Friday, August 27, 2021

ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941)

 






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


The “Classic Era” of film serials is often said to begin with 1936’s FLASH GORDON, which in terms of expense and overall quality marked a new level of ambition. Even the better serials of the early thirties are not that distinct from the silent chapterplays of the twenties.  Film studios began investing more heavily in adapting properties from assorted media, such as pulps, radio and comic strips. Republic attempted to adapt SUPERMAN at the height of the character’s popularity. But when negotiations with DC Comics broke down, the studio successfully got the rights to Superman’s greatest competitor Captain Marvel, who had the honor of being the first comic-book character adapted to film.

 

The original Captain Marvel was, in many ways, an attempt to one-up the Man of Steel. The first adventures of Superman give him assorted limitations: he could leap but not fly, and his skin could in theory be damaged by an exploding shell. Over time Superman would take on a host of new powers and become invulnerable to everything but kryptonite. Yet Captain Marvel had no real weaknesses in his superheroic form; he only risked injury when he assumed the mortal form of Billy Batson. The serial’s writers and directorial team (the stalwarts William Witney and John English) may have anticipated that a totally invulnerable hero would prove difficult to place in peril, and so, while they did put his mortal identity in peril at times, this Captain Marvel, as essayed by the athletic Tom Tyler, proved somewhat vulnerable to dangers like molten lava and electrical discharge—though naturally the filmmakers did not eliminate one of his primary appeals: the resistance to gunfire.

 

Possibly the filmmakers did not anticipate visiting the Captain Marvel well twice. The comic-book character has an open-ended origin, as Batson is given his “magic word” by the wizard Shazam with the expectation that Captain Marvel will continue fighting crime indefinitely. ADVENTURES opens with young Billy Batson (Frank Coughlan) accompanying an archaeological expedition to a series of Siamese tombs, hard by a smoldering volcano. When the group deciphers a warning not to violate a certain tomb, Batson belatedly decides not to trespass on this sanctum of the ancients (though one would think he should’ve expected something of the sort from the word “go.”) Just as the archaeologists locate an insidious looking metal statue, representing a scorpion with glass lenses held in its claws, Batson encounters the wizard Shazam, who is the guardian of the temple. Shazam gives Batson the magic word only for the purpose of preventing chaos when the Scorpion-statue falls into evil hands—said hands belonging to a masked marauder who emulates his prize by calling himself the Scorpion.

 

The archaeologists wrangle about who gets custody of the fantastic find. It’s then agreed that they divvy up the lenses so that everyone will have a piece of the artifact, though for the scripters this makes it more complicated for the villain to lay hands on the entire artifact. For all twelve chapters, the Scorpion sends his henchmen to collect the entire statue, which when assembled can radiate rays of immense power. It’s not clear how the villain plans to use this power for conquest, though in the final chapter he and everyone else return to Siam, where he attempts to convince local tribesmen that he’s the incarnation of the Scorpion-God—who is also loosely linked with the eruptions of the volcano. In addition, Batson and his alter ego become convinced that the Scorpion is one of the scientists, and as in many serials the partitioning of suspicion is a source of narrative tension.

 

Though Witney and English follow the well-traveled plot-threads of the average serial, they and their writers conceive of better-than-average cliffhangers, one of the best being a trap involving automated rifles. The Scorpion’s henchmen themselves are more deadly than many such thugs, and because they are killers, the serial version of Captain Marvel is on occasion less than decorous about taking prisoners, throwing one of the thugs off a high roof to his death. This scene, and an earlier one in which the hero machine-guns some Siamese tribesmen who have also made murder-attempts, suggest that Witney and English were having a little fun with the G-rated violence of the comic-book character. That said, they probably knew they could only get away with such outbursts a few times, since throughout most of the serial Captain Marvel simply knocks out crooks with his fists.

 

The staging of the fights and of the hero’s flight-scenes are overall excellent, but Tom Tyler’s unfailingly earnest portrait of the superhero sells all the FX-work. The other performers do well enough with what they’re given, but the script doesn’t really fill in any blanks for Batson, the scientists, mysterious Eastern guide Tal Chotali (John Davidson) or for secretary Betty (Louise Currie). The serial’s conclusion also ends Billy Batson’s career as Captain Marvel, though presumably the hero might have returned if Captain Marvel had broken box office records. Given the exigencies of making such a super-powered character credible, perhaps it was just as well that this was the only cinematic outing for the hero in the serial venue.                                  

 

 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*




I experienced mixed feelings in re-screening VOYAGE. I certainly remembered getting immense joy from the theatrical screening, and for many years it was at the top of my list as the best of the TREK theatrical films. In re-watching VOYAGE straight through for the first time in several years, I didn’t find it to be a bad film at all—but I no longer found it to be excellent.


There’s no question that Paramount, with the help of director/co-writer Leonard Nimoy, meant VOYAGE to be a crowd-pleaser, and a marked contrast to the heavy sturm-and-drang of the first three films. This meant abandoning all of the heavy drama about the Enterprise crew getting long in the tooth; like the reborn Spock, they’ve all got a second lease on life, running about with renewed vigor as they once again try to stave off cosmic disaster. Perhaps it helps that their mission involves going back in time and righting the wrongs of their distant ancestors, to whom all Federation citizens are, no matter how old, “children.” Of the three time-travel jaunts made by Kirk and company in the original series, the first emphasized tragedy, the second pure suspense, and the third suspense with a heaping helping of “fish-out-of-water” comedy. Nimoy chose the third model for VOYAGE.


Back in 1986, I must have liked that type of humor a whole lot, because I remember laughing in pretty much all the right places. This time around, the amusement was a bit less pronounced, but a lot of comedies are like that: funny the first time you see them, but not able to provoke guffaws on the second go-round. I certainly don’t take points away from VOYAGE for not being endlessly laugh-worthy, though, when there are so many comedies that can’t make me laugh even once.


It’s the suspense/drama aspects of VOYAGE that seem somewhat weaker this time out. Following up on the events of the third film, the crew of the Enterprise has taken refuge on Vulcan with their stolen Klingon vessel, hiding out from the wrath of the Federation after they broke numerous regulations to succor the reborn Spock. While Kirk and the others lick their wounds and prepare themselves to go back and face the music, Spock undergoes a rapid retraining program on his native world. He still doesn’t have his old memories with any consistency, but he’s able to upgrade himself to something like his old self in cognitive terms. In the first and possibly best of the “crowd-pleasing” scenes, Spock’s mother Amanda (Jane Wyatt) appears with her son, attempting to restore to him some of the emotional potential that’s been buried by the process of rebirth. In any case, Spock joins his crewmates as they depart Vulcan to face Federation justice.


Providentially, a new threat arises. A mammoth alien probe invades Federation space, emitting energy waves that play havoc with all defenses. The Federation dopes out that the waves are repeated signals seeking to re-establish contact, but no one living knows how to respond to the alien broadcast. Kirk and company learn about the current threat, and Spock deduces that the probe is trying to contact an intelligence it contacted centuries ago: that of humpback whales. Unfortunately, due to the abuses of twentieth century Earthpeople, the species is now extinct. The only solution: the Enterprise must travel back in time and bring whales back to future-Earth.


Even granting that the premise sounds like a shill for Greenpeace, the script never flags in reminding the audience of the challenge of the mission. Once the crew has landed in 1986, they have no access to the information of their 23rd-century computer banks, or even to their distant ancestor the Internet. Thus they must blunder around somewhat, less like fish out of water than like the blind men trying to figure out the nature of the elephant. This makes for a number of comedic encounters, ranging from the fair to the merely okay. Kirk and Spock, seeking out a San Francisco aquarium from which to harvest a pair of humpbacks, befriend cetologist Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), who ends up becoming the time-travelers’ only ally in their improbable quest. But Taylor’s presence is nugatory: the script is most successful in giving most of the support-cast interesting things to do, with the probably inevitable exclusion of Saavik, unceremoniously left back on Vulcan, never to appear in the film series again.


The crew rises to the challenges of invading the twentieth century for the most part. though I could have lived without the cumbersome scene of Kirk and crew rescuing Chekhov from a modern hospital. The Enterprise brings the two whales (with Gillian along for the ride) to the future, where the singing humpbacks answer the probe’s call and send the intruder on its way. Thus, the history of humpback extinction is effaced by tampering with the temporal order, allowing the “children” to right the wrongs of their “parents.” In keeping with this rewriting of the past, the Federation dismisses all charges against their saviors, aside from one “pleasurable punishment” to Kirk, permanently demoting him to the rank of “captain,” and thus ensuring that he will resume his original (and youthful) identity as the captain of a new Enterprise.


I remarked in my review of SEARCH FOR SPOCK that Spock was never quite the same after rebirth. Nimoy has fun with making his iconic character go through a period of literal self-actualization, in which he no longer remembers the torments of his once divided self and yet must somehow regain access to that part of his identity. There are some modest successes here, summed up at the end with the Vulcan science officer’s acceptance of his mother’s imperatives to value emotion. Yet the film doesn’t really put across the mythic presence of Spock as realized even in the inferior episodes of the teleseries. Without having re-screened the other two “original cast” movies, it’s my recollection that they simply leapfrog over the problems of the reborn Spock and start treating the character as if he was identical with the Spock of the teleseries. With the exception of the first movie in the series, all of the movies seem very Kirk-centric. Perhaps, given the way Nimoy often overshadowed Shatner during the original series, one could devise a single subtitle for the six original-cast flicks as “THE REVENGE OF KIRK.”

OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT: "WAX WORKS" (1934)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


I've thought from time to time about including reviews of short theatrical cartoons, but here's my first such, thanks to a poster on CHFB who cited this 1934 cartoon as "the first monster mash."  As it happens, a 1933 Disney short, "Mickey's Gala Premiere," got there first, but it's not much of a "mash." "Premiere" is one of the many celebrations of Hollywood glitterati, and this one shows Mickey rubbing elbows with dozens of cartoony versions of famous celebs, including a quick shot of Dracula, Mister Hyde and the Frankenstein Monster grouped together.

In contrast, the monsters play a big part in "Wax Works" (which seems unrelated to the content of Paul Leni's silent 1924 live-action WAXWORKS). Oswald, manager of a wax works full of statues of historical figures like Napoleon and Groucho Marx (?), finds a baby in a basket left on his doorstep. Unwilling to be played for a chump-- "what will people think, knowing I'm a bachelor?"-- the reluctant rabbit puts the basket and its cargo back outside. However, the never-named baby gets out of the basket and appeals to Oswald for shelter. Oswald softens and takes the kid in, after which they go to bed together.

The toddler gets up and starts talking to the statues, which come alive and caper around for a bit. However, one of the monster-statues in the "Horror Chamber" seizes the kid, and he's duly horrified to find himself besieged by a group of fiends best known from their cinematic incarnations-- Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Mister Hyde, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Invisible Man, and an armless version of The Mummy (looking more like the forties Kharis than the 1932 MUMMY). One exception is the folkloric horror Bluebeard, making what may the character's only appearance in a monster-mash. The kid runs from the animated wax horrors, but gets hold of a blowtorch and turns Bluebeard to melted wax. He almost dissolves the rest of them as well, but the kid is disarmed and the evildoers cover him in wax. Oswald hears the boy's cries and comes to his defense, but he too is about to become a wax statue. At that point Oswald wakes up for real, for the whole thing's been his dream, brought on because the boy's been trying to wake him by dripping wax from a burning candle on him. Since the monsters and talking statues are all dreams, this would be an uncanny story were it not for the presence of a talking rabbit-guy.

Like most of the oeuvre of cartoon-maker Walter Lantz, there's not much more than basic gags here. Still, if this is the first full-fledged monster-mash, not counting the toss-off Mickey Mouse cartoon, then that alone gives the almost forgotten Oswald the Rabbit a cachet I for one never would have allotted to him. (And it's even a cartoon from Universal Studios, the people who gave the Classic Monsters their best treatments.) 




Wednesday, August 18, 2021

ELEKTRA (2005)


 





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



Any cinematic adaptation of a previously existing narrative is bound to diverge from the original in assorted ways. On occasion, the adaptation can stray from the original so greatly as to make one wonder why the creators troubled to reference the supposed source at all. Nevertheless, there have many times when even an oppugnant adaptation can be interesting in its own right. The film SEVEN FACES OF DOCTOR LAO is a much more upbeat version of the dark and despair-filled source novel, but in the final analysis both works are enjoyable in their own respective ways.


In my recent re-screening of ELEKTRA, I didn’t find it as objectionable as I did when I saw in the theater on initial release. If I was just in the mood for a standard action-film and didn’t know anything about the comic-book character, I might have been moderately entertained. That said, both the direction by Rob Bowman and the script by three collaborators are extremely uninvolved and uninvolving.


I can see why some aspects of the original character would have seemed problematic, since Frank Miller’s Elektra is firmly grounded in Freudian psychology. I haven’t re-watched Mark Johnson’s 2003 DAREDEVIL, in which this version of Elektra (played both times by Jennifer Garner) both debuts and suffers a violent death. But I seem to remember that Johnson is at least modesty faithful to the comic book: that Elektra, lover of Matt “Daredevil” Murdock, becomes so traumatized by the tragic death of her father that her “Electra complex” is activated, causing her to explore the dark corruption of ninjutsu and to become a paid assassin. In the comic and in the DAREDEVIL movie, she varies between being a villain and a hero.


ELEKTRA leapfrogs over any complexities left over from the previous film. Though dead at the end of DAREDEVIL, Elektra's former mentor Stick simply revives the slain ninja-woman at the start of the movie, as if this was the sort of thing that he does all the time. (At least in Frank Miller’s world, if people come back from the dead, someone else’s life has to be sacrificed.) Stick stands for a coterie of “good ninjas” who are locked in eternal battle with a band of “bad ninjas,” the Hand, but although Elektra attempted to join Stick’s crusade, he cast her out due to some unspecified flaw. Her history from the previous film is naturally ignored, but even so it’s vague as to how Elektra subsequently became an assassin-for-hire. The film’s opening scene, in which Elektra easily penetrates a formidable task force in order to execute a crime-boss, is possibly the best single scene in the film. Yet it doesn’t give the audience any sense of Elektra’s current moral compass. Would she have been just as remorseless cutting down FBI agents guarding a key witness against the mob? It’s a question Bowman doesn’t choose to bring up.


Bowman’s film doesn’t say much about Elektra’s lost father, but rather emphasizes the early loss of her mother to terrorist action. This allows Bowman and company to elide all the stuff involving her romance with Daredevil, and to set up a situation where the heroine, who has no more emotional range than a Terminator, will have to assume roughly maternal duties in order to humanize her.


Elektra, despite being somewhat fatigued with the assassin game, accepts an anonymous commission for an unspecified killing, and to find out who here targets are, she has to take up residence in a remote forest in some vaguely northern locality. There she meets, seemingly by accident, a handsome widower named Mark and his precocious teen daughter Abby. Then the people who hired her—none other than the agents of the evil Hand organization—bring down the hammer by revealing that Mark and Abby are to be her targets.


Elektra refuses to let the evildoers manipulate her and so defends the two fugitives against a host of assassins, some of whom wield super-powers. (Two or three of these are also based in Marvel Comics characters.) The situation then becomes incredibly muddled as to the Hand’s motivations. At first it seems as if they wanted her to kill Mark and Abby so that Elektra would become converted to conscienceless evil. But then we learn that Abby’s precociousness extends to having nascent super-ninja abilities of her own, as if these were like genetically inherent mutant powers. Eventually I quit worrying about whether the plot made sense and just watched the fight-scenes, which were competent but not extraordinary. (I’d later learn that the movie was shot on an extremely tight schedule and that star Garner only reprised the character due to contractual obligation.) The film ends with a mawkish affirmation of Elektra’s buried humanity, which is so ham-handed that it almost cancels out all of the flick’s mildly enjoyable elements.


The film deservedly flopped, and some claimed that ELEKTRA poisoned the well for female-led superhero movies for a time. That’s surely an exaggeration, given that it’s always been difficult to find effective ways to use female leads in either superhero films or in mundane action-flicks. I don’t imagine that at any time there have been tons of female-centric action-scripts stuck in development hell, and despite all the movie’s faults, I find ELEKTRA innocent of that particular crime against art.       





Tuesday, August 17, 2021

URSUS (1961)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

While the peplum-hero Ursus isn't all that well known today, he did have nine films to his credit. That's not bad for a hero whose name was allegedly borrowed from some minor supporting warrior-character in the film QUO VADIS. 

Ursus (Ed Fury) exists in an amorphous Greek era, which can be surmised only from the character names and costumes. He's first seen returning to his homeland from a foreign war, and he soon demonstrates his strongman credits by defending the blind shepherdess Doreide (Mary Marlon) from some rowdies. Ursus and Doreide have known one another since childhood, but Ursus is only concerned with finding his former love Attea. However, he learns that she's been abducted by the warriors of an isolated island, where a cult of bloodthirsty sacrifice holds court. Everyone believes her dead, but Ursus insists on going to the island to find out for himself. Doreide, who clearly loves the big lunk without his catching on, persuades the hero to let her go along.

The structure of URSUS is unusual in that it's close to being a mystery. Usually in stories of captive brides or girlfriends, the viewers see the terrible act in which the woman is captured, so that they are stoked to see the hero go to her rescue. But URSUS has a reason for not showing what's happened to Attea, and for keeping her offstage for over half the film. Possibly some viewers might have caught on once Ursus finally arrives at the court of the ruler who sacrifices females to the local bull-god-- and the ruler is a woman wearing a mask (Moira Orfei). Sure enough, the mystery queen is none other than the missing Attea, who, rather than becoming a sacrifice, somehow wheedled her way into the hierarchy (possibly because one of the priests was in love with her) and then found herself eminently comfortable with sacrificing others.

Now, even if this version of Ursus had been totally naturalistic in his powers, the presence of the sacrificial cult alone would be sufficient to make this an uncanny film. And though I don't know of any archaic religions that sacrificed people to bulls-- leaving out the more legendary story of the Minotaur-- the concept of a bull-god leads to the film's best scene. Peplum films are full of scenarios in which the hero faces some huge beast, whom he slays with only a modicum of trouble. But when Ursus is thrown into an arena to fight a real and very enraged bull, the hero has a pretty tough time killing his bovine opponent. I don't mind the animal-killing fantasy in terms of sheer escapism, but the fact that Ursus gets knocked around quite a bit suggests that the filmmakers wanted to remind the audience just how powerful a big animal really is, in comparison to even a man with uncanny strength. Since Ursus does finally break the bull's neck, I would credit him with that level of power, but even the other action scenes don't become as far-fetched as many other strongman-flicks of the period.

Not surprisingly, the corrupted Attea meets a bad end, and Doreide is rewarded for her steadfast devotion to the hero-- which by itself represents a key psychological aspect of the subgenre. As peplum-pictures go, this is one of the better ones.







Saturday, August 14, 2021

ALI BABA AND THE SACRED CROWN (1962)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*


This was the first of two peplum films featuring a character called Ali Baba. To be sure, in my review of the second, I pointed out that the second film seems to have originally been based on a "Sinbad" figure, and that it may have been renamed just because the second film also starred the leading lady from this one, Bella Cortez, though the actor playing Ali Baba was a new guy. Here the billing for Ali Baba goes to "Rod Flash Iloosh," who was elsewhere billed as "Richard Lloyd" in HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES.


Lloyd's Ali Baba is first seen as an Arabian player conquering many female hearts. Nevertheless, he must be a good guy, because the "Wizard of Sesame" summons the hero to his cave-- which of course opens with the requisite magic word. Ali Baba must deliver the titular "sacred crown" to the rightful ruler of the country-- but not to that evil lord Mustapha Bey. Naturally, Mustapha wants the crown to legitimize his rule of the realm, though he's also attempting to marry Lota, daughter of another local shiek. (I note in passing that the English dub makes her name sound like "Lolo.") Lota (Cortez) isn't crazy about marrying Mustapha, but for her father's sake, she proposes the idea that she might be able to trick Ali Baba into revealing the crown's location with her woman's wiles. After that, most of the action consists of the villains trying to get the crown from the hero, Almost inevitably, Lota finds herself deeply attracted to the Arabian muscleman. In fact, there's one scene that strongly suggests that they get it on before marriage, complete with her cursing him for not taking it more seriously. Lota later gets the chance to do away with the wounded hero, but she settles for torturing him by cauterizing his wound. 

The feisty romance is the main element of interest here, but the script also tosses in some imaginative elements. At least one door in Lota's palace seems to open magically, and in another scene Ali Baba speaks with a disembodied spirit that, fittingly enough, calls itself "Sinbad," at least in the English dub. There are the usual strongman feats, as well as a spiked deadfall-pendulum that consigns Mustapha's enemies to death. It's not one of the best of the peplum-entries, but it's considerably better than its sequel-in-name-only.





THE AZTEC MUMMY (1957)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

This film was the first of three "Aztec Mummy" films, all of which were shot at the same time on the same sets and with mostly the same casts. Like some of the other Mexican series-films at the time, whether about vampires or masked wrestlers, all three films seem to share a loose continuity. Allegedly Mexican studios were only licensed to shoot short films under these circumstances, so here we see director Rafael Portillo anticipating the much later practice of producer Alexander Salkind.


The main story is clearly indebted to both the Universal mummy- films and the then-current "Bridey Murphy" reincarnation craze. Mexican neuro-scientist Almada seeks to find a subject for his process of hypnotic regression, and he finds one in his fiancee Flor (Rosita Arenas). Under hypnosis the young woman spins a tale of Aztec times, when her previous incarnation Xochitl (also Arenas) was marked for sacrifice. However, a warrior named Popoca wanted to save her life, and tried to help her flee the Aztec priesthood. The lovers get caught, and after Xochitl is sacrificed, Popoca is given a drug that turns him into a guardian-mummy for a pyramid-tomb. 


Flor returns to herself, though she suffers some strain after identifying with a sacrificial victim. She guides Almada and some fellow seekers to the tomb, where they unearth-- sans any archaeological tools or training-- the burial chamber of Popoca. Almada doesn't believe in the legend of the living mummy, so he takes away a breastplate from the chamber. However, Popoca then revives to protect the tomb-treasure, and he rises to seek out the thieves. The recrudescent warrior beholds Flor, and, mistaking her for Xochitl, takes her back to his tomb. At the confusing climax, he comes close to slaying Flor, possibly with the idea of making her into a fellow mummy, along the lines of the 1932 Karloff classic. However, Almada and friends rescue Flor and bury the mummy once more.

The oddest element of MUMMY is the presence of "El Murcielago," a dark-clad criminal who wears a face-mask like one of the villains from an American cliffhanger serial. "The Bat" really doesn't do anything in the story aside from lurking around, having somehow got the notion that he might be able to abscond with the tomb-treasure. I confess that I might have missed something justifying his presence, since I watched a Mexican DVD with no English subtitles. Still, the Bat becomes a much more significant presence in the next two films, so here his debut is in the nature of the "Phantom Zone Villains" who appear briefly in the 1978 SUPERMAN. It's because of the essential continuity of these three films that I label AZTEC MUMMY a combative drama, even though the mummy's one fight with the Bat's gangsters is not memorable.

As many other reviewers, Portillo takes a really long time to introduce the mummy, burning up a lot of scenes filming what I assume to be real Aztec pyramids. I give the film a fair mythicity rating only because it does capture a little of the feel of modern life being menaced by demons of the dead past.


THE GOLDEN MISTRESS (1954)

 









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


The above lobby card doesn't entirely lie: GOLDEN MISTRESS was filmed on the real island of Haiti, and voodoo does play a big role in the story (though most of the action takes place at sea, not in Caribbean forests, much less any "jungles.") It's certainly not a "spectacular" film of any kind, though actor/director Abner Biberman, under the name Joel Judge, succeeds at least in capturing much of the natural (but not necessarily "pagan") wonders of the terrain. However, the story is less wonderful, being padded with lots of location scenery and a pedestrian treasure-hunting plot.

Carl Dexter, an old explorer (Biberman), steals a small golden idol from a remote Haitian tribe known as "the Untamed." The people got that name because though they were brought to the Caribbean as slaves, they rebelled and became famed as raiders, before mysteriously disappearing from contact with other tribes. Carl tells his grown daughter Ann (Rosemary Bowe) that this small golden statue is one of hundreds consigned to a local lake near the haunts of the Untamed, and that they can be rich if they can obtain the treasure. However, someone among the Untamed is a voodoo priest, and Carl is struck down by a curse. 

Ann, seemingly less preoccupied with treasure than with validating her late father's desires, seeks the help of a footloose treasure-hunter, Bill Buchanan (John Agar). Bill and Ann don't get along from the start-- he tosses her off his wharf, and she has him arrested-- but eventually they make nice and agree to collaborate on seeking the treasure. 

When Bill and Ann visit a tribe with whom Bill is on friendly terms, more voodoo-inspired bad luck seems to dog the treasure-hunters' trail. In contrast to many similar films, there's not much doubt that the power of voodoo is real, but the script is not very curious about the religion's etiology, aside from showing a number of scenes of natives dancing around, possibly inspired by the voodoo deities. In one instance, though, when voodoo *may* be responsible for sending a shark after a native boy diving in the ocean, this works out well for Bill, who saves the boy's life and wins the help of the kid's father as a guide. (The arrangement doesn't work out nearly so well for the "redshirt" guide, though.) Eventually the script loses interest in mystic curses, and Bill and Ann fall into the hands of the Untamed, who plan to turn the treasure-hunters into two big weenie roasts. The duo escape death without the treasure, but by that time they've found true love.

The oddest thing about MISTRESS is that the voodoo stuff isn't clearly seen to emanate from one particular source, though there is a brief glimpse of a sorcerer in regular clothes, glowering after some character dies. Most voodoo films  place a great deal of emphasis on some magician as an opponent for the sympathetic characters, but here the curses just seem to happen whenever it's convenient for the script. Because the movie exploits the horror of voodoo so minimally, the Bill-Ann romance takes center stage. Bill performs some dauntless scuba-diving feats but there's so little real action that MISTRESS proves to be a subcombative adventure. Oh, and there's a cute kid who provides the usual lame kid-humor. Fans of John Agar and voodoo movies are the only probable audience for this curiosity.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*



To recap my conclusion from the end of my WRATH OF KHAN review, it would appear that “the death of Spock” was revised into “the death and resurrection of Spock” during the filming of the second film. On top of that, SEARCH FOR SPOCK also fostered the resurrection of Leonard Nimoy’s career. It seems to be common knowledge that Nimoy’s directorial duties on the third and fourth TREK films were part of the deal for his reprise of Spock, whose death supposedly came about because the actor didn’t wish to play the pointy-eared Vulcan any more. In truth, Nimoy doesn’t play Spock in SEARCH for more than a few minutes, which once more places the bulk of the dramatic arc on Shatner’s Kirk, and, to a lesser extent, upon Kelley’s McCoy. The sidelining of Spock also gives the other legacy cast-members more things to do in the script, and some other sequels would follow suit in punching up the duties of the support-cast.


I can well believe that writer Harve Bennett had to do some serious rethinking to cope with the resurrection plotline, for SEARCH begins in a very fragmented manner. At the end of WRATH, Saavik, David Marcus and his mother Carol are all on the Enterprise as the starship leaves behind the coffin with Spock’s body on the newly created Genesis planet. The opening of SEARCH seems to pick up a short time later, with the ship returning to Earth for an overhaul. But since Kirk’s monologue mentions that many of the “trainees” from the crew have been “reassigned,” the logical implication is that somewhere along the way the Enterprise stopped at a starbase to offload the unwanted crew-members (not that any viewer would have noticed if the previous crew had stuck around). A starbase rendezvous would also provide a rationale for the disappearance of Carol Marcus, though not so much her near-total elision from the storyline. Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) and David Marcus are said to be exploring the Genesis planet, though it will be some time before the viewer learns that they’re doing so with the help of an entirely separate starship, the Grissom—to which they logically would have transferred at a starbase. All of these excursions are designed to serve Bennett’s plot, though they don’t cohere well with a later development: that the Federation, having learned of the controversial creation of the Genesis world, attempts to lock down all information about the matter—which would be harder to do, if many of the witnesses are scattered about.


The Federation is more efficient in locking down the Enterprise itself, for during Kirk’s absence the bureaucrats have decided to de-commission the aged ship for good, thus continuing the “being old sucks” trope from WRATH. Upsetting as this kick in the teeth is to the returning heroes, it’s more daunting to learn that Doctor McCoy seems to be losing his mind, talking as if he himself is the deceased Spock and babbling about undergoing some ritual on Planet Vulcan. Soon enough, Kirk will learn that prior to suffering death, Spock left his “katra,” a sort of mental soul-construct, impressed upon McCoy. Apparently the Vulcan science officer did so with no expectation of resurrection as such, since in his last moments he doesn’t know his body’s going to be deposited on Genesis, or that the power of the terraforming magic is going to wreak changes on his body.


Saavik and David find out soon enough, though. Expecting to find only plant-life on the nascent planet, they beam down and find that the microbes upon Spock’s coffin have been unnaturally enlarged by the influence of the Genesis process. More importantly, the two explorers find the casket empty—shades of the empty tomb of the Messiah! Soon they find a Vulcan child of ten years’ age, and David concludes, rather handily, that the process has “regenerated” Spock. The reasoning is sloppy—did Genesis bring Spock back to life, reverse his age to childhood, and then start him on the course of rapid aging once more? The temptation is to believe that for some reason—possibly because of Nimoy’s directorial duties—the filmmakers didn’t want to simply resurrect Dead Spock. De-aging and re-aging him would seem to give the science officer a brand-new life, rather than unearthing a zombie Vulcan. However, a further wrinkle is that Kid Spock has no functioning mentality, implicitly because he’s missing the soul that Dead Spock transferred to McCoy.


Kirk breaks Federation regs to hijack the decommissioned Enterprise, using it to bring McCoy and his Vulcan baggage into contact with the empty shell of Spock’s rejuvenated body. But while the Federation people are on their errand of mercy, the Klingons, led by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), have learned about Genesis, and they, like Khan before them, hope to weaponize the terraforming process. SEARCH is arguably the first film to strongly depart from the TV show’s dominant image of Klingons as “sneaky Russians” in order to build up the aliens’ image as fierce, uncompromising warriors. However, the Klingons in the film are still just superficial villains here, and Kruge in particular is a shallow character, despite Bennett’s attempts to give him gravitas. (In one scene on Genesis, Kruge outwrestles a hostile serpent-thing with sheer strength rather than killing it instantly with his ray-gun.)


The Klingons arrive at Genesis before the Enterprise. They destroy the Grissom and beam down to the planet to interrogate the two survivors and their Vulcan charge. However, the world is beginning to come apart at the seams, and David reveals that he secretly infused the terraforming process with a forbidden substance, “protomatter.” In effect, Bennett is obliged to recant the miraculous accomplishment touted by the script of WRATH. Genesis is no longer a godlike reshaping of brute matter; it’s a false deity brought into being by the hubris of Kirk’s callow offspring (Carol’s contribution also being ignored), and in the end-scenes the Genesis-world starts looking a lot more like Hell than Eden. Further, Kid Spock, because he was brought into being by Genesis, is vaguely bonded to the chaos of the planet. But since Kid Spock must live to become New Spock, David is sacrificed upon the altar of plot exigency. I don’t imagine anyone mourned the loss of his ill-defined character, but for Kirk the death of his only son is yet another body-blow—shortly followed by the destruction of his ship, the original Enterprise. In the next film, of course, Kirk will get a new Enterprise, and New Spock will get a second lease on life, purely thanks to David Marcus’s overreaching. But the intense drama of Kirk’s suffering—and to a lesser extent, that of his crew-members—provides such a strong catharsis that the rest of the film feels like an afterthought.


SEARCH is a decent enough film despite its muddled plotlines. Bennett might have increased the appeal of the climax had he given Kruge a more articulate character; as it is, the Klingon commander often seems erratic, acting purely to shore up plot-points. The rebirth of New Spock is adequately handled (though the star-turn of Dame Judith Anderson as a Vulcan muck-a-muck is a waste), and the film ends on a note of suspense akin to EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: how will New Spock cope with his predecessor's brave old world, and what will the Federation do to the renegade crew of the annihilated Enterprise?

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*


Whatever factors motivated the producers of STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE to launch the Trek-franchise into a Kubrick-esque terrain, that ambition was erased by the negative blowback to the "motionless picture." Thus WRATH OF KHAN has many of the elements that MOTION PICTURE neglected: pulse-pounding action, intense dramatic moments and even a smattering of humor. On top of that, circumstances made it possible to sell the film with the death of a major character, one who had always seemed integral to the popularity of the teleseries.

When I first watched the theatrical release of WRATH, I had no doubt that Paramount, as represented by executive producer/co-scripter Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer, was on the right track in this iteration of STAR TREK. The movie might not have had any of the philosophical depth of, say, "The Apple," but WRATH was a perfect incarnation of bracing thrillers like "Balance of Terror" and "Obsession." Indeed, the somewhat dumbed-down "Moby Dick" tropes of "Obsession" are the driving force of WRATH, far more than the themes of "Space Seed," the TV-episode to which the movie is theoretically a sequel. 

Predictably enough, WRATH also does not pick up on anything from MOTION PICTURE, except the inevitable acknowledgment that the whole legacy cast of actors were getting long in the tooth, ranging from those in their forties (Takei, Koenig) to those in their fifties or higher (Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Nichols). This time there's no overt talk of  the young forcing out the old, except insofar as Mister Spock is now training a much younger protege, Lieutenant Saavik (a perpetually grim-faced Kirstie Alley). Nevertheless, Admiral Kirk is even more conscious of his age than before. Once he could've taken on three thralls of Triskelion at once, and now he needs glasses to read doleful passages from Dickens. Prior to regaining command of the Enterprise once more, Kirk mourns his lost youth-- which isn't a plotline of great originality, though it's more development than any other character gets.

The villain, though reduced from his previous status to an Ahab chasing The Admiral with the Puffy Hairpiece, works well against the legacy cast. Ricardo Montalban was in his sixties when he reprised his role of the domineering superman Khan Noonien Singh, and he gives a barnstorming performance equal to Shatner's. True, Khan doesn't look all that great dressed up in Mad Max regalia, but he fits in with the idea that Kirk is now encountering the phantoms of his vanished youth.

Possibly a more formidable phantom is one of Kirk's many old love-interests, albeit one never seen on the series. Doctor Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) isn't a threat in herself, even though she's unleashed a radical new science experiment, "Project Genesis," that could save or imperil the Federation. Carol's most intimidating aspect to Kirk is that she not only gave birth to the child she had by Kirk, but also raised him to manhood without any input from his father. It's intimated that Kirk was aware of the existence of his grown son David (Merritt Butrick), though the script never suggests what rift kept the former lovers apart. 

Project Genesis itself might be loosely interpreted as a cosmicized symbol of female creativity, though it's of such magnitude that it seems on a level with the sort of miracle-working aliens the Enterprise used to encounter. Genesis is the last word in terraforming, in that, by some never explained mechanism, its power can instantly convert anything it touches into a verdant planetary body. (This doesn't make a lot of sense when it's used on a dead planet, and even less when it's employed on an inert spaceship.) In any case, the Genesis experiment is responsible for Chekhov, now a Commander, checking out a planet to use for the experiment. There the former ensign and his new crewmates are shanghaied and brainwashed by Khan and his surviving followers. There's no real discussion of the circumstances of "Space Seed" that led to Kirk's consigning Khan's people to a backward world; had one never seen the episode, one might think Kirk was playing Long John Silver, marooning an enemy to get rid of him. Anyway, Khan takes possession of Chekhov's current vessel, which becomes the "Pequod" with which Khan will hunt down his hated enemy.

The dueling starships of Khan and Kirk finally makes it possible for the heroes to fight a battle that doesn't look like it's taking place between plastic models. The conflict also makes it possible for at least two characters to fault Kirk for his never having "faced death," only for having "cheated" it. The importance of this psychological insight seems a bit muddled, given that Kirk's very determination not to lose is essentially makes it possible for him to outmaneuver his opponent. The existence of his grown son may even cause Kirk more concern than Khan, though there's not really much closure to this plotline-- except insofar as the admiral is eventually forced to "face death" in the form of losing his best friend.

Watching the film back in the day, I confess that the filmmakers, or at least Leonard Nimoy, totally took me in. Director Meyer has recorded that he started out the project with the understanding that he was doing the story of a hero's death, with no "take-backs." Nimoy , having said very publicly that he didn't want to play Spock any more but was OK with giving the character a noble death, reversed himself during the shooting of WRATH, necessitating the insertion of scenes that would lead to the character's resurrection in THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. Ironically, once Kirk has defeated Khan, the villain makes a last-ditch attempt to pull his "White Whale" down to perdition with him by triggering the Genesis device aboard Khan's hijacked ship. As noted earlier, this gambit leads to the formation of a burgeoning new planet out of a hulk of damaged metal machinery, and though saving the Enterprise costs Spock's life, Khan's spite also makes the Vulcan's future rebirth. Back in The Day, I did not catch the vaguely Christian symbolism of seeing Spock's coffin descend to the Edenic wilderness of the Genesis planet; I took it for granted that Spock was dead-dead. I was moved by the death of a character who seemed to embody all the best aspects of Gene Roddenberry's vision-- thought-provoking philosophy, dramatic conflict and humor. And though I wasn't sorry to see the return of Nimoy's seminal character, subsequent movies would tend to prove that, for all the breast-beating about Kirk's vanished youth, it was Spock whose glory days were well and truly gone.