Sunday, February 28, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

I have not read the source material for FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, but since it was a short story published in 1930, I tend to think that the film, strongly implicated in the politics of the Cold War, significantly transformed the original content. The story was even published one year prior to the first adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN to sound cinema, though of course Mary Shelley’s tale of scientific hubris became one of the cornerstones of science fiction in all media.

FIEND may have taken some cues from movie versions of the Shelley novel, since many such flicks include the trope of the mad scientist setting up shop in some bucolic area, which eventually leads to the villagers coming to root out the evil experiment with pitchforks and torches. FIEND changes things up, in that the “village” is a small farming town in the Canadian wilds, and there’s no mad scientist seen at first, just the sterling stalwarts of the United States Army. For some time, the army has maintained a radar installation in this remote area, alert for possible invasion. But the locals don’t like the way the base jets mess with their cows’ contentment, nor do they like the fact that the radar is powered by a nuclear plant. The natives routinely complain to army liaison Lieutenant Cummings (Marshall Thompson), who resolutely sloughs off any claims that the power that guards the free world against incursions might prove to be a double edged sword.

Only the viewers witness the slaying of a soldier by an invisible force, leaving the characters faced with a dire mystery: what could have removed both the soldier’s brain and spinal cord? “It’s as if some mental vampire was at work,” asserts the beleaguered Cummings. The only thing viewers know about the dead soldier is that he was apparently Canadian, since his only surviving relation is a local girl, Barbara. She doesn’t hold the death against the Americans, but when some locals perish in the same way, a fellow named Howard generates rumors about a “mad G.I.” Howard would like to be Barbara’s main squeeze, and another level of Canadian resentment toward the Americans, that of sexual competition, is suggested when Cummings starts pursuing Barbara.

As it happens, Barbara is also the key to Cummings finding the real culprit behind the killings, for she does secretarial work for a resident scholar, Professor Walgate—who is, in truth, the “mad scientist” of the narrative. Cummings’ research reveals that not only does Walgate write books about psychic phenomena, he’s also got a background in nuclear physics. Eventually Walgate reveals that during his travels in the East, he became fascinated with the idea of “thought materialization,” and so he seeks to create a literal “brain-child.” A flashback shows Walgate’s experiment—which gives rise not only to the one Fiend signaled in the title, but to a half dozen of the invisible predators—and there’s even a Frankensteinian thunder-storm on call, though the Fiends are actually empowered by Walgate somehow leeching off the army’s nuclear plant. Though nuclear power sustains the creatures, they instinctively devour the brains and spines of human beings. It turns out that their appetite mirrors their true nature, for at the justly famous climax, the Fiends lose their invisibility and stand revealed as serpentine creatures, each with a faux spinal cord for a body and a faux brain for a head.

The climax is so good that fans may forget the leisurely pace of the plot, or the fact that the male and female leads are ciphers. Their romance subplot is handled in a much more desultory manner than other “creature features” of the period, though it begins with some promise when Cummings visits Barbara’s house, nearly sees her in the altogether, and gets into a fight with the jealous Howard. (Howard later pays for being a heavy: one of the Fiends gets him but strangely doesn’t finish feeding, so that the unfortunate farmer ends up being a living but mindless zombie.) Walgate’s obsession isn’t given any deeper context than overreaching scientific curiosity, though there might be some symbolism in his name, since he’s the “gate” that allows a new species to cross over the “wall” separating thought from reality.

Still, the Fiends’ method of feeding is an ingenious transformation of vampiric visual tropes, making them a little bit Dracula as well as a little bit Frankenstein’s Monster. And even though the American army isn’t directly responsible for the Fiends’ creation, they share Walgate’s hubris since both scientists and soldiers gave rise to nuclear power. The thing that gives the Fiends life, nuclear power, is only possible because of the mental capacity of human beings, and so it’s appropriate that these “monsters of the Id” mirror the human organs most associated with thought and even spirituality, both of which are parodied into the image of ravenous serpents.



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*


Whether one tunes in to CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS with the idea of seeing a good mystery about calendar models being killed off in the order of their assigned months, or just with the notion of seeing a bunch of hot models, William Graham’s tame TV-film will probably disappoint both audiences.

I’ve labeled some psycho-killers as “uncanny” even when they’re not particularly unusual in appearance or in their method of dispatching victims, THE STEPFATHER being a notable example. The writers of CALENDAR might have chosen to build up the murderer’s obsession with killing victims in a certain order so that the psychosis had some of the same vibes as that of Terry O’Quinn’s madman, but I suspect they were content to crib from better works, like Agatha Christie’s ABC MURDERS (which, for different reasons, is also a naturalistic work).

The psycho is so underdeveloped that the pursuing officer, one Sam Hunter (Tom Skerritt), becomes the focus of the narrative by default. In fact, for a serial killer story, the script seems far less concerned with the murders of hot girls than with Hunter’s family life. As a settled cop with a wife and kid, he gets a certain amount of static from the wife about his possible dalliance with the many models in the entourage of Richard Trainor (Robert Culp), a Hugh Hefner knock-off who’s just had a big financial success with a sexy calendar. And despite his basic faithfulness, Hunter does strike a few sparks with former Trainor employee Cassie (Sharon Stone), just to prove he’s not dead yet.

The mystery is threadbare and none of the characters are compelling, though Robert Morse has an atypical role as a sleazy guy, and there’s a little fun to be had from spotting familiar faces like Alan Thicke, Robert Beltran and Claudia Christian. Sharon Stone has one of her most personable early roles. But whenever a TV-film develops one character and none of the others, that’s a problem no number of red herrings can solve. When the killer is revealed, the psychology of the monthly obsession is dropped and there’s some drivel about the (female) killer having a “love-hate relationship” with her father. Was she then killing off models simply because she saw them as competitors for her father’s love (whatever kind of love it might’ve been)? Or maybe she killed the models by month because her father had slept with them in that order? Who knows?

Graham devotes some time to showing the buxom beauties in scenes that, in theory, could have been titillating: some desultory photo shoots and a sporting-event that has the women running around on an obstacle course. A lot of eighties TV-makers would have really hyped the T&A factor. But Graham doesn’t just miss that boat, he looks like he didn’t even try to get on. The closest thing to sexy wit comes when the models start climbing a chain-fence, and the emcee says something about how the chains came from his private collection.

ARROW: SEASON 1 (2012-13), TITANS: SEASONS 1-2 (2018-2019)


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

Producer Greg Berlanti’s SMALLVILLE series ended a couple of years before the founding teleseries that led to his “Arrowverse.” But although both shows offered up a heapin’ helpin’ of romantic anxiety and tortuous trust issues, the earlier show’s take on a Young Superman seemed consciously modeled on Joss Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but without the horror-fantasy’s darker edges. ARROW, debuting years after the phenomenal success of the very dark (and often dire) Bat-flicks of Christopher Nolan, gave viewers an edgier hero capable of killing during his war on cosmopolitan crime.

That hero, known as the Hood for most of the first season, was of course patterned on DC Comics stalwart Green Arrow, and is played with stern aplomb by square-jawed Stephen Amell. In the comics Green Arrow spent most of his existence as a very lightweight superhero, but he entered a “grim and gritty” phase in the eighties and even eschewed his signature use of wild trick-arrows. Though every comics-derived teleseries chooses various dishes from the buffet of established continuity to produce its adaptations, ARROW seems somewhat indebted to the Green Arrow who uses arrows that can kill—and indeed, the Hood does kill a handful of hardened criminals in his first few episodes.

The comics character trained himself in archery while marooned on a desert island. Berlanti’s Oliver Queen follows a similar trajectory, but he starts off as an irresponsible playboy rather than a hero pretending to be one, and the island on which he’s isolated for years is full of almost as many bizarre characters and situations as your average LOST episode. Once Oliver returns to normal society, he’s fired with the will to become a vigilante, but his course is compromised by a retinue of family and close companions never seen in the comics-- mother, sister, stepfather, best friend, former girlfriend and girlfriend’s father. (The last two hate Oliver’s guts because the playboy went on a jaunt with the girlfriend’s sister, who died during said jaunt). On the plus side, the Hood receives support from the two charter members of “Team Arrow,” tough bodyguard John Diggle and IT-girl Felicity Smoak. The vigilante (who will eventually accept the “Green Arrow” moniker) also gets the beginnings of a rogue’s gallery taken from the funnybooks, derived from such characters as Count Vertigo, Deathstroke and Merlyn the Magician.

The first two or three seasons are the best in the series, before the show became impossibly overburdened with a badly conceived ensemble of crimefighters. At this point, the hyperkinetic fight-scenes are still shot well enough that viewers can make out what’s happening, and all the soap operatics are mildly engrossing, though always a little on the superficial side. In an early episode Felicity remarks to Oliver that his family drama is reminiscent of HAMLET, with him returning from far-off parts to find his mother remarried to another man (though this time the father’s demise is laid at the son’s door, and the “Claudius” is actually less of a criminal than the “Gertrude”.) There’s a big criminal scheme that in 2012 might’ve been seen as “the Revenge of the One Percenters,” and indeed Berlanti follows Nolan in avoiding most of the non-wealthy malefactors. But from a contemporary standpoint there’s a more interesting synchronicity that appears in a flashback that takes place on Oliver’s island. When Berlanti’s writers imagined a plot to destroy China’s economy by shooting down an airliner, little did they imagine that eight years later China would unleash its own evil plan, whereby the entire world would suffer economic devastation.

Berlanti’s soap-operatics would reign supreme in all the rest of his Arrowverse productions. But TITANS, produced for HBO and taking place on a “separate Earth,” has more resemblance to the horror-themed melodrama of the nineties BUFFY series than it does to anything in the Arrowverse—or, for that matter, in the celebrated NEW TEEN TITANS series from which most of TITANS derives. In this production Berlanti shares production credits with two other famous (or infamous) names in superhero fare, Geoff Johns and Akiva Goldsman. But since neither man is particularly well known for dark, edgy drama in their respective film-and-TV work, I have to assume all three producers tailored this superhero adaptation to fit HBO’s standards. Since I’ve never liked Johns or Goldsman, and since I’ve found most of Berlanti’s TV shows execrable in the last four years, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the TITANS show comes together as well as it does.

Given that the core idea of TEEN TITANS depends on the formation of a team of heroic young sidekicks, TITANS practically requires the setting of an Earth where numerous superheroes throng the skylines, much like the status quo of DC superhero comics. Most of the “elder” heroes—Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman—are referenced but not seen, while Batman is seen only in the non-costumed identity of Bruce Wayne. When the series begins, a Teen Titans hero-group operated some years ago, but that assemblage ceased activity for reasons undisclosed in the first season. Dick Grayson, now a twenty-something rather than a Boy Wonder, has split from his role of Batman’s partner, and he pursues a mundane form of crimefighting in police work. But, as in the introductory issues of the eighties comics series, Grayson becomes involved with some new kids on the superhero block: analogues of Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy. To cope with the various problems of the newbie heroes—most of which revolve around Raven and her rapacious demon-father—the former Robin calls upon members of the former group—the Hawk, the Dove, and Donna (“Wonder Girl”) Troy. Much to his chagrin, Grayson is also obliged to call upon the resources of his erstwhile Bat-mentor, and thus he ends up saddled with Batman’s new partner, a “new Robin” named Tim Drake. The second season adds three more luminaries to the lineup: Conner, a twenty-something clone of Superman, and both Jericho and Rose (“Ravager”) Wilson, son and daughter to the super-hitman Deathstroke.

Despite what might seem an unwieldy ensemble, the TITANS writers do a sterling job of designing strong melodramatic arcs for most of the characters. The weakest link is indubitably Beast Boy. The character became a regular member of the New Teen Titans in order to provide the feature with comedy relief, but this version of Beast Boy is largely played straight, perhaps to avoid undermining the dominant grimness of the show. But this version of Gar Logan remains a weak concept, and the show’s budget can’t handle the character’s specialty, that of transforming into countless animal forms. The alien heroine Starfire presents parallel problems. As long as she’s an energy-wielding alien princess stuck on Earth, she doesn’t strain the limits of the show’s potential. But when the second season makes allusions to her returning to her home on the world of Tamaran, and pursuing a conflict with her acrimonious sibling Blackfire, the experienced TV-watcher knows good and well that TITANS won’t be able to pull off that level of set-design and FX.

The character-arcs in both seasons are generally strong, but the interweaving plots about each season’s respective “Big Bad” lack cohesion. Season One focuses on Raven, bewildered by the onset of her demonic powers and pursued by various groups, some of which work for her father Trigon. By season’s end, it’s hard to recall who was on whose side, and for what reason. But the first-season episodes are strong in maintaining a sense of nightmarish dislocation as the other heroes get pulled into Raven’s outre world.

Second season reveals that the first group of Titans broke up because of the depredations of Deathstroke, who has vowed to destroy any group of Titans Robin puts together because the villain believes the hero responsible for the death of Jericho. The comics-version of Jericho was not particularly memorable, and his contribution to this narrative feels shoehorned in. However, there’s a somewhat better balance between the A-plot of Deathstroke’s vendetta, which includes all of the developments with his daughter Rose, and the B-plot dealing with the genesis of Conner, who’s given life by a laboratory run by Superman’s nemesis Luthor. Season Two concludes with the Death of a Hero, though the producers cannily suggest that it might be one who famously perishes in the comics, in a skillful act of misdirection.

A season 3 for TITANS is in the offing, but I wouldn’t mind if the show closed while it remained relatively “on top,” unlike a certain series about a green-clad archer.

Saturday, February 20, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1,3,4) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

My belated viewing of Dreamworks’ DRAGONS animated teleseries—which went under at least two different cognomens—prompted me not only to re-screen the three HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON movies, but even to read the first of the Cressida Cowell books on which the franchise was based. Assorted online essays exist to explain just what characters and elements the animated works took from the books, so I won’t be reading more than the first book, nor touching on Cowell for more than a point or two. My primary concern was to see whether or not the cartoons shared the same mythos-orientation as their source material. Both utilize a lot of jokes, particularly of an anachronistic bent (i.e., archaic Vikings with names like Stoick and Snotlout). However, Cressida’s first book is a straight comedy, lacking any of the adventurous elements of the Dreamworks concept. And although both serials pivot upon the viewpoint character of skinny nebbish-Viking Hiccup Haddock, he’s the sole star of the first book, while he participates as one member of a superordinate ensemble in all the Dragon-works I’ll examine here. (No plans to review the two or three DRAGONS shorts floating around.)

I’d already reviewed the first HOW TOTRAIN YOUR DRAGON film in this post, and my re-screening doesn’t appreciably change my verdict. I’m now aware that for all the changes wrought by Dreamworks, the movie/TV franchise remains indebted to Cowell’s core concept: that nebbish-Viking Hiccup saves all of his people on the icy island of Berk by having a unique understanding of the ways of dragons. However, although Book-Hiccup’s special bond with his dragon Toothless foregrounds many aspects of their movie-versions, in Cowell’s world the Vikings of Berk have been training the local dragons for fun and profit since before Hiccup’s birth. In the first film, Hiccup’s people continually seek to extinguish the creatures, who continually raid the island’s crops. Thus, in the first film Hiccup plays the role of the culture-hero, being the first to relate to his dragon on a personal level and shows his people a new way to understand the natural world around them. The movie doesn’t escape a certain amount of preachiness, but makes its best argument without words, in a scene where Hiccup “coverts” warrior-maiden Astrid to the wonders of dragonkind by flying her into the clouds on the back of his winged mount Toothless.

The teleseries followed, foreshadowing the events of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. The DRAGONS series has a number of advantages over any of the movies, not least being able to build up all of the characters in the ensemble. By the time of the series, Hiccup and his teenaged friends have become the forefront of a dragon-riding defensive force for Berk (though a couple of adult characters have also mastered the art, not least Hiccup’s overbearing father). The first movie centers largely on Hiccup, the tough Viking-girl Astrid (as well as Hiccup’s romantic interest), and Snotlout, who’s less the bully-boy of the book and more “that guy;” the fellow who always says the most inappropriate thing at the worst moment. The portly Fishlegs becomes the Group Nerd who furnishes explanations of all things dragon-ish, while the brother-and-sister twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut become far more prominent in terms of furnishing copious quantities of comic relief. (They’re much funnier in the TV show than in any of the films.) The show also develops the temperaments of the other dragon-mounts, showing how the “pets” mirror their owners, not least the dragon of Snotlout, who’s just as irascible as his rider. Further, the romance of Hiccup and Astrid is given more time to flower, mixing both humor and sentiment in equal proportions, and for the first time the franchise develops some provocative villains.

But the most mythic aspect of DRAGONS is the way the writers build upon Cressida Cowell’s science of “dragonology” (my term). Many if not most episodes revolve around the teen adventurers either encountering new dragon-species or learning important new facts about the creatures they already know. The pro-ecology theme benefits by giving these made-up monsters their own reasonably credible biology and ethology, making all the theoretical spadework engaging and entertaining. This aspect of the series fits into the epistemological pattern I’ve called “cosmological,” since the presentation of all these dragon-factoids draws upon the real-world patterns of biological investigations.

The events of the series’ six seasons wrap up and are directly followed by the events of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. None of the enemies or support-characters introduced on the TV show cross over into the remaining two movies, though other elements from the program translate well enough: Hiccup’s acquisition of a magical fire-sword and the courtship of the goofy Ruffnut by both Fishlegs and Snotlout. However, Hiccup is almost the sole focus of the story. Though over the years Hiccup has made peace between man and dragon with his “dragon whispering” skills, he now encounters a negative version of himself. This is Drago Bludvist, who can mesmerize any of the various species into joining his army of dragons. He’s also as dedicated to war as Hiccup is to peace, but Drago’s motivations are thinly explained, though one line, where he talks about the pleasure of showing the strength of his will, suggests that he knows his Nietzsche pretty well for a 12th-century Viking. Despite Hiccup’s having at least justified his existence to his demanding chieftain-father, DRAGON 2 has a new emotional arc for the main hero and his dad, as well as introducing a new arc involving the recovery of Hiccup’s believed-to-be-dead mother. The script for DRAGON 2 pours on more sentiment than comedy, and the results are at best a mixed bag.

Though Drago Bludvist is defeated in Part 2, in Part 3—subtitled THE HIDDEN WORLD—there are still more villains throughout the world outside Berk, villains dedicated to both the hunting and exploitation of dragons. Though the Dragon Riders continually liberate mistreated dragons from evildoers, Hiccup realizes that he can’t confine all the dragons in the world to the small island of Berk. But the hero has heard stories of a mysterious “Hidden World” far removed from the world of men, and the A-story deals with his attempts to find a safe place for the dragons while fighting off the depredations of Grimmel the Grisly, who’s not much of an improvement over Drago Bludvist. There’s also a substantial B-story revolving around the interaction of Hiccup’s dragon mount Toothless, who may desert his owner to mate with a female dragon of his own species. The resolution of both plot-lines—yes, both get a happy ending, what a surprise!-- may be derived loosely from the conclusion of Cressida Cowell’s first book, in which her narrator claims that the dragons removed themselves from human sight but may someday appear once more. HIDDEN WORLD is certainly an improvement on the middle film, with more impressive battle-FX and better use of Hiccup’s ensemble, particularly by allowing both Snotlout and Ruffnut many opportunities to provide wacky humor.

Cowell’s Hiccup calls himself a “Hero” at the first book’s conclusion, and he deserves the description. But book-Hiccup is not a combative hero, since he succeeds more by guile than by force. Though all of Dreamworks’ Dragon Riders advocate peace, they’re also quite willing to kick a lot of butt in its pursuit—and despite all the stuff about people and animals getting along, the butt-kicking is a big part of the franchise’s appeal.  



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though not as good as a previous Lugosi/Monogram entry, INVISIBLE GHOST, CORPSE is certainly better than the creaky DEVIL BAT.

The premise, while simply executed, has a little more symbolic resonance than many of its type. Doctor Lorenz (Lugosi) is a mad doctor from the continent whose wife, addressed as “Countess,” suffers from some unspecified disease that brings on pain and disfigurement. To stave off the disease, Lorenz uses a rare type of orchid to drug new brides at their own weddings, placing the women in suspended animation, so that they appear dead. Lorenz and his two assistants—midget Toby and dim-witted Angel—then kidnap the “bodies,” take them to Lorenz’s secluded country estate and drain vital fluids from their still-living forms. When Lorenz injects these fluids into his wife, she not only feels respite from the disease but appears to get younger and healthier as well. There’s a vague reference to hormones, but what’s really going on is a science fiction translation of the idea of a soul-vampire, with an older woman replenishing herself on the energies of virginal young women, just as a regular vampire throws off the chains of age by drinking blood, often that of young women.

Ambitious journalist Pat (Luana Walters) notices the presence of the orchids at the fatal weddings and gets on the trail of Lorenz. Her attempt to gain access to the doctor’s estate by following his assistants gets short-circuited, but she just happens to meet one Doctor Foster (Tristram Coffin), who’s on his way to collaborate with the foreign scientist on an experimental cure for Countess Lorenz. It’s a given that Foster doesn’t know about Lorenz’s plundering of bridal fluids, but Lorenz nevertheless acts the part of a good host and allows the reporter to reside at his house for the night, possibly because Foster might otherwise be alienated.

Pat turns out not to be that much of a hard-bitten journalist, since she witnesses a lot of weird goings-on at the estate and faints twice. Nevertheless, she leaves the manor with no incriminating evidence against the doctor. Pat sets a trap for Lorenz, but for unexplained reasons the mad scientist anticipates her ploy, captures her and almost subjects her to the same fate as the suspended brides. In the end, Lorenz and his collaborators all turn on one another and Pat survives to marry Foster and quit the arduous job of reporting.

Unlike many directors of Poverty Row flicks, Wallace Fox keeps up the tension during all of Lorenz’s depredations, often through using adroit closeups. Lugosi projects great intensity as the devoted husband who becomes a serial killer, yet who also metes out stern justice to the lustful Angel when he gets out of line with a suspended bride. (The actor playing Angel has a very slight bodily resemblance to Boris Karloff; maybe that’s why Lugosi looks so enthusiastic strangling the dimwit.) All of the supporting actors acquit themselves ably and the humorous touches aren’t as overplayed as one sees in a lot of B-films.



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

The world of episodic television isn’t strictly speaking all that hospitable to mythic discourse. Serial programs must evolve a basic formula that allows for several writers to contribute story-ideas, the better to streamline the production of episodes. Thus, there’s more sheer necessity for the formula to remain relatively simple, whereas cinematic productions, even those accomplished on a low budget, can in theory be as mythic in their original concept as they please. Some programs never stray from a rigid formula, and so, whatever their other virtues, they remain closed off from the polyvalent concepts of myth. A small sampling of programs prove more adventurous in playing with the formula, and if these shows last long enough, they may turn out a handful of mythically strong episodes, even though the average outing would generally lack such qualities. On this blog I’ve reviewed a handful of episodes that possessed high mythicity, but I would never claim that the average episode of THE MAN FROM UNCLE had the symbolic complexity of “The Girls of Nazarone Affair,” or that the whole of BEAST MASTER was validated by “Tears of the Sea.”

Among the totality of TV shows, a very small coterie sustained a high degree of mythicity in many or even all episodes. Usually the only ones who manage “all” are very short, like AEON FLUX, while longer-running shows tend to mix together the mythic and the not-so-mythic, as I’ve tried to show on this blog in reviewing whole runs of “Original” STAR TREK, BATMAN ’66, and KUNG FU.

As of this writing I’m not sure where the 1987-1990 series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST stands. During my contemporaneous viewing of the show, I remember thinking that it did offer a great deal of mythic material. In effect, the show took the romance-dynamic of the literary fairy tale, probably with strong reference to Cocteau’s cinematic adaptation, and transferred that sensibility to the mean streets of New York—or rather, transplanted it beneath those mean streets. This was “the World Below,” an urban faerie-domain beneath the Big Apple. In place of sprites and deathless queens, this world of subterranean tunnels became a haven to all the outcasts from the normal world above—sort of a demi-America within America. The outcasts, almost always attired in quasi-European garb, are led by a spiritual patriarch known only as “Father,” but Father recognizes only one of his children as his True Son, and he’s the greatest outcast of all. Where the original “Beauty and the Beast” had the beastly protagonist cursed by faeries, Vincent is condemned by biology to have the strength, claws, and face of a lion-made-human. And though Vincent does not rule his bizarre domain the way the Beast of the short story ruled his isolated mansion, he becomes the sole focus of the one outsider who comes and goes from the underworld with impunity. “Beauty” Catherine Chandler, a young lawyer is brought to the Tunnels by Vincent to save her life, who subsequently forms a “soul connection” with the tender yet passionate lion-man.

I suspect that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST deserves to rate with the other three programs I mentioned above: as a show with a high incidence of high mythicity episodes. For now, I’ll concentrate on this 1988 offering.

“To Reign in Hell” was the twentieth episode in the first season, so by this time, the series had articulated most of its core ideas. Many episodes revolved around the Beast coming to the Beauty’s rescue when she faced peril, usually from “surface-world” evildoers she encountered in her profession as an assistant district attorney. However, in episode 14, “The Alchemist,” Catherine and Vincent encounter a menace from Vincent’s world. This is Paracelsus, who has taken the name of a medieval alchemist to signify his pursuit of the power to make gold—though Catherine encounters him because he’s making gold the old-fashioned way, by selling rare drugs on the streets of New York. Paracelsus is also an outcast from the outcasts, someone who transgressed against the rules of the World Below and was exiled, a setup which showed the writers’ willingness to align this villain with the ultimate transgressor of Christian myth. Paracelsus threatens Catherine and Vincent comes to her rescue, and “The Alchemist” ends with the villain’s apparent death-by-fire—which by itself foregrounds his phoenix-like return.

Satanic metaphors are fairly laid on with a trowel through the title of Paracelsus’ return: not only does Milton’s famous phrase appear as the episode’s title, the villain even repeats the phrase in conversation and duly credits its author. ‘Reign” is first and foremost a rescue-fantasy, but this time Catherine has been transported to an infernal version of the World Below, a world all smoldering crevices and sluggish rivers. Paracelsus, who has survived his fiery baptism albeit with injuries, desires vengeance on both Catherine and Vincent, but he also wants a measure of respect for all that he wrought when he and Father collaborated on founding the World Below. Before Vincent leaves on his rescue-quest with a handful of helpers, Father counsels the beastly savior that he must learn to distinguish “wisdom” from “knowledge.” In addition, during his quest Vincent also confers with an aged, nearly blind oracle who lives within the World Below, and who sports the arcane name “Narcissa,” patently a reference to the Greek myth-figure of Narcissus.

Vincent loses one of his aides to a hulking henchman named Erlich (after the Asian death-god, perhaps) and eventually Vincent sends away his other helpers in order to confront Paracelsus alone. I’ll pass over the battles between Vincent and Erlich, even though they represent one of the few times Vincent goes toe-to-toe with someone who equals his fantastic strength. The drama of the episode turns upon the “knowledge” Paracelsus reveals to Vincent in an attempt to manipulate him, to make him feel indebted to the villain. Vincent, instead, remains true to the “wisdom” taught him by Father and the love he feels for Catherine, and rejects this demi-devil’s temptation (who even shows his erudition by quoting Nietzsche as well as Milton). This virtue enables Vincent to conquer Erlich even though Paracelsus escapes to create more problems in Season Two.

The character of Catherine doesn’t have much to do, but toward the story’s end it’s revealed that she attempted to “mute” the psychic connection between herself and Vincent so that he wouldn’t plunge into hellish danger on her behalf. But despite Vincent’s centrality in the story, the gaunt, scarred figure of Paracelsus, his villainy accented by the sonorous voice of Tony Jay, rivals him for the center stage as Iago rivals Othello. Paracelsus fails to tempt Vincent here, but in future episodes he will come to embody another devilish sentiment voiced by Milton: “Misery loves company.”

Friday, February 5, 2021



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


By chance I happened to re-watch two disparate films from the oeuvre of director Albert Pyun, without any plans to set up a mini “Pyun-fest.”

I had mildly enjoyed SORCERER back in its original release, despite its status as an eighties version of a “mockbuster,” being a shallow knockoff of a big-budget release, the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Prior to the re-watch, I had remembered SORCERER as fast-paced dumb fun. However, upon viewing the Rifftrax version, I realized how much Pyun filled the flick with dull-as-dirt talking-head scenes. This gave the comedians had ample chances to insert comments whenever the characters were droning on about rebelling against the evil Lord Cromwell. (This particular modern-sounding name shows how much the writer cared about keeping faithful to the fantasy’s archaic character.)

The aforementioned Cromwell (Richard Lynch) makes a deal with evil sorcerer Xusia (Richard Moll) to seize control of all the fair-minded kingdoms of this S&S world. Then Cromwell gets worried about sharing power with Xusia, so he has the sorcerer killed—apparently. While Xusia hides and licks his wounds, Cromwell makes war on the last free kingdom, killing the king thereof. Prince Talon (Lee Horsley) sees the king his father perish, but after he makes an attempt on Cromwell’s life, Talon goes off somewhere and becomes a Conan-like sword-for-hire. It’s not memories of paternal loyalty that finally bring the prince-barbarian back into the fray against Cromwell, but the blandishments of a Resistance spy, cute Princess Alana (Kathleen Beller).

There are various attacks and reverses, but eventually Cromwell captures Talon. Having seen the advance publicity for CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the tyrant decides to put Talon on display at his festival by crucifying this lesser barbarian, because—well, because that happened in Conan. The rebels come to Talon’s rescue, but not before his character commits the film’s most notorious faux pas: simply pulling his hands free from the nails holding him to the cross, and then immediately wielding a sword against his enemies. More excursions follow, bringing Talon into conflict with alive-again Xusia before he has a final death-duel with Cromwell. Oh, and the hero gets the girl.

Though Horsley won’t be anyone’s favorite barbarian, at least he plays the role as straight as possible, and Beller’s willingness to sell her body to a handsome barbarian, however un-PC even back in ’82, adds a little zest to the ho-hum revenge plot. There’s also some nice T&A that you won’t get in a SCORPION KING movie.

HEATSEEKER, however, was about the same as I remembered it from a previous viewing: just another American martial-arts tournament film, in which huge-muscled guys pound on each other. The story takes place in an alternate version of 2019, where the only important societal change is that massive corporations compete with one another with cyborg martial artists. I think something is said about the corporations getting better contracts if their agents win the fights, but Pyun and his co-writer don’t dilate on this matter much.

However, heroic fighter Chance O”Brien (a barely expressive Keith Cooke) scorns to have his organs messed with, and so fights cyborgs with nothing but his fists and his fury. He scores enough victories that someone decides to let him fight in the Bloodsport Tournament (or whatever it was called). To keep O’Brien from having any advantage, one of the cyborg-fighter’s manages abducts Tina, O’Brien’s trainer/girlfriend. Further, the crooked manager coerces Tina into training his best fighter, Xao (Gary Daniels). This makes for a tiny bit of drama in that O’Brien doesn’t know that Tina has only joined Xao’s team to keep O’Brien safe. But plainly real drama is not on the menu here. HEATSEEKER offers lots of hard-hitting fight-scenes, and it does so adequately, though it somewhat hurts the hero’s relatability that O’Brien, the human, seems to show emotion less well than Xao, his cyborg-opponent. Daniels may not be a good actor outside the chopsocky circuit, but he consistently showed more charisma in any of his films than did Cooke did here.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Bert I. Gordon’s SPIDER shared the same September 1958 release-date as Irwin Yeaworth’s THE BLOB. There’s no similarity between the monsters, but both plots revolve around their being discovered by various “clean teens” who encounter a lot of problems trying to relay the news to skeptical adults. Possibly both were emulating a previous fright-flick model that preceded both, but if there were none, I would tend to believe Gordon or one of his writers found out something about the BLOB script and worked in the “nobody believes the goofy teens” angle. In any case, THE BLOB makes the adult skepticism more important to the overall story, while in SPIDER the same element is of marginal importance.

Far more important to the story is that the two clean teens who discover the Spider are looking for a lost adult, a pretty clear reverse on the usual parent-teen dynamic. The film opens as Jack Flynn, father of teenaged daughter Carol, drives along a country road with a bracelet he’s bought her for her birthday. Flynn’s car is stopped by some unseen entity, and the older man screams into the camera—after which the story moves to Carol in the neighboring town the next day. She tells boyfriend Mike that she’s worried about her absent parent. He seems to think the father's absence is no big deal, though the script doesn’t ever say why he thinks so. (There’s a brief mention of Jack having had some “cronies,” so the implication may’ve been that the missing father liked to go out and hoist a few.) Nevertheless, Carol gets her way, and the two teens try to retrace Jack’s steps. They find Flynn’s wrecked truck, but not Flynn, as well as a mysterious sticky rope laid across the road (implicitly a web-line from the thing that accosted Daddy Jack).

The two teens eat up a lot of time exploring a nearby cave, one posted as off-limits, apparently because individuals have got lost there. (Whether or not the Spider has been preying on people we don’t know, since the viewer doesn’t know how long it’s been there, or what forces made the arachnid oversized.) Mike and Carol first encounter a big web (looking like a trapezist’s net) and then the Spider. They escape and try to warn the authorities. Logically, even when the local law goes looking for the missing man, they shouldn’t have credence the spider-story at all. But apparently the scripters wanted to move things along, so a local science-teacher insists that they take along a supply of DDT in case the teens are telling the truth. This comes in handy when the Spider attacks, for the DDT apparently kills the eight-legged freak. (Oh, and the cops also find the dead body of Carol’s dad, putting an end to his gamboling.)

Triumphant, but not very curious about the provenance of the monster, the authorities take the body of the Spider into town. I didn’t follow why they decided to put the supposedly dead monster in the local high school, except that it sets up the creature’s revival. A local amateur band starts playing rock for the students in the same room, and bingo, the web-spinner spins his way back to life and starts stalking new prey all over town.

The siege of the Spider and the retaliations of the small-town citizens are modestly entertaining thanks to the imposing nature of Gordon’s rear-projected arachnid, who looks pretty good after Gordon’s lousy handling of the giant grasshoppers in BEGINNING OF THE END. Eventually the Spider heads back to his old digs, but Carol has dragged Mike back to the caves to look for her lost bracelet, which provides more suspense than the constabulary’s attempts to stamp out their nemesis. Ultimately the score boils down to: Clean Teens (aka ‘Earth”) One, Spider zero.

While I don't suppose most of Gordon's films prove rife with comedy relief, SPIDER has little to speak of compared to other fifties SF films, and the funniest moment appears as the result of a goof. In an early scene, Mike and Carol approach the cave. Mike sees something Carol doesn't: her father's torn-up hat. Mike hides the ripped apparel behind his back so Carol won't see. He then tells her to wait while he goes inside alone, and when she looks away, he tosses the hat to one side-- but not into the nearby bush. It looks as if he tosses it out in the open, just where Carol would see it if she looked around. Of course both actor and director know she's not staying inside, that she's going to follow Mike into the cave-- but Mike's character is not supposed to know it.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

This telefilm is something of a “repeat journey,” not in being yet another adaptation of the Jules Verne classic; rather, it's a shaved-down remake of a 1999 two-part television movie scripted by Thomas Baum. I remember the two-parter as bloated and unwieldly, so if nothing else, this version has been trimmed down to essentials. Its main resemblance to the Verne work is that the narrative takes place in the same period as the novel, the 1870s, even though the locale is altered from Iceland to Alaska.

Where Verne had his explorers delving into the earth’s core for purely scientific motivations, this JOURNEY invokes romantic reconciliation as the main purpose. Young maybe-widow Martha (Victoria Pratt) hires roving anthropologist Jonathan Brock (Rick Shroeder) and Brock’s nephew to find her husband Edward (Peter Fonda). Some time back Edward—who, the dialogue relates, is significantly older than Martha—went to Alaska looking for a entrance to a subterranean cavern. Though Martha is a woman of her time, she insists on going along on the quest—and it would be a slow viewer who didn’t expect that on the way the appropriately named “Jonathan and Martha” might take a shine to one another.

Long story short, the threesome—who become a foursome when they pick up a Russian aide (replacing the Swedish assistant of the novel—descend the cavern until they find a perfectly preserved prehistoric world. The script does capture a little of the novel’s “sense of wonder” about the nature of Earth’s innards, but verisimilitude is tossed aside when the explorers encounter not just a few leftover dinos, but also a whole tribe of primitives, made up to look like American Indians. By the time the primitives show up, the experienced viewer will not be surprised to learn that Edward has used weapons from the surface world—guns, sticks of dynamite—to make himself a god. However, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and the appearance of new faces from the outer world creates more trouble for everyone.

Director T.J. Scott (husband of Victoria Pratt) sets up many engaging location-shots, but he can’t do much with the pedestrian script. Only Pratt’s Martha gets a halfway interesting emotional arc, especially when she finds that the older man she married—more out of admiration than love, and to get away from an overprotective father—has been shacked up for four years with a native babe. The script initially seems interested in making Shroeder’s Brock into an Indiana Jones adventure-type—he’s first seen bare-knuckle boxing an opponent for profit—Brock doesn’t really do anything daring in later scenes, and Shroeder shows little romantic chemistry with Pratt. Peter Fonda probably gets the best lines, but again, nothing much he could do with such a routine character. Had the same characters been plopped down into a mundane African jungle, I would probably consider Brock and Martha to be the focal presences. And while it’s not impossible to adapt Verne’s JOURNEY in a way that places all the emphasis on the explorers—a case in point being this 1993 TV-movie—this 2008 flick, like Verne, makes the setting the star.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021



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

This telefilm certainly can’t be accused of imitating any film-adaptation of the venerable literary folktale, since hardly any of the familiar “Beauty and the Beast” tropes even appear in it. There is a young woman who falls in love with a man despite his beastly appearance, and there is a conclusion in which the Beast’s curse is allayed and he regains his normal human appearance. But the bulk of the film owes more to fairy stories like “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty,” but told from the perspective of a prince denied his inheritance.

While the villain of the original story is a nugatory figure, here two nasty schemers get the action going. The ailing old king of a fairy-tale kingdom is about to die without a clear heir, and one schemer, Count Rudolph, plans to gain the throne by any means necessary. He even considers making a marriage-contract with a witch named Helen, who addresses him as “cousin” though no familial relationship is ever explained. Rudolph sees a new way to popularize himself when a local beauty named Belle (Estelle Warren) testifies to meeting a forest-wanderer with a beast’s face (Victor Parascos). Because reports of a mysterious beast-man have long haunted the kingdom, Rudolph thinks he can gain fame by killing the creature.

However, Helen reveals that the Beast is more threat than opportunity. Long ago Helen herself was the lover of the old king, but he kicked her to the curb due to her cruelty and sorcery. Like every good evil stepmother of traditional tales, Helen reacts by cursing the king’s child by another mother, so that from childhood the potential prince possesses an animalistic visage. The old king gives the order to have the unsightly child killed, but a beneficent groom spares the boy and raises him in the forest.

Helen and Rudolph decide to frame the inoffensive Beast by sending a troll to kill the Beauty. Belle doesn’t happen to be home, though, and the monster slays her mother. Rudolph’s men capture the Beast and plan to put him on trial and execute him. However, the old groom is still around to convince Belle of the Beast’s innocence. After she helps free the Beast from prison, the two of them team up to hunt down the witch and to expose Rudolph—which also eventually leads to the Beast’s rebirth as a handsome prince.

There are no enchanting beauties in this BEAST, but it is a fast-moving adventure with a lot of plot-threads and a smattering of low-budget gore. The Beast’s face is mediocre even compared with the average film-adaptation of the story, but Nacardo, despite being deprived of facial expression, puts across a fair amount of melodramatic emotion through his voice alone. Warren’s Belle often seems too contemporary in tone, not to mention being dressed in clothes too skimpy for the period, but she’s both comely and spunky. “Intrigue over the throne” shoves out almost all potential for the expected romance of the principals, which the script must shoehorn in where possible. Helen isn’t a great example of the bad stepmother-type, but as played by Vanessa Gray she’s certainly witty and resourceful, even if the script does have her call on such “evil” forces as Ahura Mazda (a beneficent Persian deity). The writer works in at least five references to beheadings, even where they’re not strictly necessary. One might wonder if all the head-chopping references herald a Freudian interpretation, where the “evil mother” takes out her rage against her former lover by giving the king’s son a face that no woman ought to love, thus effectively “castrating” him. But though the writer does work in two separate bits of dialogue about Helen having made the Beast into the man he is, Helen’s still a flat stereotype, and the couple’s triumph over the bad mother and the Bad Brother Rudolph is no more competent melodrama. It’s a decent time-killer, no more.