Sunday, May 23, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

The title here is a dodge: the “monster” of the tale is a mad scientist, who toward the end of the picture tells the audience that he was once called “the Vampire” because of his devotion to experimental (and illicit) blood research. The movie ever starts with a title-card detailing the legends of vampires, the better to further hoax the film-viewers.

About twenty minutes in, though, the astute viewer would have began doubting the veracity of the film’s producers. The virtuous young protagonist of the story, Doctor John Pierre (Vincent Ball), doesn’t venture into a bloodsucker’s castle; he gets sentenced to a prison of the late 1800s because he failed to save a patient’s life with a crude form of blood transfusion. Good intentions count for nothing, and Pierre is condemned to an insane asylum—although, thanks to some behind-the-scenes chicanery, he ends up being transferred to an isolated prison. There, Pierre swiftly finds that both his life, and the lives of his fellow prisoners, are cheap in the eyes of the guards, and of the prison warden Doctor Callistratus (Donald Wolfit).

While in the regular world Pierre’s fiancĂ©e Madeleine (Barbara Shelley) labors to get his case reviewed, Callistratus informs the young doctor that he will now be assist with the scientist’s arcane blood-experiments, usually carried out upon unwilling prisoners. Pierre, though appreciative of his comfy new position, nevertheless repudiates the ruthless experiments, even before finding out Callistratus’s special motivation: that he himself suffers from a malady brought about by one of his experiments.

Until the picture’s end there’s not a lot of “mad science” in the film, which often seems more like a “Count of Monte Cristo” type of story. Jimmy Sangster’s script tosses in some interesting complications. Madeleine gains access to the prison by pretending to be a housekeeper, the better to learn Pierre’s status. Callistratus’s deformed assistant Carl (Victor Maddern) immediately takes a Renfield-like devotion to the beautiful Madeleine, which of course results in his coming to her defense and turning against his master. But most of the film’s middle section feels like Sangster padding things out.

Up until the conclusion, most of the science consists of things that would later become commonplace—blood transfusion, and even an early cryogenics attempt (though one wonders how a doctor in the 1800s could freeze a man in a solid block of ice). Only when the evildoers gives Pierre his full history—asserting that he Callistratus introduced a “culture” into his own body that brought the doctor back from death—does the script venture into the realm of the marvelous.

Ball and Shelley are fine, with Shelley’s work here anticipating her better-known Hammer films to come. It seems likely that the studio, Tempean, was seeking to craft stage-actor Wolfit into their version of Peter Cushing. Wolfit is adequate, but he never quite manages to inhabit his madman-character, and he just doesn’t have Cushing’s sense of presence—both of which may account for his lack of film-star status down the road. BLOOD is an okay time-killer, often suggesting gross violence rather than showing it, but it’s not even on the same level with the middle-level Hammer flicks of the period.



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

“Vengeful vehicle” films range from “haunted autos” like Stephen King’s CHRISTINE to cars and trucks who have ghost drivers at the wheel, but so far no one’s done this trope better than Steven Spielberg’s DUEL, which adjured the supernatural in favor of uncanny chills and thrills. That said, these two “killer car” films are better than average.

THE WRAITH, written and directed by Marvin Miller, tells the story of the comeuppance of a gang of motor-head thugs in a small Arizona town. Led by head thug Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes), the gang just manages to keep clear of the law while preying on local citizens, such as Keri (Sherilyn Fenn), who lost her boyfriend Jamie some years ago in an apparent accident. Then two mystery men show up in town. One seems to be an ordinary fellow named Jake (Charlie Sheen), riding into town on a dirt-bike and starting up a romance with Keri, much to the displeasure of Packard, who views the young woman as his property. The other newcomer is the black-clad, helmet-wearing driver of a Turbo Interceptor, who never speaks but repeatedly challenges the members of Packard’s gang to road-races—races which always end in a gang-member’s death.

One doesn’t have to have seen a Zorro movie to intuit a connection between the two new arrivals, and so it’s not much of a spoiler for me to say that Jake and the helmeted driver—dubbed “the Wraith” by one of the more literate thugs—are the same entity. Jake, in fact, is Jamie reborn in a new body and given a celestial super-car that can vanish from sight when pursued by cops. (Heaven must have felt really generous with this particular victim of foul play.) The Wraith has been empowered to kill off the men responsible for his “accident,” and apparently his only limitation is that he must slay his victims with some sort of vehicular attack. The restless spirit usually slays via the racing-challenge—a practice used by Packard himself, forcing local Arizonans to surrender their cars if they lose a race—though in one scene, he does kill two thugs by driving his Turbo through the shack they occupy. This mode of execution aligns the Wraith with comic-book avengers like the Spectre, who, as I’ve written here, far outclass many of their mortal opponents but still fall within the superhero idiom. (One minor amusement of the film is that it places famed scofflaw Charlie Sheen squarely within the company of “costumed do-gooders.”)

The race-scenes are well filmed, but in dramatic terms the script raises questions it fails to answer. It’s one thing to have a spirit return to Earth in quest of vengeance, but WRAITH goes further in allowing Jake to start a new romantic life with Keri, just as if he were a regular old human being. Jake even gives the Turbo to Billy, brother of the late Billy, just as if it had suddenly become your garden-variety gas-guzzler. I like a happy ending as much as anyone, but here it comes off as forced and phony.

PHANTOM RACER is, unlike WRAITH, not a combative film, and “the ghost in the machine” never manifests except through the killer car. But RACER is far better in dramatic terms.

Two young men, Cutter McCullough (Adam Batrick) and J.J. Sawyer (Greg Evigan), race against one another in a small country town. Originally friends who drank and chased girls together, the two become rivals on the racetrack. Further, though Cutter’s dating a looker named Tammy (Nicole Eggert) at the time of their big race, J.J. and Tammy have already slept together, though it’s not clear why they didn’t become more open about the relationship. Cutter is so desperate to win the big race that he has J.J.’s car rigged to fail. But an accident ensues in which Cutter burns to death and J.J. survives. But J.J., knowing nothing of the rigged car, is so broken up by Cutter’s death that he leaves town for the next sixteen years.

After that passage of time, J.J.’s driving a truck for a living, but one of his jobs brings him back to the old hometown. He once more meets Tammy, now living with (though probably not sleeping with) Cutter’s brother Cliff. More importantly, Tammy has a trouble-making daughter, Jesse (Brenna O’Brien), who’s about sixteen years old—and anyone who thinks her age just a coincidence hasn’t seen many movies.

Cliff, who rigged J.J.’s car for Cutter, reveals what he’s been working on all those years: a reconstruction of the race-car in which Cutter perished. Significantly, there’s no indication of anything supernatural about the car, until J.J. cuts his hand and drops a little blood on the hood. This event, seemingly borrowed from any number of Dracula films, apparently allows the spirit of Cutter to return to Earth and inhabit the car. Soon the “phantom racer” starts a killing spree meant to culminate in the deaths of J.J., Tammy and Jesse, who is (you guessed it) J.J.’s daughter.

Despite the derivative nature of the story, the three principals—Evigan, Eggert, and O’Brien— manage to infuse their struggle against the killer car with a fair amount of solid melodrama—regrets about past decisions, parental conflict, et al. (A cute moment occurs when J.J. tells Jesse that she’s just like her mother, which is not something the rebellious teen wants to hear.) The Cutter-Car usually just runs people down, but uses a few Freddy Kruger-like death-methods, like strangling an attempted car-thief with the car’s seatbelt. Inevitably, J.J.’s past catches up with him, forcing him to race against Cutter one more time, though the denouement focuses less on a contest of skill than on trapping the vile vehicle in a trap—making it a subcombative film.

Evigan, known best for extremely light roles like TEKWAR and B.J. AND THE BEAR, does stretch his acting muscles here, albeit not by much.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

The meaningless title fits well with the screenplay, a hokey attempt at a horror-comedy loosely patterned after the example of the stage-success ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.

Headliners Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, both of whom had participated in renditions of the ARSENIC franchise, probably welcomed BOOGIE MAN as a humorous diversion from the creepy roles that had made them Hollywood commodities. However, the comedy here is thin and predictable. Whereas ARSENIC came up with a strong comical proposition and developed it well, BOOGIE MAN just riffs on the central idea of the play and throws in a lot of nonsensical elements on top of it.

Professor Billings (Karloff) is a wacky old inventor who’s in debt. To allay having his house repossessed, he sells it to wacky girl Winnie (Jeff Donnell), who wants to remodel the place into a country inn. Winnie is pursued by her ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks), who despite the divorce is still in love with his ex, and who reluctantly helps her in order to keep her foolish investment from being wasted. (Bill fills the role of the “straight man” character from ARSENIC.) Neither Winnie, Bill, nor the aged housekeepers know that Billings is performing experiments in his basement. Said experiments are designed to change the professor’s captives—mostly traveling salesman, standing in for the “lonely men” of the play—into supermen who can win the war for America. However, the shady local sheriff Lorentz (Lorre) finds out about Billings’ project and seeks to find some way to make money off it.

The script tosses in some more goofy support-characters (a salesman of powder puffs, a bomb-tossing fascist), but none of them add up to anything. The key swipe from ARSENIC is the appearance that Billings has killed a bunch of people to expedite his research, but the script weasels out of laying even comical crime at Billings’ door, since all he does is place the victims in suspended animation, from which they recover. (This is, incidentally, the only metaphenomenon in the movie.) It’s possible that the comedy might have been more memorable had Billings succeeded in making some bollixed-up version of a superman, since such a development could have spoofed the very idea of winning the war with amped-up soldiers. But BOOGIE MAN stays close to its model in terms of plot while failing to come up with any memorable jokes.

Karloff and Lorre’s roles—blundering, unworldly scientist and larcenous schemer-- aren’t that different from previous types they’d played before, sans overt comedy, so neither man really stretched all that much. Both would go on to do much better comic roles when given stronger material, so at best BOOGIE MAN is an anticipation of things to come, such as THE RAVEN. Perhaps because the headliners weren’t doing anything new, I got the most entertainment out of the relationship of daffy Winnie and her sane but harried husband Bill. They don’t mention getting re-married by the end of the movie, but it’s probably just one of many plot-points that gets lost in the manic wrap-up.

Saturday, May 15, 2021



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

When I analyzed the 1962 origin-storyof Spider-Man, I observed that in terms of structure, the tale strongly resembled a type of narrative that frequently appeared in many of the “horror-mystery” genre-works on which Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had crafted together during that era. The defining trope for this narrative might be called “the chastened sinner.” In it some individual, usually more weak than evil, misuses some supernatural gift. Unlike corrupt protagonists who are doomed by their sins, chastened sinners survive their brush with the supernatural and swear not to do bad things again.

Director Sam Raimi and scripter David Koepp may not have been familiar with the horror-mystery stories on which Lee and Ditko collaborated. Nevertheless, the script for SPIDER-MAN seems acutely aware that Peter Parker’s seemingly accidental acquisition of spider-powers functions in the story as a Gift from Above. He abuses that gift by not using his power in the public interest—i.e., to prevent a criminal from escaping the law—and he pays for his neglect when the same crook murders Parker’s beloved Uncle Ben. In both the comic and the movie, Parker is chastened by this development, but goes further by taking on the role of a crusading superhero. The role is not without its perks—Parker even out of costume becomes more appealing to girls, and he continues to enjoy the thrills of spider-powered athleticism. But his great power doesn’t just create a sense of responsibility. The costume sometimes becomes more of a hair-shirt, as bad luck frequently dogs his steps, often making him think of his abilities as an ongoing curse.

Now, as faithful as Raimi and Koepp are to the character of Peter Parker and his alter ego, they wreak considerable changes upon the iconic Spider-villain whom the hero faces in his theatrical debut. I’ll say right away that I didn’t care for the redesign of the Green Goblin, from a Halloween-themed evildoer whose mask nevertheless allowed for lots of facial expression, to an armored combatant whose face presented the immobile fierceness some Kabuki visage. I’m sure that the use of the armor made the substitution of a stunt-double in the fight-scenes, but damnit, he doesn’t look like a “goblin” in the least (although he still uses Halloween-themed gadgets, with no more textual explanation than one got in the original comics).

And yet, if Raimi and Koepp’s Goblin doesn’t work for me visually, I have to admit that they did a fine job of making his alter ego Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) an embodiment of another aspect of the Spider-mythos: that of a good father/ bad father complex.

In the story immediately following Parker’s loss of his good father Uncle Ben, he encounters a bad father in the form of his new boss, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson. Admittedly, Jameson never becomes involved in any way with the dynamics of Parker’s family. The publisher doesn’t even emulate the “heavy fathers” of Greek comedy and get in the way when Parker courts Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant. But whereas Ben and his wife May kept Parker in the world of the protected child, Jameson represents the cold cruel world outside the sphere of the family. Jameson offers Parker, who is committed to stay in high school, the only avenue by which Parker can earn money for his bereaved Aunt May. But this nominal benefit—which Parker earns only because he’s uniquely positioned to obtain valuable photographs of Spider-Man in action—also forces Parker to associate with a man who hates Parker’s vigilante identity. Thus, Parker is often obliged to protect this obnoxious older man from danger, though he also takes considerable joy in visiting minor humiliations on Jameson.

The Green Goblin of the comics is a different barrel of pumpkins. In his earliest appearances, the Goblin is a mystery villain obsessed with destroying Spider-Man, ostensibly just to cement his reputation as a hotshot super-villain. There’s nothing remotely paternal about him until issues #39-40 of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, wherein it’s definitively revealed that the Goblin is Norman Osborne, the father of Parker’s college-roommate Harry. Issue #40, “Spidey Saves the Day,” is particularly masterful in revealing that Osborne became so obsessed with making money through his scientific experiments that he utterly neglected his son—which makes him somewhat homologous with Jameson, also an older man obsessed with making money.

Obviously, a single Spider-Man movie didn’t have the luxury of several installments in which to reveal a mystery villain’s identity. Therefore SPIDER-MAN follows the dual origin of both hero and villain. Parker, the science-loving nerd with money troubles (his uncle has just been laid off near the film’s beginning), receives the gift of DNA from a genetically bred “super-spider.” In contrast, Osborne, who owns a company but suffers reversals from his clients and his board members, reacts in the fashion of Doctor Jekyll imitators everywhere. He tests a dangerous formula on himself, but soon loses interest in monetary gain. After murdering his oppressors, this Goblin shows no interest in becoming a criminal mastermind. Instead he becomes obsessed with forcing Spider-Man to become as corrupt as he is, because both of them are “exceptional” beings who ought to be able to do anything they want to lesser folk. Jameson, too, speaks of bringing Spider-Man down to Jameson’s level, but Raimi and Koepp exploit the Goblin’s demonic visage to make him into a Satanic tempter.

Up to this point any readers may have thought I was writing a review of a GREEN GOBLIN movie. Yet IMO the script puts much more mythic focus upon the “bad father” relationship of Parker and Osborne than on Peter Parker’s acceptance of his heroic destiny. That’s not to say that Raimi and Koepp don’t do a stellar job in retelling the hero’s origin: giving him the chance to swat down bullies, woo unobtainable girls and swing through the skyline of New York like Tarzan amid his trees. Tobey Maguire’s embodiment of Parker, both as nerd and hero, remains the definitive rendition of the Lee-Ditko character, and Kirsten Dunst makes a winsome Mary Jane, reconfigured from a party girl into a more-nubile-than-average “girl next door.” But all of Parker’s relationships are threatened when his first and worst enemy learns his secret identity.

Once or twice Raimi oversells the “family romance” business. In this iteration, Harry has recently transferred to Parker’s high school, but in a short space of time they’ve become boon friends. When Harry first introduced Parker to Harry’s father, Norman seems unusually taken with Parker, apparently because Parker, unlike Harry, has a scientific mind. This preference causes Harry to experience a rather forced “sibling jealousy.” An end scene, in which Norman tries to claim a paternal relationship with the hero following a blood-and-guts battle, is so overplayed that a similar denouement in 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN seems subtle by comparison. Harry wins a few dates with Mary Jane because Nerd Parker can’t admit he’s liked her for years. But when “Norman Hyde” first meets Mary Jane, he goes off on a tirade about gold-digging women that comes out of nowhere. Later, as the Goblin, he tells Spider-Man that he plans to “have a good time” with Mary Jane. Is this Freud’s primal father, trying to prey upon the young woman desired by both of his “sons,” just for the pleasure of acing them out? Defoe, playing the “over-reactor” to Maguire’s “under-reactor,” verges on hamminess at times, and the actor projects much more menace in his quieter scenes.

Other supporting players acquit themselves admirably, with the standout being J.K. Simmons as Jameson. Interestingly, even though Jameson usually comes off as an ass, Koepp includes a moment in which he becomes somewhat protective, as he rarely was in the Lee-Ditko comics. In this scene, the Goblin attacks the Daily Bugle, having decided that the only way to find Spider-Man is to find the photographer who’s been able to take the hero’s pictures so readily. The villain threatens the publisher’s life for the identity of the photographer, and although Parker is standing nearby Jameson doesn’t betray his employee but tries to lie to the super-fiend. Parker dons his spider-gear and saves Jameson’s life, though the publisher can’t resist taking a verbal shot at the hero, thus earning himself a mouthful of webbing.

For all the brickbats aimed at CGI effects, I can’t imagine any live-action film succeeding at emulating the acrobatics of Spider-Man without them. The only downside of the copious fight-scenes is that “armored Goblin” doesn’t offer a lot of mobility. However, in the succeeding film, the effects-meisters would outdo themselves in fluidity during the encounters between the athletic wall-crawler and a certain tentacled terror.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Let’s get the positive stuff out of the way first. Though this streaming series consists of just six episodes of over an hour each, the production values look as good as any of the movies, with the plus that there’s far less intrusive CGI.

However, there’s much more bad than good about FALCON—and despite the Winter Soldier’s co-billing, the show is really about Sam “Falcon” Wilson— in that the show offers its viewers a dense, muddled plotline full of international intrigue, lots of virtue signaling, and an almost total absence of the clever (if superficial) humor that informs most of the MCU theater-films.

In AVENGERS ENDGAME, all the MCU heroes team up to undo the effects of Thanos’s “Snap,” which eradicated half of the population in the universe. The mission succeeds, and the millions of people—including the Falcon and some of the other major heroes—are brought back to life, albeit five years after they disappeared. But the MCU’s showrunner Kevin Feige pursued his own “eradication” scheme in finding reasons to eliminate or marginalize the “big-name” heroes on whose reps the MCU had been built. In the case of Captain America, he implicitly passed on the mantle of his iconic identity to his partner-of-sorts, the Falcon (a development mimicking an unsuccessful plotline in Marvel Comics).

FALCON’s showrunner Malcolm Spellman sought to form a connection between Sam Wilson’s personal chaos—his doubts about accepting the role of Captain America—with the societal chaos brought about by the return of millions of people from non-existence. Large-scale war has often brought about the distress of numerous “displaced persons.” However, in the real world, the displaced don’t just vanish into nothingness, which might logically give survivors the idea that all the missing people are dead. During the five years between the Snap and its undoing, the property of the “deceased” has inevitably changed hands, thus setting up a conflict between the new owners and the old ones. Spellman provides scant details as to what’s been going on in the six months separating ENDGAME from FALCON, and I couldn’t figure out which group was getting the short end of the stick. It would be logical to assume that the former owners’ legal status would be debatable, and that they might remain in a displaced status. Yet, a new terrorist group, “the Flag Smashers,” shows up with the avowed goal of returning the world’s civilization to the less populous, more united conditions that prevailed during the Snap. That seems to imply that it’s the “new owners” who somehow got dispossessed, since the “old owners” would have no memory of the Snap-era.

In essence, though, I suspect that Spellman didn’t care that much about the Flag Smashers’ motives, for FALCON’s scripts fairly bleed unconditional love for all activists, even though the Smashers, who kill people and blow up buildings, are not even close to being “peaceful protesters.” Falcon is the spokesman for the unqualified view that the Smashers are more sinned against than sinning, because they’ve been done wrong by their governments, who haven’t managed to re-position all the displaced millions within the period of six months. Since most of the series’ action takes place in Europe, the viewer largely sees only irresponsible white Euro-leaders criticized for their failures, though logically the same restoration problems ought to affect even the wonderland of Wakanda. In addition, the Flag Smashers seem to be largely a European phenomenon, partly because it’s a European scientist who re-creates the famed “super soldier serum,” and several key Smashers dose themselves with it. Thus, the potion that created the ultimate symbol of the American flag falls into the hands of fanatics dedicated to some vaguely defined goal of “open borders” for the world.

Falcon, as I noted, deeply sympathizes with the activists, but he’s willing to fight against the “radicalized” group. So, he teams up with another former associate of Captain America, Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes. The two characters didn’t like each other in CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR, but apparently since then they’ve bonded over their mutual respect for the Captain. It’s much more likely, though, that Kevin Feige has some involved plans for Winter Soldier, and that including the Soldier character in FALCON was just a way of advancing those plans somewhat. One such plot-thread—in which Bucky Barnes was shoehorned into a role in the BLACK PANTHER cosmos—makes it possible (though not plausible) for FALCON to feature a guest-starring appearance by two badass spear-ladies from Wakanda. As far as I could tell the two spear-carriers had nothing to do with the Flag Smasher storyline, but since the women manage to defeat three skilled male fighters, their appearance makes for some feminist virtue-signaling.)

In addition, Falcon’s Cap-conflict is exacerbated when the American government confers the star-spangled identity upon career soldier John Walker, and “New Cap” also starts messing around in Europe, looking for both the Smashers and their super-soldier serum. Falcon, Soldier and New Cap all get trounced in battle with the super-strong terrorists. Needing a guide to Euro-intrigue, Falcon seeks out a master of the art: Baron Zemo, the devious plotter who brought about the Civil War that almost destroyed the Avengers team. Though Zemo’s agenda is different from that of the Smashers, he also gets more than his fair share of validation. In one speech, he rails against the tendency of the serum to foster “supremacist” ideas in those who take the stuff. Though the word “white” never precedes “supremacist,” there’s no chance that Spellman has any other connotation, since Zemo draws comparisons between super soldiers and the Nazi ideal of the superman—an accusation often aimed at blonde, blue-eyed Steve Rogers. Both Falcon and Soldier listen to Zemo’s tripe but can muster no more than token opposition.

When Falcon gets a spare moment from scouring the European continent in search of terrorists, he jets back to the States. This leads to the introduction of Sam Wilson’s family, probably so that they can return in future episodes. In addition, Falcon meets Isaiah, a black man from the WWII era who suffered terrible mistreatment when the U.S. government experimented on him as part of their attempts to re-create the super-soldier serum. This sequence draws upon a continuity from Marvel Comics, and Spellman uses the sequence to slant the story more in the direction of the “systemic racism” narrative. At least the Isaiah sequence has some dramatic intensity, which is more than I can say for a fatuous scene in which two white cops hassle Sam Wilson for standing around talking to Bucky Barnes in the street.

Though politically I oppose the narrative of systemic racism, I’d concede that it’s possible for a book or movie to make an intelligent argument for that position. Possibly a straight adaptation of the original comics-story about the WWII experiments, all by itself, would have proved sufficient to dramatize Falcon’s ambivalence about accepting the mantle of the shield-tossing Avenger. But this argument gets lost in the milieu of this frenetic political thriller, which is burdened with too many characters and too much counter-intrigue. Inevitably, Falcon does accept the role of Black Captain America. But by the time he does, I for one no longer believed that he would fulfill the ideal of the superhero, to oppose injustice in any form. He seemed to assume the role simply so that he, a black man, could be in a position to keep watch over the activities of all those toxic white people.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021




Prior to this Hammer film, most American filmgoers knew about the Indian thuggee cult only from the 1939 quasi-Kipling adventure GUNGA DIN. In my review I noted that the thuggee in that film didn’t seem like much more than standard boogiemen; tenpins set up to be knocked down by the valorous British soldiers.

STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY, directed by Terence Fisher and scripted by David Z. Gordon, is loosely based on stories of the British Raj’s extermination of the thuggee cult in the 1800s. Aside from the aforementioned GUNGA DIN movie, the terrors of the thuggee had been intermittently exploited for chills and thrills in pulp magazines, usually with little or no reference to Indian history. But Fisher’s movie has the structure of a historical drama, even though there’s no actual attempt to retell any part of the actual story of thuggee extermination.

Though the film is centered in Bombay, Gordon’s script makes clear that the power of the thuggee has existed for centuries and extends over many quarters of India under the British Raj. The cult-members rob traveling caravans passing from city to city, and they slaughter all of the travelers in the name of their bloody goddess Kali. Despite the thugs’ many depredations, the ignorant English officers in Bombay attribute all the raids to common bandits. The officers show no inclination to root out the murderous gangs, and only make token efforts because of the complaints of English traders who want their caravans protected. Only one Englishman, Captain Lewis (Guy Rolfe), listens to the stories about the thuggee and tries to take measures to end their menace.

Lewis is not a deep character. He has a cute wife at home who urges him not to buck the system, but Lewis can’t help it. He feels a sense of responsibility to the Indian people, though one never knows exactly how he feels about any particular Indian, with the exception of a young native boy who’s more or less a stand-in for India as a whole. Eventually Lewis kicks against his superiors and resigns, though this doesn’t stop him from continuing his one-man anti-thug campaign.

Yet Lewis is not the star of the show, as were the soldiers of GUNGA DIN. Though none of the thugs stand out as characters—a local high priest, a couple of collaborators who spy for the thugs in the cities—Gordon does a good job of making the cult seem both ruthless and awe-inspiring. There’s some doubt among historians as to how religious the real thugs were. Nevertheless, Gordon faultlessly evokes the sense of the stranglers’ fanaticism-- some members are executed if they steal for their own betterment, not Kali’s—and the script even references an Indian myth about Kali to account for the thugs’ penchant for strangulation. STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY represents one of the few times that a cult of villains takes center stage, as opposed to a single villain, such as Fu Manchu, who commands the cult.

Wikipedia calls the later Hammer film TERROR OF THE TONGS a “quasi-remake.” There are no significant likenesses between STRANGLERS and TONGS, particularly since the hero of the later film is out to avenge a relative, not to save a country full of people. In addition, TONGS is out-and-out pulp adventure, and sports some strong combative scenes, while STRANGLERS becomes rather slow going whenever the thugs are not on screen. So TONGS would only qualify as a “subject matter-remake” if at all—and that presumes that some Hammer producer said something like, “That thuggee picture made us a lot of money; let’s do a film about some other Asian cult now.”



CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

DEATH ARTIST is largely a beat-by-beat remake of Roger Corman’s 1959 A BUCKET OF BLOOD, with the Charles Griffith script rewritten for the nineties, partly by the film’s director Michael James McDonald. Both movies start off in a coffee-house that caters to patrons with delusions of artistic grandeur: beatniks in 1959, hipsters in 1995. In both films nebbish bus-boy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller first, then Anthony Michael Hall) gets caught up in the desire to win approval by churning out an artistic masterpiece on demand, and he finds a quick way to fame by encasing dead bodies in plaster and passing them off as authentic sculptures.

The most creative aspects of the new script are the open-mike performances of various hipster-poseurs at the coffee house; without making direct reference to the lines used in the original film, I’d say the pseudo-art of the nineties hipsters sounds more gleefully absurd. A particular standout is head hipster Maxwell (Shaddoe Stevens), whose ramblings inspire Walter to make his “deadly art.” Anthony Michael Hall’s Walter, with his twitchy insecurities, carried more conviction with me than did Dick Miller’s more labored effort. Justine “Family Ties” Bateman gives her all to the role of the young female artiste Walter pursues, but though this version of the character sports an Italian accent, she proves the weakest link in this iteration.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Following the 1960s almost everything that proceeded from the various production companies of Roger Corman consisted of unapologetic knockoffs of better-made films, usually with loads of gratuitous sex and violence added in. One exception was 1975’s DEATH RACE 2000, which was reasonably clever despite having been designed to take advantage of an A-level movie that same year, ROLLERBALL. But when Corman decided to make a knockoff of his own knockoff, the results were far more predictable, particularly since Corman made the later film for less than half of DEATH RACE’s estimated cost.

Throughout the fifties and sixties Corman gave directing jobs to students just out of film school, almost certainly because he could get their services for rock-bottom prices. In the case of DEATHSPORT the directorial chair went to Nicholas Niciphor, who had no experience with something as demanding as a future-apocalypse action-movie. David Carradine, who had starred in DEATH RACE and was finishing up the KUNG FU series, was hired to play the lead role in DEATHSPORT, and this may have been the only reason that the film made back twice its budget at the box office.

Whereas in DEATH RACE the idea of “playing sports for keeps” was central to the extravagant storyline, the script in DEATHSPORT barely justified the “sport” part of the title. The narrative owes much more to classic western scenarios. Carradine plays Kaz Oshay, one of a group of “range scouts” who attempt to keep law and order in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. One of the menaces to the fragile communities of the wastes are a group of motorcycle-riding raiders led by bandit king Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch), who is also the slayer of Kaz Oshay’s mother. The villains want to make an example of Kaz Oshay and a female guide (Claudia Jennings) by killing them in a big dirt-bike race, the “deathsport” of the title. But the film has none of the structure of DEATH RACE; it’s just a lot of pointless fights and motorcycle races. (At least the bike-stunts, possibly photographed by Gary Graver, look good.) Kaz Oshay spouts some mystical aphorisms that were probably meant to evoke Kwai Chang Caine, but Carradine’s performance is stilted and tedious. Lynch, playing a by-the-numbers bad guy, brings far more conviction to the unpromising role.

There are some disintegrator rays and cannibal mutants thrown into the mix, but next to this mess, Patrick Swayze’s dull but earnest STEEL DAWN starts to look pretty good.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

No one in this Joseph Losey film makes any references to anyone’s damnation, so it’s likely that the title was just Hammer Studios’ call-out to their earlier SF-horror VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. There are weird kids in both films, but THESE was adapted, ostensibly in a faithful fashion, from a H.L. Lawrence novel (published in 1960, the same year VILLAGE came to British screens). The kids of VILLAGE were the offspring of unseen aliens, manipulating the kids for a proxy invasion of Earth, but Losey’s freaky kids are spawned by good old-fashioned nuclear radiation.

Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey), middle-aged American tourist, goes trekking in southern coastal England, specifically in a city named Weymouth, which includes its own British military base. At a bar in town Simon picks up a younger woman, name of Joan (Shirley Anne Field), but as they walk out together a gang of tough young men ambush Simon and rob him. Though it’s apparent to Simon that Joan was a stalking-horse for the thieves, she meets him the next day to apologize, and goes sailing with him on his boat. This development does not set well with gang-leader King (Oliver Reed), who is Joan’s brother, at once willing to use her appearance as bait and fiercely jealous of any other man’s attentions to her.

Simon and Joan rendezvous on shore for sex, but King’s gang finds out their location. The two fugitives escape to the vicinity of the aforementioned military base and hide in a series of nearby underground caves. In the caves Simon, Joan and King come across nine strange children—five boys and four girls—who are dressed in school uniforms and who have been raised in the seclusion of the caves as far back as they can remember. The first time Joan touches one of the kids, she finds his skin cold as ice, and the other children are the same. The three adults then butt heads with the man in charge of the underground project, Bernard (Alexander Knox), and soon learn that all nine kids are radioactive, as the result of their parents having been exposed to radiation. Bernard, who has what might be termed a father-god complex, intends to keep the children sequestered from society not just for public safety—and in truth, the kids would never be able to mix with other human beings—but because Bernard thinks that nuclear holocaust is inevitable. When all other humans perish of radiation poisoning, the nine radioactive children will be able to carry on some semblance of civilization.

THESE plays on nuclear fears to offer viewers a “Hobson’s Choice,” a dismal choice between a rotten offer and no offer at all. Thanks to the sharp, uncompromising black-and-white photography of Arthur Grant, viewers are likely to agree with Bernard, even while feeling pity for the sinless orphans, destined to be pawns in a nuclear game that no one can win. Losey reportedly had the original film-script rewritten to his tastes, so clearly the theme of eternally frustrated desires accorded with his intentions. THESE is successful in its limited scheme, but Bernard’s Machiavellian character never catches fire. King, the second most interesting character, ends up joining Joan and Simon in their futile attempts to help the kids, but Losey’s script never gets any dramatic heft out of his virgin-and-whore conception of his sister, except to have Joan rather limply castigate him for it. THESE ARE THE DAMNED is an appealing if one-note curio of the time, but since we didn’t yet have a nuclear holocaust, the film’s potential for satire proves far inferior to a comparable work like Kubrick’s DOCTOR STRANGELOVE.