nothing about her past or her character, except that in a couple of scenes she’s seen in very revealing attire for no particular reason. (Perhaps Franco had some notion that she was or had been a stage performer like Miss Death?) Mrs. Johnson is nothing but a wind-up mechanism set up to seduce and slay, and the role is so drastically underwritten that it’s impossible to tell whether or not Miranda could have brought any character to the role. As it is, she stalks about, looking aggrieved until the script requires her to seduce someone. Her murder-scenes are poor imitations of the relatively cinematic slayings from DIABOLICAL, though of course they do include a lot more heaving flesh.

While SUCCUBUS is stuffed with phony avant-garde conceits, even that absurd farrago proved a little more compelling than this dull softcore effort.

Friday, January 8, 2021



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

Of the thirty films produced and/or directed by Roger Corman from 1954 to 1959, most of his works fit the concept of the “exploitation movie,” a film that exploits the public’s interest in some gratifying topic—hot girls, gangsters, aliens, fast cars. THE UNDEAD, directed by Corman from a Charles Griffith-Mark Hanna script, doesn’t share the fast-and-furious appearance of the other fifties films. Yet UNDEAD came into being because Corman wanted a story that played to the public’s short-lived craze for reincarnation topics, brought on by the allegations of the “Bridey Murphy case.”

Griffith and Hanna started off with the tried-and-true overreaching experiment, as one scientist, Quintus, seeks to demonstrate to his mentor the truth of Quintus’s research into the Tibetan concepts of reincarnation. To prove his point, Quintus elicits the services of a young prostitute named Diana (Pamela Duncan)—not for her customary work, but to undergo a “past life regression” through hypnosis. The two scientists “witness” the regression only through the verbal testimony of their test subject. The film’s audience, though, gets the chance to watch directly what Diana’s spirit experiences, as she merges with Helene (also Duncan), a woman of the English Middle Ages. (The period is never very clear, though there are a few armored knights wandering about.)

It's axiomatic that no audience wants to watch a regression to a boring life. Griffith and Hanna responded to this imperative by stuffing the movie’s 75-minute run-time with enough colorful incidents to expand into a miniseries. Helene has been condemned to death for the general crime of being a witch, and the specific crime of having addled the wits of local gravedigger Smolkin (Mel Welles). To be sure, Smolkin never seems overly afflicted; he merely mutters a lot of goofy nursery-rhymes while going about his regular duties. But the real culprit—the one who cursed Smolkin and framed the innocent Helene—is Livia (Allison Hayes), a real witch whose magical arts stem from having sold her soul to Satan. By sentencing Helene to the headsman’s axe, Livia hopes to move in on Helene’s hunky boyfriend Pendragon (Richard Garland).

When the wandering spirit of Diana enters the body of Helene, Diana’s personality lingers only long enough to help Helene escape her prison, using a deception that characterizes the hooker’s stock in trade. After Helene’s escape, Diana ceases to be an active voice in the narrative, aside from continuing to keep the twentieth-century scientists up to date. Helene then gets shuttled around in assorted hiding-places—an inn, Smolkin’s corpse-wagon, and the cottage of a “good witch” named Meg Maud. (Meg is a curious concept foreign to the Middle Ages, in that she practices magic but doesn’t owe her soul to Satan, even though the Devil is seen to be a real entity in the story.) Meanwhile Livia tries to put the moves on Pendragon. She doesn’t win his heart, but she does get a head, chopping off an innkeeper’s pate as a sacrifice to her Satanic majesty.

Back in the twentieth century, Quintus becomes belatedly concerned that because Helene seems to have escaped her fate, the continuum of time may be violated, which may cause Diana to cease to exist. But apparently Quintus learned a lot of skills in Tibet, for he’s able to tap into Diana's “psychic hotline” connecting Diana in order to send his own spirit back to Helene’s time and place. Further, once there, Quintus doesn’t enter anyone else’s body, but magicks up a form identical to his own, complete with contemporaneous garments. His purpose is to talk Helene into giving in to her dolorous fate, but he also talks Pendragon out of selling his soul at a witch’s sabbath (where, incidentally, a threesome of witches performs an anachronistic dance-routine). Satan puts in a personal appearance, becoming irked at being cheated of a new soul, and not the least bit surprised by the intrusion of a traveler from another century. More incidents transpire, not least the good and bad witches squaring off, but Helene is still the focus of the action. Quintus successfully talks the young woman into giving up her life to an unjust destiny to save all of her descendants. Unfortunately the researcher goofs, for Helene’s death severs the connection to twentieth-century Diana—and without that connection, Quintus remains stuck in the Middle Ages. Satan is highly amused by this turn of events, predicting that Quintus will live his life in this time period, and that when he dies, he Satan will somehow claim his due—harvesting Quintus for the sin of hubris, perhaps.

Despite the breathless piling-on of incidents, and the lack of characters’ backstories, UNDEAD is certainly never boring. Though the plot is an assemblage of contrivances, Griffith and Hanna give all of the actors some good moments—not just the showier roles like those of Livia and Smolkin, but even Pendragon’s straight-arrow character. Even without knowing the precise conditions of the film’s production—it was filmed in six days in a remodeled supermarket—Corman’s constricted scenarios may make one imagine the actors hurriedly rushing around their five or six sets to say their lines. Duncan’s central character of Helene particularly transcends the circumstances of filming, and her self-renunciation scene works, especially when it’s supported by Diana’s pledge to get her life together in modern times.

The main downside of the Griffith-Hanna script is that when one stops to think about their ramshackle concept of reincarnation, the movie falls apart. In fiction there are two principal forms that reincarnation takes: that of the “venerable ancestor” and that of the “complete stranger.” From what I can tell, the Bridey Murphy case was based in the latter concept: that of a modern woman who re-experienced an earlier life with an Irish woman of no relation to her—and at first glance, this seems to be the model for Griffith and Hanna, since no one ever claims that there’s a familial relation between Diana and Helene. However, implicit in the “complete stranger” scenario is the idea that one human’s spirit makes some cosmic transition to a later vessel. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter to the later spirit whether or not the earlier human perishes at one time or another.

However, in the “venerable ancestor” paradigm, the idea is that of mucking with family lines is explicit. If Michael J. Fox’s character in BACK TO THE FUTURE isn’t conceived by the parents he had in the normal timeline, he ceases to exist. Something like this might transpire in UNDEAD if the opposite outcome had been sought—say, that Helene had to be saved from execution so that she would continue the line of which Diana was a member. But while it would be logical to claim that Diana and a bunch of other people would cease to exist if Helene were killed before giving birth to a descendant, there’s no logic in saying that a bunch of unrelated human beings would cease to be because Helene dies without issue. In conclusion, UNDEAD is like a lot of time-travel tales: entertaining as long as one doesn’t try to unravel the supposed paradox-threads.

ADDENDUM: I will belatedly note that although Quintus thinks time will be put out of joint if Helene lives, he doesn't seem concerned that he apparently changes history by interfering with Pendragon when he starts to sell his soul to Satan. Pre=Quintus, what happened to Pendragon and Livia? Given her charms, she could have easily seduced him afterward. They would not have married in a church, but Livia could have borne Pendragon a child-- a potential that ends in the adjusted timeline, since Pendragon kills her.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

This time-travel telefilm stands the “test of time” a little better than most of its ilk, in that it keeps the idea of changing past events simple and uncomplicated. In addition, it boasts a better than average male lead in William Devane.

Devane plays scientist George McKenzie, whose hobby concerns collecting relics of the American West. However, tragedy deals him aces and eights when his wife and small son are slain in a traffic accident. For years afterward, the bereaved McKenzie channels his regrets into target-shooting, implicitly blasting away at blind fate. Then he purchases a collection of Old West relics at an auction and begins to investigate a strange photograph therein. (Note: the film was based on a book titled “The Tintype.”)

Providentially, a strange woman named Georgia (Lauren Hutton) appears and renders McKenzie aid in solving the mystery of the photograph, in which McKenzie sees a man in the Old West wielding a modern-day Magnum pistol. The mystery is resolved when Georgia reveals that both she and the man in the photo, Joseph Cole, are time-travelers from the 26th century. Cole, who bears a grudge against Georgia’s father, is out to change history in the Old West in order to wipe out Georgia’s whole family by assassinating one of her ancestors. Once McKenzie has been persuaded that time-travel is for real, he quickly warms to the idea of championing justice by going back with Georgia to stop Cole. The film ends with a nicely executed gun-duel between McKenzie and Cole, and a temporal rewriting of the hero’s tragic fate.

Devane invests the simple role with unwavering authority, and to some extent his performance ennobles that of Hutton, whose film-work has generally been tepid. Kinski does another one of his eccentric eye-rolling perfs, but better an over the top villain than a dull one.  

Friday, January 1, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Though in 1936 there hadn’t been a silent serial for about eight years, THE BLACK COIN feels more like one of those creaky chapterplays. Though there certainly were important serials that lacked any metaphenomenal content—the original PERILS OF PAULINE being a case in point—the format certainly seemed to be at its best when it made use of extravagant fantasies, whether by adapting established works like Flash Gordon and Fu Manchu, or coming up with oddball originals like THE PHANTOM CREEPS and KING OF THE ROCKET MEN.

COIN combines two mundane plotlines: government agents investigating marine smuggling-operations, and a hunt for a fabulous treasure. The treasure-seekers can find their bounty if they assemble twelve silver coins, all of which have turned black with age (making one wonder why the title was singular rather than plural). Much of the serial involves heroes and villains seeking out different people who have one or more coins in their possession, in order to put together the ersatz treasure map. This trope quickly turns into a dead-end routine, in part because both heroes and villains are dull sticks. Two government agents, played by Ralph Graves and Ruth (daughter of Tom) Mix, add no excitement whatever, and while Dave O’Brien projects good machismo as central hero Terry Navarro, he’s just as dull with his “I’m gonna find the man who killed my dad” schtick.

COIN has only two points of interest. The first is a cool setup, as the viewer is informed that the twelve coins were originally Muslim currency from the time of the Crusades. The coins were then co-opted by Crusaders who stamped Christian symbols on the metal, and thus all Muslims view the coins as accursed. This might have been used to set up a continuing trope in which the coins might appear to be unlucky for anyone who owns them, but the script never exploits this potential. Thus the superstition about the coins registers as a naturalistic version of a culturally imposed "phantasmal figutation," since Muslims impute an evil nature to the currency.

The other interesting element is that COIN boasts one of the lamest “cliffhanger cheats” in the history of serials. At the end of the second chapter, seagoing thugs knock out Navarro, shove him into a sack, and then hurl him into the ocean, where hungry sharks lurk. But at the beginning of Chapter 3, Navarro’s sack somehow manages to stay afloat on the surface of the ocean—and not only do the thugs on the ship sail away without seeing this, a handy rescue-boat shows up to succor Navarro in jig time. Lame as this twist is, it’s at least a little more novel than the customary cheat in which the hero jumps out of the careening car before it goes over the cliff.



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

Even if Robert Altman hadn’t testified to the existence of the Hollywood combination pitch (“My new flick combines the action of Hit A with the pathos of Hit B”), any filmgoer could see how the movie industry frequently plays mix-and-match with elements of previous successes. NAKED KILLER certainly does this, and since it’s a Hong Kong Category III film, possibly some of its references are just quick toss-offs to keep the inundation of sex and violence from palling. The most proximate source for KILLER’s genesis would seem to be 1990’s LA FEMME NIKITA. Yet parts of the film also resonate with Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, with maybe a soupcon of BRINGING UP BABY added. And though KILLER could not have intended to imitate BASIC INSTINCT, since the two films came out in the same year, KILLER manages to outdo INSTINCT in terms of depicting a glamorous cabal of murderous lesbians.

The ”naked killer” of the title is seen in an opening scene, wherein professional assassin Princess (Carrie Ng) takes a shower in the home of her intended victim, and then kills him in a singularly bizarre way, shooting his balls and smashing his (larger) head. Yet Princess is not the star of the show, but the adversary of the main character. The next scene, in which Hong Kong cop Tinam (Simon Yam) shows up to investigate the gory murder. He tells his chief that he suspects that the killer was a woman, largely because of the ball-attack. His superior laughs off the suggestion, since a woman couldn’t be strong enough to pull off the head-smashing feat. (The idea that Princess is as strong as a man never comes up again.) For making dumb suggestions, Tinam is removed from the assassination case.

However, he’s on the scene in time for the debut of the movie’s real star, Kitty (Chingmy Yau). Kitty seems to be a background character when a young woman shows up at a hair-salon to rage at her erstwhile stylist-boyfriend for not acknowledging the child they have in common. Kitty then reveals that she’s the young woman’s friend and attacks the no-good boyfriend, stabbing him in the balls a few times. Tinam just happens to be nearby, so he intervenes and tries to arrest Kitty. Then he’s sidelined by his own VERTIGO-style psychological weakness. Because he accidentally shot his own brother, Tinam becomes nauseous whenever he tries to wield his gun. (I bet Sir Alfred wishes he would have thought of that one.) Kitty doesn’t know about Tinam’s hangup, but in a wacky manner reminiscent of a Howard Hawks comedy, she pursues the straight-arrow cop, blackmailing him into dating her. And in case writer-producer Wong Jing wasn’t clear with his dimestore Freudianism, Tinam—who has told a co-worker that he’s also been impotent since the shooting—finds that a dizzy dame is a remedy for what ails him. It’s particularly interesting that his impotence is cured by contact with a woman whom he’s seen stabbing another man’s genitalia.

However, an even more bizarre level of melodrama changes the course of Kitty’s life. We know nothing about her life beyond the fact that she’s the daughter of a poor food-stall owner, and that he’s married to a younger woman. A Triad gangster sleeps with Kitty’s slutty stepmother and kills Kitty’s old man when he protests. The daughter’s reaction makes her salon-incident seem calm and reasoned. Armed with a pistol she storms an office-building where the gangster works, killing him and a bunch of henchmen, for whom the audience feels nothing because they’re all just gangsters. But before Kitty can be slain by vengeful gunmen, she’s spirited away by a beautiful older woman, Sister Cindy.

Cindy is a professional assassin, and she was present at the office building with the intention of executing the man Kitty killed. Seeing promise in the young spitfire, Cindy persuades Kitty that she no longer has any future in ordinary life, and that becoming an assassin is her only clear career-choice. Cindy does tout herself as a sort of “noble assassin,” killing only men who deserve it, largely by using womanly wiles to lure men to their deaths. Yet to her credit, Cindy never pretends that her business is a walk in the park. She challenges Kitty to a martial arts match and trounces the young woman easily. More notably, Cindy locks Kitty in a basement with a crazed rapist and orders Cindy to kill the man if she ever wants out. Kitty, however, takes to the training avidly and accepts her new destiny. However, Cindy also warns Kitty about her “senior,” another female assassin whom Cindy trained—and this is none other than the rapacious Princess, who manages to knock off at least one more victim while she’s still in town.

Cindy fondles the young woman a few times in the process of instruction—and since both Princess and her main henchwoman Baby are said to be lesbians, it’s not hard to imagine that Cindy’s tutelage to Princess included lessons in Sapphic love, and that in time Kitty might receive the same attentions. But then an element from Kitty’s old life intrudes. Tinam stumbles across Kitty and instantly recognizes her, even though she’s been remodeled into a Hong Kong jetsetter. Kitty tries to keep Tinam at arm’s length, but she desires the psychologically wounded cop as much as he lusts after her. Cindy’s solution to the problem is simple: kill the cop.

However, Cindy and Kitty are spared the drama of a falling-out. Princess and Baby are hired to kill both of them, and Princess naturally slays her former mentor first, thus setting up Kitty to wreak bloody vengeance. Tinam joins Kitty in the final conflict, which gives him a “moment of truth” a la Jimmy Stewart’s character in VERTIGO. Of course, since it’s a HK action-movie, Tinam gets over his gun-fear really quickly and potshots about a dozen of Princess’s henchmen while Kitty obtains her vengeance and goes out with a bang.

A lot of romantic dramas focus on both of the enamored characters. However, just as Princess exists largely to give Kitty an adversary, Tinam doesn’t have that much of an existence outside of Kitty’s effect on him. That’s not to suggest that Kitty is a well-drawn character. She’s essentially a cartoon “vengeful woman,” constantly threatening men’s balls even before she becomes an assassin. That said, she and Tinan, despite being over-the-top types, succeed in embodying the sexual fears of their respective genders: rape for the woman, castration for the man. The same is true for all the lesbian assassins: their existence is as abstract and mythic as the Sith Lords of the STAR WARS franchise. KILLER is as wild as the wildest of the Category III thrillers, but it has a core of symbolic thought that transcends even the dumbest penis jokes.

The most visible metaphenomenal elements are the diabolical devices used by Cindy; these include an extending chain-weapon and an exploding chapeau. Oddly, though Princess kills her targets in bizarre ways, the only uncanny weapon she uses is poison lipstick. Perhaps fittingly, since Kitty is something of a “good” version of Princess, poison lipstick is also the only such weapon in Kitty’s arsenal. None of the actresses display superlative martial arts skills, though, and the only downside of the final conflict between Princess and Kitty is that the actresses are better at doing sex scenes than violent face-offs.

Though some “reformed assassins” may take on heroic stature, Kitty never really reforms, and so I’d still classify her as a villain. She just happens to be one of those villains whose destiny is to eradicate a far greater menace to society.