Monday, May 23, 2022

CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE (1961)


 





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


I've only watched the English-language version of CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE, which ostensibly included some new scenes added by its American distributor while others from the original Mexican movie were deleted. So it's possible that a subtitled version of the original release might have been more interesting.

Still, the plot is so basic that I doubt the original had much complexity to add. Four archeologists journey to Haiti and rip off an idol from a voodoo temple, and a voodoo priest pursues the criminals back to Mexico to wreak vengeance. None of the victims possess more than the most basic characterization, and even the vengeful priest, though physically impressive with his Charles Manson looks, has no character to speak of.

However, the viewpoint character is not just the usual expert in both science and the supernatural, but is also a highly educated female, Karin (Elvira Quintana). Karin lectures his scoffing colleagues on the formidable powers of voodoo, and though she's not a crusading Van Helsing, eventually she will seek to block the priest from killing any more not-quite-innocents. Indeed, Karin's lectures on voodoo religion is the main thing that leads me to grade the film's mythicity as fair.

However, the priest is a little more inventive than the usual voodoo master, for he doesn't use the average hand-sized dolls, but the "doll people" of the title. These manikins stand about three feet tall, being of course played by midgets, though the players wear masks of human features which do not move normally and add to the dolls' general creepiness. Being small, the doll people have to sneak up on their victims before impaling them with their poison needles. In addition, the priest brings along a regular-size zombie for heavy lifting, and the zombie shows himself invulnerable to bullets.

The pacing is fairly slow, so there's not a lot of suspense until the conclusion, where Karin unveils a counter-measure to nullify the evils of voodoo. Despite some predictable sequences, this was a good effort by director Benito Alazraki, who went on to direct the first definitive Santo film.



TEX AND THE LORD OF THE DEEP (1985)


 






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


I've never read any of the TEX comics, which became very popular in Europe since Italy published the first serial in 1948. Tex, whose full name is Tex Willer, is largely unknown in the U.S., and this movie-- henceforth abbreviated to LORD-- seems to be the only English-language translation of the character into any medium.

The movie is said to have been an unofficial pilot for a television series. But despite its having adapted sequences from three of the comic serial's arcs, and despite having the directorial services of Duccio Tessari, LORD flopped at the Italian box office, so there was no teleseries. Possibly the budget was limited from the get-go because any teleserial would also have been similarly limited.

LORD starts out moderately well, using long shots of Western natural wonders and a portentous voice-over to introduce the audience to the upstanding ranger Tex Willer (Giuliano Genma), who pals around with a stalwart Indian buddy and the real-life scout Kit Carson (thus making this stand-alone film a sort of crossover-work). Tex is seen avenging some Indians from white scumbags who've been selling them liquor. 

Then the plot proper starts, as Tex and his friends track some bandits who've ripped off a convoy of Army rifles. The heroes learn that the bandits may be working with a mysterious cult of living Aztecs who possess strange magical abilities. Tex and his buddies even witness one such ability, when a survivor of the convoy raid is subjected to some force that melts away the flesh of his face, leaving a skull (the only good effect in the film).

Meanwhile, the film segues to showing the Aztecs, who plot to conquer the world by uniting the Indian tribes against the White Man, and continuing their age-old custom of sacrificing human beings to their gods. The Aztecs, one of whom is female, debate their next move, while Tex and his friends seek them out-- 

And the two never meet. The remainder of the film trails off as Tex's band fights with some of the bandits, but the heroes never meet the Aztec plotters, and the latter are apparently defeated when their alchemical weapon goes awry. 

I don't think one can blame this incoherence on budget alone. LORD just seems to be one of those bad-luck films in which everything just goes wrong and everyone involved just wants it to be over and done with it. Genma had an impressive career playing heroes in westerns and in sword-and-sandal flicks, but it's impossible to judge whether or not he could have done a good version of this character, since his work is undercut at every turn. The flick doesn't even play to the sword-and-sandal tradition of playing up a hot evil queen, since the female Aztec's scenes are short and unmemorable.


GEMINI MAN (1976)

 






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


GEMINI MAN is one name for the ninety-minute pilot film for a short-lived 1976 series about an invisible government agent. There's a longer name for the pilot, but I don't feel like typing it.

The year before, the same production company had attempted to launch THE INVISIBLE MAN a series about an invisible do-gooder played by David McCallum. When that show tanked, the producers attempt to beat the invisible horse further by launching GEMINI MAN.

To be sure, the idea of a series about an invisible secret agent has some definite appeal, though not even the longest lasting one, the 2000-02 INVISIBLE MAN, quite tapped the full potential. Here it's clear that the series-makers have modeled their hero Sam Casey (Ben Murphy) on the affable model of Lee Majors' "Six Million Dollar Man." Like the Majors character, Casey comes from nowhere and has no particular aim in life beyond going wherever his bosses send him on his missions. Murphy delivers the goods in this respect, and the other cast-members do what's required of them but the idea of a kid-friendly world of international espionage didn't work this time. Even the introduction of a "ticking-clock" element-- Casey can only remain invisible fifteen minutes a day or he'll die-- failed to add any moxie to the pedestrian execution.

IRON MAN AND HULK: HEROES UNITED (2013)


 




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

Most of the original animated DTV movies made from Marvel comics-characters have been relentlessly mediocre, in contrast to the DC cartoon-films, which generally vary between the excruciating to the excellent. To be sure, in the 2010s Marvel cartoon serials have probably been better than those from DC, but often the stand-alone animations can't quite seem to capture the soap-operatic appeal of Marvel characters (though the live-action movies have similar problems there, as well).

Still, this time out the "brave and bold" teamup of Iron Man and The Hulk works much better than one might have expected. Naturally, these characters are extrapolated from the live-action Marvel movies, wherein the regular identities of both super-crusaders-- namely, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner-- become science-buddies. Refreshingly, though, UNITED goes in a less predictable direction, in that I don't even remember Banner being mentioned. 

At the start of the opus, the two heroes have served in The Avengers together, but Iron Man doesn't really have any sort of buddy-relationship with Banner's green-hued id-monster. However, UNITED is the story of how the two of them work through their differences in order to take arms against a sea of troubles.

The troubles, of course, are an assortment of Marvel villains, though most of them-- the Abomination, the Wendigo, and a couple of Hydra scientists-- don't do much more than set up the plot-action. The nub of the conflict is that Iron Man and Hulk get trapped aboard one of Stark's ships, which in turn falls under the control of a new version of a Hulk villain: Zzzax, a sentient electrical entity. Whereas the character in the comics just goes around shocking people, this Zzzax is pretty adroit about using his powers to over-write electronic programs with an eye to controlling the world's energy. The monster even has some minor characterization, slamming Earth's humans for wasting energy.

The action is pretty good-- Hulk is blinded at one point and has to depend on Iron Man to be his eyes as they fight a Stark-created band of robots called "Mandroids." But the barbs that the two heroes toss at each other while trying to beat their enemies are the short movie's highlight, and for once, the limited animation wasn't a huge problem.



THE GIANT OF METROPOLIS (1961)


 





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

GIANT OF METROPOLIS is one of the few "sword and sandal" films to which I've given a good rating. Its quality may have something to do with its appearance in 1961, which predates the descent of the "Italian muscleman" films into total predictability. It's also of interest that this was one of only five films directed by Umberto Scarpelli. Though he might have left filmmaking for any number of reasons, it's somewhat fitting that his last work for Italian cinema turns out to be among the best in its genre-- though, to be sure, Scarpelli is not credited as having conceived the main idea, only for providing dialogue. Since the script's three writers don't have a ton of outstanding credits to their names, perhaps METROPOLIS is just one of those occasional "perfect storms" of creativity.

The title alone suggests ambition on the part of the creators. The basic idea derives from the myth of Atlantis, a super-scientific civilization destroyed before the rise of recorded history, and a prologue even establishes that the action takes place on "the continent of Atlantis." But the city is plainly named after the future-city of Metropolis as seen in the classic 1927 Fritz Lang movie, though there's no real attempt to follow the plot-action of the silent film. I suspect what happened was that the writers were inspired by the basic pattern of Lang's masterpiece, which was a melodrama about the struggles between the high and low classes in a future-city-- including both romantic and familial conflicts. Lang's film is basically optimistic at the conclusion, and the city of its title is seen to endure all of its travails. However, since Scarpelli's film follows the pattern of the Atlantis myth, the only positive thing about this Metropolis is that its destruction clears the path for younger, less corrupt descendants.

Hulking Obro (Gordon Mitchell) wanders with his savage-looking tribe-- possibly cast out from some other land?-- until they come near the continent of  Atlantis. Like Moses seeking the Promised Land, Obro's aged father dies before the tribe reaches its goal, and as he dies the old man turns over the stewardship of their people to Obro, and encourages the hero to seek out Metropolis.

This doesn't turn out to be good paternal advice. When the savages approach the city, weird magnetic vortices assail them, and all but Obro are disintegrated. No reason is given for Obro's survival, but the city's ruler becomes curious about the stranger and orders him brought into Metropolis-- which will be a mistake on the ruler's part, though possibly one he was destined to make.

King Yotar (Rolando Lupi) is not your routine city-tyrant. Yotar is the heir to a long Atlantean tradition of super-science, and he will do anything to keep Metropolis on top of things, particularly because of dire stellar predictions about the city's demise. Most of the populace has been converted into obedient zombies, but one thing you've got to say for Yotar: he doesn't play favorites. Instead of letting his own father pass away peacefully, Yotar has transferred his dad's intelligence into an artificial body, so that Yotar can consult him whenever he pleases.

He doesn't treat his immediate family any better. His first wife died, leaving him a nubile daughter, Mercede (Bella Cortez), who initially thinks that her father hung the moon. But Yotar's second wife Queen Texen (Liana Orfei) knows better. Though she loves her husband, she fears his propensity to try to control her and everyone else. Her greatest concern is with his plan to transfer his father's intelligence into his small son Elmos. This transfer will give Elmos eternal life, but at the cost of his childhood. Yotar doesn't see why this should be a problem; doesn't everyone want to bypass the troubles of childhood? 

He doesn't seem to harbor any dire plans for Mercede, but there's a peculiar scene in which she does a revealing dance before his throne, flanked on either side by a white male dancer and a black male dancer. One can't help but think of Salome dancing to impress her stepfather, and the addition of her dancing with a racially mixed pair of males adds a little race-fetishism to the fire. Yotar shows no overt reaction to the dance. However, when he leaves his throne-room, he immediately seeks out his current queen and embraces her, despite her protests that he only wants to control her. Later Obro will comment that Yotar is not a villain, just a man mistaken in his priorities-- and the fact that the King doesn't have any designs on his daughter would seem to bear this out.

Yotar, tasked with prophecies that the stranger may spell the city's doom, subjects Obro to assorted ordeals. In an arena Obro is forced to fight a big hairy cave-guy, and later gets defeated by a gang of vicious pygmies. Yotar even tries to show the hero that muscle is no match for scientific magic by forcing Obro to struggle against magnetic forces-- which struggle Obro loses, unlike most such challenging feats in these type of films.

However, Texen and her minister Egon liberate Obro, wanting him to use his martial prowess to dispose of Yotar's guards so she and Egon can prevent Elmos from being subjected to his father's experiment. Egon's insertion is necessary because when Yotar finds out about Texen's betrayal, she takes her own life-- which doesn't seem to be a very good strategy for taking care of Elmos. However, her sacrifice earns Obro another ally, for Mercede sees Texen die, and she turns against her father and succors the stranger-- with whom, inevitably, she will become romantically linked.

I'll conclude my account there, for from then on the die is pretty much cast as to what's going to happen to the Atlantean kingdom. But all of the dramatis personae of METROPOLIS are much more vivid than those of the average historical epic, largely because they're all playing off the hubris of Yotar, who only realizes the evil of his actions in his last moments. The basic theme of seeking to control others, even for their own good, makes much better drama than tinpot tyrants who just want to beat the people down. Mitchell, though not capable of nuanced acting like his cast-mates, nevertheless has an impressive presence, especially when he's mowing down guards with what looks like a Samson-style "jawbone of an ass." 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS (1940)

 





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


THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS was the second English adaptation of an Edgar Wallace novel to reach American shores, and it shows an attempt, if not always a successful one, to craft a British-made thriller considerably less fusty than those of the thirties. Director Norman Lee, who's currently not remembered for much beyond DOOR, does a good job of keeping the mise-en-scene fairly lively despite having to execute loads of mystery-oriented talking-head scenes.

Since I'm not likely to ever read the 1926 Wallace mystery, I did glean a few details about the source material from Goodreads. The movie seems to be faithful to Wallace's concept. On his deathbed, an English lord bequeaths a hidden treasure to his heirs, but they can only get the riches under assorted complicated circumstances, including the use of seven special keys designed to open the door to the treasure. The keys enter the custody of an executor for roughly the next ten years, so that a foreign heir, who knows nothing of her blood relation to the lord, has time to grow up and became young June Lansdowne (a striking Lilli Palmer). A friend of the family somehow learns of June and contacts her about the legacy, so she and a comical girl-friend fly to Great Britain. The two ladies arrive just in time to see an organized conspiracy by some of the heirs-- including sinister Doctor Manetta (Leslie Banks of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) A young local cop, Dick Martin (Romilly Lunge), gets drawn into June's troubles, patently because he fancies June. 

What's surprising is that in content this quasi-Gothic mystery is identical to dozens of others from the period, this is one of the few to qualify for the combative mode, in that Martin has a lively battle with a burglar who breaks into June's room, later battles Manetta's mute servant, and finally fights the evil doctor at the film's climax. Possibly the novel is just as comparatively violent, given that some reviews intimate that Dick is the main character in the source novel. In the original story Dick and June have to contend with some sort of mad scientist. But the scripters of DOOR, one of whom was also the director, chose to place more emphasis on the character of the conspirators' leader Doctor Manetta. Without reading the novel I can't be sure, but I don't think it's coincidence that Leslie Banks' most renowned character, Count Zaroff, displays a sadistic mindset, while Manetta claims to be a descendant of the Spanish torturer Torquemada. Zaroff also had a mute servant, as does Manetta. Manetta also keeps a roomful of exotic torture-devices, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he uses them on innocent victims. Still, the torture-room is the site of the end-fight, and one of the devices, an iron maiden, plays a decisive role in the fight's conclusion.

Lunge, an actor I'd never encountered before, does nicely with his heroic role, but Palmer and Banks are the most magnetic performers. The funny girlfriend isn't very amusing, but there are a few good lines. An elderly cop is asked whether or not he can read, and he replies, "Not in the daytime. I took a reading-course at night school." 


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964)


 




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


Despite the exploitative title, there's not a lot of screaming in this EARTH. Hammer horror-director Terence Fisher teamed with Harry (THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH) Spalding to produce a nicely photographed but somewhat disappointing tale of staunch English villagers coping with a mysterious alien invasion.

Though EARTH resembles some later bucoli English tales of horror and/or SF, this time Fisher and Spalding were working for another maker of B-films, which under various names (Lippert, Regal) had also released cheapie SF-films like KING DINOSAUR. Possibly thanks to Fisher and his production team, EARTH looks better than a lot of similar low-budget fare, though Spalding's script doesn't come up to the level of the photography.

After a memorable opening in which the audience sees various English residents inexplicably stricken dead-- particularly the engineer of a still-running train-- the film focuses upon a handful of survivors who assemble in a small village. Most of the characters are fairly typical tweedy English types, aside from one transplanted American pilot, Jeff (Willard Parker). No firm reason is given as to why these particular people survived the phenomenon that slew many others. To their consternation, the half-dozen survivors witness two strange armored figures stalking the village's empty streets. When one woman approaches the two strangers, one of them kills her with a touch. One armed survivor empties a pistol at the armored men, but they walk away, paying the attack no attention.

Two more people make their way to the village, a young man and his pregnant young wife-- and from then on, the peril of the young mother and her progeny almost takes priority over the alien menace. Though the E.T.s don't show any interest in the villagers, the woman they killed comes back to life as a zombie until being slain again. Later, one of the villagers runs down an armored man in a car, revealing that it's a robot. The space-robots change a few other locals into zombies, but since the audience is never privy to the motivations of the robots' masters, it's not even certain that the robots zombify people on purpose or not.

Like a few other similar films, the aliens remain unknowable, the dramatic focus being on the interaction of the motley crew-- though there's not much drama, since none of the characters are memorable. It is interesting that the American guy automatically takes charge of the situation, though he doesn't end up doing much, except at the end he suggests that the remaining villagers go south to look for more human beings. It feels like a quick finish, given that none of them know whether or not even more aliens may be lurking about. In comparison to the tight thrills of THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH, EARTH never delivers on its promise.


STAR ODYSSEY (1979)


 



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


For some reason, I happened to look at a 2012 review I did for two Italian SF-schlock-fests, and I thought that I did a poor job explaining why the second film, STAR ODYSSEY, was crappy. So I re-watched the film on streaming. I wasn't expecting to find anything meritorious in ODYSSEY-- the last-released of four such schlock-fests directed by Antonio Brescia. But I thought that if I ever get round to citing it for THE GRAND SUPERHERO OPERA, I should have something more substantial to say about it.

Here's what I originally wrote, along with an addendum written a little while later:

The most one can say of COSMOS: WAR OF THE PLANETS is that it was probably conceived prior to the success of STAR WARS, so there's few Lucas-isms here.  In contrast, the insanely bad STAR ODYSSEY has all the requisite borrowings-- cute robots, laser-looking swords, and a daring Harrison Ford-like hero.  But where COSMOS at least moves along well, ODYSSEY bogs down from the first and never picks up. 

Avoid except for "so bad it's good" parties.

ADDENDA: I should be a little more specific about the way in which STAR ODYSSEY "bogs down."  I don't mean that it's dull in the sense that nothing happens, but that it's dull because stuff is happening all the time, but none of it adds up to anything.  One hears about some film-shoots where the writers are literally making up the script as they go along.  This tendency may be aggravated in many special-effects films-- even those with little money behind them-- because their makers are always trying to whip up visual scenes that may "grab" the audience.  Brescia and his screenwriters have clearly seen STAR WARS, but they don't seem to have apprehended that the strength of its narrative drive.  ODYSSEY feels more like a knockabout comedy, in which one goofy stunt happens after another.  Appropriately, the only characters who seemed consistent as characters-- even though they were still not very interesting-- were two comic robots.  In a very *tiny* show of originality, Brescia's robots aren't *exact* clones of R2D2 and C3PO.  Instead they're a robot husband and wife who constantly carp at one another throughout the movie.  Again, they weren't good-- but I can remember them a little better than the copies of Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader.

So, upon watching ODYSSEY again, what more is there to say?

The main plot consists of an unprovoked attack on future-Earth by unidentified invaders (more described than shown). Later the commander of the enemy forces is Lord Kes, who possesses vague mental powers and who looks like someone pressed a waffle-iron to his face. (I thought of this before reading the same description on an MST3K site.) 

Somehow Doctor Maury (Ennio Balbo), the resident genius on Earth (who also has vague psychic powers), determines that the enemy ships are made of the metal "indirium," and that therefore Earth can only prevail if they concoct "anti-indirium." To that end, Maury and his niece Irene assemble a team of rag-tag reprobates to run around on missions that, in theory, have something to do with mounting a defense for Earth. As noted above, this is just an excuse for a lot of knockabout fights, one of which involves some of Maury's agents breaking some others out of space prison. 

The strange thing about this imitation STAR WARS is how little attention Brescia devotes to the young heroes. The biggest name in the cast is Gianni "Sartana" Garko, playing a Han Solo clone with the halfway-amusing name of Dirk Latimer, but he has no real memorable moments even though he can do mental Jedi mind-tricks. The females are a little more liberated than in many Italian space-operas-- a blond chick deals out a karate chop and Irene wields what's supposed to be a cheapjack energy-sword. But all of the heroes are designed to do nothing more than run around having pointless fights with Kes's very small army of blond-haired golden robots. ODYSSEY gives most of its character-moments to acerbic Doctor Maury, who *might* be a minor shout-out to the grey eminence of acerbic Doctor Benson in 1961's BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. 

And that's all I found in my second viewing of STAR ODYSSEY. As before I affirm that the two comical robots are the best thing in the movie-- and you know that you're on Bizarro-Earth when the best thing about an Italian space-opera is its comedy relief.


 


 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967)

 





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


BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH has such a delirious basic concept that I almost wanted to award it the status of "good mythicity" based on that alone. Said concept seems to be an extrapolation of the cartoon joke where some character hits the ground so hard he ends up in China. In this case, however, the Chinese decide they're going to tunnel up to our hemisphere and not just invade the West, but reduce it all to nuclear rubble.

The opening is a grabber: in a major American metropolis (which never for a moment looks like anything but Great Britain), the cops get called about a "listening incident" The disturbance is caused by geologist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne), who lies on the sidewalk pressing his ear to the concrete and claiming he can hear some mysterious intruders crawling around underneath, like "ants." Understandably, the cops take Kramer to the funny farm. However, by good luck Kramer's acquaintance Jonathan Shaw (Kerwin Mathews) visits the supposedly insane man, and Kramer's rants acquire meaning for Shaw when Shaw realizes that there have been some inexplicable seismic events, one of which devastated an underwater military project of Shaw's.

After many, many scenes of humdrum talking heads, with characters who can barely be distinguished from one another (and none of whom seem American, save Mathews), the military comes to the inevitable conclusion: mysterious forces are tunneling up from the Orient. Reconnaissance reveals an even more horrible truth: that the invaders, Chinese Communist soldiers led by a renegade general, have come with a supply of nuclear bombs. Despite the threat, the "American" army doesn't want to send more than small expeditionary forces down into the tunnels, which certainly works out for the low budget of this thriller. In one of the later expeditions, Kramer, Shaw and various soldiers journey first to Hawaii to pick up a lady spelunker , Tila Yung (Columbian-English beauty Vivienne Ventura) to help them navigate beneath the earth. The mission seems to be to blow up the invading forces before they can do the same to the West-- and with their own nuclear explosion, no less. Definitely a case where "tit for tat" probably wouldn't work out too well for the fellow passing out "tit."



Going by the Oriental sound of Tila's name, I'm tempted to believe that the only reason she's introduced-- given that she does little that affects the plot-- is to show the "Americans" as being able to enlist "an Asian of their very own." Ventura doesn't look the least bit Asian, but she's in good company, since almost all of the other "Chinese" actors are played by Caucasian Brits, including the renegade leader General Chan Lu (Martin Benson)-- which casting decision makes BATTLE look even more absurd. There's only one genuine Asian in the cast: Paula Li Shiu, playing a character with a non-Asian name, "Doctor Arnn," which sounds exactly like the last name of the actor playing Kramer. She's the only woman working with the Chinese invaders, and her sole function is to be their resident brainwasher. It just so happens that a brainwasher is needed after Shaw's expedition is captured by Chan Lu, and Arnn seems in her small way to incarnate that Occidental fear of being mind-controlled by all the clever Orientals seen in pop fiction from Fu Manchu to THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

However, Shaw's imprisoned forces escape, and even though Tila hasn't been much use in consulting, she gives a fair account of herself in battle, stabbing two invaders to death. The action scenes as filmed by Montgomery (TERRORNAUTS) Tully aren't organized enough to qualify for the combative mode, and quite frankly I was never that invested in the struggles of the heroes, precisely because there's hardly anything but accents to distinguish one from the other. Since the menace of the tunneling terrors seems to get most of the narrative emphasis, I would say that this SF-thriller is structured more like a straight horror film, where the insidious monster is the star of the show. 


Sunday, May 15, 2022

WANDAVISION (2021)





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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In one respect, it seems anomalous that any disciple of the ultraliberal Kevin Feige-- in this case, WANDAVISION showrunner Jac Schaeffer-- should choose to adapt one the most ultraconservative plotlines to come out of Marvel Comics, courtesy of John Byrne, who in most respects would seem to be one of the most ultraconservative plotters in Marvel history.

But now that I've streamed the nine-episode narrative of WANDAVISION, the reason seems obvious: mediocrity calls to mediocrity. For most of his career, John Byrne has been a mediocre writer, whose ability to provide pretty pictures encouraged editors to buy his mediocre melodramatic scripts. WANDAVISION, like the majority of efforts from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is just a series of meaningless melodramatic episodes, made somewhat palatable by the skilled services of actors like Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who respectively play "Wanda" (aka the Scarlet Witch) and The Vision. 

One good thing about WANDAVISION is that because its melodramatic incidents are so bereft of meaning, I don't feel the need to cover them in detail. Instead I'll devote more space to the strange parallel between the conservatism of Byrne and the ultraliberalism of the Feige disciple.

Quick background: the Scarlet Witch became a regular Avenger in 1964, but was not romantically linked to any other Marvel character until the early 1970s, when she became entwined with the android hero The Vision. For roughly the next twenty years, their entanglement was a liberal's wet-dream of a relationship marginalized by human bigotry, much akin to the earlier paradigm of mutants vs. human in the X-MEN titles. Though writer Steve Englehart was not the sole architect of this development, he's associated with most of the high points, ranging from having the characters married, giving them mystically inspired children (since the Vision technically didn't have seed to donate), and letting them set up housekeeping in a suburban town.

In 1989, John Byrne-- who was still considered a superstar thanks to his tenures on the X-MEN and SUPERMAN titles-- took over Marvel's WEST COAST AVENGERS. In a contemporary COMICS JOURNAL interview, Byrne made it very clear that he did not validate the liberal thought-experiment of human beings, mutant or not, marrying artificial people. Indeed, he memorably compared the idea to that of "marrying your toaster." In a sequence named "Vision Quest," Byrne divested the Vision of all his human characteristics, so that he became an unfeeling robot, and he revealed that Wanda's children were demonic illusions rather than distinct entities, banishing them into narrative nothingness. I know that this state of affairs lasted a long time in the AVENGERS titles, even after Byrne no longer wrote for Marvel, but I have no idea what the current state of affairs may be for the two heroes.

Over thirty years later, Kevin Feige worked his versions of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch into his AVENGERS films. Given that these grandiose productions did not lend themselves to the slow soap-operatic development seen in serial comic books, I have often wondered why he bothered. Most of the burgeoning romance between the mutant sorceress and the android develops off screen, and the culmination of their relationship is that the Vision is destroyed and Wanda mourns him. 

I suppose WANDAVISION was conceived as some sort of answer to that question, inadequate though it is. Rather than simply reviving the Vision as most comic books would, Schaeffer rather ham-handedly treats the hero's demise as being as permanent as is a human's death in the real world. Wanda, whose powers are much greater than in the comics (though still erratic in nature), doesn't just magick up two fantasy-kids. This time, she transforms an entire town of people into the perfect suburban community, thus combining Englehart's idea of the suburban sojourn with Byrne's notion of a berserk heroine's fantasy-psychodrama. Moreover, Wanda's transformed town goes through phases patterned after famous American sitcoms that the heroine encountered in her youth. 

I don't know if Schaeffer deemed his sitcom-spoofs as piercing satire or as affectionate parodies. All I know is that whether he was sending up BEWITCHED, THE BRADY BUNCH or GROWING PAINS, all of the lampoons were excruciating to sit through. I mean, you know you're doing badly when even THE BRADY BUNCH seems wittier than its purported mockery. Of course, I suppose Schaeffer could always excuse the witlessness of the sitcom-imitations by the fact that they're being generated by the mind of a young woman from the fictional Middle European land of Sokovia, who grew up watching bootleg copies of American sitcoms but who was not actually a script-writer herself. Suffice to say, Schaeffer COULD say that, but I still wouldn't excuse him from perpetrating such garbage entertainment.

Though Wanda has generated her fake suburban dream-town to palliate her grief and to imagine herself enjoying a happy life with a re-created version of Vision, she's also broadcasting signals of her "TV shows" in such a way that the signals can be received by official entities. One entity is the real-life FBI, represented by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), playing the MCU's version of an Asian lawman who first debuted in the 1956 title THE YELLOW CLAW.  The other organization of the fictional Marvel SWORD, which deals with extraterrestrial threats. This group is dominantly represented by Monica Rambeau, which character Schaeffer wrote for the 2019 CAPTAIN MARVEL film. 

Because of circumstances beyond her control, Rambeau was separated from SWORD for a time, allowing an Evil White Guy to take charge of the group. (How does one know that his evil and his whiteness are connected? It's hard to prove, but I felt that in the first scene that EWG has with Monica, it's strongly implied that his white privilege got him the job once the more qualified Superior Black Woman Monica was out of the way.) Sure enough, toward the end of the series it's revealed that EWG is the real villain: that he attempted to confiscate the shattered body of the original Vision in order to create a new defensive technology. Wanda witnessed her former lover being disassembled like, well, a toaster, and that, among other factors, caused the heroine to flip out and magick up her ideal suburban life. 

Most of the middle range of episodes focus on Jimmy and Monica trying to figure out what's going on with the fantasy-town while also seeking to prevent EWG from provoking a major conflict with the godlike powers of Wanda. Both are fairly dull secondary heroes, but they get some assistance from Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), a quip-happy scientist from the first two THOR movies. Finally, toward the end of the series it's belatedly revealed that a mystery villain seeks to manipulate Wanda's powers to her own ends. Malefic magician Agatha Harkness, extremely loosely based on a long-time Marvel support-character, suffers from fuzzy motivations and is played more for humor than for menace-- probably there's already talk that she might spun off into her own series. (As I've observed elsewhere, no matter what bad things either a female or person of color may do, in the MCU, all is forgiven thanks to identity politics, since only White Men can be truly evil.)

To wrap up, somehow I enjoyed the performances of Olsen and Bettany even though I hated their dialogue, much as I would enjoy the pretty drawings of Byrne despite his ghastly attempts at characterization. This mingling of strange bedfellows therefore shows that, to paraphrase Tolstoy, good conservative stories and good liberal stories are all good in different ways, while mediocre stories from both camps are all pretty much alike.

Friday, May 13, 2022

WOLF (1994)


 





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

The first time I watched WOLF, I was underwhelmed. The script-- written by two scripters, one of whom worked on BATMAN RETURNS-- had almost zero interest in playing with the rich mythopoeic tradition of lycanthropy. However, this time around, I found I appreciated the film as a decent romantic drama, patterned more after an "erotic thriller" than a typical horror narrative.

Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is a fifty-something editor who works for a book publisher and is married (without children) to forty-something wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan). Will suspects that he's being edged out of his position of relative authority and forced into a less desirable job. On his way to a party given by his new boss Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), he hits an animal with his car. When he investigates, a black wolf springs up, bites him, and runs into the forest. Not being severely injured, Will attends the party anyway. He has the unexpected treat of meeting Raymond's rebellious daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), but finds it distressing when some of the millionaire's horses appear to be terrified of Will's mere presence.

Soon Will finds that the bite of a wolf is like Instant Viagra: he has more energy and all of his senses are enhanced. He becomes suspicious that a junior member of his team, Stewart (James Spader), has been acting behind his back, though Stewart (like Laura, roughly in his thirties) acts the part of an unctuous lackey. When Will smells the odor of his wife on Stewart, he nurtures suspicions that Stewart wants more than his job, and he soon finds this hunch confirmed when he catches the two together. Because of the lupine influence, Will doesn't deck Stewart, but bites him on the hand instead.

Will doesn't seem to miss his wife's company that much, as his new energy makes it possible for him to court the lovely Laura. But then Charlotte is murdered, apparently by some savage beast. Is Will the guilty party, or is there another wolf in the hen-house-- one who got the same werewolf-curse transferred to him?

WOLF is fairly predictable in ticking off its plot-points, and one of the writers, Jim Harrison, protested that director Mike Nichols had gutted the intentions of the original script. Still, compared to some of the terrible romantic dramas made on this older man-younger man competition theme, WOLF is at least watchable.


THE CRIMSON GHOST (1946)


 




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

The most interesting sociological aspects of CRIMSON GHOST occurs in the first chapter. The Ghost-- whose macabre choice of attire is never given any connotation-- explains to his henchmen that he plans to hijack the Cyclotrode, a device able to disrupt any electrical mechanisms. Its inventor Professor Chambers wanted to strengthen America's defenses to ward off a possible atomic bomb attack (which presumably would be dropped by plane like the ones over Japan). One of the Ghost's henchmen comments that the most profitable avenue would be to steal the Cyclotrode and sell it to a foreign power. But the Ghost makes clear that he has no interest in selling ordnance to other countries. He's a super-criminal through and through: he wants to use the Cyclotrode to blackmail multiple cities into making him rich. I interpret this as the scriptwriters' assurance to viewers that GHOST wasn't going to be a political serial like many that came out during the war years, but a pure "good guy vs. supercriminal" yarn.

The Crimson Ghost, in addition to being a snappy dresser, shows his own scientific genius in devising "control collars" that can execute any henchman who disobeys the villain's will. The henchmen (the main one played by Clayton "Lone Ranger" Moore) kidnap Chambers from his private home, which gets the serial's two good guys on the trail. 

One hero is Chambers' secretary Diana (Linda Stirling). She falls into the role of crimefighter pretty easily, even though Chambers dies early in the story, and is seen wielding a pistol with an aplomb not typical of the typing pool. (Maybe there was some idea of her being a government agent in disguise?) The other protagonist is Duncan Richards (Charles Quigley), who is both a criminologist and a physician-colleague to Chambers. I assume that the scriptwriters wanted Richards to be able to discuss the physics of their opponents' diabolical devices before he went around bashing in heads and driving real fast along country roads in pursuit of other cars. 

Quigley, BTW, doesn't always look nearly as formidable during the fight-scenes as the typical Republic he-man, which may or may not say something about how heavily he was doubled. Yet the fights are still staged well enough that the Richards character still seems badass, but a little more human than the average serial hero. Quigley and Stirling have nice chemistry despite the usual lack of romantic interaction, but Stirling is once again relegated to the role of the girl hero who keeps getting hit on the head to get her out of the way of the slugfests. 

The more we see of the Crimson Ghost's fairly picayune efforts to perpetrate his super-crimes, the more repetitive they become, with the only variable being the scripters' trying to find new ways to stall out this or that machine. The villain is one of the more active types, often seen getting attacked along with his henchmen and being drawn into brawls with Richards-- and that may be one reason that his costume has become a lot more iconic than many of the robed fiends who never bother to leave their sanctums.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

THE MASKED MARVEL (1943)


 




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


What was the deal with all the two-fisted "insurance investigators" one finds in serials of the Classic Period? Maybe there aren't really all that many, since I've not actually sat down and counted them up. But even one seems like a deviation from what I understand as the standard duties of an insurance investigator. Maybe a fair number of hardboiled detectives get into trouble while taking cases for insurance companies, but I don't think real investigators get involved in tracking down foreign saboteurs. In fact, MASKED MARVEL is so intent on playing up the role of insurance operatives that the script tosses out the detail that the head saboteur, Japanese spy Sakima (Johnny Arthur), had also for a time posed as-- guess what-- "the Tokyo representative of the Worldwide Insurance Company." Did Republic Pictures, who filmed MARVEL, have some idea of flattering the insurance guys on the sets, so that they'd turn in favorable reports? 

At any rate, maybe on the theory that it takes four insurance guys to track down one of their own kind, four such operatives are sent to quell the sabotage. (Ask the U.S. government to intervene? Don't be silly.) In addition, from the get-go the mysterious masked "undercover agent" known as The Masked Marvel is also on the case, and only Alice (Louise Currie) knows that the costumed crusader is one of the four men. This "whos' the hero" trope was probably borrowed from Republic's 1938 LONE RANGER serial, but it didn't work that well there, and it works even less well here, given that the script doesn't develop the four insurance guys as characters in their own right. Moreover, the performer who's actually in the Marvel's mask for almost the whole serial is stuntman Tom Steele, who looks bigger and rangier than any of the four supposed candidates for his "true identity." Steele is largely responsible for the success of MARVEL's main asset-- the high-octane hand-to-hand fight scenes-- but for whatever reason, Republic gave the performer no billing, not even as stunt coordinator.

Instead of the more familiar trope of having the villain and hero chase one another as they pursue some weapon, here the plot consists of the investigators trying to block one of Sakima's sabotage-plots, at which point the Masked Marvel takes over, either fistfighting against or shooting it out with Sakima's hoods (including head henchman Anthony Warde in his standout "tough guy" role). Once or twice Sakima tries to find out who the Marvel really is, and I suppose it's because he feels that if he nullifies the costumed hero, none of the other mooks will be capable of thwarting him. Sakima, BTW, is one of the more memorable serial-villains, in that in his every scene he oozes total devotion to America's destruction, without quite edging into the territory of chauvinistic anti-Asian sentiment.

For the most the only metaphenomenal element in the serial is the Marvel's uncanny attire. However, in one chapter Sakima is out to sabotage a new submarine device, based on "the principle of television," that would allow a sub to fire on targets without having to send a periscope above the waves to scope things out.




SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA (1968)

 





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


It's hard to hate a film whose title gives one the image of the masked wrestler-hero swimming around some vampire's treasure-vault as if he (the wrestler) were a south-of-the-border version of Scrooge McDuck. Still, at least this effort is lively in its absurdities, in comparison with the thoroughly dull Santo films of the period, such as the 1974 encounter of the Silver Mask and his blue buddy with a Frankenstein wannabe. Adding to the craziness of the official release version of this film is the knowledge that its director shot a slightly softcore version of the film for release in liberal Europe. I've not seen the alternate film, usually titled THE VAMPIRE AND SEX, but it goes a way toward explaining why there's so little interaction between Santo and Dracula in the regular release version.

The wackiest idea in the whole movie is not that Santo and his friends want to travel back in time to what I think was meant to be Mexico in the 1800s-- but that Santo himself is responsible for inventing the time machine. Because the masked man's goals are noble-- he wants to find the lost treasure of Dracula in order to endow a children's hospital-- one of Santo's elderly male colleagues volunteers to be the machine's first test subject. But no, demurs the Silver Mask, he needs to send back a woman, apparently because he has handy a silver bodysuit the volunteer can wear in the time machine, and the professor just wouldn't have looked good in that. The professor's daughter Luisa-- who may or may not be Santo's girlfriend, it's hard to tell-- volunteers, puts on the silver bodysuit, and steps into the past. Also, while this goes on, a mysterious man in a black hood, later given the name of "the Black Hood," skulks around, clearly planning to heist the treasure. 

However, though Luisa's present-day body disappears, she apparently merges with the Luisa of the 1800s, who is the daughter of a Professor Soler. Apparently past-Luisa is already being vampirized by Soler's neighbor, the revealingly named Count Alucard. Alucard has already decided that he wants to marry Lisa even though he has a whole entourage of scantily-clad vampire vixens-- in other words, it's "the Mina Syndrome," which might be expressed as, "the Seductive Vampire Likes ME Best of All." Professor Soler engages a vampire hunter to rescue Luisa, but she's already been turned, so the hunter has to stake first the Count, and then Luisa-- though Santo yanks present-day Luisa back to the present.

I confess I don't remember the details of how this time-jaunt helped Santo find Dracula's treasure, but one online review claims that Present-Day Luisa came back bearing a ring with a map to the current location of the riches. The Black Hood sics some of his goons on Santo, and of course Santo beats them. Then the evildoer challenges the hero to fight his strongest thug Atlas in the ring, just so none of Santo's fans miss him having a ring-fight. 

Despite Santo winning his battle, the  Black Hood tries to claim the treasure first, leading to a confrontation (but not a fight) between the Silver Mask and the Bloody Count. Dracula is destroyed and the children's hospital gets its funding.

One note: though a lot of these films include a tedious comedy relief, often some guy who has the temerity to be scared of monsters, I liked the goofy comedian here better than most of them. Not that I'd go out of my way to see his other films, but that's another minor plus-mark for this thoroughly wacky romp.



Wednesday, May 11, 2022

ZORRO THE AVENGER, SHADOW OF ZORRO (both 1962)

 




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

I have to assume that Disney's TV-iteration of the Zorro character must have hit Europe like a storm, given that Spain and Italy began churning out bushels of black-masked foxes. These two Spanish flicks were almost certainly shot back to back by director Joaquin Marchent, possibly with scripting by Jesus Franco on both. The two stories, both starring American actor Frank Latimore as well as most of the principal support-players, even shade into one another story-wise, which was not typical with most Zorro-opuses.

ZORRO THE AVENGER more or less follows the template of the original novel, even though the hero's secret ID is now "Don Jose de la Torre"-- possibly to avert Disney's lawyers? This time the local tyrant in an unnamed town in Spanish California is one Colonel Clarence (Howard Vernon, later a familiar face in Franco's films), who naturally reigns over his terrain with an iron fist. Don Jose emigrates from Spain, but there's not nearly as much interplay between Jose, his family, and his new girlfriend Maria as in the standard Zorro-tale. Much later, Jesus Franco would become notorious for his largely plotless films, where heroes just ran around having things happen to them, and so it may be his influence that makes both of these films rather vacuous, distinguished only by a few scattered sword-battles until the big climax.



SHADOW OF ZORRO, which Franco may not have written, is a little more engaging in that Don Jose, now married to Maria, has retired his costumed persona. This resembles a similar development at the end of the first novel-- though Jose does not reveal his identity publicly, as does Don Diego. 

But this state of affairs is doomed by the plot of two outlaw brothers with the un-prepossessing names of Billy and Dan. During Zorro's last crusade the hero slew the brothers' other brother, and now the siblings decide to seek revenge. One of them dresses up as Zorro and commits crimes, causing the authorities to start looking for the retired cavalier. In fact, to keep up connections with the first movie, one of the Zorro-hunters was trained in swordsmanship by the same teacher who taught Zorro's previous foe Colonel Clarence.

There is a little more attention to drama here, particularly whenever Maria whines about her hubby getting back into the hero game-- but that means that there's less action. Not that it really matters; both films are simple formula-fare, competently but unexcitingly rendered. As the above illustrations show, this Zorro was given a very simple costume with a bandanna-mask, again to avert Disney-suits-- but costume aside, Latimore's Zorro may be the least live-action Fox ever committed to celluloid.


BATMAN FOREVER (1995)


 





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


What's the best thing I can possibly say about BATMAN FOREVER, a stinky sequel that makes SUPERMAN IV look highly professional by comparison?

How about "it manages to be bad simply by virtue of the producers' intrinsic dumbness about superhero films, and not because it's trying to inject crappy political content into the mix?"

That, and the fact that Kilmer's Bat-suit doesn't look as much like a tank as did Keaton's. This allows Kilmer's Batman to engage in a few fluid fight-scenes that were an improvement on most of those in the two Burton films.

FOREVER is not a bad Bat-film simply because it doesn't give viewers the "grim-and-gritty" version of the hero seen in the Burton films. Given that director Joel Schumacher was charged by his producers with making Batman more "kid-friendly," it was possible that he might have come up with some valid take on the "camp Batman" of the 1966 TV show, or even the similarly outrageous Bat-comics of the Silver Age, which I tend to refer to as "Candyland Batman." Certainly Schumacher chose to make his Gotham a bright and scintillating landscape for the most part, and at least one of his two chosen villains, The Riddler, would have fit into this milieu much better than the most current version of the Prince of Puzzles.

The trouble is, though, that even a more light-hearted Batman is not an excuse to just crank up the visual effects and let the story go to hell. Michael Bay, who in the same era was making splashy action-fare like BAD BOYS and THE ROCK, even displayed a greater sense of narrative storytelling than Schumacher does here. 

The basic pattern of the FOREVER script, to be sure, could have been copied from a lot of bad Bat-comics of the Golden and Silver Ages. Villain strikes at society. Hero stops him but villain gets away. Rinse and repeat until the villain gets caught. But a stand-alone movie needs more than a repetitious storyline and glossy FX. The so-called script was a collaboration between a married writer-team, the Batchelers, who hadn't done much before or after FOREVER, and Akiva Goldsman, who had worked with Schumacher on the successful film THE CLIENT. Given that Goldsman went on to perpetrate such awful scripts as those of BATMAN AND ROBIN and LOST IN SPACE, I choose to blame him alongside Schumacher for pissing on the Bat-mythos.

Whereas BATMAN RETURNS found a tolerably logical reason for the film's versions of Penguin and Catwoman to work together, Goldsman can't be bothered to create any real characterization for either the two villains, Riddler (Jim Carrey) and the incredibly awful choice of Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). The latter does not really belong in the world of Candyland Batman, he's "grim and gritty" at the core, even if he occasionally appears in some more light-hearted cartoons. Riddler and Two-Face have no plausible reason to work together.  For one thing, Riddler is a complete noob in this script, with no criminal rep whatever, so Two-Face-- even granting that Jones plays the role like a manic version of Nicholson's Joker-- seems not just crazy but stupid for accepting the green-clad goofus into his confidence. Additionally, while Carrey can be forgiven for giving the audience a hyper-kinetic Riddler, given that this was what the actor was known for, but Jones clearly has some idea of stealing Carrey's scenes, and thus every scene they share is an ordeal akin to having teeth pulled without anesthetic.

And then there's Val Kilmer's Batman. I suppose he makes some attempt to give the Caped Crusader a little gravitas at times, and at times he succeeds. But the spoofy dialogue often undermines the actor, particularly in Kilmer's first appearance in Bat-garb within the film. The hero is called in to prevent Two-Face from killing innocents, but Goldsman is so desperate to get in his funny lines that during this sequence both Kilmer-Man and his new love interest Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) waste time flirting in the midst of the emergency. The movie never recovers from this portrait of the crusader and his romantic partner as complete morons.

This is also the movie that brings Robin into the movie franchise, and not surprisingly, this is no less heavy-handed. Even by the nineties there were politically correct morons who blanched at the idea of an adult superhero inducting an actual child into the business of being a superhero, and so I suppose it was inevitable that New Robin (Chris O'Donnell) was a twenty-something victim of tragedy. Since O'Donnell is only about ten years younger than Kilmer, the idea that Bruce Wayne would feel a burning need to succor this version of orphaned Dick Grayson comes out of La-La Land. Even the dry comedy of Michael Gough's Alfred can't save any of the Kilmer-O'Donnell scenes, though they're still a little less excruciating than the Kilmer-Kidman scenes.

None of the psychobabble uttered by Meridian about Batman or anything else possesses the slightest resonance with the operatic world of comic books, much less to any real-world concerns. Schumacher strains to borrow some "street cred" by adapting a sequence from Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS-- the one in which Young Bruce Wayne encounters a ferocious bat beneath Wayne Manor-- but he blows it, because he can't give the scene any personal tone; he just bulls on through it, as if he thinks it'll satisfy the comics-nerds.

Not that I really expect a lot of psychological depth in summer action movies. But at least I'd like to see the high-octane set-pieces to have some moxie, and everything Schumacher puts together is like a bad imitation of Michael Bay at his worst. I would rather watch the worst TRANSFORMERS than to ever abuse my eyeballs again with a single scene from BATMAN FOREVER-- and I mean that, like "forever."

Monday, May 9, 2022

KNIGHT RIDER 2000 (1991)

 





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

The original 1982-86 KNIGHT RIDER was in some ways the perfect "bland TV superhero." His adventures with the intelligent talking car KITT never delved into controversial topics, and so was perfect for kids of the time, possibly even more so than THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, which more often showed the hero dating and maybe even about to have sex. David Hasselhoff played main (human) character Michael Knight as a breezy, "hail fellow well met" extrovert, while his automated ally projected an acerbic and finicky air through the offices of voice-actor William Daniels. The combination of "paired opposites" remained the show's strongest selling point. For four years Michael and KITT tooled around the country, solving crimes and protecting innocents on the behalf of a philanthropic foundation headed by genial overseer Devon (Edward Mulhare).

Roughly five years later, a new production company-- apparently not allied with the show's originator Glen Larson-- floated this pilot for a more futuristic pilot, set nine years from the time of the movie. The only "science fiction" aspect of this near-future was sociological, for in 2000 handguns are banned for ordinary citizens while criminals have no problem getting them (which itself sounds like a dystopia from Fox News). 

Though Michael Knight retired from the Foundation years ago, for reasons the script never specifies, Devon is still in there pitching for a new/old solution to burgeoning crime: the "Knight 4000," a revved up version of the old KITT model. The actual components of KITT were disassembled and sold off to other vendors. Devon coaxes Michael out of retirement to drive the 4000, but when Michael returns, he's aghast that his old driving-buddy has been mistreated (though apparently Michael wasn't concerned enough to keep in contact with Devon over the years). Knight manages to re-acquire all of the components of KITT and bring back the sardonic computer-intelligence to inhabit the 4000-- except for just one chip.

That chip, as it happens, winds up in the brain of police officer Shawn McCormick (Susan Norman). McCormick was shot while trying to capture master crook Thomas Watts (Mitch Pileggi), but for some reason the surgeon who restored her to life used that missing chip to revitalize McCormick's brain. Eventually McCormick crosses paths with Michael and KITT and, after some initial sniping, the three of them join forces to bring down Watts and his cohorts.

The script and direction are competent, with an interesting conservative take on organized crime, and there's a little nostalgia value in seeing one last team-up between Hasselhoff and Daniels, a value not impaired by the intro of a "fifth wheel" (so to speak). But the subject matter is a little more serious than the light-hearted original series would have ever attempted, and the suture between old and new remains jagged at best.


WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1966)


 




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

It's weird that this bland venture into "serious science fiction" debuted on American screens in April 1966, just a few months before STAR TREK began to be beamed into TV sets. Though Gene Roddenberry never quite descended to the level of this film's "big reveal"-- that the couple left on prehistoric "Earth" will be a veritable Adam and Eve-- he came close at times. Yet for the most part, Roddenberry treated the tropes of SF with intellectual acumen, while Charles G. Pierce couldn't do anything but copy better works.

FWIW, Pierce seems to have remained relatively loyal to the genre. But this could have been because it was easier to rip off popular SF-tropes without being called on it. Pierce's first feature-film script was for THE COSMIC MAN, which I called a "colorless recapitulation" of 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. He did a little better with BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, using only limited borrowings from Wells' TIME MACHINE. However, WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET, one of the first films Pierce both wrote and directed, proved a little too ambitious for his talents. I would guess that Pierce's proximate inspirations for WOMEN were some of the half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE SF-outings, which tended to place futuristic spacemen, often for the purpose of making highly didactic statements about such 20th-century concerns as race. 

Roddenberry would become renowned for finding ways to project such contemporary concerns into SF-guise, drawing on sociological myths of his time, with Russians becoming Romulans and Chinese turning into Klingons. But in the opening thirty minutes, Pierce's clumsy script sketches out a burgeoning conflict between an all-Caucasian space-force-- which one may assume to be from a future-Earth until the big reveal-- and a race of humanoids, the Centaurians, who are all played by Asian actors. Early dialogue makes it sound as if the two races are not from the same stock, though later a major Caucasian character is revealed to have sired a half-Centaurian female. Of course TREK didn't pay that much attention to interstellar genetic probabilities either-- but given that Pierce knew that the two peoples were interfertile, he could easily have posited that the two races had diverged due to separate colonization projects. 

As things stand, the status of Centaurians amid the uniformed spacefarers is confusing. On one of two ships, a character serving in some capacity, Linda (Irene Tsu), has been acculturated in the spacefaring culture, and apparently Centaurians have been on Earth long enough that a few dunderheads make ethnic jokes about them. Yet on the companion ship, the spacefarers have rescued a small handful of Centaurians from a cataclysm on their home planet. For some reason the rescued people don't like being rescued. They try to take over the ship, which ends up crashing on a prehistoric planet which happens to be third in line from its solar body. The other ship attempts to help the downed ship. But because of time-discontinuities-- which Pierce's characters labor to explain-- a new generation springs up on the planet from the refugees before the officers of the rescue ship can land on the planet and look for the castaways. Thus Linda, from the first ship, encounters on the prehistoric planet a young man named Tang (Robert Ito) who's actually the grown offspring of two adults from the shipwreck.

You would think that with all these SF-tropes buzzing around, WOMEN would be much more fun than it is. Yet Pierce doesn't really manage to dramatize any of his concepts; he just jams them in as best he can and then cuts to having the characters menaced by various unremarkable prehistoric critters.

I suppose I have to give the movie a mythicity rating of "fair" just for being a little more ambitious than the average SF-flick of the period, and for advancing the idea that the "Adam and Eve" of Earth are really two quasi-Asian characters. But not only is the title deceptive, since Linda is effectively the only woman who has any important role on the planet, the social content is ham-handed and the performances are unmemorable.



Saturday, May 7, 2022

ESCAPE (1971)


 






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


The producer of this failed TV-show pilot was Bruce Lansbury, best known for his tenure on two iconic sixties shows, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and WILD WILD WEST, as well as having been associated with seventies favorites like WONDER WOMAN and BUCK ROGERS. ESCAPE, appearing at the cusp of the seventies, has a limited-animation credit-sequence reminiscent of WILD WILD WEST, and some of the action-scenes have the same feel, with star Christopher George performing (or seeming to perform) more physical stunts than he did in his previous series THE IMMORTAL. Yet the script spends a lot of time with mostly uninteresting side-plots, possibly so as to inject more star-power into the pilot, including such actors as Gloria Grahame, William Windom, John Vernon, William Schallert and even former "Bowery Boy" Huntz Hall.

Because of these side-stories, there's not nearly enough time spent with George's character Cameron Steele, a daredevil escape-artist who's turned into a private investigator, though on the side he runs a restaurant with his sidekick Nicholas Slye (an admirably straight-faced Avery Schreiber). Maybe scripter Paul Playdon, who had scripted several episodes of both of Lansbury's iconic sixties serials, didn't really have that much confidence in selling such an extravagant character. Whatever the reason, Steele comes off like a retread of James West, but without the smooth Bond-like style that Robert Conrad infused into the character. 

Steele's opponent for his sole outing is "mad scientist" Charles Walding (Vernon), who has created a new form of virus that may be able to "zombify" humans, though this possibility is merely discussed, never seen onscreen. Charles has already got a hideout miles beneath an amusement park, and a coterie of paid thugs, but he decides he needs the help of his scientist-brother Henry (Window) to finish the research-- so he kidnaps both Henry and his daughter (Marlyn Mason). In the course of Steele's attempts to block Walding, he gets placed in situations where he can prove his great escape-mojo, when the villain could just have Steele killed off. 

John Llewellyn Moxey directs this tripe adequately, but you don't see any trace of the skill he would bring to the table next year, when presented with the superior script for 1972's THE NIGHT STALKER.