Wednesday, April 27, 2022

PARANOIA (1969), SO SWEET, SO PERVERSE (1969), A QUIET PLACE TO KILL (1970), KNIFE OF ICE (1972)


 




PHENOMENALITY: (1,3) *naturalistic,* (2,4) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

*SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS*


Due to my regard for Carroll Baker, who turned her back on Hollywood to seek her own path in Italian cinema, I wanted to like all of these stylishly-directed thrillers, four quasi-giallos which Umberto Lenzi directed with Baker as the star. But only one of the four proved itself worthy of the talent involved.

PARANOIA was the title by which the Italian film ORGASMO became known in the U.S. Baker plays Kathryn, a wealthy widow who tries to start a new life by moving into a villa in Italy. Though she's surrounded by caring protectors, her boredom leads her to take up with a younger-by-ten-years fellow named Peter. After Peter worms his way into the bored woman's bed, he not only slowly begins to get rid of the villa's servants, he also brings in his beloved sister Eva to stay there. Peter even convinces Kathryn to undertake a threesome, but later the widow is deeply shocked to learn that her two guests are only step-siblings and therefore have no compunction against having sex without her. As soon as Kathryn asks her guests to leave, she learns that they hold all the power over her, and that her carelessness has led to her doom. The downbeat conclusion of this thriller comes close to registering as an irony, but I rate it a drama since on some level Kathryn never completely succumbs to the degradation of her predators.



Though the sex-scenes of PARANOIA would be fairly tame today, they engendered enough controversy that Lenzi and Co. quickly followed up with the same-year SO SWEET, SO PERVERSE. In contrast to PARANOIA, though, most of the sexual content of SWEET is mostly implied, perhaps because its basic plot is borrowed from the novel and film DIABOLIQUE. Industrialist Jean (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is on the outs with his wife Danielle (Erika Blanc), but as it happens he's put in the position of becoming a savior to Nicole (Baker), who is being abused by her husband Klaus. Nicole rewards Jean by taking him as her lover, all the while complaining about what a weak vessel she is. This turns out to be a dodge, for in truth Nicole is a cold hearted master planner who's conspiring with both Klaus and Danielle to knock off Jean. The trio succeed, and it seems like Danielle and Nicole will enjoy some lesbian action from then on (though nothing is shown on screen). But like the passive female character of DIABOLIQUE, Danielle is haunted by the fear that Jean may still be alive. It's not much of a "phantasmal figuration," amounting to nothing more than a few ambiguous phrases from Nicole, but Danielle's guilt puts her in the position to be the next victim. A final coda suggests that the evil plotters won't get away with it despite their cleverness.



A QUIET PLACE TO KILL-- which was titled PARANOIA in Italy, possibly as an inside joke by Lenzi-- also borrowed from DIABOLIQUE to an extent, but stayed staunchly in the realm of the naturalistic. Helen (Baker) is a race-car driver (!) who flips out and goes on vacation. Her ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel), married to Constance (Anna Proclemer), invites Helen to a party at his residence, and once there, Helen and Constance find that they're got a mutual disgust for Maurice.  As in the opening scenes of DIABOLIQUE, the two women plot to murder the man who has mistreated them both. However, the murder attempt goes wrong, and Constance dies. Their mutual guilt leads Helen and her ex to cover up the death and to be forced together (which at least leads to a lot better sex-scenes than we got in SO SWEET). However, Susan (Marina Coffa), the adult daughter of Constance, shows up, determined to learn the truth behind her mother's death. She disgusts Helen by sleeping with her stepfather, but later, Maurice also apparently perishes. Suffice to say that at least this script spices things up by introducing a second conspiratorial couple as a contrast to the first one. But aside from the sex-scenes and some nice camera-work, the film drags its way to a contrived conclusion.



KNIFE OF ICE, the last Lenzi-Baker collab, displays more promise than the previous three films. Martha (Baker) is a woman who lives with her uncle Ralph at an estate in the Spanish Pyrenees. During her childhood Martha witnessed her parents' death in a train accident, and as a result she became mute, partly because her parents died after throwing Martha clear of the accident. Despite that trauma, the movie starts off showing Martha transcending her trauma by meeting her cousin Jenny (Evelyn Stewart) at a train-station. Martha and Jenny are driven back to the estate by Martha's somewhat creepy chauffeur Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo), but when Marcos has to leave the car briefly, a strange man peers into the car at the two women, and then vanishes into the Spanish fog.

At the estate creepiness becomes more exaggerated as Jenny gives her uncle a present of occult books, while Martha continues to have occasional flashbacks to the tragedy, indicating that her struggle is far from over. A small ensemble of characters assemble at the estate in order to welcome the visitor, and though none are overtly weird, Lenzi keeps the proceedings just slightly off-kilter, in which the things people say suggest other meanings.

Then Jenny is knifed to death by a black-gloved killer whose face, naturally, the audience does not see. The police question all the residents and employees, and assert that another female victim was recently killed in the area, causing them to suspect a sexual deviate. The occultist uncle goes further, hypothesizing that the killer may be a Satanist, who slays innocent women due to their symbolic equation to Mary, Mother of Jesus, so that the murder-victims are as Satanic sacrifices. An additional odd touch: twice Martha flashes back to a bullfight she witnessed prior to her malady, and one flashback shows her taking pleasure in the violence.

Other minutiae multiply. A card with a Satanic sigil comes to Uncle Ralph in the mail, and the weird guy is seen stalking around the city. Martha considers leaving the estate to avoid the maniac, but of course events contrive to keep her close to the mystery. The cops catch the weird guy, who admits to being a Satanist but not to being the killer. More victims die, including (maybe) Uncle Ralph-- or is that a deception to catch the killer?

Of all four Baker-Lenzi works, KNIFE is the only one that has a strong psychological concept underlying it. Other authors were credited with the scripts for SO SWEET and QUIET PLACE, while Lenzi provided the basic story for both PARANOIA and KNIFE, though he collaborated with others on the final screenplay. He might not have known at the time of scripting KNIFE that it would be his last collaboration with the Hollywood superstar, but the story he laid out for Baker this time gave her a meatier role than the other three narratives, since Baker only speaks once during KNIFE and otherwise must convey emotion through expression, gesture and stance. I wouldn't call it one of the best giallos, but I think it deserves more approbation than the overrated PARANOIA.

MONSTER GIRL DOCTOR (2020)


 





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

This 12-episode teleseries is based on a 2016 series of light novels. If "harem comedy" is a subgenre, then MGD belongs to a sub-subgenre one might call "monster-girl harem comedy." I imagine the original novels took some inspiration from 2012's manga-series MONSTER MUSUME, though MGD takes place in a fantasy-future, at a time when humans and monsters have learned to live together after many years of conflict. (Despite being in the future, everything looks like it takes place in medieval Europe.)

The main character of MGD is a little less of cipher than the usual male center of the harem. He's Glenn Litbeit, a handsome young doctor who specializes in treating monsters in the town of Lindworm. Somehow, though, he never seems to get any male customers, and all of his female patients instantly fall in love with him. Naturally all of the monster-girls are stunning, even the "loli" character-- albeit most are only good-looking from the waist up, since their hindquarters are theriomorphic (a half-horse, a half-spider, at least two half-serpents of different species). There are a couple who aren't half-animal, like a zombie girl and a giant girl, but one is forced to wonder how if at all sexual congress might be achieved under the former circumstances. For his part, Glenn seems merely bemused by all of the romantic attention, and he remains staunchly professional in his dealings with the horrific honeys, including the one closest to him, his nurse Saphee the Snake-Woman.

Since there's no real sex here, not even of the soft-core variety, the romantic-comedy stems largely from misunderstandings that come about whenever the good doctor becomes intimate in his examinations of his patients (some of whom become positively turned on by Glenn's attentions). Jealous Saphee is usually the one to remonstrate with the doctor by squeezing him in her coils, but Glenn stoically carries on with his ministrations. In contrast to MONSTER MUSUME, MGD is pretty clever about finding reasons for Glenn's harem-- often the lady centaur, the harpy, and the mermaid-- to keep crossing the doctor's path for one reason or another, since in this case the members of the harem don't all live or work together. 

The sociological theme of the different species living together is nothing special, but the scripts excel at figuring out particular maladies for Glenn to treat. Since these monsters are all fully organic and not supernatural as such, they're vulnerable to diseases or dysfunctions of their particular species. I wouldn't say any of these cosmological themes rise to the level of high mythicity, but I enjoyed them as much or more than the romantic byplay. There are a few episodes in which the powerful monster-femmes use their talents in combative fashion, but on the whole the series is subcombative in being far more focused upon Glenn's brilliant medical deductions.

There has been talk of a second season for MGD, but none has as yet materialized.


Monday, April 25, 2022

THE ETERNALS (2014)

 





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


This adaptation of the Neil Gaiman-John Romita Jr. limited series, reviewed here, is for the most part faithful to the original. I don't know anything about the genesis of the project, or why it was divided into 10 segments of loosely 15 minutes apiece, though the segmentation doesn't hurt the storytelling.

Like WOLVERINE ORIGIN the adaptation reproduces the art of the original comic with extremely limited animation. Despite my high regard for the comic that gave birth to the cartoon, I called ORIGIN an "empty shadow show," largely because the comics-rendition offered a skillful fusion of art and dialogue that the animation entirely missed.

Strangely, though I didn't think the Gaiman-Romita comic was nearly as good as the Wolverine comic, the ETERNALS cartoon comes off somewhat better. Possibly that's because Gaiman's script was at base just your basic reboot of a property that had largely fallen by the wayside, so the story wasn't as ambitious from the get-go. In addition, the art of the 2006 ETERNALS comic amounted to Romita Jr. getting his Jack Kirby on, emulating the grandeur of the Kirbyscapes, albeit through what might be seen as a "Frank Miller filter," and this painterly art, which didn't emphasize movement as much as did the Wolverine art, didn't lose as much in translation to limited animation.

Aside from those observations, there's nothing more to say about the animation that I didn't say about the original comic.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED (1999-2001)

 






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


I remember watching the short-lived broadcast of the first few UNLIMITED episodes, and I didn't mourn when the show got the axe early, only getting the remainder of its installments aired a year or two later. I thought it was silly to take an earthbound crusader like Spider-Man and stick him in an otherworldly situation. Now that I've re-watched the show on streaming, I still don't think it's very good. Yet I've seen so many routine Spider-programs with him swinging around New York that the SF-route has a little more appeal now.

The otherworld here is a Marvel Comics creation, Counter-Earth, a near-duplicate of regular Earth that exists on the far side of Sol. In the comics, the High Evolutionary, a genius scientist first introduced in the pages of THOR, decides to play God by bringing Counter-Earth into being with his resources. However, prior to doing so this cosmic creator also played Doctor Moreau, changing ordinary animals into intelligent beast-men. Some of the "beast-men" seek to destroy the scientist's creation. Fortuitously, a leftover Kirby character known only as "Him" happens to be around, and he decides to re-christen himself "Warlock" and to become the champion of Counter-Earth. The series, humorously tagged "Jesus Christ Superhero," did not succeed, though Warlock, the High Evolutionary and Counter-Earth continued to sustain other Marvel narratives.

In UNLIMITED, Counter-Earth has apparently always been on the other side of the sun, and the High Evolutionary and his beast-men are refugees from regular-Earth who take over Counter-Earth with their super-technology. (Naturally, the effects of the conquest are never seen outside of New York.) On regular-Earth, Spider-Man gets involved when astronaut John Jameson (son of irascible publisher J. Jonah) takes it upon himself to journey to the far side of the sun (note in-joke). Spidey sees two members of his rogues' gallery, the alien symbiotes Venom and Carnage, hitch a ride on Jameson's rocket, but the hero fails to stop them. Later, Spider-Man gets a ride to Counter-Earth on another rocket, and when he arrives, the hero learns that John Jameson has joined a motley crew of human freedom fighters, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of the beast-men. Spidey wants to get back to his Earth but can't do so until he rescues Jameson, which means lots of conflicts with not only the beast-men, but also various weird doppelgangers of Spider-Man villains. One is Jameson himself, who as in the comics transforms into the monstrous Man-Wolf once or twice. All of the others are natives to Counter-Earth, either costumed humans with technological gimmicks (goodguy versions of the Vulture and the Green Goblin) or beast-men with special powers (memorably, Electro played by a humanoid electric eel).

The thirteen episodes of the series don't provide enough space to develop the core concept, that of beast-people dominating the human world (though New York City pretty much goes on in the same way as before, even with a newspaper that employs photographer Peter Parker). The department of tossed-off ideas includes (1) the last-minute revelation that tuffgirl freedom-fighter Karen is the granddaughter of the High Evolutionary and one of his experiments, and (2) the attempt by a particular beast-woman,  a rat-humanoid named Lady Vermin, to get jiggy with Spider-Man. (Technical bestiality in a Saban cartoon may be the show's greatest distinction!) Venom and Carnage don't really do all that much on Counter-Earth, except that they serve some leader called "the Synoptic," never revealed because the series ends on an unresolved cliffhanger.

Given my interest in crossovers, UNLIMITED plays host to a nice assortment. Despite all the reworked versions of Spider-villains, only one episode crosses over two of them: Electro and the Man-Wolf. The High Evolutionary and his beastie-buddies are all crossovers of a type since they don't normally belong in a Spider-Man narrative, and there's a sympathetic robotic hero who bears the designation "X-51," which is plainly a reference to Marvel's "Machine Man." Oh yeah, and Nick Fury briefly appears in a regular-Earth sequence. 

It's a weird misfire of a series, but I must admit, even a botched concept can be more interesting than a routine one.


THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (1971)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


Here's a rarity: a giallo in which the actions of the mysterious black-gloved killer actually make sense when his identity is finally revealed, and one in which the police actually follow use logic to follow the revealing clues, rather than simply blundering upon the truth as if guided by intuition (or by contrived scripting).

After an older man perishes in an airline disaster, his wife Lisa receives a generous insurance payoff. Both the police and an insurance investigator, Peter Lynch (George Hilton) suspect that Lisa, perhaps with the help of confederates, arranged her husband's death to collect the insurance. But then a black-clad man murders Lisa. Peter, the cops and a comely lady journalist (Anita Strindberg) then must answer the question: does Lisa's murder mean that she was innocent, or did one of her co-conspirators knock her off? And what happened to the insurance money she collected? Other people perish in gory deaths, mostly but not exclusively pretty women (particularly Janine Reynaud), and there seems to be no common factor linking the murders.

In this case I won't reveal the killer's ID, since it doesn't affect any discussion of the psychological motivations or the phenomenality. The killings orchestrated by director Sergio Martino are very basic slash-ups, not as inventive as those of Argento, but then, the killer's principal motive is money-- though one of his almost-victims repeatedly calls him mad, so I've assigned him marginal status as a perilous psycho. Martino makes both the picturesque scenes and the talking-head sequences appealing with his lively camera. As for the "scorpion's tail" of the title, it embodies an important clue but lacks any significant symbolism as such. 

HEAVEN'S LOST PROPERTY (2009-2010)





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


Occasionally I'll review an anime series that improves on a manga predecessor-- usually one comprised of more episodes than a teleseries budget will allow-- and I'll find that the shorter work does a better job of condensing the thematic thread of the series, given that a manga may tend to ramble somewhat. Such was the case with the one-season teleseries CHRONO CRUSADE in comparison with the longer series of the same name.

However, it's probably more common for a teleseries to fragment the narrative of a longer comics work and to leave out data that would have promoted the thematic substance. As I've not read the 2007-2014 manga given the English title of HEAVEN'S LOST PROPERTY, I'm just assuming that the author explained a lot of stuff left vague in the anime. Further, since the manga was still in progress when the two seasons of PROPERTY came out, it's axiomatic that the anime-makers wouldn't know everything that the mangaka had in mind. That said, I still think the adapters could done a little better outlining the basic parameters of their fantasy concept. All one really knows is that, somewhere above the mundane world of Sorami, a small Japanese town, exists a world called Synapse. From that empyrean, a winged woman falls to Earth, forever changing the life of teenager Tomoki Sakurai. 

Tomoki is one of the many Japanese manga-teens whose parents have mysteriously split up but have left him the means to live on his own. Tomoki is at heart a decent fellow, but he's also a horndog of such proportions as to make Ataru Moroboshi seem like a courtly gentleman. In addition to keeping a collection of porn-mags, he's constantly on the lookout for opportunities to peek at girls' privates or to feel them up. The only slight brake upon his activities is his same-age neighbor Sohara, who also seems to get along with no parental supervision. Tomoki and Sohara have known one another since childhood, and though this sometimes signals a distanced sibling-complex, Sohara comes off more like a punishing mother, for she disciplines all of Tomoki's transgressions with murderous karate chops. To be sure, while his interest in her is purely physical, the girl cherishes both erotic and sentimental fantasies toward her classmate, and sometimes punishes him even for harmless manifestations of "guy-ness," like catching him in a display of "morning wood."

Then Tomoki sees a beautiful winged woman, Ikaros, fall from the sky. Ikaros claims that by succoring her Tomoki has become her master, and she moves into his residence, granting his most extravagant desires with super-technological "wish cards." Tomoki soon finds that fulfilling his wishes leads to many hassles, even without considering the violence Sohara wreaks upon his puny body. Though he sometimes gets boners in Ikaros' presence, he restrains himself from making any moves on her, a fact that irritates Sohara even more than his usual transgressions. Ikaros for her part seems incapable of affect, and this stems from the fact that she's actually an artificial being, an "Angeloid," and so has to learn emotion from lowly human beings. In contrast, two other cute but more emotionally expressive Angeloids, Nymph and Astraea, eventually join the party, so that as in most harem comedies the protagonist is practically tripping over boobs and butts every day, but not actually getting any sex. In the last few episodes of the second season, a fourth Angeloid, a sadistically minded battle-angel in a nun's outfit, also becomes drawn into Tomoki's merry harem, and one presumes that in the manga she like the other fallen angels also gets drawn toward Tomoki's problematic charms.

It's plain that there could be some serious ideas imbricated within the basic concepts, particularly that of free will, as when the androids rebel against their evil creator (also rendered as an angel, though presumably not an android). And there are some strong dramatic moments from time to time. Still, PROPERTY dominantly emphasizes wack-a-doodle sex comedy of the sort that Japanese manga artists do so much better than anyone else. Some of Tomoki's wild stunts include (1) summoning all the panties of the girls at school, which fly to Tomoki like hundreds of migrating birds, (2) changing himself into a girl so that he can peek on the girls' change-rooms, and (3) going to an indoor pool so that he can change himself into pool-water and grope the girls with his watery fingers. Of course the females regularly clobber him for these acts, though to be sure Tomoki often gets abused even when he doesn't do anything.

There are a number of violent battles between the Angeloids, particularly when Ikaros, Nymph and Astraea take on the angel in the nun's habit. But like the later DATE A LIVE franchise, the fight scenes aren't crucial enough to tip this series into the combative mode.

ADDENDUM: I should further justify my comment about Sohara being a "punishing mother." There are probably dozens of manga/anime concepts where a young mortal female has to deal with her potential boyfriend playing host to a harem, and usually the regular girls don't have any maternal aspects. Since the other members of the harem parallel the mortal girl in terms of age, they're simply competitors for the desired male. The dissonant factor in PROPERTY, though, is the fact that Tomoki must assume a tutelary role in the lives of the three main Angeloids in the anime. All three have been implicitly abused by their unnamed Master, and Tomoki tries to teach them the casual, pleasurable customs of Earth-life to the angel-girls, trying to get Ikaros to laugh and teaching Nymph to like cotton candy. He usually does not grope the three of them as he does ordinary women, although Sohara frequently assumes that he intends to do so and so beats him up, as if he were indeed a nasty daddy taking advantage of his "daughters." Whether that puts Sohara more in the role of a wife than a mother remains an open question.


Friday, April 22, 2022

FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE MUMMY (2015)

 





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


I'm ambivalent about this monster mashup, courtesy of writer-director Damien Leone. On the negative side, the film-- which I'll call VS. so as not to give either of the co-equal monsters favorable treatment-- suffers from a lot of slow, indulgent exposition, without any attempts to enliven the proceedings with good character bits or even a little lame humor. On the positive side, VS. feels like a labor of love from a "monster kid" who gives almost all of his creative attention to the task of reviving not one but two classic monsters, albeit in simplified form.

As in many previous monster mashes, it's axiomatic that there must some common element that brings together the diverse creatures. In this case, the common element is a modern university where two scientists bring their hellspawn, each entirely unaware of the other's project, for all that the two of them are dating. Of the two unwise dabblers in forbidden lore, Naihla Khalil (Ashton Leigh) is at least a non-mad scientist. When she brings the mummified corpse of the obscure pharaoh Usekare to the college grounds, she has no reason to believe that the mummy has any power to reanimate, and when the bandage-wrapped behemoth does revive, he does so by taking over the mind of a pawn, another university professor. 

In contrast, the modern-day incarnation of Victor Frankenstein (Max Rhyser)-- for once, not linked to any famous ancestor-- isn't just an obsessed seeker after the unknown, like the original Shelley character. He's a full-fledged A-hole, closer in spirit to the Peter Cushing version from Hammer. Victor's first seen paying off a scuzzy guy to harvest body parts for his secret man-making project, and later he kills the body-thief and uses that guy's corpse to finalize his project. What Victor cobbles together was consciously modeled on artist Bernie Wrightson's comics-adaptation of the Shelley novel, but otherwise the monster doesn't have any other connection to the original creature. Instead of the "tabula rasa" monster seen both in the book and the 1931 film, this Frankensteinian freak really just has the consciousness of the body-snatcher, and he only spares his creator's life so that Victor will create a new body for him.

Early in the film Victor and Naihla discuss their respective orientations-- those of science and of religion/magic-- but Leone never follows through on this notion. Nor does he get much mileage out of the fact that the Monster and the Mummy have opposite desires-- one wanting a new body, the other desiring to have his soul liberated from his crumbling corpse. In place of even half-decent melodrama, we get a lot of running around and occasional gory murders, and not much more--

Except for the inevitable squaring-off of the two freaky fiends. Though it doesn't last any longer than the classic battle from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN-- it's far more violent and visceral. The monsters don't just hit each other, they bite and claw and tear limbs off. And at least part of the reason that the big climax works for me is because the Mummy always got short-changed in the mashup department, having been written out of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and passed over in the other two Universal crossovers.


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

 






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


I first viewed the theatrical version of this film in 2014, and it's with a certain irony that I thought the film's greatest problem was its over-use of Wolverine as played by Hugh Jackman (whose presence almost seemed to be a creative talisman for director/co-writer Bryan Singer). Little did I guess then Wolverine's presence would be the least bothersome aspect of my review years later upon viewing the "Rogue Cut" (so named because that version re-instated several Anna Paquin scenes eliminated from the movie release).

In the comic-book narrative from which this film was adapted, the time-traveling action centers not upon Wolverine but on the junior X-Men member Kitty Pryde (who, in fairness, had barely appeared in the live-action films). A mature version of Kitty endures, like all other surviving mutants, a torturous existence in the future era of 2013, when America has become dominated by the merciless, mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels. The robots plan to extend their reach to other parts of the world, indifferent to nuclear retaliation. To rewrite the past so that this unlucky 2013 never comes about, Older Kitty sends her consciousness back in time, to inhabit the body of Younger Kitty and to convince the other X-Men to undo the events that led to the Sentinel-dominated future. The heroes do so by thwarting the attempt of Mystique and her fellow mutants to assassinate a U.S. senator. Writer Chris Claremont set his "modern era" in 1980, which was both the time when the issues were published and the period of America's Moral Majority, whose restrictiveness may have been linked symbolically to that of the Sentinels.

By the time of the DAYS movie, though, Singer and his collaborators had already "gone back in time" in a metaphorical sense with X-MEN FIRST CLASS. This film showed how a younger incarnation of Professor Xavier (James MacAvoy) and a separate band of mutant heroes-- including a younger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence)--  had dealt with anti-mutant prejudice in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Singer evidently decided to use the template of the comic-book narrative to make what amounted to a "sequel" to FIRST CLASS, so that he could follow up on the intertwined destinies of Xavier, Mystique and Magneto-- who are actually the ones who end up dominating the story far more than does Wolverine.

Thus, for assorted reasons, the time-traveler of DAYS-- Older Wolverine, whose consciousness goes back to inhabit the body of Younger Wolverine-- does not go back to 1980, but to 1973, which is glossed as the year when America began its withdrawal from Vietnam. Older Wolverine discovers that Magneto has been imprisoned for having slain "mutant" John F. Kennedy, that Xavier's school has almost closed and that Xavier himself has turned to alcoholism. Older Wolverine must convince Xavier to gather together what allies they can-- including The Beast, a version of Quicksilver, and the imprisoned Magneto-- in order to avert the dystopian future.

Mystique, sans any allies this time, is still one of the heroes' main targets, but this time, she plans to assassinate not a senator but the military scientist responsible for creating the Sentinels. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) has created his robots in order to appeal to the American military, embarrassed by the Vietnam debacle. Trask's assassination will still have the disastrous domino effect that the senator's did, though the President overseeing it all is not Ronald Reagan but Richard Nixon. Thus the X-Men must battle against Mystique, modern-day Sentinels, and Magneto, who of course does not stick with the heroes' game plan-- all while the surviving mutants in 2013 (including such luminaries as Storm and Colossus) make their last stand against the robot tyrants.

There are some promising developments in the Singer version of the story. In the comics, Mystique's decision to murder the senator for starting an anti-mutant campaign does not seem to jibe with her general intelligence: she acts as if she did not even consider the possibility of a negative blowback. However, in the movie Mystique has a more personal reason for wanting Trask dead. At some point, the scientist gains access to her shape-changer DNA. He then conferred some of Mystique's abilities on his automatons-- which, in a roundabout way, was the main reason that the Future-Sentinels were able to conquer America and annihilate most of mutant-kind. This gives Mystique a more relatable reason to want Trask dead even though she does not know the future-- though, to be sure, the power-transfer also results in making the Future-Sentinels rather sleek and feminine, which does not prove to be a good look for them. Trask, the substitute for the mutant-hating senator, actually does not hate mutants but has some vaguely-conceived idea of using them as a scapegoat that will supposedly unite humanity. But this notion is merely tossed out without any development.

The strangest thing about DAYS is that its bifurcated temporal structure causes the movie to shunt most of the main heroes associated with the success of the franchise-- except Wolverine-- into a future where all of their heroics merely constitute a holding-action. The main action takes place in 1973, but there's no ensemble of X-heroes there. Quicksilver-without-that-name is sidelined before the climax for no good reason, so that the only X-heroes able to fight Magneto, Mystique, and the Sentinels are Wolverine, Beast, and a de-powered Professor X. I understand that Singer really, really wanted to complete the dramatic arc of the characters he really liked. Still, the time-travel scenario has the effect of writing out most of the characters that the fans want when they see an X-Men film.

To be sure, the performers who get the lion's share of script attention-- Jackman, MacAvoy, Patrick Stewart (as Older Professor X), Lawrence and Fassbender-- are all exemplary. The time-reshuffling also allowed Singer to rework some of the unfortunate plot-decisions made in X3: THE LAST STAND. I'll confess that I was as taken with the rebirth of Cyclops and Marvel Girl in the end-cameos as any other fan. In X-MEN APOCALYPSE-- to date Singer's "final fling" with the franchise-- the writer-director followed through by including both of those heroes and a new version of Nightcrawler, though he still set the action in 1983, as if still seeking to avoid getting into a continuity-hassle with his movies of the 2000s. But APOCALYPSE at least had all of the heroes in the same time-frame as they battled Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen (one of whom was-- sigh-- Magneto again).

Having now reviewed all of Singer's "prequel films," I tend to think that despite some strong moments they represent a literal backward step for the franchise. That said, I respect that Singer wanted to get across some commentary on real historical events through the mutant-action lens, though, since X-MEN is a concept that arguably reflects a particular culture's sociological priorities more than do most superhero franchises.




THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*


Ingrid Bergman's VIRGIN SPRING was the second and last of his films to be set in Europe's pre-Renaissance medieval era, following the international success of 1957's THE SEVENTH SEAL. SPRING, though, came about in a more circuitous way. While Bergman both wrote and directed SEAL, Ulla Isaksson, a writer known for novels on religious themes, is generally credited with the idea of freely adapting a 13th-century Swedish ballad to film. Isaksson had previously collaborated with Bergman, having written the screenplay for 1958's BRINK OF LIFE, but the two of them never worked together again. Thus the coming together of two Swedish creators on a project with deep metaphysical dimensions seems to have been something of a happy accident.

The specific religious conflict of SPRING is one that Bergman rarely if ever evoked again: the opposition between paganism, whose deities are tied to nature and its cycles, and Christianity, whose God is said to transcend the world-- so much so, though, that it often become difficult to discern the latter's presence at all.

By the 13th century, Christianity has ousted the old Scandinavian religions and has become the dominant belief-system, particularly for the more prosperous class. Yet in Sweden some low-class citizens still pray to the old gods, which dichotomy brings elements of class conflict into the mix.

Per Tore (Max Von Sydow) is a devout merchant with a wife and one daughter, Karin (Birgitta Petterson). Tore's daughter is the apple of his eye, but he's so confident of his good fortune that he does not think twice when he sends Karin on a minor errand-- to take some candles to the local church-- with only one attendant. The attendant is a pregnant lower-class serving-girl, Ingeri (Lummel Lindblom). Ingeri, in addition to being poor and made pregnant by an unspecified suitor, has been forced to work for the Tore family, and it's briefly suggested that Tore's wife is the sort of Christian who never lets anyone forget her bountiful charity. Filled with resentment, Ingeri prays to the trickster-god Odin, wishing ill fortune upon Karin.

(Side-note: an online review posits that Ingeri may be Tore's own illegitimate byblow. There's no evidence of this in the text, and in the few scenes Tore has with Ingeri, he relates to her as nothing but an unrelated servant.)

The two young women-- Karin riding a horse while Ingeri walks-- make their way through the thick Swedish forests to their destination. On the way they stop at a mill, and meet a peculiar one-eyed old man. Karin thinks little of the encounter, but Ingeri becomes frightened by the old man, whose one eye suggests the traditional appearance of Odin. Ingeri worries that she has summoned a curse upon Karin and she refuses to accompany Karin further. Karin goes on alone, but the nerve-wracked serving-girl can't bring herself to flee the mill. She hands around the mill, while the old man makes curious references to "power" and then makes a pass at her. She runs out of the mill and, by luck or design, follows Karin's path.

As it happens, Ingeri witnesses the very misfortune she wished upon Tore's daughter. Karin is accosted by two rude herdsmen and their buddy, a dimwitted young man who doesn't quite know what's going on. The herdsmen attack, rape and kill Karin, while the young fellow and Ingeri look on. Ingeri flees, while the herdsmen despoil Karin of her fine clothes and leave her unburied.

Though eventually Ingeri makes her way back to the Tore household, evidently she takes some roundabout way, for it's actually the three low-class fellows who end up there first, seeking shelter from heavy rain. Tore's wife admits the trio in accordance with the laws of hospitality. However, the two rapists make the mistake of trying to sell Karin's fine clothes to the merchant's wife, and of course Mrs. Tore recognized the attire immediately. She dissembles, informing Tore of her suspicions. At this point Ingeri shows up and begs for mercy, explaining what befell Karin and Ingeri's part in the curse. Tore then plots his revenge upon the rapists and their unwitting accomplice. After the men have all been slaughtered, Ingeri takes Tore to bury his dead daughter-- and when Tore lifts Karin's dead body from the ground to inter her, a fresh spring-- whether by coincidence or by divine fiat-- emerges from the ground where Karin's head lay, and Tore seeks absolution by bathing his face in the waters.

The broad outline of this plot was conspicuously "borrowed" by West Craven for his 1972 horror-film LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which kept a few of the sociological trimmings and ejected any metaphysical content. The villains of HOUSE are more conscious of their evil than are the predators of SPRING, who register as little more than animals. And certainly the rich guy in the Craven film is not set up to emulate the existential conflict of the Biblical Job, as is Per Tore. Tore feels himself at the center of God's benevolent universe, only to have God, or maybe just blind fate, deprive him of his only offspring. Both Tore and Ingeri move in a universe at once ordinary and uncanny, and no viewer can be sure whether either God or Odin truly exist. Bergman's film never actually endorses paganism, but even in black and white, the crisp photography of Sven Nykvist communicates a sense of the brooding profligacy of nature, and one cannot tell if the Christian God actually rules over nature or has simply retreated from its intermingled beauties and perversities.

While neither the rapists nor their simple-minded friend comprehend the vileness of Karin's murder, Tore as a Christian cannot help but realize that he's traduced his own beliefs by taking vengeance, which is the reason he must seek absolution from even an ambivalent miracle. The merchant's insoluble conflict with nature itself is best illustrated by a long scene prior to Tore's murder of his victims. He needs to strip strands of beech-bark to bind his enemies, but instead of just taking what he needs, Tore wrestles with the fragile tree, pinning it down and tearing to shreds. It's a futile attempt to vanquish nature's proclivities for senseless violence, and the maybe-miracle of the spring merely gives fretful humans a ritual by which they can feel themselves able to transcend the natural, even as their God does.




Sunday, April 17, 2022

SANTO VS. THE RIDERS OF TERROR (1970)

 





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

After seeing Santo duel so often with monsters and mad scientists, it's interesting to see a flick in which he's the only metaphenomenal presence.

In some backwater part of Mexico, a local town is obliged to share the territory with a colony of lepers. The era is unclear but at this point in time the treatment of sulfa drugs has just been recently introduced, because at the film's end Santo advises the locals that leprosy can be controlled if not cured with such medications.

Prior to Santo's arrival in the area, the regular tensions between the town and the colony are exacerbated when the lepers flee their confines. Despite the enlightened attitude of the sensible lawmen and a compassionate doctor, the people fear that the lepers are highly communicable. To make matters worse, a gang of bandidos make common cause with the lepers to help spook their victims. Santo, who shares the forward-thinking views of the modern era, battles not only the bandidos but also the town's prejudice. The lepers, though they're sources of horror to the townfolk, are handled as ordinary suffering human beings.

There aren't many fight-scenes here, so that despite the pro-social message RIDERS is somewhat dull, except for the novelty of placing Santo in a relatively realistic situation. Allegedly director Rene Cardona filmed some spicier scenes for a more adult version of the film called "The Lepers and Sex," which might have added some excitement but probably detracted from the message.


Saturday, April 16, 2022

THE VENGEANCE OF LA LLORONA (1974)

 






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

There's not much to say about this draggy luchador flick, so I'll stick to the basics.

Some time prior to the present day, a wealthy woman, Dona Eugenia, swears to be avenged upon her husband because he rejects her for another woman. She makes a pact with a hot Satan-worshipper, who promises her the power to come back from the dead as the mythical Mexican "crying woman" to haunt the descendants of her late husband and his new wife.

In the present, an anthropologist seeks to find a great treasure hidden away by Dona Eugenia, and he asks the help of Santo in case the legendary ghost is a real threat. Santo brings along his friend, a boxer named Mantequilla.

The explorers find the treasure, but in so doing they revive the dead body of La Llorona, who goes around wailing a lot and trying to prey on children. The wrestler and boxer try to find a way to put the ghost back in her grave, while intermittently fighting a gang of criminals seeking the treasure.

I have seen worse luchador films, so this low-budget effort rings in as no more than a decent timekiller-- but only for fans of luchador films.


THE PANTHER WOMEN (1967)


 





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

I've been dilatory about getting around to reviewing the first two of Rene Cardona's five "Luchadoras" films about heroic lady wrestlers. The first, DOCTOR OF DOOM, is great fun, while the second, WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY, is an incoherent mess. Until recently, I hadn't seen any of the other three films, and by all accounts, the third one, SHE WOLVES OF THE RING, is a purely naturalistic wrestling-adventure. Yet I'd long wanted to see the fourth and fifth in the series, both of which returned the gal grapplers to sparring with metaphenomenal threats, though to my knowledge neither film received a dubbed U.S. release. Happily, someone ponied up the dough to release an English dub of what is now my new favorite "luchadoras" flick. 

To clarify some of the history of this short-lived franchise, the first three films focused upon the adventures of professional wrestlers Golden Ruby (Elizabeth Campbell) and Gloria Venus (Lorena Velazquez). For some reason, Gloria's name is changed to "Loreta" in the third film, so I suppose one must assume that the "Loreta" of the fourth film is the same character, even though she's now played by a new actress, Ariadne Welter. FWIW, the fifth and last film dispenses with both of these characters and the actresses playing them and includes just one girl grappler played by yet another actress.

Some of the best evildoers in Mex-horror films are associated with fiendish cults, either pagan or Satanic (sometimes both). PANTHER begins with a coterie of witches, some of whom have the power to turn into panthers. One who does not is Satanasa (Maria Douglas, a dead ringer for the departed Lorena Velazquez). Satanasa explains the cult's history to her adherents. In bygone centuries-- by one account, in "Croatia"-- the panther cult was on the verge of conquering the world with its Satanic powers. However, the cult fell on hard times after its diabolical leader Elohim (note: a Hebrew word for "god") is slain by a good wizard with a "Druid sword." The wizard, known as Pietra Santa (whose name sounds a bit like Saint Peter), passes the magic sword down to his descendants, who are still named Pietra Santa in the 20th century. Loreta Venus is related to the family, but the modern-day Panther Women are determined to track down only direct descendants and slay them, the better to bring Elohim back to life and to rule the world.

Loreta and Ruby get into assorted fights with the panther women, their human henchmen, and even a big barely explained male monster, accompanied by two federal agents (who are not the same as the two cops who help the girls in the first two adventures, but might as well be). However, for whatever reason Cardona elected to bring in a third main hero: a masked luchador known only as Angel (and not billed under any other name in the credits). Angel is in essence a superhero wrestler just like Santo, for he never takes off his mask, has his own secret HQ, and wears a cape that shields him from both bullets and fire.Maybe Cardona was hoping to spin Angel off into a new luchador franchise, but I can't find evidence on IMDB that the unbilled actor ever essayed the role again.

Maybe the third luchadora film didn't make satisfactory box office, for it seemed to me that Cardona really put extra effort in this film, making copious of close ups in the fight scenes. Despite an opening scene showing several panther women in the cult, no more than three cultists ever show up in Mexico. Still, one of them ups the tension by becoming the girlfriend of one of the male Pietra Santas, and after toying with him sufficiently, she turns him into panther chow. This leaves only one direct descendant, a little girl, for the cult to destroy so that they can resurrect their evil leader.

The budget's too low to depict any transformations from humans to beast-girls, and so the movie usually avoids showing the were-girls in full panther mode. Yet I'd still say that Cardona keeps up enough tension that the devilish ways of the cult comprise a metaphysical threat to normal life, thus causing me to grade the film's mythicity as fair.

Elizabeth Campbell shows the same vivacity she did in the first two films, but Ariadne Welter, best known in the U.S. for horror-films like 1957's THE VAMPIRE, isn't very convincing as a fighter. Douglas, whose resume doesn't seem to include many fantasy-films, makes an alluring villainess, though the lack of acting skills of her two assistants might make her look better. The guy playing Angel acquits himself well in his fight-scenes, but he too didn't go on to greater fame in horror or adventure films. Still, PANTHER WOMEN now makes my top ten list of 1960s Mexican fantasy-movies.





Friday, April 15, 2022

THE BATMAN (2022)


 





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


It wasn't that much of a surprise to see the 2019 JOKER reinterpret Batman's arch-fiend as a dramatic figure, once it was made clear that that film's makers were presenting a sort of "alternate-Earth Joker" who shared a few elements of the Bat-mythos but otherwise was a new creation. THE BATMAN, however, may present twists of favorite characters or on the Bat-origin, but to all intents and purposes this is still a take on the canonical Batman, courtesy of director/co-writer Matt Reeves. Yet unlike most Batman productions, it's not a high-spirited adventure, but a moody drama, almost an implicit answer to Martin Scorcese's recent criticism of superhero films as "amusement park rides."

Like both the 1989 BATMAN and BATMAN BEGINS, this film begins with the hero near the outset of his career. This time the Batman (Robert Pattinson) has been operating in Gotham for two  years, and though he's become friends with police lieutenant (and future commissioner) James Gordon, the rest of Gotham's constabulary deeply distrusts the costumed vigilante. But when a masked maniac called The Riddler kills one high-class victim and threatens to murder others, GCPD is forced to tolerate the Batman, In fact, rather than allowing the hero to play will-o-the-wisp so that he never gets close to the cops, Reeves devotes several scenes to showing the tension as the masked manhunter moves amid lawmen who would dearly love to capture and unmask him.

Gotham, as always, harbors corruption in high places, but while the bad apples are the exception in many Bat-narratives, in this film the corruption is almost a way of life. All of the Riddler's targets are rich politicians who profit from a hand-in-glove partnership with Gotham's crime families, headed by Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right-hand man Oz, a.k.a. The Penguin (Colin Farrell). The Riddler's clues force Batman and Gordon to seek out an unknown informant who can cause the whole house of cards to collapse. During the Batman's investigations, he encounters a karate-kicking lady cat burglar (Zoe Kravitz), known as Selina Kyle but never called "Catwoman." Selina has her own agenda in pursuing Falcone but temporarily works alongside the Bat, with some of the expected romantic chemistry.

Despite the fact that Pattinson's Batman is easily the most acrobatic, fight-savvy live-action Batman ever, the film is not set up to deliver the usual blend of violence and spectacle found in most superhero films. And despite the fact that much of the narrative focuses on the Riddler's continued predations, the film also doesn't have the feel of serial-killer thrillers like SEVEN or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The only popular genre to I can fairly compare Reeves' brooding pace is the genre of the naturalistic spy movie. This more dramatic version of Batman exists not in a wild Wonderland where villains play manic games with heroes amid giant-sized displays, but in a forbidding demimonde in which no one's word can be trusted and almost everyone conceals dire secrets-- usually involving the rich preying upon the poor. Yet despite this familiar trope, BATMAN never indulges in the petty Marxism of Christopher Nolan. Selina does have a line about "privileged white assholes," but since this Catwoman is the offspring of Italian mobster Falcone, the remark seems purely personal in nature, rather than an opportunity for the script to virtue signal.

Reeves' vision of Gotham's crime-riddled cosmos is so dark that the film verges on becoming an irony, a type of narrative in which all action is fundamentally pointless. For instance, Batman eventually learns that his own example of vigilantism inspired the Riddler's career, and learns that his father and mother may have been murdered not as innocent holdup victims, but because of the father's implication in the Gotham crime-world. Yet Batman, Gordon and Selina are still able to perform heroically, even in a world where heroism is extremely compromised, which IMO means that this version of the Caped Crusader conforms to the form of the drama.

There's a bracing quality to seeing fabulous characters like Penguin and Catwoman handled in this fashion, but from the first years of the comic book, they existed in a world of fantasy, not reality. Accordingly, this is also one of the few Batman-movies in which neither the hero nor the villains utilize any fantastic super-science. Batman has a handful of uncanny weapons-- his armored costume, a glider-suit, a smoke bomb, and a Batmobile that can be driven electronically (albeit only for a short distance), while the Riddler, who certainly commits his share of bizarre crimes, is confined to such mundane devices as firearms, explosives, and an unusual type of bludgeon that later becomes a major clue to his culminating scheme. Only at the film's conclusion does THE BATMAN make substantial use of spectacle. Yet the spectacle serves the purpose of re-orienting Batman's goals away from his stated desire for "vengeance" and toward the pro-social value of altruism. 

There are assorted small complaints about the script-- Riddler's motive, when revealed, is not satisfying-- but overall it's a strong film. Yet I don't have a burning desire to see another one in this universe, in part because I doubt Reeves could top himself, in part because I think Batman's involvement in the tropes of uncanny and marvelous phenomenality run too deep for any one cinematic success to overturn.




Thursday, April 14, 2022

THE IMMORTAL (1969)

 






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

THE IMMORTAL, the series for which this movie was a pilot, was one of the first to imitate the structure of the successful FUGITIVE TV show (1963-67). However, while THE FUGITIVE used its "wandering Samaritan" trope to place its everyman hero in a variety of heavy dramatic situations, many of which involved Richard Kimble sorting out the troubles of the people he encountered while running from the law.

Technically, THE IMMORTAL series sought to follow the same template. For the purpose of this review I did not attempt to re-watch the episodes of the series proper, but going on my fifty-year old memories of this one-season wonder, I don't think the scripts were as heavy on the dramatic elements as those of FUGITIVE. Be that as it may, the pilot film is purely an adventure-flick, dealing with how the hero attempts to avoid being captured by the villain.

Ben Richards (Christopher George) works as a race-car tester in an unnamed city. His boss is a dying old recluse, Jordan Braddock (Barry Sullivan), but Braddock isn't even aware of Richards' existence-- until the rich old man, transported to a local hospital, receives a transplant of Richards' blood donation. Braddock immediately recovers from his injuries and feels invigorated, as if he's actually become younger. 

Braddock's doctor (Ralph Bellamy) figures out that Richards is in effect an "immortal," in that the man has never been sick in his life and looks 30 even though he's 43. Richards has never given his fabulous health any thought, though he shares the good news with his girlfriend (Carol Lynley), celebrating that he may be able to keep both of them young for many years to come.

However, the effects of Richards' blood wears off and Braddock is once more a dying old man. So the ruthless plutocrat kidnaps the ordinary joe, planning to keep him as "blooding stock" indefinitely. Richards eventually gets free, and Braddock sends armed men to corral him. When it becomes clear that Richards's girlfriend will be in danger if they meet again, the immortal man goes on the run. For the remainder of the series, he gets into various battles with other corrupt authorities, usually with more of a eye toward spectacle than toward dramatic catharsis. His immortality factor is not exactly a "super power" as such, but in one episode, he astonishes his enemies by quickly recovering from a beating that should have put Richards in the hospital.

The template of the story wasn't entirely derived from FUGITIVE, though, since the proximate inspiration was a series of 1950s stories by James Gunn (not the Marvel director). I read these stories, collected under the title THE IMMORTALS, and don't think the TV people borrowed anything but the basic idea of what rich people would do to corner the market on a "youth potion." 

By itself, the pilot film is watchable but lacks any depth whatever, though it does offer the opportunity of seeing a bunch of familiar TV-faces.





Wednesday, April 13, 2022

LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


I insert the SPOILERS line because I'm going to mention the solution to this giallo's "mystery." Arguably the association of an animal with a female human gives the game away, though, since the only major female character in LIZARD is the viewpoint character.

Carol (Florinda Bolkan) is the wife of a respectable London attorney and daughter of a respectable politician. However, as if to signal her discontent with her life within the status quo, Carol confesses to her psychiatrist that she has intense erotic dreams about her loose neighbor Julia. Later Carol dreams that she kills Julia in the presence of two drug-addled hippies-- and then she finds out the next day that Julia is really dead. There follows a typical-for-giallo phantasmagoria of wild sequences-- dogs being disemboweled, a swarm of bats-- while Carol appears to play detective. But it's no big surprise when Carol is revealed to be the conscious killer, not so much trying to solve the mystery as seeking to cover her tracks.

LIZARD's director and co-writer Lucio Fulci had previously helmed a 1969 giallo, PERVERSION STORY, which I have not seen. That said, whle watching LIZARD I couldn't help but feel that he was biting Dario Argento's style. Like Argento's breakthrough film THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, which made it to theaters roughly a year prior to LIZARD. Fulci's film seems to share some of PLUMAGE's concerns with psychological aberration and quirky street-people-- but whether or not Fulci sought to make his film resemble Argento's work, I don't think he brought any individual style to his use of these giallo elements. Bolkan carries most of the film despite the casting of familiar faces like Leo Genn, Stanley Baker and Anita Strindberg, but because Carol seems to be such a stock character, the actress doesn't have much to work with.


RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2016)

 






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


In my review of the fifth and next-to-last installment of the RESIDENT EVIL series, I opined that it may have been weaker in its spectacular elements because the producers were saving their better work for this "final chapter."

Sure enough, FINAL, in addition to wrapping up the story-arc for its memory-impaired heroine Alice, boasts some impressive action-scenes. A particular standout appears in the first thirty minutes, when Alice is caught in a noose-trap, so that she's forced to hang upside-down as the marauding trappers converge on her. The heroine promptly decimates all of her attackers and goes on with her mission.

An earlier installment conveniently destroyed most of the world's population (off-camera) with the Umbrella Corporation's malignant T-virus. FINAL offers the palliative of an anti-virus, capable of eradicating the T-virus, allowing for humanity to recover once all of the virally created zombies have expired. The downside: since Alice's system was enhanced by the original virus, the release of the cure will probably doom her. 

The selfish heads of the Umbrella Corp have no interest in humanity's rebirth, since they're fine with letting the rest of the people perish while the plutocrats live on in their technological domains. But one of their servants-- the computer intelligence the Red Queen, seen in earlier episodes-- wants to protect humanity. The Queen renders aid to Alice and warns her that one of the members of her resistance group is a traitor.

In addition to assorted kickass fight-scenes, FINAL also unravels the mystery of Alice's origins, which are as might expect, intimately tied to the Umbrella Corporation's operations. Paul W.S. Anderson, who returned to both directing and writing duties for the finale, comes up with a good way to test Alice's inherent heroism, and to allow her crusade to go on even after she's saved the planet-- quite ignoring the film's advertising catch-phrase, "Finish the Fight." Jovavich turns in a strong performance for the character that in all likelihood will be her defining role.



Tuesday, April 12, 2022

SECRET AGENT FIREBALL (1965)

 






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


This early Eurospy entry, the first featuring a hero sometimes dubbed "Bob Fleming" (Richard Harrison), and was followed by one sequel, KILLERS ARE CHALLENGED. As is often the case, the first entry in the series may be a little on the small-budget size, and the sequel gets a little more money for developing oddball spy-devices. FIREBALL, however, doesn't get anything but a pipe from which a killer can shoot tiny darts to kill a target.

Most of the movie is routine spy-stuff, as Fleming jaunts about Europe, tracking a microfilm filled with science-secrets left behind by the scientists, assassinated by Russian agents. (Oddly, that same year the Bond films started playing down Russian villainy by playing up the apolitical menace of SPECTRE in THUNDERBALL-- whose name FIREBALL probably borrows from.) 

There's nothing either fiery or thunderous about this routine spy-thriller as directed by Luciano Martino, who distinguishes himself with a half-dozen strong giallo films later. FIREBALL merely ticks off all the expected categories-- car chases, short fights, and Euro-babes, the latter played by good girl Dominique Broschero and bad girl Wandisa Guida. Harrison is OK as the suave Bondian hero but like many other Eurospies the writers can't be bothered to think up a half-decent villain (Professor G? Was there a guy with that name in the English dub?)

This one is purely of historical interest, nothing more.

REVOLT OF THE PRAETORIANS (1964)


 





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

When I decided to watch this moldy-oldie peplum about the Rome of Emperor Domitian, I had no expectations of finding a new addition to my list of "superhero idiom" films. Most melodramas about ancient Rome aren't known for heroes with double identities, and so I can only assume that someone, possibly cult director Alfonso Brescia, decided to mash up the genre of the Roman historical flick with that of the costumed swashbuckler.

Domitian (Piero Lulli) is a thoroughly reprehensible despot who keeps his citizens on a tight leash, having his Praetorian Guard execute anyone who talks against the Emperor. Domitian has also alloyed the Roman court to be swayed into pagan practices by his leman Artamne (Moira Orfei), a priestess of Isis who persuades the Emperor to treat young Roman noblewomen as temple prostitutes. (Sounds more Babylonian than Egyptian, but who knows?) Two of Domitian's apparent allies, however, plan to unseat him: his jester-dwarf Elpidion and his centurion Valerius Rufus (Richard Harrison).

Rufus, hoping to generate a resistance movement in Rome, dons a wolf's head mask and begins picking fights with Praetorians, whom he beats easily with his superior strength and skill. Domitian calls for the execution of the mysterious warrior, dubbed "The Red Wolf," but the hero does the usual Zorro-esque disappearing act. (I would think that in the original Italian script someone would have drawn parallels to the legends of Rome's founders, the wolf-nurtured twins Romulus and Remus, but if so the English dub didn't trouble with that detail.)

Rufus succeeds in drumming up a resistance movement of both citizens and patricians, and the dwarf Elpidion joins him. The Red Wolf even kidnaps Artamne in order to use her as a hostage. The priestess escapes custody and reveals the hideout of the rebels to Domitian, but Rufus helps the rebels escape death. Rufus's double identity is almost exposed, but he finds that some of the Praetorians are willing to join the rebellion. This leads to a very strange end-sequence in which Rufus, the good Praetorians, and a troupe of traveling circus-performers fight Domitian's loyalists. The presence of the circus-people lends the big brawl an antic quality, for the performers use odd weapons (rolled-up bolts of cloth, a fire-eater's trick flame) and one female even floors a bad Praetorian with a judo toss! Still, all gets serious in the final duel between Rufus and Domitian, which, as one may guess, has no relation to anything in Roman history books. 


HERCULES VS. MOLOCH (1964)


 





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


Though some elements of this sword-and-sandal seem borrowed from Greek mythology, particularly the story of the Minotaur, both the "Hercules" and the "Moloch" are mortals who pretend to be divine figures for one reason or another. And despite all the mythic content, one of the film's alternate titles was CONQUEST OF MYCENAE, as if someone, perhaps director Giorgio Ferrone, thought of marketing the film as a quasi-naturalistic story of archaic warfare.

Mycenae is ostensibly the walled city from which evil Queen Demetra (Rosalba Neri) seeks to conquer all of her neighbors, particularly the rival city of Tiryns. Demetra took control of Mycenae by becoming the second wife of the now-deceased king, and after he was gone she instituted a cult of human sacrifice. Many of the local women-- all beautiful stunners, of course-- are given into the hands of Demetra's son from a previous marriage, who has given himself the name of the Semitic deity Moloch. Instead of being a demi-human monster like The Minotaur, Moloch is a disfigured man who hides his ruined features behind a metal wolf's mask, and he both mutilates and murders his victims because he claims to hate all beauty. In addition to keeping Mycenae in thrall to the cult of sacrifice, Demetra also makes sure that the former king's daughter Medea (Alessandra Panaro) doesn't get any ideas about taking power, even though Medea represents the power of a rival deity, "the Earth Goddess."

While Demetra and her generals plan to invade Tiryns, Glaucus (Gordon Scott), prince of that city, goes undercover, pretending to be a slave so as to gain entrance to Mycenae and to spy on his enemies. He swiftly becomes a gladiator, this being the time-approved method of attracting the attention of lusty evil queens. As one might expect, both the bad queen and the good stepdaughter fall for Glaucus, who further beefs up his reputation by claiming to be the demigod Hercules.

Battles, intrigues and betrayals follow, including major action between the forces of Mycenae and Tiryns. Demetra seems to be set up for a fall when the Earth-goddess trumps her sacrificial cult, striking down Demetra's high priest with a lightning bolt, and so the populace of Mycenae rebels. This would seem to set up a nasty end for Demetra. However, in the version I saw, Neri's character simply disappears. Possibly the production was running low on money? In the big climactic scene where Glaucus descends into an underground cavern to rescue Medea from Moloch, director Ferrone suddenly interpolates a sequence that looks like it was taken (or re-created) from Ferrone's earlier epic, the 1961 BACCHANTES. For about four minutes a bunch of soldiers, whose identity is unclear, find themselves confounded by a group of drum-beating witch-women-- who then disappear when that sequence is over. This leaves the field clear for a nice long brawl between Glaucus and Moloch; one guess who wins.

One last detail is that although some peplum-films make interesting usages of Classic Greek mythological names, the scripters here, including Ferroni, just toss in names with no resonance to their Greek originals. In addition to Glaucus, Medea and Demetra (Demeter), we also get a Pentheus, a Deianeira, and a Pasifae-- the latter name being the only one appropriate to a story about a monster that murders his sacrificial victims.