Friday, October 29, 2021

DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL (1946)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL was the second of four low-budget features released by RKO Pictures. and the last of two films in which actor Morgan Conway played the role. Previous to this, Ralph Byrd had essayed the role in four earlier Republic serials, and he also filled the role in the last two of the RKO films, as well as playing Tracy for one season of a teleseries.

I don't know if the producers of the series knew in advance that this would be Conway's last Tracy performance, but the script almost goes out of its way to minimize the hero's role in the story, in contrast to the first flick, in which Conway is allowed to be relatively dynamic in his battle with the villain Splitface. Here, most of the narrative action is focused on the unremarkable evildoer Cueball (Dick Wessel). 

The story is another iteration of the old "gem thief on the lam" trope. Cueball, who has recently been released from prison, somehow acquires a cache of fabulous diamonds. However, one can't spend diamonds, so Cueball has to try to find underworld contacts able to translate the jewels into ready cash. It doesn't help Cueball's situation that he's a hot-tempered thug-- the kind it's hard to buy as a skilled thief-- and that he kills at least one of the contacts able to set up fencing deals. Cueball's usual method is to strangle his victims with a strap, but there's nothing unusual about either his killings or his appearance-- which is why I rate this film as purely naturalistic.

 Indeed, the most interesting thing about the film for me is the question, "what data might the script have provided about the villain's hairless state that might have given him some uncanny status?" But as things stand, there's nothing to Cueball except the sense that he may go off at any moment and kill someone. Wessel is okay in the role but the viewer will have seen tough thugs by the bushel, so he doesn't offer much fun. The actors who get the best lines this time out are Anne Jeffreys and Ian Keith as, respectively, Tracy's gutsy girlfriend and corny old actor Vitamin Flintheart. 

I am surprised to see on Wikipedia that CUEBALL was cited in 1978 as one of THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME. Such opprobrium is undeserved. CUEBALL is no better or worse than dozens of other B-pictures, able to dish a little minor diversion but otherwise unmemorable. I suspect the authors of the FIFTY WORST books just seized on this flick at random without making any nuanced judgment.



Thursday, October 28, 2021

MANDRAKE (1979)

 






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


I'd seen the TV-movie MANDRAKE only once, on its original broadcast, and really didn't remember much about it. Thus, when I had the chance to re-screen the flick on Youtube, I wasn't expecting anything more than the two deadly-dull CAPTAIN AMERICA films from around the same period.

To my surprise, even though neither writer Rick Husky nor director Harry Falk (apparently no relation to MANDRAKE-creator Lee Falk) had nothing on their resumes but tons of TV-work, the 1979 pilot is a pleasant little adventure. It has all the budget limitations of any other telefilm of the period, and I don't necessarily think the concept would have made for an outstanding series. But as a one-off take on the classic comic-strip magician, television has done much, much worse.

Naturally, some elements of the original strip had to be changed. The hero's partner Lothar was originally an African prince dressed in lionskins and speaking in pidgin English, so that had to go. The new Lothar (Ju-Ti Cumbuka) speaks coherent English, wears suit-clothes, and claims to be descended from an African royal who competed in the Olympics. That said, he doesn't get into as many skull-busting fights as did the original character, and for the most part his role in the telefilm is unnecessary-- not least because the main hero can do hand-to-hand combat as well as his sidekick.

The early version of Mandrake seemed to be a genuine worker of wonders, but after a few years, Lee Falk provided a new rationalization, that all of the seeming miracles were produced by hypnotic persuasion. The version in the telefilm straddles these two. As a child Mandrake is taken in by a Tibetan magician when his plane crashes in the mountains, and even though Mandrake still produces hypnotic illusions, the plot of MANDRAKE insists that psychic phenomena are real, not just contrivances.

The central plot concerns a missing psychic scientist whose daughter seeks out Mandrake's help. While the comic strip hero and his sidekick simply traveled from place to place helping people, the film's heroes have loose ties to some American intelligence agency, though happily the spy-jinks aspect isn't overdone. Mandrake and Lothar go looking for the missing man, and they encounter people who have been turned into mad bombers by some unidentified villain. Indeed, the best thing about the plot is that, unlike the majority of superhero-pilots, the script doesn't immediately reveal who it is (though for a time, a fellow with the dramatic name of "Arkadian," played by Robert Reed, is a suspect). And when the villain is revealed, it's not your "least likely suspect," though it is a person known to the magician-protagonist.

The pace is decent and reasonably engaging, and Anthony Herrera projects decent heroic charisma. It's far from a definitive adaptation of the character, but it puts across the appeal of Mandrake far better than, say, the serial version MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES (1973)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

In its original release this vampire flick was issued under the titles CRYPT OF THE LIVING DEAD and HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES, directed by Julio Salvador with additional footage by American actor-director Ray Danton. I've been told that another version added back some European gore-scenes elided from the 1973 English-language release, and that this version was retitled YOUNG HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES. That was the title on the TV-print I watched, but since I didn't see that much gore, I think in effect I just saw a version closer to the slow-moving 1973 release-- hence my chosen title.

The movie begins with one of its best scenes. After the script establishes that the titular Hannah, a medieval-princess-turned-vampire, is entombed on a Turkish island, an elderly archaeologist intrudes upon her tomb. He's murdered when some cultists devoted to Hannah cause the sarcophagus-- propped up as part of the archaeological investigation-- to fall on the intruder, crushing him to death. Even before escaping her tomb, Hannah (Teresa Gimpera) chalks up her first death.

The son of the dead archeologist arrives on the island to investigate his father's death. Chris Bolton (Andrew Prine) doesn't credit any rumors of vampirism or vampire cultists, despite the remarks of two other English-speaking residents, writer Peter (Mark Damon) and his sister Mary (Patty Shepard). Mary has become a teacher to the Turkish kids in order to stay close to her brother, whom she seems to regard as needing protection, though from what the script never specifies. 

Chris becomes amorous toward Mary, but his main purpose is still to recover his father's body, and that means employing heavy labor to move the sarcophagus. In so doing, the seals containing Hannah are broken. Soon she begins exsanguinating the locals, sometimes in the form of a woman, sometimes in the form of a wolf. Chris takes a long time to get converted, but eventually he spearheads the effort to consign Hannah to the world of the dead.

Not so Peter, who's become a devotee of the vampiress, and who even drugs his sister to make her join his cult. There's an interesting line that suggests that Peter has a bit of a thing for Mary, but his real passion is for Hannah, who even makes him her vamp-slave briefly. However, though Peter is the most interesting character in HANNAH, the script doesn't develop his obsession with the vampire queen.

Technically Hannah is the star of the story, even though she never speaks and is usually seen just flouncing around the island in her white robes. I have no idea as to why Gimpera has no lines, but it contributes to her lack of substantial character-- which could have helped allay the pokiness of Salvador's direction. Only the script's take on vampire mythology gives the film its "fair" mythicity rating here.

BATMAN UNLIMITED: MECHS VS. MUTANTS (2016)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*


As if to mock me for having given a rating of "fair" to the second of the aesthetically problematic "Batman Unlimited" series of DTV flicks, the last in the series is so bad that even the first one looks pretty good by comparison.

While the other two make ample usage of Batman's coterie of Bat-allies and various guest stars, the script for MECHS devotes only minor attention to superhero guests like Flash and Green Arrow. Although Batman and former-Robin Nightwing appear in MECHS, the dramatic focus, so to speak, is that of Damian Wayne, the current Robin (and altered to a teenager to get around any impropriety for using a preteen hero). Instead of being pleasingly arrogant as the character is in the comics, this Damian is deeply conflicted about his status as Batman's partner because he had a really humiliating experience on patrol. Naturally, by movie's end he redeems himself. Big surprise, right?

The "mutants" of  the title are technically various Bat-villains-- Clayface, Bane, and Killer Croc-- who are mutated in kaiju-sized goliaths (along with, for some reason, the METAL MEN opponent Chemo). The main do-badder responsible for these Amazing Colossal Villains is the saturnine Mister Freeze, who gets the idea of turning Gotham City into a winter wonderland where he can walk around without his imprisoning cold-suit. His plan doesn't go much further than this, much less coming up with strategies to keep the superheroes out of his non-existent hair. For good measure, the Penguin, returned from the ANIMAL INSTINCTS episode, renders Freeze some dubious help, but he's mostly there for comedy relief.

Contrary to the title I believe there's just one "mech," a big Bat-mecha that the Caped Crusader operates against the tedious titans. I like kaiju action as much as the next metaphenomenalist, but the fight-scenes are routine and unmemorable-- like the whole worthless production.



DOCTOR STRANGE (2007)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*


Originally I didn't like this DTV version of the origin of Marvel's sorcerer supreme Doctor Strange. However, when I compare it to the 2016 live-action MCU film-- which I'm going to have force myself to review-- I found myself much more taken with the Greg Johnson-Craig Kyle script.

I think on first viewing I wanted a movie more filled with the exoticism and the vaulting imagination of the original 1960s Lee-Ditko comics feature. However, on reconsideration I have to admit that it would be really tough, half a century later, to duplicate the exotic tropes that Lee and Ditko utilized in Strange's origin, which was rooted in pop-fictional ideas about Tibetan mysticism and cultural attitudes about the divisions between East and West. As for the imaginative aspects of the feature, these were possible in an open-ended series, which usually dealt with the hero venturing into dozens of amorphous realities ruled by nasty sorcerous overlords. A stand-alone DTV flick like this one is limited to "Strange's Greatest Foes," which means yet another team-up of Strange's mortal enemy Baron Mordo and Mordo's extradimensional patron Dormammu.

The original comic implies that Doctor Strange alone serves a lonely vigil protecting mankind from the horrors of otherworldly occult menace. Instead STRANGE starts off by establishing that there's a whole coterie of experienced sorcerers who guard Earth against supernatural creatures, and that all of them-- including future villain Baron Mordo-- are supervised by the mighty Tibetan wizard known as the Ancient One. The other wizards are of diverse nationalities, but the script doesn't run this trope into the ground as the 2016 film did, and even the treatment of the comics-character Wong-- a manservant who gets upgraded to a powerful wizard-- doesn't come off as special pleading. Yet the cabalistic coterie does need to cultivate a Sorcerer Supreme, and Wong is the one who takes notice of Doctor Stephen Strange.

As in the comics-origin, Strange starts out as a brilliant neurosurgeon who cares only about making money-- though the script does ameliorate his selfishness, since he tells his former girlfriend and fellow doctor that without money, the big hospitals couldn't operate. Strange also has a thing against working with children, which later becomes important to the plot, and the writers attempt to make this palatable by showing that he still grieves for his dead sister, whom Strange wasn't able to save on the operating table. This is by far the weakest element in the story, being yet another variation of the "had I but done better" trope that Marvel made famous with that other Lee-Ditko creation, Spider-Man. Mercifully, references to the dead sister are kept to a minimum.

As in the original tale, Strange suffers a vehicular injury so that he can't operate any more, and after reducing himself to poverty looking for cures, he receives a message from Wong, summoning him to Tibet for a possible remedy. 

What follows is the backbone of the show, as Strange endures the torturous discipline of a Tibetan monastery and the enmity of Mordo, who senses in Strange a competitor. He thinks he's there for a cure, but the Ancient One, taking his cue from Plato, desires a Sorcerer Supreme who doesn't covet the position, but accepts it as his duty. Strange is ultimately introduced to a magical view of the universe, which suggests that the world of matter can be instantly transformed by the will of a master magician. I won't claim that Johnson and Kyle come up with anything radically innovative in their interpretation of the occult sciences. But these days I often find myself settling for simple lucidity. 

The interest level drops a bit as Strange accepts his role in protecting the world from otherworldly villains, specifically that of the magical-energy creature Dormammu, who's using Earth's children as gateways for invasion. But the artists on the DTV come up with a pleasing, more streamlined costume for the hero, and Strange's use of transformation-magic makes for some amusing. On the debit side, neither of the villains have any strong personality, and the only strong symbolic discourse here is the one between the main hero and his ancient tutor. However, that proves to be enough to make DOCTOR STRANGE one of the better efforts from Marvel Animation.





Monday, October 25, 2021

BEWITCHED: "MOTHER, MEET WHAT'S HIS NAME" (1964)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


I've mentioned the BEWITCHED teleseries from time to time on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, but generally I haven't thought any individual episodes were worth analyzing. Nevertheless, I always thought that there was some mythic potential in the series about a sexy witch trying to live in the mortal world with her husband. Upon re-watching this episode, the fourth one of the first season, I got a sense of the underlying symbolic currents that may have helped the show endure for eight seasons, despite a LOT of very mediocre stories.

The first four episodes essentially set up the parameters for all the succeeding shows. In the first one, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) marries ad-agency copywriter Darrin Stevens (Dick York) without first revealing that she's a witch, with a whole family of witches behind her. Darrin's love allows him to take the revelation in stride, but he insists that from now on Samantha must assume the life of a mortal and refrain from using her magic. Samantha utterly fails to do so in this episode, more or less falling in line with the predictions of her mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead) that Samantha cannot be untrue to her own nature. Endora does not meet Darrin in this episode, or in the next two. The second one introduces the proximate reason for Darrin's injunction against magic, nosy neighbor Mrs. Kravitz, while the third one places Samantha in the first of many conflicts with Darrin's ad agency, when she turns an obnoxious client into a dog.

"What's His Name," the fourth episode, starts the long war between Darrin and his mother-in-law. Samantha pays lip service to doing things in the mortal way, but since she's seen using her powers to make her work around the house more convenient, it's evident that she's very much her mother's daughter. Endora shows up to reiterate that a witch cannot live in the mortal world-- a point reinforced by the presence of more nosy neighbors-- but Samantha tries to win over her mother by inviting her to a dinner party to meet Darrin. Even before meeting Darrin, it's evident that Endora has far fewer scruples about messing with mortals: when she's annoyed by some neighbor-kids, she simply uses a spell to tie them up. It's not impossible to see Endora as symbolizing the willful side of Samantha, the part that really doesn't want to obey her husband-- not least because it does mean the partial erasure of her own identity.

When Darrin and Endora meet that evening, it's mutual hate at first sight. Darrin wants no interactions with Samantha's weird family, and Endora threatens to turn Darrin into an artichoke. This is one of the very few Endora episodes wherein Endora does NOT wreak some magical alteration on her son-in-law's helpless mortal body, and it's probably the first in which Samantha asserts that she can't do anything to cancel the spells of another witch. To the extent that Endora represents Samantha's  own rebelliousness, one might regard this claim as Samantha's tacit consent to tolerate the comical acts of violence her mother perpetrates upon Darrin. Indeed, it occurred to me for the first time that every time Endora or any other witch changes the way Darrin looks or acts, Darrin gets some part of his own identity erased, even as he repeatedly insists that his wife must.

The script for "What's His Name" makes two attempts to disassociate Samantha from Endora. Prior to meeting Endora, Darrin wonders if she's going to be some kind of monster, and also asks if Samantha favors her mother. The witch-wife claims that she favors her father, which is odd given that the character did not appear for six more episodes, and when he did appear, played by Maurice Evans, he didn't look markedly more like Montgomery than Moorehead did. It's in this episode that Endora denies Darrin's identity by continually pretending not to remember his real name. More significantly, after Endora leaves after delivering her dire threats, Samantha attempts to soothe Darrin's ruffled feelings by claiming "you married me, not my mother." Despite that assurance, for the next eight seasons, Endora was the hag who most often rode Darrin's back, despite the introduction of numerous other fractious family-members who upset the ad-man's homey applecart. Clearly the scriptwriters all knew that the trope of conflict between a married man and his mother-in-law had stood the test of time, and so Endora remained the biggest pain in Darrin's ass from first to last.

Most of the show's scripts represented Samantha making spirited defenses of her husband's well-being, but a few played with the notion that Darrin was a toy in the hands of two capricious females. In the first season episode "A Change of Face," Darrin lies napping on the couch. Endora, who claims that Darrin's not handsome enough, alters his facial features. Samantha gets into the game, as if he were a human Mister Potato-Head, and they both wreak changes on his physiognomy until he wakes up and gets mad. In the fourth-season episode episode "If They Never Met," Endora becomes particularly aggressive about playing tricks on Darrin. Samantha convinces Endora to lay off, but by that time Darrin's become so overwrought that he starts a fight with Samantha. He accuses her of being complicit in his tortures: "it's been that way since we got married. You and her, against me, and I'm the one who suffers!" The remainder of the episode steers away from this equivalence though, as Endora intervenes to show Samantha what would have happened to Darrin had the two of them never married. Naturally, the alternate history doesn't do anything to alter the fundamental unity of the young marrieds, but it's the only time that Darrin seems to suspect that Samantha might embody a little more of her mother's defiance than appearances suggest.

The only other potential myth of the overall series pertains to the conflicts between Darrin's job and the unstable universe of magic. Other fantasy-comedies had exploited the tension between a stuffy real-world existence and supernatural weirdness-- notably Thorne Smith's novel TOPPER and its many adaptations-- but the idea of making Darrin an ad-writer had greater potential. On the surface, the ad agency was a respectable business-- but in another sense, Darrin and everyone else at the agency made money by making up charming falsehoods to beguile consumers. Thus Darrin, even while he insists on Samantha's conformity, also works in a profession that practices deception. Thus countless episodes hinged on the idea that one of the witchy spells on Darrin or other characters would endanger one of the agency's accounts, thus putting Darrin's livelihood at risk. In a few episodes, circumstances force Darrin to "speak truth to power," to convince clients to sell their goods based on their real appeal, or to improve the goods to keep up with the times. But the producers of the lightweight series certainly had no interest in overt satire of advertising or anything else, and so most of the content regarding the ad-business is negligible as myth. That said, Endora has become the archetypal image of "the mother-in-law from hell," even though few episodes are as psychologically dense as "What's His Name."


Thursday, October 21, 2021

THE BLOODY VAMPIRE (1962)

 








PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, metaphysical*


The Spanish director Miguel Morayta gave Mexican cinema what may be its best vampire film, at least in terms of visuals. While many Mexican horror films wear their derivative nature on their sleeves as it were, Morayta, who also co-wrote EL VAMPIRO SANGRIENTA, seems to be striving to come up with a vampire mythology all his own.

To be sure, THE BLOODY VAMPIRE is far from a perfect film, even going by the U.S.-dubbed version. While I enjoyed all of the visuals revolving around the titular bloodsucker, the risibly named Count Von Frankenhausen, Morayta is not so inspired with his fearless vampire hunters. The director seems to burn at least twenty minutes of film time, having the leader, Count Cagliostro (named for the 16th-century adventurer/magician), discuss with his aides all of Morayta's unique takes on vampire mythology. These inventions include the notion that there are both "living" and "dead" vampires, with the dead ones being the only ones who rise from their coffins at night, and that vampires can best be stopped with "clannic acid," a substance taken from the mandragora plant. These talkfests are fascinatingly dull, as are the vampire hunters Cagliostro, his daughter Ines, and her handsome young fiancee Riccardo. Their one good scene takes place at the film's opening, when the hunters observe from hiding the phantom carriage of Frankenhausen, which makes no sound as it travels and is driven by a cassocked skeleton. 

None of Morayta's vamp-mythology adds up to much, though we do see the vamp-hunters staking out a tree where a thief has been hanged, in accordance with the legend that in such places the mandragora plant blooms. (The legend also says it's because the plant is fed by the ejaculate of the hanged man, though of course that doesn't make it into this film.) All the best scenes take place at Frankenhausen's castle, and for once, this location doesn't look like it was cobbled together from old Universal movies. Morayta's sets look like a place designed to be lived in, with its own unique decor.



Frankenhausen also has a bit of a REBECCA-like family problem. He's been stalking about, making young women into vampiric consorts (though only one is actually seen). This pisses off his non-vampire wife Eugenia, seen above threatening her husband with a metal spear. Apparently Morayta's vampires can still spawn, since it's said that they have an adult daughter away at school (never seen here, though she figures into the sequel INVASION OF THE VAMPIRES). Eugenia can't do much, though, especially since Frankenhausen has a fanatically loyal servant, Frau Hildegarde (the main reason I invoked REBECCA, with its earlier usage of an obsessed female servant to the lord of the manor).

Eventually the vampire hunters stop talking long enough to go vampire-hunting, and though there are still some slow spots, there's a moderately exciting climax when they force Frankenhausen to go on the run-- which he does, until he pops up again in the aforementioned sequel. I screened the second film some years back, without having seen BLOODY VAMPIRE, so it will be interesting to see if INVASION lives up to the better moments of its first part.

I EAT YOUR SKIN (1964)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


Writer-director Del Tenney might not have made a great deal of impact in the world of sixties B-films, but over the years  searchers after horror have made him something of a legend of "films so bad they're good." This accusation isn't entirely deserved. Tenney is only known for three B's, all directed in quick succession circa 1964: THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, and ZOMBIE-- the last one so mediocre that it didn't even find a distributor at the time. Years later, packager Jerry Gross dusted off the black-and-white B-film ZOMBIE, retitled it I EAT YOUR SKIN, and successfully released it in a double bill with a 1971 film, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD. 

Even in 1964, SKIN-- the last movie Tenney filmed in the sixties-- looks terribly old-fashioned, striving futilely for for the light touch of such Universal B-films as HORROR ISLAND. Tenney starts off by introducing the film's hero Tom Harris (William Joyce) as a successful writer whose favorite avocation is messing around with women. In fact, he's just got mixed up with a married woman with a very jealous husband, so when Tom's publisher offers to send the writer to a Caribbean island for research purposes, Tom's happy to pick up stakes. Publisher Duncan also goes along for the ride, and brings his brassy loudmouth wife Coral as well, possibly with the idea of keeping Tom's nose to the grindstone. All this folderol sounds like it ought to be entertaining, but it comes off as tedious, particularly because most of Tenney's camerawork is stodgy and unimpressive.

One downside of the trip: the island is nicknamed Voodoo Island, and Tom's supposed to research the Caribbean religion for the forthcoming book. Duncan helpfully explains that there's a scientist there, Doctor Biladeau, who's hoping to use the poisonous snakes there for cancer research. Duncan also speaks of armies of walking dead-- "I presume you'd call them zombies"-- and of sacrificial rites. Yet nothing Duncan says sells Tom on the project more than the claim that on Voodoo Island the women outnumber the men five to one (though there's no strong evidence of this in the film proper). At any rate, Duncan charters a flight to the island, but it runs low on fuel and has to make an unscheduled landing on the beach near a jungle.

To Tenney's credit, he doesn't keep the viewer waiting long for his first zombie. Tom goes wandering in the jungle for provisions, and is lucky enough to spy a fetching blonde damsel bathing in a river. Then a zombie, complete with saucer-eyes and raddled skin, pops out of the jungle to menace the girl. Tom rushes to her defense, but somehow loses track of both the girl and the zombie. Minutes later, when Tom seeks out the plane's pilot, the zombie pops up again and attacks them both, proving himself immune to gunfire. A jeep full of armed men appears and drives the zombie off.

The men in the jeep then escort the travelers to the home of Doctor Biladeau, who welcomes them and makes introductions to both his assistant Bentley and his lovely young daughter Janine, who is of course the damsel from the river. Tom and Janine flirt a little, though she warns him that she knows jui-jitsu (another thing never seen in the film). However, though Biladeau claims not to credit rumors of zombie armies, that same evening a small band of saucer-eyed shamblers try to abduct Janine. Biladeau then admits that the local natives have a thing for "blonde virgins" in their sacrificial rites because their African ancestors once had great success killing a blonde woman for their gods. (Note: though Tenney makes up a lot of stuff, and his zombies are basically SF-creations, he does at least use some genuine voodoo-terms, like the name of the African deity Damballah-Wedo.)

After two or three references to "virgins" in the film, it's almost funny when Tom infiltrates Janine's room-- whether out of genuine concern for her feelings, or just to make a conquest, one can't tell. The script doesn't specifically say that Tom deflowers Janine, but later they seem to have become serious about each other, for Tom urges the girl to leave the island with him. Janine will not leave her father, however.

No viewer will be particularly surprised by the revelation that Biladeau has been using his experimental snake venom-- "irradiated" snake venom, no less-- to change living islanders into zombies. How this is supposed to help cancer research, the script does not say, but Tenney does set things up to make it seem as if Biladeau is the prime mover behind the zombie cult. Yet when it's revealed that Bentley is the real mastermind, there's no emotional impact to the desultory revelation. Most of the 'action" is uninvolving, save for a memorable scene in which a zombie holding a box of dynamite destroys the travelers' charter-plane. Still, the good guys escape by boat and Biladeau destroys his whole lab with one of those convenient "blow up everything" devices. 

Though I haven't seen Tenney's other two horror-flicks in some time, my memory is that I EAT YOUR SKIN's mediocrity puts it right in the middle between the sheer dopiness of HORROR OF PARTY BEACH and the relative quality of CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE. Future re-viewings will determine whether my memories play me false on this.

 


 


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

CRASH AND BURN (1990)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Though CRASH AND BURN was filmed by Empire Pictures in the same year as ROBOT JOX, and was even re-titled ROBOT JOX 2 in some markets, CRASH's use of giant human-driven "mecha" is far less important to its story. Indeed, there's only one such fighting-machine in the whole story.

CRASH takes place in a post-apocalyptic future devastated by economic chaos brought on by computer manipulation. Like most post-apocs, the collapse is an excuse to set the whole film in some barren desert, as short-hand for the loss of societal richness. But whereas many such films have to deal with roving raiders, CRASH's scripter J.S. Cardone concentrates on a counter-revolution against Unicom, an oppressive government, never seen except through its representatives. Perhaps because Unicom gained its power through a computer breakdown, they pre-emptively forbid the surviving human communities to have access to higher mechanism. This means not only computers, but also the huge robot-mecha that used to be commonplace.

The principal hero, Tyson Keen (Paul Ganus), is one such representative. He's sent to deliver goods to an out-of-the-way television station, apparently underwritten by Unicom, even though the crotchety manager Lathan (Ralph Waite) has no problem taking on-air shots against the government and its uncertain battles with the Resistance. Keen doesn't intend to stay, but in the grand tradition of 1948's KEY LARGO, he's forced to remain at the station by an impending "thermal storm." This means that he has to mingle with Lathan, Lathan's spunky teen granddaughter Arren (Megan Ward), an obnoxious TV-host, and an assortment of other functionaries. But then CRASH diverts into the terrain of the "science fiction mystery," as Lathan is slain by someone staying at the station. 

Cardone almost certainly borrows a few tropes from John Carpenter's THE THING (who among us is a killer) and from ALIEN (the killer is an android sent by Unicom to do the government's dirty work). Nevertheless, Megan Ward's performance as Arren overcomes many of the generic stumbling-blocks, in that she has boyish traits (she seeks to revive a cast-off mining robot she calls "Dv8") while seeking to deal with her girlish teen crush on the good-looking Tyson. 

The film is also enlivened by several strong action-sequences, as Tyson and Arren have to battle Lathan's mechanical killer (cue THE TERMINATOR tropes). Paul Ganus is a little dull, but most of the rest of the cast gives this minor effort their all.





Monday, October 18, 2021

LAWLESS EMPIRE (1945), LARAMIE (1949)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


I was considering never bothering to look at the Durango Kid series again, since almost every episode is nearly a duplicate of every other one. However, I happened to check out a Youtube copy of LAWLESS EMPIRE.

In terms of general plot, EMPIRE pulls out what's possibly the favorite chestnut of the B-westerns: a well-dressed, well-educated villain seeks to plunder one or more ranches from their rightful owners, and the hero intervenes to save one or more salt-of-the-earth common folk from the swindlers. EMPIRE doesn't have any new variations on this main theme, but there are a few nice touches. When evil Blaze Howard interviews his next choice for a town marshal-- who is none other than Steve Something, the other identity of the masked Durango Kid-- he shows the candidate a wall-display showing a bunch of badges, guns and holsters taken from previous marshals. I like the idea of an evildoer who blatantly keeps tokens from the lawmen killed by his henchmen, while the villain himself pretends to be a bastion of respectability. Steve Something, not fazed by the display, chooses one of the badges, and accepts his next assignment: to bring in the Durango Kid, who's been hassling Blaze's operations.

The only other touches worth mentioning in the ho-hum plot relate to the way Blaze's henchmen fear the Durango Kid. Often in these toss-offs, Durango comes off as no more than Roy Rogers in a mask, not least because like Rogers, Durango generally manages to corral his owlhoots without taking life. Yet some of Blaze's men have a holy dread of Durango, crediting the masked crusader with having filled a entire "boot hill" with dead outlaws.

During this period grizzled Dub Taylor takes over the duties of comedy relief from Smiley Burnette, and Taylor's a little funnier-- but only just.



Just today, I decided I would pick another Durango at random-- and sure enough, my earlier antipathy for the series was justified. The town for which the film is named barely has anything to do with the story, since most of the action takes place at an army-fort or out on the prairie. The dimestore plot is all about a bad guy who tries to force the cavalry to attack a peaceful tribe of Indians. Steve Something, who's some sort of government agent in this episode, becomes the Durango Kid and keeps the peace with barely any action to speak of. The only slight interest this oater sustains is that the principal Indian brave is played by Jay Silverheels, roughly a year before he became famous for playing Tonto in the 1949-1957 teleseries.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

KNIGHTS OF TERROR (1963)


 



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


KNIGHTS OF TERROR is a very basic swashbuckler that seems to borrow tropes from both ZORRO and from the "Doctor Syn" novels. Taking place in the 1500s, the setting uses a melange of different character-names, some sounding Spanish (Paolo, Christina) and some East European (Vladimir, Mirko). The titular knights ride around a particular duchy, raiding houses and killing people, and they're so elusive that some people believe that they're ghosts who have taken human form. Like the smugglers from the "Doctor Syn" novels, the riders also wear grotesque masks to further the illusion of their being spirits.

While all this is going on, evil Captain Mirko (Yves Vincent) seeks to force the gorgeous Princess Christine (Scilla Gabel) to marry him. Fortunately for the young woman, a more appealing young man, one Paolo (Tony Russell) comes into the picture, and even meets Christine for the first time in a confessional booth, much as Zorro met his lady-love. Paolo occasionally goes about in a domino mask but when he's unmasked no one, including Mirko, knows who he is. Some of Paolo's allies also wear masks, which reminded me of Zorro's legion of assistants.

The script drops a few broad hints as to who Paolo and his allies are, and the Big Reveal doesn't hold any surprises. There's also no surprise that Mirko is behind the Knights of Terror for some reason, so this time you have two sets of masked swashbucklers in opposition. There are a few good swordfights, and there's good chemistry between Russell and Gabel, but not much else.





HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

No Hercules here: as the above poster indicates, this was originally an "Ursus" film, roughly the third before the demise of the loose franchise. It takes place somewhere in Central Asia, as suggested by the Turkish tribal name of the Kirghiz. However, the attire of the players suggests the likelihood that the filmmakers were recycling costumes from earlier films, possibly 1961's URSUS AND THE TARTAR PRINCESS, a thoroughly naturalistic film in which Ursus is a supporting character with no unusual strength (which is one reason I won't review that one here).

Whatever the provenance of the costumes, the script seems to have taken everything that was interesting about the story of Ursus's debut adventure and done it wrong. URSUS was a fairly intriguing story of a strongman searching for his lost beloved, while accompanied by a young woman who also loves him. The story, structured rather like a mystery, ends when the hero learns that his beloved is evil and rejects her.

Ursus (Reg Park) is from the beginning in love with lovely Amiko (Mireille Granelli). The hero also hangs out with a local tribe of Kirghiz, one of whom is the slave girl Katya (Maria Teresa Orsini), who's occasionally seen riding a horse like a male tribesman. The Kirghiz are being repeatedly menaced by a mysterious beast that slays cattle and men alike. At the same time, Zeretelli, an evil usurper, schemes to solidify his power base by marrying Amiko, his cousin and a woman with some aristocratic lineage. Zeretelli thus has good reason for wanting Ursus out of the way, but the predator, a wolf-man, gets there first, wounding Ursus with his fangs. The hero's injury puts him out of commission for a time, during which time another support-character tries to rally the Kirghiz to overthrow Zeretelli.

As in URSUS, the big reveal is that Amiko is a witch and the werewolf is her creation, and she even takes command of Ursus when he's turned into a werewolf. Young Katya, whom Ursus doesn't even notice at first, turns out to be an aristocrat of far greater standing than Amiko, and eventually she takes Amiko's place as the hero's romantic partner. Amiko's motives for witchery are left vague and there are only a few decent action-scenes here, partly because Ursus is off screen for so long a time. The film's direction was credited to Antonio Margheretti, but famed horror-helmer Ruggero Deodato claims to have handled most of the directorial duties.





THE WITCH'S CURSE (1962)


 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


The Italian title for this 1962 flick reproduces that of 1925's silent MACISTE IN HELL, but the two films bear no resemblance except for the notion of a strongman-hero descending into the fiery pit to face various monsters. CURSE, directed by Riccardo Freda, strongly resembles parts of the 1960 horror-hit BLACK SUNDAY, directed by Freda's countryman/colleague Mario Bava.

Like SUNDAY, CURSE opens with the spectacle of a small community (this time, in 15th-century Scotland) executing a witch. Aged Martha Gaunt doesn't deny being a witch, but she claims that she only struck back because Parris, the judge accusing her, kept trying to make her become his lover. (One can't help thinking that he was an extraordinarily patient pursuer, since both the witch and the judge are old at the time of Martha's condemnation.) The script does have a later-revealed reason to present Martha as an old woman, even though this circumstance undermines some of the opening's plot-logic. At any rate, before she dies, Martha curses the whole Scottish town.

For a hundred years, Martha's curse plagues the townspeople in one way or another. Then a local merchant marries a young woman named Martha, whose family name is also Gaunt. The townfolk immediately accuse the merchant and his wife of being witches and put them on trial.

To the couple's good fortune, the mysterious muscle-man Maciste (Kirk Morris) rides into town and champions the innocents. Despite the fact that Maciste is clad only in a loincloth-- a strange fashion-choice in medieval Scotland-- the locals hold off on their execution if Maciste can end the curse of Martha Gaunt. Maciste agrees, and the rest of the film is devoted to his descent into Hades, fighting off monsters until he can end the witch's curse.

The hero's road to Hell takes an appealing mythic form, in that he uproots the tree on which Old Martha was hanged, and finds stairs leading down into perdition beneath the roots. Unfortunately, none of Maciste's battles with Hell's denizens-- a lion, a spike-trap, and a hairy giant-- are more than passable. (Some versions edited out some extra scenes, like Maciste fighting snakes, but none of the perils are essential to the plot.)

Maciste makes one ally in Hell: a beautiful woman named Falina (Helene Chanel). However, when the viewer sees her hanging out with Judge Parris of 100 years previous, he may rightly suspect her motives-- and sure enough, Falina is a youthified version of long-dead Martha. Why the denizens of Hell-- whose master is never seen-- decided to let the witch exist in her younger form, or why she's associating with the man who had her slain-- are questions that go unanswered.

Because Falina is a gorgeous woman, though, Maciste falls for her, and experiences a certain amount of grief when he realizes who she really is. This may be the movie's most interesting departure from the usual peplum template: the strongman comes to the defense of a young woman, but she's married and the strongman never chooses her over the "bad woman." In the end, WITCH'S CURSE is just a decent action-fantasy, with a nicely handled fight between the hero and a "giant" and the always lovely Helene Chanel.



VULCAN, SON OF JUPITER (1962)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


The Graeco-Roman Vulcan/Hephaestus may be one of the least likely divinities to get a movie devoted to his exploits, at least in his original conception as a homely, semi-crippled figure capable of creating formidable magical devices. For this movie, not surprisingly, Vulcan gets a muscular makeover, being played by a beefcake actor billed in various flicks as "Rod Flash Ilush" and "Richard Lloyd" (seen to best effect in HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES).

One of the original Vulcan's best-known inventions was a magical net, which he used to trap his faithless wife Venus/Aphrodite when she was doing the deed with Mars/Ares. Clearly this is the Classical story from which Emimmo Salvi's VULCAN loosely derives its idea of a sexual competition between war-god Mars (Roger Browne) and blacksmith-god Vulcan for the hand of the frivolous love-goddess Venus (Annie Gorassini).

Jupiter, the ruler of the Roman pantheon, doesn't like the two alpha males creating chaos in peaceful Olympus, so he strips all three deities of their godly powers and hurls them down to Earth. I should note that I don't  think in real mythology any god ever gets his powers literally removed. They may become diminished through being wounded, which happens to Zeus after his first battle with Typhon. But in movies, a total negation of a god's super-powers is useful when one wants to drop a bunch of actors playing gods down on Earth and have them act like mortals, without lots of expensive special god-effects.

Mars doesn't take this exile lying down. He and Venus make a compact with an army of Thracian mortals to build a tower high enough to invade Olympus, and they make common cause with the death-god Pluto (Gordon Mitchell, who mostly just runs around laughing and talking to the spirit of Discord). This trope sounds at first glance like a bald-faced rip of the Hebrew Tower of Babel, but as it happens there is a related Greek myth, that of Ossa and Pelion, in which two giants attempt to invade Olympus by piling one mountain atop another.

Meanwhile, Vulcan crashes to Earth alone (not unlike a myth in which he gets tossed to Earth, variously by his godly father or his godly mother). The de-powered deity receives succor a group of maidens who seem vaguely related to the nymphs of the sea (which is also in the original myth). There are a few other scenes depicting Vulcan in communion with the sea-god Nepture, though these really have no impact on the story as a whole. One of the maybe-nymphs is Etna (Bella Cortez), a gorgeous woman who at all times talks and acts like a mortal woman, though she's apparently named for the volcanic mountain where Classical Hephaestus kept his forge. Etna follows Vulcan around as he seeks to interfere with Mars' evil scheme and pretty much makes Vulcan forget Venus. (Unhappily, Vulcan also gets a tag-along dwarf-companion who supposedly provides comic relief.)

There's a lot of potential in the movie's premise (co-credited to Salvi), and I rather like the script's notion that somehow Jupiter's power will be drastically reduced if mortals transgress on his domain. Sadly, the plot is ramshackle, comprising lots of scenes with actors rushing aimlessly to and fro, with very few of the expected fight-scenes. The film does offer a nice sampling of familiar peplum-faces with Cortez, Mitchell and Browne, though the star Ilush shows little charisma and so proves the weakest link here. VULCAN bears a minor distinction in being one of the few feature-films in which most of the main characters are deities, given that. in most mythological flicks, such figures are relegated to supporting roles. But the action-level is  so low that even a thoroughly mundane peplum is likely to be more fun.

CORRECTION: On re-viewing a few key scenes, I think Etna and her sisters are supposed to be "daughters of Nepture," as one scene calls them, but for most of the film Etna herself acts like an ordinary mortal woman. Also, in one of the flick's first scenes Venus is also seen dallying with the mortal Adonis. This scene has no real function in the plot, though it could be used to underscore the idea that if she did marry either Mars or Vulcan, she'd probably keep playing around on the side anyway.



Tuesday, October 12, 2021

CYCLOPS (2008)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Considering some of the entertainment-free ventures with which Roger Corman has been associated-- the deservedly obscure TERMINATION MAN being a case in point-- one could do worse than "GLADIATOR crossed with KING KONG."

Directed by efficient journeyman Declan O'Brien of SHARKTOPUS and WRONG TURN fame, CYCLOPS is certainly more about intrigues in ancient Rome than about the titular creature. Writer Frances Doel seems just as incurious about the origins of the twelve-foot cannibal humanoid as most of the Romans. This one-eyed monster is, like the original Kong, the last of his kind, and it's broadly implied that he simply came into existence as part of some freakish offshoot from humanity. Not once does any Roman wonder whether this cyclopean creature might have sprung from the loins of some Greco-Roman divinity; they all instantly take the big, inarticulate man-eater as nothing but a human-looking animal.

When the Cyclops starts preying on travelers in the vicinity of Rome, Emperor Tiberius (Eric Roberts) sends military commander Marcus Romulus (Kevin Stapleton) to kill the monster. Instead, Marcus plays a role loosely resembling that of Carl Denham and brings the bound beast-man back to Rome. At that point, Tiberius gets the idea to use the Cyclops to gin up attendance in the arena, as the creature is forced to fight enemies of the Roman empire. Untortunately, Marcus himself becomes an enemy when he asks for largesse that Tiberius isn't willing to bestow. Thus "Denham" and "Kong" become allies against the incarnation of Roman evil.

Despite borrowing a few tropes from KING KONG, the script never once creates any empathy for the Cyclops, and shows more interest in Marcus's travails and his possible romance with a tough barbarian girl (Freida Farrell), The action-scenes are the main attraction here, and they prove at least watchable if not exceptional.






Monday, October 11, 2021

THE LOST PLANET (1953)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


I chose the still above for my review's illustration because it typifies the cramped feel of THE LOST PLANET, one of the last American chapterplays before studios stopped making them in 1956. Whereas the dominant image of serials is one of fast-paced, often relentless action, what one sees most often in PLANET are tweedy scientists turning knobs and flipping switches.

Almost certainly this state of affairs came about because Columbia producer Sam Katzman was seeking to monetize the expenses of the preceding (and technically unrelated) serial CAPTAIN VIDEO by re-using some of that film's costumes and props. The majority of the scenes take place in gadget-filled labs deep in the caves of the villain's refuge Mount Vulcan (mostly sections of the famed Bronson Canyon). Principal character/villain Doctor Ernst Grood (Michael Fox) hardly ever leaves his labs as he plots to turn out weapons with which to rule the world. Some of Grood's agents operate on the far-off planet Ergro, where they force the native people to mine "Cosmonium" to power Grood's weapons. Yet almost all of the scenes on Ergro also take place in offices or in caves. It seems likely that Katzman wanted to keep close to his serial's budget by filming most of the scenes on closed stages, with only a tiny portion of the action transpiring outdoors. 

The "action," such as it is, follows the pattern of incrementally more complicated chess-moves. Grood's main enemy is not the stalwart looking reporter Rex Barrow (Judd Holdren) or either of Barrow's allies, a comedy relief and a female lead. Despite Grood's early ranting about how he's created a miraculous metal which allows him to both brainwash people and to turn things invisible, the rogue inventor seems extremely dependent on one Professor Dorn (Forrest Taylor), a scientist Grood has kidnapped to help in his world-conquering projects. Dorn constantly finds ways to undermine Grood's plans, and Grood never retaliates against Dorn in any meaningful way. (It's an amusing bit of symbolism that, even as Grood is identified with "Cosmonium," in that the metal is referenced in many "cosmic this or that" weapons, Dorn has his own miracle-metal, "Dornite"-- though I could never figure out what its properties were supposed to be.)

The three young heroes-- Barrow, his photographer Tim and Ella Dorn, daughter of the professor-- become akin to chess pieces being moved from place to place, whether around Mount Vulcan or on the similar looking environs of Ergro, as they stymie the activities of Grood's agents. Barrow and friends make some apparent allies who turn out to be gangsters seeking to muscle in on Grood's action, but the hoods certainly don't affect the storyline significantly. There are also a couple of other subplots where one Grood-agent tries to usurp another's favored spot, but these developments are handled with the same lack of drama as the exposition of what the Grood-gadgets can do. If PLANET possesses any real entertainment value, it might be that of imagining the tortures endured by the actors, forced to stand around for hours and hours, reciting scientific gobbledegook. The only exception is Michael Fox, who rattles off all the nonsense with as much conviction as if he was reciting Shakespearean passages.

While all the machinations of rival groups may remind one of FLASH GORDON and its political deal-making, PLANET is closer in tone to FLASH's predecessor BUCK ROGERS, whose characters never met a gadget they couldn't discuss at great length. As one might expect, there are a few instances in which director Spencer Bennett tried to inject a little physical action, and some of these are unintentionally funny. In one of these, a gangster is pursued by a "guided missile" that looks like a flaming tumbleweed (and it doesn't even succeed in hitting its target!) One of Grood's minions causes Barrow to flung high in the sky, but somehow he falls to Earth and receives no injuries whatever. In another chapter, Tim and Ella, both under Grood's hypnotic control, aim ray-guns at Barrow and Professor Dorn, but some other scientist blocks the rays so that the two good guys aren't killed. Some of the gadget-happy lines edge into the realm of the ludicrous as well-- like Grood's "Obey me or I'll direct 5000 degrees of solar heat at the girl!"-- but they're few and far between.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

ZAMBO LORD OF THE JUNGLE (1972)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


As the U.S. began producing fewer and fewer jungle-adventure flicks in the seventies, various European countries attempted to take up the slack. A few of these are good mindless (if politically incorrect) fun, but ZAMBO LORD OF THE JUNGLE is not one of those.

Though as entertainment ZAMBO is dire indeed, there are a few little sociological curiosities in the film. The first is that main character George Ryon (Brad Harris) is not raised in the jungle; he escapes prison in some civilized country and flees to darkest Africa to hide out from the law. There he's given one of the briefest origins ever seen in the genre: one minute, George has been captured by a tribe of Black Africans who put him in a cage. Then one black child reaches out to him, as if sensing his essential goodness. And then there's a jump in time, and George has taken up living in the jungle while wearing a zebra-skin jacket and trousers. The natives have dubbed him Zambo for some reason, and while many people today would assume it was a reference to the fictional figure Little Black Sambo, I think I heard the natives call themselves something similar to the real-life Zambezi tribe. So that probably informed the name choice. Zambo doesn't have any special skills; he's just a good basic fighter. One little black kid-- presumably not the same one from the cage-scene-- hangs around Zambo all the time talking about how wonderful he is, but the hero doesn't do a helluva lot to justify the hype. 

He does get a great reputation for being one with the natives and the jungle beasts, and there's a minor attempt to keep from being condescending, when Zambo tells a European that he prefers the wise, placid life of the tribe over the warlike ways of civilization. Speaking of Europeans, one expedition hears about the fabulous Zambo and seeks him out to he their jungle-guide. The expedition is made up of the usual outsiders: good whites, represented by an elderly scholar and his sexy daughter, and bad whites who are with the expedition to rip off treasure. 

The scholar's plan to find a lost city might offer some potential thrills, but the city is long dead and it only provides a treasure for the bad guys to attempt stealing. There's one really curious moment in which the scholar uses a gemstone to focus the sun-rays and to open a long-sealed door, which is an interesting ancestor to a famous scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The guy then enters some forbidden chamber, and when Zambo finds him, the scholar's temporarily lost his mind for some unknown reason. Later the scholar gets his senses back, but if the lost city has some recondite secret, the filmmakers possibly dropped it for being too expensive.

ZAMBO is a pretty cheap production, and Harris's athletics are pretty much the only attraction. Cute blonde Gisela Hahn plays the hot daughter who romances the jungle-man but can't persuade him to return to Europe when the hero is conveniently cleared of all crimes. So there are no real surprises here, except for the fact that the film opens with a Schopenhauer quote in a foreign language I didn't know, probably Italian. That probably makes ZAMBO the only jungle-action film that has ANY kind of philosopher's quote in it.




Tuesday, October 5, 2021

TIGER CLAWS (1991)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

I've certainly seen worse American kung-fu films than TIGER CLAWS-- and in fact, both of its sequels might deserve that honor. The first CLAWS, while it's a very simple action-flick with minor psycho-killer content, is watchable as long as one's expectations aren't too high.

Linda (Cynthia Rothrock) and Tarek (Brazilian-born Jalal Merhi) are cops with martial arts training who suspect that a recent serial killer, nicknamed "the Death Dealer," is the master of "Tiger," a now-obscure Chinese fighting-style. This bit of deduction makes it possible for the two cops to wander around the streets of New York (a.k.a. Toronto) questioning martial artists and getting into fights. It's surprising that these kung-fu cops pull their service revolvers a few times when under attack-- try to find that on an episode of WALKER TEXAS RANGER-- but there should be no doubt that the hand-to-hand combat is the main attraction. 

Though the dialogue is banal and both Rothrock and Merhi are tedious, the fights are decent though never exceptional, especially the penny-ante ones that just mark time until the partners contend with the Death Dealer (Bolo Yeung of ENTER THE DRAGON fame). Rothrock's two bouts with Bolo are the most enjoyable, but Merhi-- who had no major film-credits prior to CLAWS-- gets the climactic fight, in part because his character is also supposed to be a master of Tiger style. However, even though the fight is supposed to show how badass Tarek is-- particularly when he's fighting the psycho killer in handcuffs-- the actor projects no real charisma.

Despite Bolo's largely inert performance, the Death Dealer registers as a psycho-killer because he's obsessed with running around killing off martial artists who are embarrassments to the discipline. Possibly because of the actor's language limitations, he never justifies his peculiar murder-pattern, though Tarek throws out a rationale: that he wants to drum up enthusiasm for Tiger in the U.S., where flashy but insubstantial fighting-styles have become dominant. He's kept alive at the movie's conclusion so that he can show up again in the first sequel.

Director Kelly Makin, not an action director by trade, does his best work with a few atmospheric setups for kung-fu duels.




Monday, October 4, 2021

CAPTAIN AMERICA; CAPTAIN AMERICA II (1979)


 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Within the decade of the 1970s, broadcast TV's flurry of enthusiasm for live-action superheroes ended with a whimper when these two CAPTAIN AMERICA pilots debuted in 1979. It's a mark of the cheapness infusing the projects that the second telefilm does not sport the usual reference title, CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON. The producers just flash the same logo-ized title for Number Two that appeared in Number One. 

No one will be surprised that these two telefilms fall short of even the modest entertainment-value of the decade's reigning comics-adaptations, 1975's WONDER WOMAN and 1977's INCREDIBLE HULK. But they even make that one-season wonder, 1977's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, look good by comparison.

Though the second film is marginally better than the first, the producers of both had no clue as to how to translate the appeal of Marvel's Captain America to the small screen. Star Reb Brown makes a tolerable hero, but their decision to keep him on a motorcycle for transportation meant an unappealing re-design of the classic star-spangled costume. 

Steve Rogers (Brown) is a traveling commercial artist who comes into contact with spies looking for his late father's biological secrets. They almost kill Rogers, but he's succored by some of his father's former research-colleagues. They reveal that Rogers' father was secretly the WWII Captain America, boosted to Olympic-level strength and physical skill by a serum called FLAG. But the script devotes little time to the original Captain; it's merely an excuse for Rogers to take up the patriotic mantle in modern times. The researchers inject Rogers with the FLAG serum to save his life, and in addition they throw in a semi-transparent, bulletproof shield. In his new costume Rogers corrals the spies-- but I hardly remember what little action there was. Director Rod Holcomb films most of the air-time with tedious exposition scenes of people talking and talking and talking. There's a cute girl on the research-team, but the writers can't even bother to throw in some piddling romance-angle.

Ivan Nagy takes over direction in the sequel, with a few relabeled support characters but essentially the same setup. However, at least this time the new Captain faced a half-decent superhero menace:  mad scientist General Miguel (Christopher Lee), who unleashes an aging-plague upon a small town as a test of his new chemical weapon. Surprisingly, Lee's presence is not the best thing about the telefilm, though, since he simply walks through his insipid dialogue. But there is a half-decent scene in which Rogers is hassled by five small-town toughs, and he proceeds to hand them all their asses. Nagy's direction is not as devoted as Holcomb to seeing if he can make viewers yearn for the charms of drying paint. However, it's still not very good, and I only review the two flicks out of a sense of completism.

THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES (1964)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Previous to this post I've given a "good" mythicity rating only to one other sixties peplum, FURY OF ACHILLES, which was a condensation of Homer's ILIAD. This 1964 Hercules film has no such indirect pedigree, and for many it will seem to follow the same template as a dozen others of its kind: strongman hero fights schemers and magicians to keep them from taking possession of a beautiful princess's city. However, for whatever reason, director Alberto di Martino and the two credited screenwriters invested TRIUMPH OF HERCULES with a level of symbol-play that rises to a high level.

One aspect of the Hercules mythology rarely explored in Italian adventure-flicks is his ongoing rivalry with the goddess Hera, whose heaven-ruling husband Zeus played around with a mortal woman and so spawned Hercules-- whose Greek name, "Heracles," has been reliably translated as "glory of Hera." Philip Slater alleges that even though Hercules was not Hera's son, his constant trials at her hands served to test his heroic mettle. In some traditions, the two are finally reconciled when Hercules marries the goddess Hebe, daughter of Hera and Zeus, and by Slater's interpretation an alloform of Hera herself.

As it happens, when Hercules (Dan Vadis) is first seen in TRIUMPH, he's building a temple to Hera in order to placate her for the "family"  quarrel between the two of them (though the film does not dwell on the nature of the quarrel). Evidently he's not far from the city of Mycenae, for when the city's king is slain by his nephew, the usurper Milo (Pierre Cressoy), a runner seeks out Hercules to inform the hero of the coup. Hercules evidently knows Mycenae's princess At'e (Marilu Tolo), but doesn't fall in love with her until he goes to Mycenae to seek justice against Milo. Milo has been close to At'e for years, and Milo tells his fellow schemer (and mother),  the sorceress Pasiphae (Moira Orfei), that he thinks he can marry At'e because he's been "like a brother" to her. One might think such filial feeling would be a disadvantage when wooing a woman, but at any rate At'e refuses to believe anything bad about Milo. 


She also doesn't ask too many questions when a mysterious septet of golden-skinned, almost invulnerable warriors attacks her citizens. The viewer knows that these golden men are under the control of Milo, because Pasiphae gives Milo a talisman called the Dagger of Jae. Hercules, hearing of the golden men, recognizes that they must be a group of beings he calls "the Hundred-Hands" (loosely related to the Hecatoncheiries of Greek myth). He also knows about the Dagger, which is named for Jae, sister of Hera/Juno (though such a sister does not exist in Greek myth). 


Hercules trounces the golden men in their first encounter, so Milo takes a new tack. The usurper knows that Hercules only possesses his supernatural strength by the blessing of Zeus (usually called Jove here). So Milo kidnaps At'e and hoaxers Hercules into attacking an innocent man and killing him. Zeus curses Hercules to lose his strength, and then Milo threatens to slay both hero and princess with a diabolical spike-trap. But while mortal-ized Hercules struggles with the trap, he prays to Zeus to spare At'e and let Hercules die. Zeus gives his son a "like" by restoring his strength, enabling the hero to break free and kick some ass. Milo, with At'e in tow, flees to the caves of Pasiphae, and once more the usurper summons the golden men. During the golden men's battle with Hercules Milo is killed. The bereaved Pasiphae threatens to kill At'e, but the witch meets her doom as well and Hercules unites with At'e to rule Mycenae.

Though this plot is not radically different from a dozen others like it, the writers' use of character-names suggests that they may have been aware of some of the names' more esoteric connotations. The best-known Pasiphae in Greek myth is the wife of King Minos of Crete, and the only way in which she resembles jealous Hera is that in one tale she casts a spell on Minos, causing him to ejaculate serpents when he tries to have sex with other women. That may be the main reason the screenwriters chose the name for their witch-queen.

The movie's Pasiphae is loosely correlated with Hera through the witch's possession of the Dagger of Jae. As noted, there is no Jae in Greek mythology, and Hera's sisters are Hestia and Demeter, respectively the goddesses of  the hearth and the harvest. I'm not sure exactly why the writers didn't simply style the weapon "the dagger of Hera (or Juno)," but in antiquity Hera doesn't generally use weapons. So maybe the scripters felt they needed some made-up intermediary figure who represented another aspect of Hera's hostile will. The word "Jae" does sound a bit like that of the Titan "Japetus," who is not directly related to Hera. However, all of the Titans belong to the chthonic order that preceded the rule of the Olympians, as do the beings to whom the golden men are compared, the Hundred-Handed Giants. 

Finally, the movie's Pasiphae also emulates Hera in that Pasiphae seeks to have her favored son ascend to a throne. In one Greek narrative, Hera, full of spite for her husband's by-blow, keeps Hercules from the throne of Mycenae by arranging things so that the kingship goes to a man she favors, Eurystheus. Interestingly, the name of the innocent man the Vadis-Hercules kills is "Euristeo," and one of the beings who helps Hera keep Hercules off the throne is a goddess of discord named... At'e.


In many peplum-flicks, the hero in the position of choosing between a glamorous, implicitly-older queen-figure and a more innocent, virginal female. This is not an explicit feature of TRIUMPH. But the way in which Pasiphae attempts to slay Princess At'e is still of interest. She tries to fling At'e off a high cliff, but the princess grabs hold of a ledge. Hercules is on his way to rescue his intended, so Pasiphae's brilliant idea is to morph herself into a duplicate of At'e, and to cling to another ledge. It's Pasiphae's hope that when Hercules appears on the cliff, he'll choose to rescue the wrong princess and let his true love die. The big galoot actually does start to rescue the disguised witch first, but he looks into her eyes and says that "At'e's eyes are clear, like her soul!" Pasiphae, having no good backup plans, falls to her death. What I see happening here, then, is that the screenwriters couldn't entirely resist giving their strongman-hero a choice between older woman and younger woman, even if it was just in a last-minute throwaway scene. (Note; actress Orfei was about thirteen years older than actress Tolo.) I was further tempted to see an identity between Pasiphae and At'e after the fashion of Hera and Hebe, but this isn't as much evidence for this as for the writers' desire to channel the hostility of the Olympian Hera through the made-up figure of a mortal sorceress-- partly because Pasiphae, unlike Hera, could be decisively killed at the climax.


Saturday, October 2, 2021

THE WEIRD WILD WORLD OF DOCTOR GOLDFOOT (1965)








PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*


The actor Tommy Kirk passed away this week, which event caused me to scan through his IMDB credits to reminisce about his movie and TV work. I came across this curiosity and was able to screen it on Youtube. 

WILD was a half-hour special on the music show SHINDIG. Aside from a short introduction, the whole show was devoted to a very condensed version of the movie being hyped by the special: DOCTOR GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE. Wikipedia asserts that the movie was originally intended to be a musical, but that the songs were dropped. Given the focus of SHINDIG, it's not surprising that some or all of these songs are recycled into WILD WORLD, but they're all mediocre and unmemorable.

As in the two Goldfoot films, Vincent Price's world-conquering mad scientist is the star, while his sidekick is now one Hugo, this time played by AIP regular Harvey Lembeck. Goldfoot's main gimmick is that of churning out large quantities of shapely girl robots for purposes of espionage, though the TV-script leaves out the movie's idea that the robots seduce their lustful male targets and then assassinate the men by blowing up. 

Having far more restricted time and sets this time, Goldfoot has only one dastardly plot: to capture Malcolm Andrews (Kirk), who is a U.S. government automaton loaded with assorted military secrets. But because the naive robot-boy is protected by Agent 00 1/2 (Aron Kincaid), Goldfoot sets a robot to catch a robot, sending a robo-girl named Diane (Susan Hart) to seduce Malcolm and lead him back to Goldfoot's lab.

For some reason the goofy Agent makes it easy for Goldfoot by taking Malcolm on an outing to the local park. Diane locates the two of them, but her circuits fire up for the trenchcoated agent, and she seduces him instead. Fortunately for the villain's designs, Hugo followed Diane to supervise, and he manages to talk Malcolm into returning to Goldfoot's place. When the Agent misses his charge, Diane helps him out by taking him to the lab as well. The only interesting thing about the climax is that Goldfoot orders his robo-girl to use her robo-strength the agent and the boy-robot. But in the tradition of many other "robots in love," Diane rebels and propels the villain and the henchman out of the room in a rather low-violence display. However, a coda allows Goldfoot and Hugo to pop up again, no doubt to encourage viewers to check out the movie.

The jokes are just as disposable as the songs, but the special has a certain nostalgic value for me. However, of the six familiar players here, Kirk has the least to do, mostly just doing aimless goofy things, including eating a sandwich (!)

ADDENDA: A poster on CHFB asserted that the reason Kirk has little to do is that he was spaced out on drugs at the time, which habit played a big role in his declining career.

Another odd twist is that Kirk came out as gay in the nineties. Vincent Price never did, though his daughter asserted long after his death that the famed horror-star was bisexual. With those two things in mind, it puts a new spin on the line Price gives to Lembeck when talking about Kirk: "I must have that boy--!"