Wednesday, April 28, 2021



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

FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*


 When I reviewed DRINK’s sequel GOLDEN SWALLOW in this 2016 review, I hadn’t watched DRINK of some years. In my SWALLOW review I observed, as others before me had, that the character of Golden Swallow was somewhat overshadowed by the two males fighting over her. Now, upon re-watching DRINK, I see a similar situation in that film, where a male support-character takes on such importance that he almost becomes a co-equal partner in the narrative. However, whereas the sequel may have shifted focus from the central heroine simply because its director Chang Cheh wasn’t fond of female protagonists, the first film’s director/co-writer King Hu seems to have just allowed his script to get somewhat disjointed. Yet in both films, I would still view the Golden Swallow to be the “engine” who keeps the narrative running, not unlike America’s two “Nyoka” serials, where male characters do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of fight-scenes, but the female hero is still the central presence.

A disjointed narrative is certainly not the only aspect of DRINK that got passed on to the hundreds of Hong Kong kung fu films to follow. Swallow, essayed by former dancer Cheng Pei Pei, seems to be one of the first kung-fu heroines, as well as one of the first to travel around masquerading as a man. Indeed, many of her enemies believes that Swallow is a man, known far and wide for carrying out the will of “his” magistrate-father. (Her imposture never seems convincing, and even less so when one finds out that Swallow has a small coterie of warriors, also female, and also presumably pretending to be men.) In any case, Swallow’s father sentences the chief of a bandit gang to death. The gang retaliates by kidnapping the judge’s other son and using him to ransom their leader. Swallow, knowing that her upstanding father will not deal with criminals, arranges a meeting with the gang, hoping to liberate her brother.

From then on, Swallow has various fights with the bandits, and at least one, in which she takes on a dozen foes with her sword, seems like the archetypal kung-fu scenario. That said, the heroine survives in part thanks to the help of a “guardian angel,” an apparent reprobate named Drunk Cat, who represents HK cinema’s abiding love of drunkard-heroes. Cat’s motives for helping Swallow are rather obscure. However, some scenes establish that he’s a former adherent of a kung-fu temple, where the bandits happen to be holed up. The abbot of the temple, Tiao Ching-tang, has allied himself to the bandits, and although Cat owes Tiao a debt of honor, the drunk-hero may have linked up with Swallow because he anticipates having it out with the abbot.

Another familiar trope is that of a sense of an almost-romance between the female hero and her male aide, though the script stays away from explicit eroticism. In the last third Swallow and her female soldiers lay waste to the bandits and rescue Swallow’s brother. However, the abbot becomes the final threat, and like a lot of older kung-fu masters throughout HK cinema, he has supernatural powers from his rigorous training. When Swallow stabs Tiao, her weapon simply won’t pierce his torso, though significantly he doesn’t allow her to strike as his head. When Tiao and Cat square off and start shooting at each other with blasts of compressed air, I wondered if they were using some anachronistic technology, only to realize that this was King Hu’s way of depicting two kung fu masters using blasts of “chi.” On a minor note, one of Swallow’s female warriors is played by Angela Pan, who went on a measure of fame for dismasting the One Armed Swordsman.

After the success of DRINK, Hu attempted a more ambitious project, A TOUCH OF ZEN, which failed at the Asian box office. His next two films were more standard kung-fu exploits, but the first, THE FATE OF LEE KHAN, was anything but a return to form.

Even a casual student of Chinese cinema should discern a cultural tendency to build plots so labyrinthine one often can’t follow who’s doing what to whom. KHAN is named for a 13th-century general who’s a major asset in the Mongol occupation of China. When the Chinese resistance movement learns that Khan and his sister plan to stay at a particular inn, a team of agents—one man and four women—masquerade as the owner of the inn and his four maids. The rebels hope to steal a map showing Khan’s battle plans, though they don’t seem all that careful about keeping the general from learning about their mission, which I would think would negate the whole project.

I suppose the five resistance fighters are the protagonists, but they’re all pretty boring, despite the fact that one of them is played by future kung-fu diva Angela Mao. But Mao doesn’t shine here, any more than the two villains, the sister being played by yet another diva, Hsu Feng. A DVD commentary asserts that this vehicle is notable for King Hu’s emphasis on “realism” in the kung-fu genre, but that only works if one accepts “tedium” as a definition of realism. To be sure, KHAN is an entirely naturalistic film, but there are many films in the genre that stay within that phenomenality but still deliver strong characters, as with the aforementioned ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN. It did occur to me that there might subtleties in KHAN’s depiction of archaic Chinese culture that had special value for Chinese viewers, but that possibility doesn’t make the film any more entertaining to an outsider. In the final analysis KHAN is interesting only for its place in the respective careers of King Hu, Angela Mao and Hsu Feng.      



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I’ve seen a few online reviews that compare THE SANDMAN to a contemporaneous horror-film, BEFORE I WAKE, which I have not seen. But for me, the go-to was the 1980 BOOGEYMAN, in which a teen girl calls up a murderous monster out of some otherworld, a monster which may or may not be the ghost of a dead man.

In any case, SANDMAN, executive produced by Stan Lee during his last five years, will probably seem derivative no matter how many films one has seen. The story concerns eight-year-old Madison, who reads a children’s horror story, “The Sandman,’ and starts imagining up a demonic presence who kills anyone who seems to threaten her. Her first victim is her own father, though in his case he just disappoints her in some minor way. Madison’s aunt Claire takes the kid in, and soon various victims in Claire’s neighborhood begin turning up. When Claire and her boyfriend find out that Madison has some freaky psychic gifts, the boyfriend—who’s an asshole for no real reason but because the plot needs another target—tries to kill the child, only to meet the same fate.

After the film spends about an hour in a domestic situation, the tale suddenly veers into FIRESTARTER territory, as a secret government project kidnaps Claire and Madison with the hope of using Madison as a secret weapon. One wonders why the project and its resident mad scientist (Tobin Bell) took so long to pounce on the little girl, and when they do get hold of her, they have no ability to withstand her murderous minion. Still, these combative scenes of monster vs. army are the flick’s most enjoyable moments.

The climax is similarly confused. It’s suggested that little Madison merely needs to cast her demon from her, but maybe someone thought that was too boring, so Madison and Claire lure the imaginary creature into an electric trap to kill it, as if it were a corporeal antagonist like the alien vegetable in Howard Hawks’ THE THING.

Watchable, but forgettable. Haylie Duff, playing Claire, gets points for managing to find a variety of ways to look worried and/or panicked.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I remember being mildly entertained by the original 1990 release of Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED, though I don’t believe I ever re-watched it. Thus, I wasn’t able to note specific changes upon screening the director’s cut on the SHUDDER streaming service. Reputedly this version adds back forty minutes of unused footage, and from an antiquarian standpoint I’m glad the fuller version exists. All I can say, then, is that the longer running time didn’t harm the pace of the movie, in contrast to the way various added scenes detracted from the pace of Milos Forman’s AMADEUS. But if the added scenes don’t hurt NIGHTBREED’s pace, they also don’t make any difference to the movie’s greatest fault: its underdeveloped characters.

The movie’s script closely follows the plot (such as it is) of Barker’s 1988 novel CABAL, reviewed here. Human tumbleweed Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer)—whose means of self-support is no more evident here than in the novel—bounces around between a big city in Alberta and a ghost town in the boonies, beneath which a group of shapeshifting monsters have constructed their own subterranean city, Midian. Evil psychiatrist Decker (David Cronenberg) is also a part-time serial killer, and even though no one suspects him in the least, he decides for some vague reason to frame Boone for his crimes. Boone escapes durance vile, and both Decker and Boone’s girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) pursue him to Midian. Lori shows her devotion to Boone by braving the underground city of monsters, who have inadvertently made Boone into one of them when one monster, Peloquin by name, tries to take a bite out of the young fugitive. Decker, though still obsessed with Boone, transfers his animus in part to Midian, calling up the local law to root out the monstrous denizens, leading to a destructive battle between “norms” and “freaks.” In the end Midian is destroyed, but Boone, under the name Cabal, becomes the new Moses for the shapeshifters, though Barker never got around to chronicling further adventures of the Midianites. The film was not a success and garnered no sequels, unless one counts Marvel’s NIGHTBREED comic book.

Many horror-mavens love the idea of “monster mashes,” which are usually convocations of creatures with separate origins and natures. Barker’s city of monsters, despite having different forms, share the same origins, much like the polymorphic weirdos in the two WAXWORK films. Barker implies that the Nightbreed started as deceased human beings who simply turn into shapeshifters rather than rotting in the earth like most mortals. But there’s no rhyme or reason to their culture, vaguely centered around the worship of a deity (or ancestor) named Baphomet. They’re forbidden to eat human flesh, even though some or all of them would like to, which aligns their nature somewhat with both vampires and zombies. I imagine Barker avoided even minimal exposition because he had some notion that he was being more “poetic,” but the author’s idea of poetry is dull and forced. In the book Barker does a poor job of making the Nightbreed visually interesting. He may or may not have played a role in designing the monsters for the film, so the film’s improvement on creature-visuals may owe something to his efforts. However, I tend to credit the excellent work of the film’s makeup department, which gave substance to vaguely described book-characters like Peloquin. However, the makeup people couldn’t do anything to make the characters better. Alejandro Jodorowsky called NIGHTBREED the ”first gay horror film,” and in tune with this statement, Barker shows a marked tendency to champion the shadowy denizens of his demimonde as “good” (aside from occasional cannibalism) while all the “norms,” the “straights,” are assholes. This trope can be done well, as seen in Tod Browning’s FREAKS. But because all of Barker’s characters are flat and bereft of history, NIGHTBREED never “breeds” any sympathy for the devils.

On a purely kinetic level, Barker’s direction proves far better than his successful 1987 HELLRAISER, which was so cheaply made that it was practically a chamber-play on film. The big battle-scene is much more pleasingly gross than anything in the book, and the book’s dull climactic fight between Boone and Decker becomes here a more bracing Hollywood-style brawl with good back-and-forth violence. The three principals handle their tasks quite well, with solid work from Sheffer, Bobby and even Cronenberg, best known for his work behind the horror-camera. The various players in monster-makeup also acquit themselves well; they’re just not given anything interesting to do. (One forgettable “character moment” includes Peloquin and Lori debating as to which of them has prior claim on Boone’s body and soul.) Barker may have had an exaggerated idea of his film’s chance for sequels, since both versions of NIGHTBREED conclude, unlike the book, in the villain’s resurrection, presumably to continue his jeremiad against the monster-folk. Given how poorly most of the HELLRAISER sequels turned out, the done-in-one nature of NIGHTBREED is probably all to the best.   

Sunday, April 18, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

This Mexican kid’s film showed up in American theaters in the sixties thanks to Dub-meister Supreme K. Gordon Murray, sometimes given the title LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD VS. THE MONSTERS, which appears to be closer to the original Mexican name for the movie. The alternate title emphasizes the mashup of two fairy-tale icons that had earned separate Mexican outings, with Tom Thumb (under the name “Pulgarcito”) getting one film while Riding Hood (“Capurecita”) got two. Further, THUMB/ HOOD also brings in support-characters from the earlier movies, an ogre from the Pulgarcito movie and, perhaps more fittingly, a Big Bad Wolf from the Capurecita flicks.

At the start of THUMB / HOOD, these two former villains, the Ogre and the Wolf, are on trial in the Haunted Forest for having had the audacity to go against their villainous natures. A motley crew of monsters from both fairy tales and horror movies has assembled to pass judgment on the two former fiends, and that group includes a vampire, a Frankenstein Monster, a Siamese twin named “Two-in-One,” a boogieman, a guy with a carrot-head, a “Child Snatcher,” and a dwarf who can create hurricanes from his breath. Reigning over them all is the Queen of Badness, a dead ringer for the Queen from Disney’s SNOW WHITE, and though she condemns the recreants to be executed, none of the monsters seem to be in a great hurry to do so. That gives one comparatively benign monster, Stinky the dwarf-sized skunk, to seek the aid of the two icons, Pulgarcito and Capurecita. Possibly he just wants some moral support, since neither kid-hero can actually do much of anything. Pulgarcito is originally thumb-sized, though some magic turns him into a normal-sized boy (so that the producers don’t have to pay for special effects tricks), and Capurecita’s only ability is that when she sings, an adult woman’s voice comes out of her mouth! Nevertheless, Stinky finds the two kid-crusaders and makes his appeal on behalf of the Ogre and the Wolf (who spend a third of the film sitting in prison and kvetching at each other). The kids seek out the help of the adults in a neighboring village, but the Queen sends her sister, the Old Witch, to change all the adults into monkeys and mice. From then on, the boy and girl get chased around by various minions of the Queen until the climax, such as a clunky robot and the nasty Child Snatcher. (In one of the cleverer inversions aimed at a kid-audience, Pulgarcito, Capurecita and a bunch of local kids manage to tie up the Snatcher and turn him into a human pinata.) The Ogre and the Wolf finally break prison and join the munchkins for a while, though eventually all the good guys end up back in the castle of the Queen, where Capurecita serves the evil sorceress with a fate right out of “Hansel and Gretel.”

I should note that there are a few combative scenes in this kid-flick, such as a brief wrestle-fest between the Ogre and the Frankenstein Monster, or Stinky using his natural B.O. to kayo the Child Snatcher. But Pulgarcito and Capurecita are the stars of the show, making this a subcombative work. Still, despite ratty costumes and silly performances, THUMB / HOOD is never less than lively, and for that reason alone it makes a better fairytale mash-up than any episode of ONCE UPON A TIME.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

For a fifties SF-film about aliens who look like gigantic eyes with tentacles, CRAWLING EYE devotes a singular amount of time to showing just how much human beings can see when they set their minds to it.

Hammer Films writer Jimmy Sangster, who adapted the screenplay of EYE from a previous British TV serial, tended during his career to avoid the SF-genre. Prior to EYE he had scripted X THE UNKNOWN, which was something of a conceptual follow-up to Hammer’s successful QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, but for the most part Sangster hewed closer to the world of Gothic horror and Hitchcockian thrillers. Nevertheless, thanks to the brisk efficiency of Sangster and director Quentin Lawrence, EYE stands as one of the best of the fifties SF-movies from the shores of Old Blighty.

Many though not all British SF-flicks revolve around a group of citizens getting confined to some out-of-the-way place that just happens to be menaced by alien presences (though arguably a lot of horror films follow similar patterns). In this case, the remote locale is a Swiss mountain, the Trollenberg, which plays host to seasonal mountain-climbers, a scientific observatory, and a strange stationary cloud that hangs around the mountain’s top. The film opens with a group of young mountain-climbers whose sport comes to an end when some strange force beheads one of them.

Enter Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker, also playing the “American actor whose presence makes the movie more bankable”). Brooks claims to be journeying to Trollenberg “on holiday,” but he’s actually some sort of consultant with the United Nations, and he previously encountered some similar goings-on in the peaks of the Andes. In addition, he only comes to Trollenberg at the behest of the scientist in charge of the observatory, Professor Crevette, who’s supposedly in Switzerland to study cosmic rays. But Crevette collaborated with Brooks on the unsolved mystery of the Andres, so a viewer may fairly assume that he’s set up shop near Trollenberg in search of a related mystery. Nor are the two of them alone among all the locals and visitors in the local village (most of whom have British names, though there’s an occasional “Hans” in the mix). Dewhurst is a geologist who plans to climb the Trollenberg because he expressly wants to learn what might have killed the young climber; if Brooks nurtures any suspicions, he doesn’t say anything to dissuade the geologist, who ends up being among the earliest casualties. A little later, a visitor named Philip reveals that he’s really a journalist, working on the same case. But the most interesting investigator is psychic Anne Pilgrim (Janet Munro). She and her sister Sarah practice a mentalism act, and neither of them plans to stop in Trollenberg. But as their train nears the mountain, Anne feels a fierce compulsion to remain close to the mountain, and they too come to stay at the local hotel.

All of these backstories are revealed at a steady, naturalistic pace, though the revelation that Anne is a genuine psychic takes center stage. To be sure, Anne doesn’t seem to glean anything useful about the mysterious threat atop the Trollenberg Mountain. At first some Dracula-like force draws her toward the mountain. When her fellow residents prevent her from yielding to this impulse, the beings in the cloud send an agent for her execution; Dewhurt’s guide Brett, now turned into a sort of frozen zombie. (In other words, the creatures in the cloud can steal minds in addition to heads.) Crevette informs Brooks that he believes the cloud-dwellers are aliens looking for a new home. One may wonder why the two of them didn’t discuss this possibility back at the Andes, but it’s understandably important that Brooks should play the role of the interlocutor for the audience’s sake. (“What’s that, Professor? Aliens? Tell me more.”)

Crevette’s most interesting revelation about the Andes incident is that back then another psychic, an older woman, also ferreted out the presence of mountain-dwelling aliens, but the locals killed her for being a witch. This detail provides yet another proof that humans have a remarkable capacity for finding out intruders, even when said transgressors conceal themselves on the peaks of mountains. One never knows the precise plans of the aliens, though Brooks and his colleagues piece together, with admirable logic, the aliens’ need for cold temperatures. This suggests that the evil Eyes plan to alter Earth’s climate somehow, though their desire for cold plays a much bigger role in their defeat, Despite the fact that the eyeball-aliens are only on screen for five or so minutes, Lawrence and Sangster have kept the tension percolating so well that the Eyes’ brief appearance doesn’t feel like a cheat.

On a minor side-note, there’s absolutely no romance in the film, for all that Anne introduces herself to Brooks by collapsing so that her head lands in his lap. Given that this is a taut if not overly original SF-thriller, it’s a shame that its title and its boogiemen give the impression of bargain-basement schlock.   

Wednesday, April 14, 2021



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

As I write this, GODZILLA VS. KONG—from now on, GVK—stands as the first post-Covid theatrical release to strike gold with assorted audiences. In contrast, WONDER WOMAN 84 came out earlier but has yet to break even, possibly in part due to appearing before the U.S. vaccine rollout. Nevertheless, the contrast does suggest that, despite the public’s ongoing thirst to see extravagant violence and high-budget FX, not all such kinetic pleasures are automatically equal.

In my review of GODZILLA KING OF THEMONSTERS, the previous film in this “Monsterverse” series, I wondered whether or not the forthcoming Kong-Godzilla matchup would be able to equal KING’s Brobdingnagian battles. I would now rate GVK at the top of the heap in terms of its execution of “giant monster fights,” leaving in the dust even the best of the “men in suits” efforts that gave rise to the Godzilla franchise. Yet it seems as though the producers were so focused on giving the public the ultimate Kong-Godzilla match—easily outstripping the original template of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA—that their film managed to ignore almost every other aspect of potential entertainment.

I could tick off at least a dozen major problems with the GVK script, ranging from simple lack of development (mostly in terms of its characters) to outright plot holes. The opening setup practically telegraphs at least one part of the conclusion. Five years have passed since Godzilla demonstrated his sovereignty over all the other giant monsters (conveniently offstage for this film), and humankind has more or less become accustomed to the idea that the “Titans,” as they’re called, are more like guardians of the planet than destructive behemoths. Then Godzilla inexplicably attacks a facility owned by Apex, a previously seen, morally dubious corporation. Did anyone in the theater doubt for a moment that Godzilla attacked Apex because its CEO Walter Simmons was up to something shady? But this possibility never occurs to the majority of the human inhabitants in the Monsterverse.

Two principal plotlines evolve from Godzilla’s attack. One is that Simmons approaches Nathan Lind, a whiz-kid scientist who knows a lot about the subterranean domain from which all of Earth’s colossal creatures arose, and convinces Lind to head an journey to the center of the Hollow Earth, to harvest some Godzilla-slaying super-power. But Lind needs a guide, and the only one who’s been there before, albeit decades ago, is the anthropoid resident of Skull Island. Further, Kong’s services can only be obtained with the help of Ilene Andrews, the woman who’s in charge of keeping Kong safe on the island, where the other “apex predator” Godzilla can’t sense him. Thus, Ilene, Lind and Ilene’s adopted daughter (the last survivor of the Skull Island tribe) are off to do Simmons’ bidding. Meanwhile, on the B-side, three forgettable characters, a conspiracy theorist and two high-schoolers, seek to get to the bottom of Apex (mixed metaphor notwithstanding).

I’m minimizing the characters and their significance to the overall plot because I feel the script—the product of five credited writers—treats all the human beings as bare functions of the plot. One must admit, of course, that deep characterization is not usually found in any giant monster films. Still, a lot of GVK’s problems could have been finessed, if not entirely fixed, with a little more attention to verisimilitude.

Yet, as if to echo Northrop Frye’s opposition between the literary properties of myth and verisimilitude, GVK fails at verisimilitude but excels in forging a new myth for both Kong and Godzilla. Such a myth is not founded in rationality. If it were, the myth would be undermined by the dissonance between (a) the vaguely New Age-y concept of giant monsters who are planetary guardians, and (2) the picture of them as brute animals ruled by the need to observe dominance rituals. Myth, however, can unify concepts that would ordinarily be distinct from one another.

In my review of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, I noted that Kong’s original appearance was a romantic, “backward-looking” elegy to prehistoric life (or human ideas about it), while Godzilla heralded an apocalyptic future engendered by humankind’s tampering with the forces of nature. Nathan Lind’s discoveries in the Hollow Earth indicate an ancient enmity between the species of Godzilla and that of Kong, meaning that they are animals governed by a competitive nature. Yet it is that very nature makes them fit to oppose threats to the planet from outside (King Ghidorah) and inside (the Skullcrawlers). Between these two representatives of “nature red in tooth and claw” stands human culture. The “good humans” want to forge a separate peace between Kong and Godzilla, while a “bad human” like Simmons wants to get rid of Earth’s protectors so that he can be the new apex predator. Simmons never gets any lines that make him come alive as a character—he always seems like a road-company Tony Stark—but one can imagine him being in sympathy with Lt. Col. Packard of SKULL ISLAND, when the latter says he’s going to show Kong “that man is king.”

Of the two clashing Titans, Kong is closer to humanity, so he gets all the good character-moments. The viewer fears for his well-being when Lind’s expedition takes him into direct conflict with his ancient enemy, or when he braves the dangers of the Hollow Earth. Kong eventually finds a place in the underworld that may have once been the dwelling place of his lost people. And even though the idea of an intelligent Kong-people fails to track on any logical level, the film gets across a sense of tragic glory when Kong seats himself on a sort of giant throne and brandishes an ersatz “sceptre.”

If Kong is the furry “id” that eventually gives rise to the “superego” of homo sapiens, Godzilla embodies an even older substrate: the relentless reptile brain, focused only upon attacking everything in his path. The Godzilla of 1954 took his royal title from his cinematic predecessor, but he’s held the crown thanks to his indefatigable persistence, in marked contrast to most retellings of Kong, wherein the big monkey perishes at the hands of the cruel modern world. GVK does its best to upgrade Kong for his tourney with the Big G, giving the former king a size-upgrade and a weapon to offset Godzilla’s atomic fire—and Godzilla still comes out as the Biggest Badass on the Big Blue Marble. Even Simmons anticipates Godzilla’s superiority. He certainly doesn’t attempt to cook up a “MechaKong” for his mechanical minion! Yet, even though Simmons and Godzilla share a core ruthlessness, the will of the good humans brings about a rapprochement between the long-time enemies, as they’re forced to make a common cause against Mechagodzilla.

Putting across a new version of two superlative cinematic myths is no easy thing. Certainly, having good models doesn’t keep moviemakers from making really bad iterations of the originals, ranging from Peter Jackson’s 2005 abortion to the Big G’s partnership with Jet Jaguar. Of the four Monsterverse films in this series, all of them have some problems resulting from the producers’ use of various writers and directors as “hired guns,” resulting in a lot of narrative incoherence. Now that GVK has made good money, I would imagine that the production company will turn its thoughts to more collaboration with Godzilla’s Toho owners. I wouldn’t mind seeing GVK remain the last of the series, but if another installment does appear, I’ll watch it.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It’s likely that the first draft of the script for this film imagined actor Michael Dudikoff returning to the role, since the hero-ninja was once more teamed with his sidekick from the previous two films, Curtis Jackson (Steve James). When Dudikoff said no—probably for reasons of money, since he did return for the fourth installment—the producers substituted David Bradley, who just happens to run into Jackson at a tournament, so as to form an immediate partner-bond. Bradley, playing a new guy named Sean Davidson, was also raised with ninja skills by a Japanese mentor. The new mentor is then captured by a scurrilous villain, the Cobra, whereon Davidson, Jackson, and a comedy-relief character named Dexter team up to find the missing mentor, name of Ikumo.

The Cobra (Marjoe Gortner) runs the usual mysterious installation guarded by multi-colored ninja, and his purpose is to produce a deadly virus for sale to the highest and most evil bidder. When the heroes track down Cobra, the villain manages to capture Davidson and subject him to the virus, which is the only predicament that arouses a little sympathy for the main hero. Davidson escapes and tells his friends they may have to kill him, though the reason for this is not stated.

The three good guys also make a new friend, a lady ninja named Chan Lee. (Jackson calls her a “ninjette.”) She’s an enemy of the Cobra, a master of disguise, and—if I understood the dialogue correctly—Davidson’s mentor Ikumo. The male actor originally playing Ikumo disappears after the first thirty minutes, possibly because the writer lost interest in him and decided to meld him with the lady ninja. This imposture is never rationalized in any way, but it does rival a similarly nonsensical “big reveal” in AMERICAN NINJA 4. There’s a jot more fantasy-logic in the way Davidson overcomes his viral infection. Apparently, he burns it away with his “chi,” though the film can only show this by having a cameraman shine a really bright light on Bradley.

Of course, fight-scenes are the selling-point of all the American Ninja films, and BLOOD HUNT does have a decent allotment of martial dust-ups courtesy of Bradley, James and Michele Chan. Bradley’s not a particularly charismatic presence, but he’s not as wooden as many other “one-chop wonders,” and Steve James helps take up some of the acting slack. Marjoe Gortner makes a decent comic-book villain, even if his resources seem to be a bit on the impoverished side. Still, before being slain he manages to do away with both Dexter and Chan Lee, though the two surviving heroes don’t seem all that broken up by the loss as they end the film celebrating their victory. If there was ever a trivia-contest on this series, one might rack up a point by knowing that BLOOD HUNT was the only film in which Bradley played Sean Davidson, since his role in Number Four is that of a ninja-impostor, while he essays a separate character in the even moreabysmal fifth entry.



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

Most “urban vigilante” films of the seventies and eighties don’t venture into the realm of the metaphenomenal, given that they’re dealing with grim-faced men and women meting out vengeance upon the criminal scum of the big cities. EXTERMINATOR and its sequel, however, manage to edge their way into the domain of the uncanny, though not in precisely the same ways.

The first film, an early writer-director effort by action-film specialist James Glickenhaus, focuses upon the travails of traumatized Vietnam vet John Eastland (Robert Ginty) as he seeks to cope with his return to blue-collar employment in New York. He and his fellow vet Jefferson work at a meat-packing plant, but both of them soon find themselves facing a new kind of war, caught (to recycle a phrase I used elsewhere recently) between callous “haves” and brutal “have nots.” Noxious gang-punks attack Eastland and Jefferson, and in the melee Jefferson is crippled. Eastland then decides to avenge Jefferson by hunting down all the members of the gang. In addition, to pay for Jefferson’s hospital care and for his expenses as “the Exterminator,” Eastland also begins robbing more affluent mobsters as well. By the end of the film he’s even an implicit threat to corruption in high places.

Since the successful paperback series “The Executioner” had been booming since 1969, it’s not unlikely that Glickenhaus and his team sought to capture some of the same “men’s adventure” vibe, crossbred with the “crazed Vietnam vet in dog-eat-dog New York” trope popularized by 1976’s TAXI DRIVER. The first two-thirds of EXTERMINATOR succeed in this synthesis, though the story loses some steam when Eastland finds himself pursued by a CIA investigator (Christopher George). Usually in serials devoted to similar urban avengers, the protagonists must face off against exceptional opponents from the underworld. If the producers intended some political statement with the CIA plot-thread, it didn’t work well.

As bad as New York is, the Exterminator proves a greater scourge. In the film’s standout scene, Eastland chains a mob-boss so as to suspend him over a huge meat-grinding machine to get information—and when the mobster gives Eastland false intel, the criminal gets turned into dog chow. Surprisingly, an image from the film’s marketing—that of the hero brandishing a flamethrower to incinerate criminals—disturbed countess liberals with its implication that the lower classes deserved to be wiped out like insects, but this never occurs in the film proper. Eastland threatens to torture a gang-member with an acetylene torch, but he never actually turns the weapon on that man or anyone else. Once or twice, the script equivocates about whether the Exterminator is a proper hero. After a grueling scene in which three punks rob and abuse an elderly woman, the punks run off, and the Exterminator only arrives in time to see a passerby trying to help the old lady. Eastland threatens the hapless fellow with his pistol, but rather conveniently, doesn’t lose audience support by rashly blowing the innocent man away. Throughout the film Eastland wears only ordinary clothes and never hides his face, but his more extreme actions mark him as a “perilous psycho” of the uncanny variety.

EXTERMINATOR 2 falls more squarely into the superhero idiom, insofar as Eastland is often seen stalking the streets, wearing a heavy work-suit and concealing his face behind a welding-mask, while wielding his flamethrower against criminal scum. (It would seem that the objections of liberal viewers only encouraged the producers to make greater use of the offending weapon.) This time the film was directed by the first entry’s producer Mark Buntzman and co-written by Buntzman and William Sachs. The latter alleged that he and Buntzman made greater use of the welding-mask because star Robert Ginty wasn’t available for reshoots. Whatever the reason, the use of the “costume” does place more emphasis on Eastland as “urban superhero” and less on his status as “crazed Vietnam vet.”

Fittingly enough, the Exterminator gets his own “super-villain” this time, in the form of gang-leader X (Mario Van Peebles). In an early scene, the flame-throwing vigilante executes a gangbanger who happens to be X’s brother. From then on, X and his motley crew devote themselves to hunting down the Exterminator and anyone aiding him. Buntzman and Sachs place far less emphasis on urban blight than did Glickenhaus, so that the effect is somewhat closer to a wild romp like THE WARRIORS, particularly in the climactic scene, pitting the voluble, athletic X against the heavily-clad, slow-moving spawn of the Vietnam conflict. As Ginty gets far fewer strong acting scenes in this installment, the villain’s charisma usually exceeds the hero’s—though I should remark that in most of his later works I’ve had no high opinion of Van Peebles’ thespian abilities.

The sequel didn’t make as much money as the original, and that, rather than any liberal rage, resulted in the swift extermination of this series.

ALL OF ME (1984)


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

This Steve Martin-Lily Tomlin comedy can best be summed up thusly:

Uptight boy meets doomed rich girl and they can’t stand each other.

Bungled reincarnation plot causes girl to have her spirit lodged in boy’s body.

Boy and girl learn more about each other, fall in love and manage to unite in the end.

ALL OF ME, directed by Carl Reiner, is one of those films that’s very funny the first time one sees it, but proves to be less involving on subsequent viewings. The script emulates the form of the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s, particularly those that emphasize conflict between American monetary classes, but there’s so much concern for formulating the next joke-filled set-up that the story always feels a little too by-the-numbers.

Roger Cobb (Martin), a young lawyer who’d rather play jazz for a living, is assigned to carry out the last will of heiress Edwina Cutwater (Tomlin), who’s never have a well day in her life and expects to pass on soon. Roger is aghast to learn that his new client has the hare-brained idea of using Tibetan magic to transfer her spirit into the body of Terry (Victoria Tennant), the hot young daughter of her stableman. Further, Edwina wants her riches transferred to Terry when the former’s body dies, since Edwina will finally have a body wherewith to enjoy her riches, while Terry’s spirit goes to the great beyond. Roger argues with Edwina and leaves, but later on, he’s in the firing line during the performance of the Tibetan ritual, and the heiress’s spirit becomes ensconced in Roger’s body. Much hilarity ensues, particularly when the two body-tenants learn that Edwina can control the left side of Roger’s body. Both occupants of Roger’s body want a ritual re-do, so that Edwina can go where she meant to go. But maybe Terry doesn’t want to cooperate now.

Steve Martin’s comic bodily contortions are the biggest draw here. In contrast, Lily Tomlin is usually off-camera, save when her spirit appears in mirrors. Thus Tomlin isn’t able to shine using only her voice, though she does have one excellent moment when Edwina tearfully reminisces about how she had to stay in a sick-bed while Terry and her young friends enjoyed the use of Edwina’s possessions. A Marxist filmmaker might have sympathized more with the low-class employee over the high-class heiress, but I don’t imagine that notion would have appealed to Carl Reiner had it occurred to him.

ALL OF ME is far from being a screwball comedy fit to stand with the greatest in the genre. Still, when one looks at the current state of comedy in feature films, even a modest success looks like a classic by comparison.  

Wednesday, April 7, 2021



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

Though many critics have abhorred the Hollywood system of moviemaking, there should be no question that the business displayed an unprecedented penchant for exploiting story-ideas that might never have seen the light of day otherwise. The most famous of these would certainly be CASABLANCA, a classic film made from a play that no one ever acted on stage. However, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is probably the second runner-up, having been based largely on a short story that wasn’t even published.

I would imagine that the focus of the story was the same as that of the movie: a mad sculptor who coats dead bodies in wax for his statues. The story commences twelve years previous to the main narrative, when sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) maintains a wax museum in 1921 London. Little of the sculptor’s background is disclosed; the viewer only knows that he adores his sculptures as if they were his offspring. But art and commerce don’t mix, and London audiences ignore Igor’s museum in favor of thrill-shows. Igor’s business-partner Worth intrudes on Igor, angry that his investment may be lost, and he insists that they burn down the museum for the insurance. The two men fight, and Worth abandons Igor in a blazing inferno. Igor survives but disappears, choosing for his own reasons not to blow the whistle on his nemesis. Twelve years later, he opens a new wax museum in New York City.

Whatever the content of the original tale, MYSTERY was almost certainly altered so as to appeal to one of the main communication-tropes of early sound cinema: the rapid-fire delivery of the actor’s lines, particularly when those actors were playing hard-bitten professionals like cops or reporters. The film’s viewpoint character is one such journalist,

Florence (Glenda Farrell), who regularly engages in machine-gun snappy patter with her editor Jim (Frank McHugh). He orders her to find a good story or be fired. Florence, following up on a story of a model’s suicide, learns that the model’s body was subsequently stolen from the police morgue. The cops finger the model’s former boyfriend George, but after interviewing the young (and rich) fellow, Florence doesn’t think he had anything to do with the crime.

Florence also has more than her fair share of dumb luck, for her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) has a boyfriend who works at a new wax museum in the city. As a result of this coincidence, Florence pays a visit to the museum—which is, once again, not proving successful in the cutthroat world of art museums—and meets Igor, now a crippled man in a wheelchair who can no longer sculpt his statues. Igor has a couple of oddball assistants, one being a drug addict named Darcy, but Florence is particularly fascinated with one of the statues, which bears a striking resemblance to the missing corpse of the model. Eventually, it’s revealed that though Igor doesn’t really need his wheelchair, the accident with the fire did wreck his ability to sculpt—hence, his decision to raid morgues for bodies to convert into wax statues.

Once or twice I’ve seen MYSTERY tagged as being “necrophilic.” In truth, Igor’s love for his corpse-statues is purely platonic; they are both his family and his artworks. His utter devotion to his craft, played with low-key intensity by Atwill, contrasts nicely with the anything-for-a-buck attitudes of Florence and Jim, though Charlotte and her boyfriend Ralph are a little less extreme in this regard. Various subplots function mostly to pad out the film’s running time, such as one that suggests that Florence may strike up a romance with rich-boy George. Less successful is a plotline about Worth, who is in the city as well, having made a career switch from museum-investor to dope peddler. It’s loosely suggested that Igor has Darcy keep tabs on Worth, for eventually Igor kills his old partner. However, it’s far from clear as to whether, during the intervening twelve years, Igor was seeking to locate Worth for the sake of vengeance. If so, did he decide to open his studio in New York specifically to come after Worth?

The contrast between Old World and New World is enough to give MYSTERY the status of a popular myth, though of a somewhat different type than its remake, the 1953 HOUSE OF WAX. As I remarked in my HOUSE review, scripter Crane Wilbur placed more emphasis on the contrast between the high-art aspirations of sculptor Jarrod and the baser desires of the hoi polloi audience—and to some extent, Jarrod surrenders to the masses as Igor never does, since Jarrod crafts his second museum to appeal to the macabre. The makeup for Igor, deformed by the fire, is far superior to that of Professor Jarrod, and overall Atwill’s performance is less hammy than that of Vincent Price in the 1953 film. In addition, I thought MYSTERY handled the inciting incident of the fire better than HOUSE, In the later film, the Worth-analogue is comically conspiratorial rather than angry. However, HOUSE's scripter was wise to get the corrupt partner's killing out of the way quickly, since his prolonged presence in MYSTERY proves a distraction. Igor’s final battle against the police—a rare instance of a horror-movie madman giving the cops trouble with (mostly) bare hands—is not quite as well staged as a similar battle between Jarrod and the constabulary. For that reason, I don’t judge MYSTERY to be a combative drama, as I do HOUSE OF WAX.  



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

Some time has passed since I read the eight-volume collection of the 1998-2004 manga series CHRONO CRUSADE, but assorted online essays have made clear that the one-season anime adaptation did not follow the manga closely. Concept-creator Daisuke Moriyama was not involved in the project, and the anime was in production before the manga had been completed, so that the writers at Studio Gonzo evidently felt free to follow their own course in some particulars.

The protagonists and their general situation are essentially the same. In both media, CRUSADE takes place in “Roaring Twenties” America, albeit with some major alternate-world changes, and it’s one of the few Japanese manga to sport no Asian characters at all, only Caucasian Americans and Europeans. In this alternate world, demons are known by all to be real phenomena (though the anime’s interpretation of their nature swerves from that of the manga). In response to the demons’ depredations, a special interfaith organization, the Order of the Magdalene, came into being roughly at the same time as the Protestant Revolution. (Liner notes claim that the Order is dominantly Protestant, despite the fact that most of the members run around in outfits clearly based on the garb of Catholic priests and nuns.)

The most ferocious of the Order’s “killer nuns” is Sister Rosette Christopher. Rosette, despite the pronounced Christian associations of both her names, proves to be a thoroughly extroverted woman whose conduct utterly contravenes the expectations of real-world nuns, whether she’s vaulting into demon-fighting battles with guns blazing or crushing on her slightly older priest-perceptor. In addition, she has a peculiar relationship with her male partner Chrono, who assists her in demon-slaying even though he himself is a demon. Despite his true nature, Chrono is the more passive partner, looking on with incredulity as the rowdy Rosette pursues her mission with often comical results.

Despite this “odd couple” vibe, tragedy underlines the bond between raucous nun and passive demon. In her younger years, Rosette was the older sister to her sickly brother Joshua. (The choice of a name that’s a variant on “Yeshua/Jesus” is probably no coincidence.) Then one day the two young people encounter Chrono, cast out from demon-kind for having opposed the will of their master Aion. The mortals’ friendship with Chrono costs them. When Aion cast out Chrono, he broke off Chrono’s horns, a major source of every demon’s power. Aion then decides to make a demonic pact with Joshua, who desires to transcend his weak body, so that Joshua takes on Chrono’s horns and becomes Aion’s pawn in his far-reaching plot to efface the boundaries between Heaven and Earth. Rosette vows to join the Order to defeat Aion and to save her brother, but she too needs more than mortal power. Thus she makes a demon-contract with Chrono to make use of his powers, though every time he does so, that usage shortens Rosette’s life-span. (The names of both Chrono and Aion are derived from archaic deities associated with the phenomenon of time.)

CRUSADE, despite being chock-full of Christian images and themes, does not have a specifically Christian message a la C.S. Lewis. There are some sobering meditations on mortality amid all of the hard-hitting shonen violence and titillation, but Moriyama probably could have put across the same content using any belief-system. Since the characters wear quasi-Catholic attire but are not explicitly Catholics, Moriyama may only have wanted to play upon the associations of Catholicism with respect to expelling demons, ranging from the 1897 DRACULA to the 1972 EXORCIST. At the same time, in my initial reading I found the manga a little too haphazard in terms of its mythopoeic virtues. During the final arc Moriyama introduces the odd notion that the demons have some sort of extraterrestrial lineage. For me this undermines the mythopoeic scheme of the earlier stories. It makes conceptual sense to banish demons with bullets dipped in “holy oil.” Aliens—not so much.

Because the CRUSADE anime is more concentrated on its plot-arcs than the manga, I find that it qualifies as one of the few serial programs that manages to sustain a mythopoeic concrescence, as seen previously in CLAYMORE and in AEONFLUX. Of particular interest is the “changeling trope,” in which Chrono is symbolically exchanged for Joshua. On one hand, Chrono becomes a “substitute brother” for Rosette, in that she constantly bullies him or bosses him around during their demon-killing expeditions. On the other, their relationship takes the form of a tragic “woman and her demon lover” trope, since their very closeness, despite their growing attraction, spells doom for Rosette. Yet though the anime’s conclusion is somewhat more hurried than that of the manga, both versions of CRUSADE are successful in showing the main characters’ acceptance of their fate, and through that fate, their role in redeeming the fallen world.  

ROBOCOP (1987), ROBOCOP 2 (1990), ROBOCOP 3 (1993)


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

Though Robocop remains an iconic figure in the world of eighties action movies, the character’s importance stems almost totally from the first film. Most serial-characters of comparable popularity manage to please their audiences with more than just one installment of their adventures. Perhaps, because the first film is all about the hero discovering the truth behind his re-creation, subsequent extensions of the franchise didn’t really have much of anywhere to go, in contrast to serial film-characters like Mad Max and John Rambo—or even Universal’s Frankenstein Monster.

Victor Frankenstein turns a bunch of motley body-parts into a monstrous being with no past. In contrast, the villains of ROBOCOP, the myrmidons of the coyly named organization OCP, want to use the dead body of cop Alex Murphy to create a mindless cop-cyborg. Yet, despite having his flesh merged with countless mechanical enhancements, Murphy’s consciousness re-asserts itself. For Mary Shelley, it was important that her creator-scientist should bring forth a “new Adam” with a tabula rasa personality. For Paul Verhoeven and his writers, OCP represents a far more insidious threat to human individuality than Frankenstein ever did, and thus Murphy’s recrudescence is vital to the first installment of the Robocop saga.

The future-Detroit of the first ROBOCOP is a classic dystopia, divided between callous “haves” and brutal “have nots.” However, the two extremes are mediated, at least in Detroit, by the nobility of the Detroit police forces, who are alone capable of resisting all forms of crime, despite the attempts of OCP to control the COPs. Verhoeven, despite his Dutch background, apparently understood that many audiences still wanted to believe in the archetypes of the Old West, in this case that of “The Sheriff Who Cleans Up the Corrupt Town.” Neither Robocop, his primary partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), nor the other cops can totally reform a city as far gone as Detroit. But in such a dystopic world, even maintaining a temporary peace counts as a triumph of sorts.

The first film benefits in that it presents OCP in a spectrum of attitudes: some of the businessmen are just average assholes trying to make money with approved capitalistic tactics, and others are active criminals like Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), who actually teams up with violent terrorist Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). These distinctions make it possible for Robocop to rage against at least part of the corporate machine, and to defeat the more extreme forms of societal breakdown. That said, another disadvantage of the hero is that in all three movies it proved rather difficult to match the lumbering robot-hero with opponents who could match him. In the first film, Robocop briefly contends with a larger mechanical adversary, but the robot ends up being defeated by its own inability to adapt to its environment.

By the conclusion of the first film, Murphy has more or less made his peace with being a cyborg policeman and leaving behind his previous identity as a man with a family. However, writers Frank Miller and Walon Green couldn’t leave that aspect of his identity alone, and so included a pointless scene in which Robocop has to tell his former wife that he’s not Alex Murphy, just a replica of the slain police officer. Thanks to the skill of the actors, this scene is far from the worst in ROBOCOP 2.

In the first film the civil government of Detroit is barely seen, but the second harps on the fact that the government is so incompetent that it’s due to be bought out by OCP. The script never establishes why the corporation wants the hassle of managing a city, aside from “It’s the Kind of Thing Evil People Do.” The CEO of OCP, again played by Daniel O’Herlihy, is more of an outright villain here, and this time he’s more directly involved in the quest for the completely controllable cyborg cop, giving psychologist Doctor Faxx (Belinda Bauer) complete authority over the project. This is a textbook example of a villain acting stupidly to benefit the plot. Faxx gets the brilliant idea to turn a career criminal—Cain, a drug kingpin captured by Robocop—into a justice-machine, trying to use the kingpin’s own drug-addiction in order to manipulate him as a robotoid creation. Other secondary villains—the buffoonish mayor of Detroit, a twelve-year-old drug dealer named Hob—are just as artificial in their evil and just as bereft of charisma. Aside from a decent climactic battle between Robocop and Cyborg-Cain, ROBOCOP 2 is almost a total loss.

ROBOCOP 3, in comparison, is like a breath of fresh air, even though one of the credited scripters was again Frank Miller, this time credited alongside director Fred Dekker. Allegedly Miller created two scripts, either of which could have been used to make ROBOCOP 2. Thus, it’s merely a coincidence that the third Robo-film seems to place a greater emphasis on humanity once again—though it doesn’t begin to equal the dystopic pleasures of the first film.

Rip Torn replaced the late O’Herlihy as the new head of OCP, and this time the evil corporation seems content on owning only a particular section in Detroit, rather than the whole city. OCP partners with a Japanese mega-corporation with the idea of creating a new super-city within Detroit, but to do so, the evildoers must move all the indigent people out of their chosen site. This time OCP decides to rely on human resources, mercenaries called “Rehabs,” who round up poor people and get them out of the way, usually by surreptitiously killing them. One little girl named Nikko escapes the Rehabs’ ruthless raid, and falls in with a group of resistance fighters, led by Bertha (CCH Pounder).

OCP’s influence is so pervasive that the regular cops are sidelined by Rehab activity, though Robocop and his partner Lewis still patrol the streets. The Rehab leader McDaggett kills Lewis, and Robocop, prevented from retaliation by his programming, only survives thanks to the help of the Resistance. The hero’s injuries are treated by a police department scientist with the fitting name of Lazarus, and eventually Robocop is given the ability to battle the Rehabs and save the disenfranchised people of Detroit.

The goodguy characters in ROBOCOP 3 are at least appealing on the base level, though none are especially memorable. The best is Nikko, a tech-head kid, has a fascination with Robocop reminiscent of the affection children showed for the Frankenstein Monster in the Universal series. On the downside, OCP’s Japanese partners send a couple of ninja-cyborgs to aid the Rehabs. Robocop faces one of these human-looking mechanical men and just barely defeats it, with the fight almost becoming comic as the ninja easily scores hits on the slow-moving robot-hero. After the defeat of McDaggett, it’s loosely implied that OCP’s corporate tyranny will be ended, though this seems to be something of a toss-off rather than a logical development. Despite #3 being at least fair compared to the execrable #2, #3 tanked at the box office and so was the last of the film-franchise for that period.

Friday, April 2, 2021



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

It’s been some time since I read the James Blish short story on which this Amicus production was based, but I think the script by Michael Winder substantially captures the main feature of Blish’s narrative: the attempt to come up with a quasi-scientific explanation for lycanthropic transformation within the context of an “English country house mystery.”

To be sure, the “country house” is the manor of millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart), who has the entire grounds covered with monitoring equipment, though he makes do only with a small handful of servants and one security expert. Newcliffe, who normally lives alone with his wife Caroline (Marlene Clark), is a big game hunter in his spare time, and one night he invites seven people to dinner, informing them that he suspects that one among them may be a werewolf. I don’t remember if Blish provides the protagonist with any special reasons for suspecting these particular invitees, but the film’s script does not, and at a couple of points, Newcliffe isn’t even that sure about his own wife. His main obsession is to be the first man to hunt and kill a werewolf.

The problem with working a “Most Dangerous Game” trope into a mystery is that in order to keep the mystery going, none of the suspects can be killed by the lupine predator until over halfway through the movie. Newcliffe, drawing upon the lycanthropic research of scientist-suspect Lundgren (Peter Cushing), devises various tests for the suspects, but nothing pans out, and soon the werewolf shows itself by killing one of Newcliffe’s assistants. Maybe if Amicus had allowed the hunter to have a few more assistants as werewolf-fodder, BEAST wouldn’t suffer so badly from a lack of tension.

The revelation of the fuzzy fiend is slightly postponed by a “werewolf break” that ostensibly allows the audience to meditate upon the killer’s identity. But the script doesn’t play fair by providing valid clues. At best, viewers would have been taking shots in the dark, which may indeed be the way the writer decided “whodunnit.”

Since the format didn’t allow for any of the werewolf suspects to be developed, the script could have been a little less dull had it built up the character of Newcliffe, by having some fun with the idea of a hunter pursuing a lycanthropic opponent. But not only does the mighty hunter lack any worthwhile motivation, actor Lockhart seems to be phoning it in, and no one else, not even the always professional Cushing, does any better. Since the hunter in the short story was not Black, there are one or two lines that call attention to the racial identities of both Lockhart and Clark, but otherwise the script is essentially race-blind.     



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

I didn’t see this two-part Hallmark miniseries in its original debut, so the only expectations I brought to my viewing was that I haven’t generally found most of Hallmark’s offerings all that noteworthy. Thus, I was surprised that Robert Lieberman’s direction of a Roger Soffer script provided me with a quite enjoyable ride, in addition with a relatively high level of mythicity.

After viewing the two-parter, I glanced at a handful of online reviews, and noticed that a fair number drew comparisons with the 1980s “V” serials produced by Kenneth Johnson. I suppose it’s not impossible that FINAL might have taken some inspiration from those serials, which enjoyed considerable popularity in their day (though the weekly teleseries inspired by the movies died in one season, as did a more recent incarnation). But if so, Lieberman and Soffer improved hugely on their model, since I found both the direction and writing of V to be terminally bland in all renditions.

V and FINAL both deal with inhuman aliens who assume humanoid appearances when they invade Earth with the intent of subjugating the natives. However, the V-aliens come “bearing gifts” in order to lull Earthlings into complacence, while the aliens of FINAL pursue the more standard course by simply infiltrating human government in order to conquer Earth. Both groups of extraterrestrials eat humans, but FINAL’s insect-aliens provide a touch more pseudo-scientific justification, claiming that these aliens need to assimilate keratin from their prey. (The miniseries never gives the bug-aliens even an informal nickname, but since one character claims that the invaders came from the Horsehead Nebula, I’ll call them for convenience the “nebula-bugs,” partly because the aforesaid character is inconsistent about which nebula the insects come from.) Lastly, since the V-aliens make their phony human disguises from scratch, the nebula-bugs take human corpses and skin them to make what the aliens call their “jackets.”

The aliens reach Earth by hitching a ride on a manned moon mission, and then assuming the guises of the astronauts. For reasons that are never clear, the nebula-bugs don’t kill the mission-commander Phillips, apparently because they’re repelled by his unique blood chemistry. But since Phillips goes mad from the takeover, the bugs simply allow the Earthlings to imprison the former astronaut as a madman. Only a handful of invaders make it to Earth, but one of them is a “queen-bug” who can lay hundreds of eggs, thus providing the foundation for an invasion force.

Fortunately, a handful of Earthlings become alert to the danger, beginning with a pair whose nature screams “opposites attract trope.” One is Walker, a misanthropic archaeologist who has little interest in his fellow humans, and the other Marianne, an entomologist who wishes that humans borrow some of the non-confrontational nature of bugs. Walker and Marianne make common cause with four other Earthlings whom the nebula-bugs have targeted for skinning, and then go on the run, unable to trust any agency, since the local cops have already been taken over by the aliens. Indeed, one of Walker’s perceived aliens, one Liz Quinlan (Daryl Hannah, the only “big name” in the dominantly Canadian cast), is none other than the Queen herself.

Unlike many latter-day alien-invasion scripts, Roger Soffer conveys a fair amount of biological info about the nature of the nebula-bugs, and even if most of that biology is based on Earth entomology, I still appreciate the attention to detail. The six unlikely heroes can barely scrape together even a meager arsenal to prevent the hatching of the alien armada, but Soffer gets a good deal of humor out of their situations, particularly after the group takes on a seventh member by liberating Commander Phillips from the nuthouse. At the same time, Soffer never sacrifices dramatic potential, as with the character of Bella, a refugee from violence in Europe, with her own perspective on conflict. There are a few cheesy moments in FINAL, mostly whenever the nebula-bugs burst huge mantis-like claws out of their “jackets,” though the bugs remain human in all other respects. (Budgetary restrictions, you know.) But the actors handle all the twists and turns with considerable aplomb, with special high marks going to Gil Bellows, Sue Matthew and Campbell Scott as respectively Walker, Marianne and Phillips.

I’ve deemed a lot of alien-invasion films to fit the Fryean mythos of “the drama.” But here, even though the protagonists aren’t overly dynamic, the emphasis seems to be on adventurous thrills—also one of the few fundamental things that FINAL has in common with V.

LES VAMPIRES (1915-16)



I don’t have much to say about this silent relic. I’ve been seeing accolades about the genius of French filmmaker Louis Feulliade for years, but I’ve seen no proof of said genius in either JUDEX or FANTOMAS. His second crime-oriented serial, LES VAMPIRES, is the dullest of the three, though possibly I might have been more involved had I seen its ten episodes in a theater as they were meant to be seen, rather than screening them on home video.

VAMPIRES is named not for supernatural creatures but for a gang of French crooks who style themselves “the Vampires.” They have no raison d’etre beyond committing assorted robberies, often clad in black leotards, which by itself would be enough to qualify the serial as metaphenomenal, even if the thieves didn’t also use exotic devices like sleeping gas and various poisoned objects. Though they’re pursued by an investigative reporter and his allies, the Vampires are indubitably the stars of the show. An actress named Musidora became internationally famous for portraying the henchwoman Irma Vep (“vampire” spelled sideways), and her popularity might proceed somewhat from the novelty of seeing a woman clad in a tight leotard back in 1915. Yet Irma’s not of any more particular consequence than any of the other exotically named criminals, such as “Satanas” and “Venomous.” Though in a structural sense VAMPIRES bears more resemblance to American sound serials than either of Feulliade’s other chapterplays, no single villain proves a standout as one sees even in early works like THE LIGHTNING WARRIOR. Possibly Feulliade, having been disparaged for adapting the stories of the controversial super-crook Fantomas, wished to avoid collecting more brickbats.

Every once in a while, an arresting scene appears in VAMPIRES—but for every one of these, there are two dozen in which characters sit around and talk, talk, talk. Some of the actors are not as affected as one finds in other films of the time, but this is more of a mystery-serial than an adventure-serial, and the detection of crimes is far more important than fights or murders. Around this time, American serials were ramping up the action with THE PERILS OF PAULINE and THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE, while a number of prose writers, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sax Rohmer, were gathering readers with a more bloody-minded approach than one arguably saw in popular authors of the 1900s. LES VAMPIRES may have seemed revolutionary in its time, but now it seems like a throwback to a more reserved era.