Friday, September 30, 2022

HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH (1965/ 1971)







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


Some bad movies wear their influences on their sleeves. As the badness unfolds, one can imagine how the writer or director thought he was emulating something good, but that he just couldn't see how to make the parts connect. 

DEATH's scripter Richard Mahoney has but one writing credit, as his career revolved more around costuming. One imdb reviewer read the novel on which DEATH was based, and pronounced it much better than the movie-- which wouldn't be too hard. But I can't help wondering if Mahoney thought he was doing something along the lines of 1957's CURSE OF THE DEMON, where a skeptic gets converted to the reality of modern witchcraft the hard way.

Influence aside, CURSE provides a textbook example as to how to pursue the modern-witchcraft theme so that it has human appeal for the audience. In contrast, even though Mahoney's dialogue is competent enough-- at least, no worse than many forties B-films-- nothing his characters say seems to hook up with any emotion. Of course, maybe the film's three directors were responsible for the incoherence.

The hard-to-follow plot concerns the Desard family, located in the town of Widderburn, somewhere in rural England. The oldest Desards are ailing Andre (John Carradine), who has some unspecified occult history, and Belial (Lon Chaney Jr), who have been feuding for years over the family fortune. There are two other Desards living on the estate, the much younger Paul and Valerie, who I assume to be cousins, though I don't think it was specified. Belial has taken a devilish name because he's a Satan-worshipper (this several years before cinema went whole-hog with "Satanic panic"). He even has real horns, about the size of a baby goat's, sprouting from his head, presumably a gift from his evil master, and he's more or less seduced all the villagers to do his will, even those not formally inducted into his coven. In order to break Andre's control of the family, Belial curses Andre's son Paul to become a werewolf-- whose lupine activities are almost entirely off-camera, (Given how bad the wolf-makeup is, this is a meager blessing.)

Into this familial quarrel come supernatural skeptic Eric Campion (Jerome Thor) and his acquaintance Katherine Malloy (Andrea King). Their professions are vague at best, but Eric lived in the village three years previous to the film's time, though it's not clear whether or not we was a native. Eric may or may not have some romantic relationship with Katherine, or he may have some past connection with Valerie, but the script is so filled with tedious exposition that any such affiliations get lost in the shuffle. To the extent Katherine fulfills any purpose, she's there to be a sounding board as Eric begins to believe in the occult powers of Belial.

Very little happens beyond actors standing around pontificating or watching sexy women perform ritual dances in the forest. (Sabrina, a celebrity model of the period, has a non-speaking role as one of the dancers.) Andre and Belial share no scenes together, though of the two actors, Carradine succeeds in making his rambling speeches more appealing to listen to than Chaney does. 

Toward the climax Andre tells Eric that his cross-- which is just an ordinary looking icon-- has the power to defeat Belial, though there's no real evidence of this. Then, while Belial is performing some ritual, Andre suddenly decides to settle their feud with a conjuration that kills Belial. End film. 

Since DEATH was filmed in black and white, it didn't get a release until 1971. It functions as nothing more than a footnote in the respective careers of Chaney and Carradine.


Wednesday, September 28, 2022

BLOOD RAGE (1987)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


BLOOD RAGE was released in 1987 but filmed in 1983, around the height of the slasher-subgenre. I imagine that director John Grissmer and writer Bruce Rubin-- neither of whom accrued many credits on IMDB-- structured their film with the slasher market in mind, given how many adolescents get slaughtered. However, the narrative's basic trope reminds me more of the many imitators of Hitchcock's PSYCHO in the sixties and seventies.

PSYCHO tells the story of a mother-dominated young man whose Oedipal fixations are only hinted at in the dialogue. RAGE doesn't hide the identity of its psycho, but one must wonder: what makes Terry kill? Freudian allusions appear, but I can't be sure if Rubin is playing his cards close to his vest or just doesn't know the game.

The story begins with an act of parental irresponsibility. Maddy (Louise Lasser) is a mother with two kids, twins Todd and Terry. She's either a widow or has been deserted by her husband, for in the opening scene she's so desperate to land a new man that she goes to a drive-in theater with her date to make out-- but because she can't find a babysitter, she takes both kids along. The boys look to be about seven, and they soon get bored sitting around the back of the car while their mother makes out with her date. So the twins leave the car unnoticed.

The two of them happen across another car in which a guy and girl are also making out. Todd is merely nonplussed, but Terry is suddenly seized by a lust for murder. He snatches up an axe from somewhere and slams it into the skull of the guy in the car. Is Terry diverting his hostility toward his mom's date to another target? One never knows, but when Terry realizes that he could get in trouble, he shoves the bloody axe into Todd's hands and lets his brother take the blame. Todd is too traumatized to protest, with the result that he goes to an asylum for many years. Maddy is confused but then extends all of her maternal care to Psycho Terry, so that Todd becomes the "bad son" for her.

It's Thanksgiving, and both twins (now played by Mark Soper) are in their twenties. Maddy has apparently put her love life on hold since the drive-in incident, and Terry shows no unseemly lust for his mother. Unlike Norman Bates Terry seems totally cool with a bunch of other teens, including his girlfriend Karen. However, Maddy announces that she's been seeing a real estate guy, and that they plan to marry. Suddenly the demons of the Id arise in Terry, and he's filled with a lust to kill not just his mother's boyfriend, but everyone in sight. Providentially, Todd breaks out of the asylum, having finally remembered the truth about the drive-in murder. Terry gives free rein to his taste for carnage, thinking that he can blame it all on his "psycho" brother. But as one might suspect, being a twin doesn't necessarily work to Terry's advantage in the end.

Rubin's script doesn't embellish anything but his three main characters. All of Terry's targets, including a helpful doctor from the asylum, are flat types, and Karen, who gets the most screen time of all the support-characters, isn't any better. Louise Lasser makes Maddy a little too crazy prior to learning that her bad son is killing people for Thanksgiving, and presumably the actress was allowed to go wild because she was the only "name" in the cast. Mark Soper is much better in his dual role, though he's working under a handicap, since the script doesn't give him consistent characters for either brother.

I had to ask myself whether or not Terry was a true Oedipal type, even within the context of fiction, since his attitude toward lust is not as easy to suss out as, say, that of the similarly crazy Ellie from BLOOD AND LACE. But I decided that, whereas Freud thought he was describing a scientific syndrome, Grissmer and Rubin are providing entertainment-- and so even a partial emulation of a psychological pattern is enough to boost the film into the realm of good mythicity.


Monday, September 26, 2022

BLOODRAYNE: DELIVERANCE (2007), BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH (2011)

 







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


The financial failure of the 2005 BLOODRAYNE did not impair Boll from getting two more outings in the DTV market. Kristanna Loken did not return for either film, and Natassia Malthe took her place. Oddly, Michael Pare appeared in all three films in the series, though he played a different role each time.

Heroine Rayne, formerly ginger like her video-game source, now sports light brown hair, and though she was last seen in 18th-century Europe, DELIVERANCE has her show up in the American West of the 1880s, with not even a passing comment about what she was doing for the past hundred years. Maybe the writers didn't want to touch on the fact that during that time she's probably been preying on humans to drink their blood, though not necessarily with fatal consequences. Rayne, now wearing standard western attire and riding a horse, seems to be making her way to the town of Deliverance. There's a snatch of dialogue to suggest that she knows someone there, but the matter never comes up again.

Providentially, Deliverance is just where the outlaw Billy the Kid (Zack Ward), for some reason a full vampire, decides to bring his vampire gang. He plans to spread the disease of vampirism until he can raise a vampire army to conquer the country. However, he takes over Deliverance and its quavering citizens as an opening gambit. (Said citizens include Chris Coppola as a reporter and Michael Pare as Sheriff Pat Garrett.) Most impressively for a hateworthy villain, Billy abducts all the children in town, planning to use them as "cover" when he starts sending his agents around the country. Even before Rayne shows up to get in Billy's face, he shows his utter depravity by fanging one of the kids to death in full view of his other juvenile hostages.

The pacing of the action here is much better than in the first film. Before coming to grips with the main villain, Rayne works her way through Billy's henchmen and inspires the townspeople to take up arms against the fiends. There aren't as many anachronisms this time either, though at one point Rayne tricks a non-vampire outlaw into letting her tie him to a bed for sex-games. Malthe is not as charismatic as Loken but Zack Ward is such a juicy evildoer that the climax is much improved, for all that Boll's staging of action-scenes is still only average. Although this version of Billy the Kid has nothing in common with the real outlaw, I would count this film as the only crossover in the Bloodrayne series.



Another sixty years just races by for the immortal dhampire, and now she's part of a resistance movement in WWII Germany, to say nothing of having her hair turn jet-black. (An attempt to make the character resemble Selene of the UNDERWORLD series, perhaps?) She's the only dhampire helping the underground, and not very secretly (she's first seen fighting Nazi soldiers with a bo-staff). Yet the Nazi high command is aware that vampires and their kindred exist. Commander Brand (Michael Pare) is in charge of an attempt to study vampire powers to see how they can be used for the benefit of the Reich. To this end the head scientist (Clint Howard) keeps one female vampire of gypsy extraction in a cell, seeking to learn if it might be possible to confer vampiric immortality upon Der Fuhrer himself.

To Rayne's chagrin, she accidentally confers vampirism on Brand when some of her shed blood splatters on him and enters his system. The creepy scientist locates more of Rayne's blood, creates two vampire pawns and sends them after the rebel, though she cuts them down easily with her swords. (Hey, doesn't everyone carry twin swords in a Nazi-held city?)  Brant vampirizes an expert tracker in order to locate Rayne, but Rayne simply kills the bloodsucker. But she learns of Brand's plan to depart by train to Berlin, so she and her few allies must stop the train before the scientist's vampire-research can be placed in other hands. This leads to a big train-battle in which Rayne destroys Brand and prevents the vampire serum from reaching Hitler. 

Despite Pare's acting mojo, Brand is not that interesting a villain, and though Malthe seems more comfortable in her role this time, she's still just average in her delivery of badass lines. However, THIRD REICH-- surely the first time the phrase was ever used to denote a sequel-- has the best action-scenes of the three films, so that Malthe comes off as equal in that department to contemporaries like Beckinsale and Jovavich. Maybe Boll finally hired a fight coordinator worth his salt.



BLOODRAYNE (2005)









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

Though I suffered mightily when a friend talked me into seeing Uwe Boll's infernally boring 2007 fantasy-film IN THE NAME OF THE KING, his BLOODRAYNE films seem to be at least generally competent. Since I've no acquaintance with the video game franchise being adapted, I don't really care that he changed the characters or situations, as do some of Boll's detractors. That said, Boll certainly doesn't expend any effort setting up characters and situations. The writer credited with the script for BLOODRAYNE later claimed that Boll had only used 20% of her work, and I tend to think he's one of those guys concerned only with showy set-pieces.

Summaries claim that BLOODRAYNE takes place in 18th-century Romania, but there's nothing about the settings, costumes or actors that suggests any particular era. Central heroine Rayne (Kristanna Loken) does get a little more attention. She is a "dampire," a hybrid created by the mating of a full vampire with a mortal human-- in her case, an incident in which powerful vampire lord Kagan (Ben Kingsley) raped Rayne's mother. However, the script can't be bothered to relate how Kagan happened to choose Rayne's mother in particular, or why he wanted to induct Rayne into his retinue about five or six years after her birth. At that point in time, Rayne's mother conceals the little girl from her father, after which Kagan slays the mother for her defiance. This is effective enough in terms of giving Rayne a strong motive for vengeance.

However, Boll can't be bothered with details. Somehow little girl Rayne ends up as the property of a traveling carnival until she's old enough to be played by Kristanna Loken. It's not clear how the carnival-people-- almost none of whom show affection for the heroine-- keep her under control given that she's stronger than a human and capable of healing most wounds. But when it's good for the movie, Rayne breaks free of the carnival and sets out on her quest for vengeance.

She happens across a cadre of heroic humans, curiously given the diabolical name of "The Brimstone Society," and they train the young heroine so that she can join them in their crusade. Only three of the Brimstoners-- played by Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodrigeuz, and Matthew Davis-- are major supporting characters, with Davis getting a little more dimension when he briefly becomes Rayne's lover. 

I noted that Boll's set-pieces were showy, but most of them aren't that dynamic. One section is devoted to Rayne obtaining a mystic device from a mysterious monastery, complete with death-devices that were clearly meant to emulate the video-game vibe, but on the whole it's less than exciting. After assorted sorties and one big betrayal, Rayne finally gets her shot at Kagan, who wants to harvest the mystic device from her body, which took residence therein for some damn reason. Kagan does make the standard "join me and we'll rule the world" speech before planning to sacrifice her, but Rayne is understandably set on patricide. The big climax is at best average, which may have a lot to do with the film's failure in the same era that the RESIDENT EVIL films kept making money with their video-game heroine.

Most of the actors-- Kingsley, Madsen, Rodrigeuz-- recite their lines dutifully at best. Davis comes off a little better, while assorted tertiary players-- Meat Loaf, Billy Zane-- are just there to add a little more heft. Loken puts as much dimension as possible into her simplified character, and though it's not a masterful performance, her nomination as "worst actress" at a Razzie award was almost certainly a reaction against Uwe Boll. 

SCORCHING SUN, FIERCE WIND, WILD FIRE (1977)

 






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


This cheap Taiwanese production-- garnished with a half-dozen HK "names"-- is a textbook example of a flick that's just making stuff up as it goes along. It's a shame, because its star Angela Mao was still in her prime. SUN would have been a much brighter film had the creators built up her character of masked freedom-fighter Violet, instead of spending so much time on subsidiary characters like that of her ally Tien Peng, her main foe Chang Yi and two comic relief characters, Dorian Tan and Lo Lieh. 

Supposedly the film takes place in 1920s China, prior to the Communist reign, but most of the film takes place out in rural areas, and almost no one wears clothes congruent with 20th-century fashions. Then one suddenly sees soldiers wearing China-Republic uniforms, or what's supposed to pass as a 1920s automobile, and one is reminded. However, for all that the time-period matters to the rambling narrative, it might as well be happening back in the usual amorphous medieval era common to so many Hong Kong chopsockies.

Violet's career as a masked avenger comes about because her father is Warlord Tung, who's doing a lot of evil things to the people and must be stopped. So like Zorro before her, Violet sets up an underground resistance while remaining close to her father's operations in order to foil his misdeeds. Because the story is so unfocused, there's no real sense of any particular goal Violet seeks to accomplish, much less any sense of conflict about defying her father. The warlord's enforcer becomes the de facto force to be reckoned with, and after the warlord perishes-- not directly because of anything Violet does-- the enforcer is defeated by Violet and the Tien Peng character in one of those two-against-one battles that's supposed to show how badass the villain is.

The "mask" Violet wears is one of those conical hats whose brim is low enough to hide the face, and she doesn't wear it that often. Since the heroine spends so much time fighting without the mask, I debated as to whether her attire really rose to the level of an uncanny outfit. But I decided in the affirmative, and besides, as the lobby card above shows, there's a moment when one of her allies gets trapped in a room with closing spiked walls, which definitely urges the film into the domain of the uncanny. (The peculiar German title, "Gorilla with the Steel Claw," has nothing to do with anything under the SUN.)

Only Mao's fights are particularly memorable, and then only because of her performing charisma. But though Mao made a few other films with uncanny aspects, SUN is probably the only one in which her character is the "costumed crusader" type of superhero.



Sunday, September 25, 2022

THE CREEPS (1997)

 







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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

By 1997, Charles Band had become inextricably associated with the subgenre of "tiny monsters" through his PUPPET MASTER and DEMONIC TOYS franchises. I can easily imagine him casting about for a new possible franchise, and deciding, "Hey! Suppose I take Universal's four most famous monsters-- Dracula, the Mummy, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Wolf Man-- and turn them into super-deformed versions of themselves?" 

(For those not in the know, "super deformed" is a term originally applied to an animation effect in which cartoon characters, usually more or less realistic in humanoid proportions, unaccountably "morphed" into toddler-sized versions of themselves, just for a quick comic effect. The term isn't used in THE CREEPS, but the movie's alternate title was DEFORMED MONSTERS, for what that's worth.)

Super-smart librarian Anna (Rhonda Griffin) finds that a valuable book has been stolen from the library on her watch. She hires a goofy private shamus named David (Justin Laurer) to track down the book-thief, a man named Berber (Winston Moynihan). 

What neither of the young protagonists know is that Berber has swiped the arcane tome because he knows that with its knowledge he can tap into the "archetypal universe." By doing so, he can make merely fictional characters into flesh-and-blood entities who can help Berber conquer the world. Anna stumbles across Berber and he captures her, intending to help his "archetypal inducer" with a virgin sacrifice. David comes to the rescue and spirits Anna away, as well as the stolen library items. Berber does trigger his inducer, but because the ritual was botched, the four monsters manifest as no more than three feet tall each. 

Of the four, only Dracula (Phil Fondacaro, delivering the film's best performance) can speak, but all are unhappy about their reduced circumstances. Berber convinces the pint-size fiends to recapture Anna in order to re-enact the ritual. The mini-monsters attempt to do so but get the wrong woman, and the ritual is ruined again. Eventually David and Anna are escorted back to the lab, but Anna convinces the monsters that they'd be better off as fictional characters, who are truly immortal no matter how many times they perish. Berber is sucked into his own machine and the Creeps return to being fantasies.

So why did I include "spoilers?" Only for the end joke, which is the movie's only modestly funny bit. A smitten Anna seeks out David and gives him a truly unusual gift: a copy of Sacher-Masoch's VENUS IN FURS. (So who does she want to be, the domina or the masochist?) David, being a lowbrow, observes that about three different movies were made of VENUS, one by the trash-flick director Jess Franco, but the duo get a romantic liaison despite their varying intellectual capacities. Though masochism often figures into pop culture, this is the first time I recall seeing a reference to the author who conceptualized the psychological posture.





Friday, September 23, 2022

ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE stars out with demons invading an old farmhouse and killing everyone there. Some days later, a heavy metal rock band named Triton-- named after lead singer John Triton (real heavy-metaller Jon-Mikl Thor)-- comes to stay at the farmhouse with the intention of getting away from civilization and making a recording of their next album. It's never clear who rented them the place given that the owners are all dead, but maybe the demons had a part interest in a realty company.

For most of this excruciatingly slow film, the rockers wander around the grounds, uttering banalities and intermittently getting knocked off by demons. None of the deaths are well done or imaginative, though the denouement does hold a minor surprise. When Beelzebub, a badly animated demon, approaches Triton to destroy the last of the victims, the singer suddenly manifests a killer musculature and a wealth of supernatural powers. The demon-lord then learns that none of the rockers were real, and that Triton is actually an angel sent to castigate the fiends for their evil deeds.

Dozens of cheap "demon house" films have appeared on video shelves, all ostensibly take place in Judeo-Christian universes where for no particular reason demons have utterly free reign. NIGHTMARE at least swims against that stultifying current. However, the screenplay-- written by Thor himself, who also produced-- is an incoherent mess, totally unable to give its one good idea any resonance.

The climactic fight between Triton and the demon just barely moves the goofy flick into the domain of the combative, though the battle features one of the silliest effects this side of Ed Wood, as Beelzebub (also called "Old Scratch") tries to defeat the angel by hurling rubber starfish to stick to his big ol' pecs. It's the only scene that deserves the phrase "so bad it's good," but NIGHTMARE isn't worth sitting through for just that one scene.

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE (1983)

 






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


I chose this German poster for RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE because it tossed in a couple of color-coded bimbos in negligees, neither of whom appears in the film. Since INVINCIBLE is a musical, there are a handful of skimpily clad singers in one or two scenes, but White Negligee and Black Negligee are not among them.

The musical numbers, as it happens, are also the only remarkable thing about INVINCIBLE, an Australian attempt to spoof the SUPERMAN movie franchise. Some of the songs were penned by Richard "ROCKY HORROR" O'Brien, and two of them allow starring villain Christopher Lee to show off his impressive baritone. Star Alan Arkin also turns in some decent spoken-singing, though it's clearly not his strength.

Metallic-suited Captain Invincible (Arkin) somehow acquires super-powers sometime during WWII, and he uses those powers-- largely magnetic in nature--to fight the good fight against the Nazi menace. Unfortunately, since for a time the Allies were allied with the Russians, his past actions get the captain in dutch with Commie-hunters in 1950s America. The captain becomes so disgusted with this small-minded political persecution that he disappears for the next thirty years, holing up in an Australian city. In addition, he becomes a drunk and a bum, and it's not at all clear how he sustains himself during this time.

In 1983 the captain's long-time enemy Mister Midnight (Lee) resurfaces, beginning by stealing a vital piece of U.S. ordnance, a "hypno-ray." It's never very clear what Midnight wants to accomplish with the ray, though there's a sequence that suggests some sort of real-estate scheme, possibly a nod to Lex Luthor's evil plan in the 1978 SUPERMAN. 

Providentially, a young policewoman named Patty witnesses the captain use his powers, and she contacts the U.S. with news of the hero's survival. The President himself (an amusing Michael Pate) journeys Down Under to persuade the hero to come out of retirement, and eventually the captain allows himself to return to America, with Patty in tow. 

Since no semblance of romance is ever suggested, clearly the script, co-written by nineties wunderkind Steven E. de Souza, was hoping to remain kid-friendly all the way. And in truth, with the exception of the humor in the songs, all the comic stuff in INVINCIBLE feels like it was designed for one of those tepid 1970s Disney comedies. If one happens to be in the mood for tepid humor, then INVINCIBLE fills that particular bill. A representative scene is one in which the captain, trying to test out his rusty powers, magnetically covers himself in dozens of metal implements. It's kind of cute, but not actively funny. Midnight, who may have played some role in forcing the hero into retirement, finds out that the captain is back and begins taking counter-measures. The captain and Patty go mooching about, tracking down Midnight's operation, and after a lot of low-level comedy the captain meets his old foe, who tries various stratagems, including luring the hero back to dipsomania. 

The captain's comical use of his powers provide most of the "action," which just barely edges into the combative mode. Much of the script emphasizes the protagonist's regret for the passing of a more innocent time, though the film's portrait of the eighties is pretty mild, so the film's latter half doesn't advance the sociopolitical content of the opening. Interestingly, four years previous, a DC comic book asserted that the heroes of the Justice Society had gone into retirement because of similar anti-Communist accusations during the early 1950s. But in those days, it seems unlikely that any writer who wasn't already a comics-fan would have been aware of that precedent.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

TORSO (1973)







PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

I've not yet got around to reviewing Sergio Martino's 1972 YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM, one of the few giallos I deem as being on the level with Dario Argento's BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Since I haven't found much mythicity in the few other Martino films I've reviewed here, I didn't know what to expect of TORSO, directed and co-written by Martino the ensuing year. But I'm pleased to see that the film fulfills the subgenre's interactions of female sexual display and the violence it summons from psychopaths, often but not always male.

The early scenes of the movie suggest both the perils and pleasures of looking, suggesting that Martino sought to imitate either Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Scopophilia, or the academic treatises written about Hitchcock. The films upon a sex-scene between two nude women and a barely seen third person, but one of them is seen digging his/her fingers into the eyes of a pale-skinned doll. "Injury to the eye motif," indeed. Following credits, the audience meets our viewpoint character, college student Jane (Suzy Kendall), as she attends an art class in Perugia, Italy. Can it be coincidence that handsome Professor Franz (John Richardson) just happens to be lecturing on a particular artist's depiction of St. Sebastian, a medieval saint who suffered one of the more spectacular deaths in history, that of being riddled with arrows? As if to subvert any validity to religious martyrdom, though, Franz and his students engage in a learned discussion as to whether or not the artist in question even gave a flying fig about Christianity.

So there are the pleasures of looking-- not only in terms of fine art, but also the lissome charms of the many attractive female students (apparently no homely girls go to this college). But the perils aren't far behind. Two students, male and female, drive out to a lonely spot to neck, but someone peeks into their car. The enraged male takes off after the transgressor, despite the girl telling him not to bother. The result is that a mystery killer, clad in a white ski-mask, offs them both, strangling the woman with a distinctive red-and-black scarf. More killings ensue, and Jane and her friends finally flee the campus for the private estate. But the serial killer follows them, and soon Jane is reduced to The Final Girl in this pre-slasher psycho.

Martino's compositions display a Hitchcockian artiness across the board, not focusing only upon the spectacular murders but also upon the more prosaic scenes as well. Additionally, though many giallos fall into the trap of reducing the female victims to exquisite corpses-to-be, Martino and co-scripter Ernesto Gastaldi include many naturalistic details to sustain the illusion that the victims were real people whose young lives were ended horribly (and not only the female characters, by the bye). Martino and Gastaldi had worked together in varying capacities on both Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY and Martino's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, but TORSO seems to have been their most fruitful collaboration.

As it's not necessarily to disclose the killer's identity to discuss the film's mythicity, I'll hold off on that detail, aside from saying that the motivations seem to have been borrowed both from Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (killing spree to cover specific murder) and 1944's THE LODGER (killer deeply affected by sibling's untimely demise). Said sibling's demise is even tied to feminine manipulation, which, more than beauty, is the cause for the killer to treat women as "dolls" to be ruined and discarded.

URSUS IN THE VALLEY OF LIONS (1961)


 






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


A note on two of the tropes mentioned here: the only thing that's uncanny about the titular lions in this flick is that they manage to raise a human baby to become a big strapping muscleman, who, unlike the lions, wears clothes before he ever meets people. The "bizarre crime" referenced is that old peplum favorite the "tug-o-war" between a muscleman and some incredible opponent. Sometimes I subsume these under "diabolical devices," as when the hero's being pulled into a wall of spikes. Here the villain forces a bunch of ordinary people to play a tug-o-war with a brace of elephants trying to drag the people into a blazing inferno. Crime yes, device no.

At any rate this fourth outing gave Ursus an origin of sorts, though the writers weren't really making any attempt at a "continuity" for the character. For one thing, the hero of the first film seems to be a peasant who's extremely strong for no particular reason. VALLEY makes Baby Ursus the last surviving member of a royal line overthrown by a pretender named Ajak (Alberto Lupo). The baby survives Ajak's usurpation and through various contrivances ends up in the care of a pride of lions. Twenty-something years later, Ursus dwells in the pride's valley, having no contact with other humans until a slave-caravan breaks down. This scene provides the film's only humor, as the aggrieved master of the caravan complains about his ill fortune that has prevented him selling his slaves in the nearest big city-- also the city where Ajak reigns. But the most important thing is that among the female slaves are the movie's Good Girl and Bad Girl, Annia (Mariangela Giordano) and Diar (Moira Orfei). There's just enough to establish that Diar nurses a deep resentment for Annia before Ursus takes a fancy to Annia and whisks her away to his lair to become his mate. (No sexy scenes here of course: all Annia is seen to do is cook for the big guy.)

Diar is sold to Ajak's court, but in dealing with the slave-master Ajak beholds a medallion the slaver got from Ursus. Ajak realizes that it's an emblem of the royal family he deposed, so he's anxious to wipe out the last trace of any rivals. Diar, ambitious to rise above her station, volunteers to help the evil ruler find Ursus.

The main hero gets a smattering of fight-scenes here, particularly when he has to employ his strength against that brace of elephants, but as a character he's a cipher. The dramatic meat of this opus is between the two females, particularly when Diar, a slave all her life, reveals that her resentment stems from knowing that Annia was a royal at some time in the past. Diar's resentment, though, blinds her to Ajak's treachery and she meets the usual bad end, though only after she's been of help to the hero.

The "Tarzan" borrowings don't do anything to make VALLEY more than a thoroughly average peplum, distinguished only by the hotness of Orfei and Giordano.






Sunday, September 18, 2022

NEMESIS 5 (2017)

 







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


The nicest thing I can say about the long-delayed (and entirely unwanted) sequel to Albert Pyun's NEMESIS series is that as bad as it is, it isn't as atrocious as the latest sequel to the TRANCERS franchise. But yes, NEMESIS 5-- whose subtitle THE NEW MODEL doesn't appear in the streaming version I saw-- makes any of the first four films seem competent by comparison. 

The first film is alluded to once again, even though it's only loosely related to the (often haphazard) continuity of films 2-4. All of these stories focused on the character of Alex Sinclair, played by the female bodybuilder Sue Price. That continuity, such as it is, involved a future society in which cyborgs sought to usurp human society. A resistance movement, allied to but not identical to a group called the Hammerheads, created the fetus of a super-warrior, implanted it in the womb of a volunteer, and sent the volunteer back to the 20th century, so that baby Alex would grow up to become warrior Alex, who at some point would birth a warrior race. The cyborgs conveniently did not learn Alex's location in space-and-time until she was grown, but when they sent cyborg-assassins to the past to exterminate Alex, she destroyed her opponents. Pyun's final entry dropped the whole "mother of a new race" trope and sent Alex to the future somehow, where she became an assassin who went around nude quite a bit.

The prologue for NEMESIS 5 does provide a loose overview for the Pyun films, but the script from first-timer Mike Reeb inverts the setup. Now the conflict is not between a cyborg conspiracy and a resistance movement made up of humans and good cyborgs, but the Los Angeles police department (though no cops appear as significant characters) and the Hammerheads, who are now more or less a group of conspirators. I think their plot is to make the L.A cops look like murderous extremists so that the Hammerheads can take  control, but this isn't spelled out well.

Sue Price re-appears as Alex for just a few scenes, training the new heroine in town, Ari Frost (Schuylar Craig). Ari is neither a cyborg nor a muscle-girl, but she has a few scenes fighting Hammerheads with her martial skills and a ray-gun. However, the fight-scenes here are as undernourished as every other aspect of the flick. Since fight-scenes were the major appeal of the Pyun series, this is rather like making an entry in the TRANSFORMERS with no giant robots. 

There's one source of amusement: when Ari goes after one of the Hammerhead bigwigs, she has to take on a busty blonde cyborg. Poor as the fight is, it's amusing that the cyborg's name is "Barbarella"-- though given her modest resemblance to Pam Anderson, calling her "Barb Wire" might have been more on target.

Though the NEMESIS series was not even close to being a favorite of mine, I sincerely hope this dimestore piece of crap is the last attempt anyone makes to revive the franchise.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

VAMPEGEDDON (2010)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


The dumbness of the above title sends a clear warning that it's just another of many impoverished DTVs selling itself with sexy vampire action, with emphasis on the lesbian angle. But precisely because the production values are next to nothing, there's no budget for the kind of lighting that makes for even halfway decent erotica.

The prologue is about the only thing that sustains interest. In the late 1800s, an evil vampire count, one Giovanni, emigrates to the American Old West. However, a British vampire fighter named Richard Longshanks follows the nasty bloodsucker. They manage to destroy one another.

Giovanni, however, has some sort of telepathic mojo even in death, though it takes him over a hundred years to find the right pawn. He somehow finds a group of Goth teens who all think it would be cool to become vampires, though the script doesn't bother saying why they think so. If I understood the setup, Giovanni manipulates a teen named Mel into stopping by a neighborhood garage sale. The weird owner of the garage gives Mel a weird old book which can tell the Goths everything they need to know about vampire transformation. She takes the book and soon the Goths are doing rituals out in the desert, which is the only setting for the remainder of the film.

Though Giovanni is a spirit, he has various vampire pawns, most of whom look like he does, warmed-over Nosferatu imitations. Soon the Goths are finding out that it's no fun to get possessed by vicious vampires. One Goth girl, name of Liz, tries to escape, but then gets possessed by none other than the spirit of Richard Longshanks.

This twist does give VAMPEGEDDON a boost because it requires some fight-scenes, with Liz, now talking totally like a Brit badass, kicking vampire butts. Giovanni observes that he always thought Longshanks sexually ambiguous, which makes no sense since the prologue established that he was married. But the script repeats this deep insight because it's been setting up a lesbian hookup between Liz and another Goth girl. Sure enough, though Giovanni is the central character here, he gets offed pretty easily. For some reason Longshanks can't or won't leave Liz's body, and the film ends on the queasy note that at least her lesbian friend will have her fantasies fulfilled.

FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND (1981)

 




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


How to approach the last film of Jerry Warren, the director famed for such sleep-inducing borefests as TEENAGE ZOMBIES and THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD? One might say, as did reviewer Michael Adams, that FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND was sort of a grab-bag of almost every trope Warren ever used in his original films (as well as a few from his paste-up flicks). That's certainly a fair statement, but it doesn't quite capture the lunacy that is ISLAND. After all, the now-celebrated Ed Wood also made his own share of "grab-bag" films in his career, and many of them are just "so dull they're dull."

I should note in passing that I saw some televised version of ISLAND at least thirty years ago, and that I remembered nothing of that experience when I re-screened it. But seeing ISLAND put me in mind of what I wrote of TEENAGE ZOMBIES: that it seemed like Warren had modeled it on some old mad-scientist B-film from the forties, but had executed his take with all the thrills of dripping tapioca. 

ZOMBIES took place on an island wherein innocents were menaced by a mad scientist played by actress Katherine Victor, and so does ISLAND-- but even though Victor doesn't act much better than she did in her cinematic debut, Warren finally managed to both write and direct an original film that was not dull. I'm not saying ISLAND is a good film, of course. But I liked that, instead of picking one threadbare concept and running it into the ground as Warren did throughout most of his career, this time he tried the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach-- probably because he hadn't made a film in fifteen years when he came out of retirement, hoping to tap into the video market for low-budget horror. And though he doesn't do a good job with all the jumbled concepts he tosses into the mix, he does at times make some effort to tie the objects in his grab-bag together somewhat.

Four men-- Paul, Curtis, Mark, and Dino-- go ballooning. We never learn much about any of them, except that Paul (Robert Clarke) is a medical doctor of some sort. Their balloon is mysteriously drawn to an isolated island and they crash-land. Before they can think much about escaping, they're distracted by a tribe of maidens in leopard-skin bikinis. The girls seem generally friendly, though they do string one of their members up by her arms and legs for an initiation ritual. While in the island-girls' company the travelers learn that for some reason, any time they mention aloud the name of some place from the world of everyday experience, they get shooting pains up their arms, as if some forbidding deity were saying, "naughty, naughty." Two scruffy sailors show up and offer to escort the castaways to the laboratory of the island's master.

Said master calls herself Sheila Frankenstein (Victor), and she claims to be the great-granddaughter of the original mad scientist. Sheila's also quick to specify that Frankenstein is not her married name, for she's still married to none other than her great-grandfather's assistant, Doctor Van Helsing (as Bram Stoker rolls over in his grave). Though this Van Helsing has nothing to do with the character from DRACULA, the double-centenarian has been kept alive in a somewhat vampiric fashion, thanks to Sheila giving him injections of blood. Some of these transfusions are taken from the bikini-girls, whom Sheila says are the result of crossbreeding between human beings and some unspecified aliens who never appear in the story as such. Other transfusions come from the one sailor that Shelia keeps prisoner, one Jayson (Cameron Mitchell), who continually quotes Poe and claims that he lost a wife named Lenore. Oh, and in order to keep some trope-continuity with TEENAGE ZOMBIES, Shelia also turned some sailors into near-invulnerable zombies. AND-- though Doctor Frankenstein's body is dead, Shelia keeps her grandsire's brain in her lab, and this may be what makes it possible for the good doctor (John Carradine) to manifest his spirit, ramble nonsense, and impart shocks to anyone who dares to mention the outside world.



Understandably, most of the travelers want nothing to do with the Sheila Frankenstein freak-show-- except Doctor Paul, who becomes intrigued with her miracle-making and starts collaborating with her (though later we learn that Sheila drugged him into compliance). The other three guys make some weak attempts to escape the island, but they get distracted easily-- and not just by the hot girls, who conduct rituals like using skulls as smoking-bongs and messing around with spiders and tarantulas. One castaway even gets into a "playful" wrestling-match with one of Sheila's non-zombie guards. Sheila and Doctor Van Helsing hold intense discussions about how to best keep Van Helsing alive. As I recall this is the point when Sheila belatedly mentions that her great-grandfather's creation is still alive, and that to keep the monster quiescent, she keeps him chained underwater. 

Eventually Sheila pushes the castaways too far by abducting one of the jungle girls for transfusion purposes. This leads to a whopper of a recognition scene, for while Jayson's on the transfusion bed he sees in the girl an uncanny resemblance to his lost Lenore-- and so informs her that she's actually his daughter, separated from Jayson and the late Lenore lo these seventeen years. (So-- she's NOT one of the alien hybrids?) Then the castaways and the jungle girls invade the lab, and the three guys try to talk Doctor Paul out of his obsession. The Frankenstein Monster gets free of his underwater prison and storms in, waving his arms but only attacking one victim. This engenders a battle between the good guys and Sheila's zombies. One of the less manic scenes shows a jungle girl watch when a tough guy high-kicks a zombie, and then she imitates the move perfectly on a second zombie. The most manic scene of the climax may be when a zombie-guard brandishes a plastic toy trident at one jungle-girl, and she transforms into a fanged vampire-- her alien ancestry showing?-- moments before a guard disintegrates her with a ray-weapon.

The violence peters out and the four travelers escape the island. They bring the military back to Frankenstein Island and find that all the crazy fantasy-creations have disappeared, except for one small token to prove It Was All Real. 

In an odd way, the island might owe more to the Doctor Moreau of cinema than to Mary Shelley's monster-maker. The savage jungle-babes may owe something to Moreau's Lota the Panther Woman (not present in the Wells novel), and the commandment not to speak of outsider places bears some resemblance to the injunction Moreau places upon his beast-men, telling them not to revert to their animal origins (even though Warren drops the whole commandment schtick in the picture's latter half). Warren trying to meld all these discordant fantasy-tropes together gives me some nostalgia for all of his B-movie influences, not least because the audience Warren was aiming at probably would have found all of his schticks incredibly old-hat. There are some fine Ed Wood-isms in Warren's script-- one being "there's another brain hidden somewhere"-- though possibly not enough of them to make ISLAND a winner with the "funny schlock" connoisseurs.

As noted before, Katherine Victor's performance isn't anything to write home about, but that may be partly because Warren was just using Sheila Frankenstein as a convenient pivot for all the film's disparate marvels, not as, say, an actual character. Yet Victor supposedly encouraged Warren to try his hand at moviemaking one more time, and that makes her more important to the history of schlock cinema than any single role she ever essayed.

Friday, September 16, 2022

VAMPIRE ECSTACY (1973), BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS (1967)


 



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


Though Joe Sarno's Euro-horror VAMPIRE ECSTACY is primarily just a T&A fest with a lesbian vampire angle, it's generally worth watching on the level of simple divertissement. I've seen numerous other sexy-vampire romps that have far less creativity than this outing, so I could tolerate its slack pacing and repetitive setups just because it remains, shall we say, visually interesting most of the time.

All of the action takes place at a German castle in the 1970s. The occupants of this domain are an all-female vampire-witch cult led by one Wanda, and the cult's purpose is to reincarnate the spirit of a long dead vampire witch into the body of a descendant, To this end Wanda invites a young woman named Monika to the castle for the reading of a will, and Monika comes, bringing along a girlfriend. Yet at the same time Monika arrives, two other strangers show up seeking shelter. They are supernatural expert Julia Malenkow (Anke Syring) and her dimbulb brother Peter. Will Julia's expertise in vampire lore-- like her ability to repel the undead with "garlic crosses"-- pose a threat to Wanda's vision? You betcha.

Amid all the sexy stuff-- which includes the revelation that Julia harbors a thing for her brother, while he's keen on a sweet young thing named Helga-- there's some indication that writer-director Sarno was having a little irreverent fun with the genre. The lethal ladies cast spells and dance their rituals to the tune of bongo drums (!). But they barely ever do anything vampiric, though at one point they call up bats to tear off Julia's clothing-- bats who are quite obviously paper cut-outs being wielded by offscreen stage-hands. There's the odd revelation that Julia and Peter may ALSO be related to the dead countess-- so are they there by coincidence, or not? But Sarno probably just raised the question to burn up a little screen time, not because he wanted to enhance the plot. However, if a vampire-fan had no objections to copious T&A, I can think of worse ways to waste viewing time-- though at an hour and forty minutes, ECSTASY is much too long.



But anything's better than BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS, the first Argentian vampire-film. This flick starts off adequately, as an undead medieval count woos a living woman. The woman's father doesn't approve and makes another match for her, but the count spirits her back to his domain and makes him an undead like himself. Then they go hang out at his mansion until the 20th century.

Then the director has a bunch of modern youths show up at the castle-- and I could swear that almost NOTHING happens thereafter. I mean, the undead woman gets it on with one of the guys, and I think the undead count comes after a modern girl. But there were so many deadly-dull exposition scenes here that I found myself unable to remember what I'd seen after I saw it.

I know nothing about this production or the people behind it, but next to this one even the worst Jess Franco starts looking good.



JUSTICE LEAGUE: GODS AND MONSTERS (2015)


 





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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

If one must yield to the temptation to go where "Mirror Mirror" has gone before, one could at least put a little thought into how the characters in the alternate world, who are "good" in the normal universe, take on negative traits. Certainly almost any amount of thought would be superior to the clumsy building-block approach of the unjustly celebrated FLASHPOINT PARADOX.

Unlike that opus, GODS AND MONSTERS-- a title borrowed from a line in the 1935 BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN-- seems to have no comic-book prototype, having originated from a story by Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm. The writers refreshingly diverge from the usual alternate-universe trope in that all the action remains in the alternate dimension, with no crossovers to the "normal" cosmos. Further, the script concentrates only on the changes fate wreaks upon "the trinity" of DC's most famous characters-- though two of the three are barely related to their originals-- and they're not precisely evil here, but simply ruthless in their quests for justice, as if the characters were being seen through a "Punisher"-lens.

The Bad Superman keeps at least the general outline of his template's origin. He's still rocketed to Earth when the great planet Krypton starts to explode, though he begins the journey as the unfertilized egg of his mother Lara. Jor-El is just about to apply male input to the egg via their advanced tech (rather than the old-fashioned way), when evil General Zod intrudes. In this iteration Zod has actually caused Krypton's destruction with his martial ambitions, but such is his arrogance that he inserts his own genetic material into the birth-matrix. The rocket delivers its cargo to Earth, but this time baby Kal-El is taken in by a kindly Mexican couple, so that he takes the adoptive name Hernan Guerra, and dons a very different costume when he becomes Superman. (He also sports a sinister goatee, possibly a shout-out to the aforementioned STAR TREK episode.) He has various run-ins with Lex Luthor as well as a fractious relationship with such legal authorities as Steve Trevor and Amanda Waller.

In contrast, Bad Wonder Woman has nearly nothing to do with her template. She comes not from an island of Amazons but from the culture of New Genesis, one of two outer-space "god-cultures" introduced in Jack Kirby's epic NEW GODS concept. Rather than Diana, her name is Bekka, a cognomen borrowed from a minor character in the Kirby opus. The script devotes a fair amount of time to the origin of Bekka, but none of that material bears that strongly on the main plot. Her closest tie to the normal Wonder Woman is that she apparently had a relationship with Trevor, though they're no longer a couple in "real-time." The script also refrains from resorting to the old chestnut of a Wonder Woman-Superman romance.

Bad Batman is still rich, but this time he's Kirk Langstrom (aka "Man-Bat" in the comics), not Bruce Wayne, and I'm not even sure if his parents got killed by despicable criminals. Unlike Langstrom this hero doesn't transform into a hybrid-creature, but at some point before the main story, he's been transformed into a vampire. His powers aren't well defined, though he does snack on a few corpuscles, and he does wear a Bat-costume with built-in gimmicks. Prior to his vampirism Kirk was close friends with robotic expert Will Magnus and with a young woman both men loved, Tina. (In DC comics Magnus is renowned for creating a sextet of heroic robots, the Metal Men, one of whom is named Tina.) Both of Kirk's friends play a central role when Batman investigates a plot designed to make the hardnosed Justice League look like full-fledged criminals in the eyes of the law.

The script sets up Luthor to look like the instigator of said plot, in which one-eyed robots carry out a campaign of systematic assassination against many of the world's greatest scientists, killing off such DC luminaries as Ray Palmer and Victor Fries. Naturally, Luthor isn't responsible, and since the script doesn't have time for red herrings, it's pretty obvious that the true villain is that little old Frankensteinian mad scientist and robot-maker Will Magnus. 

This version of Magnus resembles the comics-template only in that the alternate-world version has only created one "Metal Man," name of Tin, though at the climax we learn that Will's wife Tina isn't all she seems to be. Magnus doesn't have a really strong reason for creating a horde of killer robots and framing the Justice League for those murders, but he's largely just the script's means for putting the three almost-antiheroes through the mill, so that to some extent they clean up their act and start functioning for the good of mankind. Overall, while none of the "bad" heroes offered any stunning new psychological or sociological insights, each of them did get a decent melodramatic arc, with a particularly interesting turn for Wonder-Bekka in the romance department. Additionally, though Lois Lane makes a few appearances in the story, she's initially no more a friend to Bad Superman than Luthor is, though the denouement leaves the door open for a change in feelings. Only poor Kirk gets all his romantic bridges burned in the finale, with not even the suggestion of a Good Catwoman to offer some romantic respite.





Thursday, September 15, 2022

THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN (2018), REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN (2019)

 







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


As of this writing I've never read all of the DC stories associated with the company's "Big Event" of the nineties, "the Death-and-Return-of-DC's-Meal-Ticket." I have a general acquaintance with the high points of this long and drawn-out saga, and I summed up my opinion of the concept in my review of the TPB "The Return of Superman."

This blandness dominated the creative tone of DC’s Superman titles since the beginnings of the “post-Crisis” Superman. Most of the stories, whether produced by wunderkind writer-artist John Byrne or by those who followed in his creative wake, were depressingly sterile in terms of any symbolic depth. Editor Mike Carlin may deserve most of the blame for continually keeping the Superman titles oriented on a particularly dreary version of superhero soap-opera, and many fans were particularly cheesed at the ham-handed handling of Superman’s death at the hands of the monstrous Doomsday.

“The Return of Superman” story-arc offered a little more potential for mythic storytelling. Superman’s return from death was inevitable, but it was probably beyond Carlin’s abilities to emulate the Jesus-parallels seen in the Richard Donner films, even if Carlin had wanted to pursue that line of discourse. It’s often been suggested that the follow-up to Superman’s death was modeled less on Christ than on Elvis, for as soon as the Man of Steel has been declared deceased, four “Superman-imitators” show up in Metropolis. All four assert some claim to either being a reborn Superman or a hero capable of carrying on the Kryptonian's tradition.

These two DTVs, though, had a little more potential for mythic discourse simply because they had to condense the death-and-return saga down to two features of about ninety minutes apiece. In addition, the writers drew upon later iterations of pivotal characters and injected new material. As I recall neither Darkseid nor anything associated with his realm of Apokolips had anything to do with Doomsday, the monster who beats Superman to death. But other comics-writers crossed over the monster and DC's biggest Big Bad, so Darkseid is rather awkwardly woven into the continuity of the adaptation as well.

The script for DEATH by Peter J. Tomasi first posits a continuity in which Lois Lane isn't in love with Superman, but has been dating Clark Kent for some time, to the point where the hero is seriously thinking of proposing. However, Tomasi's Superman is largely characterized by incessant worrying: he wants Lois in his life but he anticipates causing her harm by revealing his true nature. Much of this dramatic back-and-forth is well-done melodrama, though I could have lived without the hero consulting with the other members of the Justice League for their opinions on his problem. None of these characters say or do anything memorable; they're present in DEATH just so they can get stomped by the rampaging Doomsday, thus making clear that Superman alone is the world's only hope. (It was moderately diverting that Tomasi worked Hawkman into a big fight-scene, given that the character hardly ever shows up in DCAU movies.) 

A frequent complaint about the original comics-battle between Superman and Doomsday is that the hero had various chances to counter the monster without just resorting to a direct punch-up. It's to the credit of co-directors Sam Liu and Jake Castorena that the battle in DEATH is so vivid that it never seems as if Superman has a moment to catch a breath and pursue any other strategy. He does destroy Doomsday, but he himself dies-- or appears to do so-- and all the world mourns-- particularly Lois, who learns of the Kryptonian's secret ID just moments before he's called into action.



The title of the story's second part, REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN, is derived from a later arc of the "Death" saga. It's also a fun Easter egg for the knowledgeable fan, since "Reign of the Superman," was the title of a 1933 prose story by Jerry Siegel in which "the Superman," a villainous telepath, plans to conquer the world. The story appeared a few months before Siegel decided to use the super-name for a more heroic character.

As the story commences, Superman's passing has been immediately followed by the appearance of four crusaders who wear the "S" symbol. Two, later named "The Eradicator" and "The Cyborg Superman," claim to be recrudescent versions of the Kryptonian, which even to a 1990s audience almost guaranteed that they were impostors. The other two, Steel and "Superboy II," made no such claims and went on to enjoy their own features at DC Comics. Steel's role is relatively minor, though the Tim Sheridan-Jim Kreig script at least gives him more consequential things to do than the members of the Justice League, who get shunted off into another dimension by Darkseid. Superboy the Second gets meatier treatment by virtue of his complicated genetic history, in that he's a clone created by Lexcorp Labs from the genetic material of both Superman and Luthor. (This was a bad idea in the comics and doesn't improve in the video, but director Sam Liu does get the maximum melodrama out of Superboy's confusion over his heritage.) 

The scripters also do a good job by keeping much of the film's focus on Lois Lane as she doggedly pursues the true identities of the four wanna-bes, providing better than average continuity with Part I. The resurrection of Superman due to an "X-factor" is necessarily telegraphed, since a ninety-minute feature couldn't allow for the slow buildup seen in a comics feature. The most interesting aspect of REIGN is that in the absence of Superman and the Justice League, the Cyborg-Superman, acting on Darkseid's orders, cons an assortment of Metropolis residents into becoming a phalanx of mindless guardians. Did the writers want to emphasize the dangers of hero worship? Well, more like incorrect hero worship, for the naive converts have deviated by falling in line with Superman's cyborg impersonator, while correct hero worship is shown by a group of citizens who protest the cyborg's high-handed actions. 

Darkseid, as I said, is clumsily inserted into the story, and the plot to conquer all of Earth with the Cyborg-villain's pawns is never compelling. But the fights are well done, and the romantic arc of Superman and Lois is adequately handled, which is better than par for the course.


 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

MARRIED WITH CHILDREN: "THE WEAKER SEX" (1995)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


Though Peg Bundy is legendary for her skills in man-bashing, in most episodes she confines herself to verbal abuse. The tenth-season episode "The Weaker Sex" shows Peg getting her Tough Girl Side on.

Even before Peg signs up for self-defense classes, not surprisingly at the behest of Marcy, Al regales one of his co-workers with his contempt for the very idea of women being independent of male protection. Despite all of Al's carping at the humiliations of marriage, clearly he gets some validation from the idea that he can protect his family with his greater male strength.

Peg gets her way of course, and Al seethes while his wife and Marcy practice their kung fu on the hapless Jefferson. (Marcy also gets turned on by battering her husband, though he claims that he's been effectively neutered by the karate games.) Kelly tells Al to take Peg to a movie to defuse her enthusiasm for martial arts, and Al reluctantly escorts his wife to "The Bridges of Madison County." Al is spared that fate when a pickpocket tries to lift his wallet, but he suffers a worse blow to his ego when Peg cold-conks the thief in full view of many eyewitnesses-- including a TV news-crew. In no time, Al is scorned by all of Chicago as a wimp dominated by his wife, and even Jefferson gets in several shots at Al's manhood.

Jefferson offers a solution. He arranges for a stunt-guy friend to offer an insult to Peg at a local dive, giving Al the chance to vindicate himself by clobbering a masher. But after much byplay, Peg once again un-mans Al by clobbering the stunt-guy herself. Once again local news scorns Al's lack of manhood. 

Kelly gives Al his redemption by bringing over one of her worthless boyfriends, giving Al the chance to punch the dork out. Actually, one never sees the media redeem Al, since the episode ends with Al asserting his masculinity. But for perpetual loser Al, any act of pointless violence is as close as he can get to a victory.



Prior to this episode, Peg Bundy was sometimes seen punching out other women, and she even clouted Al once or twice, but her transformation from couch potato to kung-fu kicker verges on being a fantasy (especially since it never comes up again). Al's embarrassment by his wife is prefigured by a scene wherein a burly woman throws Al around like a rag doll, and Al's son is similarly humiliated by a huge woman who implicitly ravishes him and carries him away to a fate worse than death-- one of the few times Bud gets tortured without either Peg or Kelly bringing the calamity about. Just to keep up MWC's quota of bodacious babes, though, the writers and director Amanda Bearse throw in a gratuitous scene at the dive where two hot girls beat up some scruffy bikers.


MARRIED WITH CHILDREN: "DO YOU THINK I'M SEXY" (1990)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

Like the sixth season MWC episode "If Al Had a Hammer," this fifth season opus is metaphenomenal only in depicting a weird transformation that other characters clearly see, even if no real explanation for it is offered.

It's business as usual at the Bundy household, with Al and Peg running each other down constantly. (Peg offers Al the choice between showering or fixing the malfunctioning doorbell; he doesn't immediately do either, though the arc of the story is all about what happens when Al starts caring about his appearance.) A new neighbor, a sexy young thing, comes over and asks for the "loan" of Peg's husband to help move her couch. Peg continues to insult Al as a counterpoint to the young woman's fulsome compliments. But once Al shows the new neighbor some chivalry by helping her out, this snowballs as the local neighbor women start fancying Al. Peg can't believe that the husband she's spent so many years neutering has become attractive to other women. Even Kelly gets enthusiastic about the supposed "new hunk in town" until she finds out it's her own dad.

Al cleans himself up and starts dressing well, and even his nemesis Marcy shows a little interest in his new persona. Kelly has one of her few good insights, claiming that if you think you're sexy, other people will too. Peg is utterly unable to cope, but to her good fortune, Al's own pessimism comes to her rescue. After being offered the chance to become a rich woman's sex-toy, Al has an existential moment in which he realizes that there's no point in his flirting with other women, because "I'm married, with children." Then, despite being clean and well-dressed, Al "devolves" to his slob-self before the eyes of his family, and Peg is thrilled to have her beaten-down hubby back again.

On a side-note: Peg's torments of Al are once more mirrored by Kelly's tortures of Bud. This time, Bud takes on the job of fixing the door bell, but foolishly trusts Kelly to make sure that the power is off. Kelly not only doesn't seem too broken up by her brother's electrocution, she takes him seriously when he suggests that next time she should provide a bucket of water for him to stand in. Given Kelly's history, this suggests Bud himself may have a streak of sibling masochism.