Friday, March 31, 2023

ELECTRA (1996)


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


In the 2000s producer Ashok Amritaj broke into the big time with a number of high-profile projects, some of which were superhero-adjacent properties like the GHOST RIDER films and the first MACHETE. But his first real such project-- technically a "super-villain" film-- is this DTV film ELECTRA (that is, if one leaves out an Asian-made ninja film).

Most of the DTV films Amritaj made in the nineties are predictable formula outings, like the NIGHT EYES series of erotic thrillers. ELECTRA, though, is an ambitious genre mashup, quite as if its creators-- writers Lou Aguilar and  Damian Lau and director Julian Grant, none of whom had a ton of notable credits-- were seeking to meld the Oedipal drama of Eugene O'Neil with the trash-culture aesthetics of Quentin Tarantino. (In one brief scene between two guards, one of them quotes the "quarter-pounder" line from PULP FICTION before both of them get taken out.) Unlike any work from Tarantino, ELECTRA is an awkward mix of clever ideas and dopey executions, though it's no less entertaining for all that.

Like a lot of regular erotic thrillers, this one starts in a strip club, where in theory women are objectified for lustful males. But one stripper uses her sex to lure a patron to his death in the clutches of her patron, madman Marcus Roach (Sten Eirik). The patron lasts only long enough for Roach's lapdog scientist Bartholomew to inject the fellow with an experimental serum. Things don't go well; the innocent pawn becomes super-strong and bats around his guards for a second or two-- and then he explodes. Roach is terribly disappointed, because he's been stuck in a wheelchair for years thanks to a lab accident, and he hoped Bsrtholomew's serum would cure his affliction. Roach is so broken up that he threatens to let his sexy, martial-arts henchwomen-- all decked out in short-shorts, thigh-high boots and vinyl jackets-- to put the lapdog down. 

Bartholomew then reveals that all of his research into a strength-enhancing formula came from a late colleague, one Duncan. Though Duncan is dead, Bartholomew believes that Duncan's son Billy (Joe Tab) not only knows the formula, he's been taking the real serum with no ill effects since childhood. Though both Billy's parents are gone, Doctor Duncan remarried Lorna (Shannon Tweed), the owner of a farm in upstate New York. So Roach lets Bartholomew live, though not without the usual threats, before the villain and his private army proceed to check out Lorna's farm.

The viewer gets a more intimate surveillance of the setup. Billy is a healthy young fellow, but though he dates Mary Anne (Katie Griffin), a local girl his own age, it's risky for him to have unprotected sex with her, since he might transmit the serum to her through his bodily fluids. However, the serum doesn't just enhance Billy's strength, but his sex-drive as well-- and that means that he's got a little thing for his sexy stepmother. Lorna for her part doesn't need serum to make her lust after her hunky son. Though she's been courted by a fellow her own age-- in fact, by Mary Anne's maybe-divorced father, thus jacking up the Oedipal factor up even more-- Lorna's clearly "holding out for a hero." The two of them do make a few desultory attempts to keep things on a normal mom/son level, but Mary Anne knows that Lorna's urges are less than maternal. More, Billy plans to leave for college soon, making Lorna even more forlorn.

Roach sends his goons and his "doll squad" to abduct Billy and Lorna, in the process managing to kill Mary Anne's dad. Billy, being a chemically induced superman, fights off the thugs, but Lorna is captured and taken to Roach's lab. 

I said before that this was a super-villain film, but Roach is not the star of this show, though she is his Frankenstein fraulein. Roach has watched enough Ibsen and O'Neill to recognize buried lusts when he sees them. Thus he decides that his best chance to get a viable sample of the formula in Billy's veins is to force him to have sex with a female pawn, and then harvest the formula from one of them for Roach's own enhancement. Roach brainwashes Lorna so that she will lure Billy-- and Mary Anne for good measure-- into his clutches, with her reward being the conquest of her stepson's libido. Initially Roach tests captive Billy's resolve by having his two goon-girls try to sex him up, but Billy manages to keep things cool. This gambit proves to be a set-up for the real attack, where Lorna claims to be faking sex with Billy to fool Roach. Billy can't entirely restrain his fundamental lust for his "mom," and because he can't, he creates a super-being like himself. Roach provides Lorna with a slinky blank cat-suit and she takes the name "Electra" for unexplained reasons.

However, before Mary Anne was captured, Billy slipped her a dose of the enhancing-serum, and she uses it on herself to become a second super-woman. She creams the two goon-girls and then goes after her real enemy, but Electra wins their bout (though the serum saves the good girl's life). Electra and Billy engage in an overly short battle and virtue wins out over vice.

I give the actors props for trying as hard as possible to play this concept straight, with the possible exception of the "catfight" scene, where Tweed and Griffin get a little wacky in their death-duel. Nevertheless, getting powers from a spider-bite seems positively sober in comparison to the notion of super-beings passing on their powers through sexual intercourse, so there's no getting away from the risibility factor here. The attire of the goon-girls adds to the lunacy in that it suggests dominance-gear, and one of the girls has an early fight with Billy in which she tosses out lines like, "Don't pass out on me now, pretty boy; I'm not so easily satisfied!" Of course there's a school of thought that sees all costumed characters as incarnations of combined lust and power no matter how family-friendly their adventures might be. It's possible that the makers of ELECTRA were having fun with that idea here, while of course offering the "erotic thriller" crowd all their favorite tropes-- including lots of skin-shots of Shannon Tweed, who'd become famous for such fare by the time she made this movie. Yet I would have to say that, even if one can't take ELECTRA seriously, it diverges from the majority of soft-core erotica in that the female characters aren't depending on manipulating men with sex, since they're as physically formidable as they are sexy.

The name Lorna chooses as her super-villain sobriquet is a bit puzzling. If she's a predatory stepmother desiring to pattern herself after a Greek myth-figure, why wouldn't she call herself "Phaedra?" There's one minute in which Electra hurls a bolt of electricity from her hand to stun Billy-- which of course makes no sense in terms of what the serum can do-- but I suspect this extra power was just as a throwaway notion. The Greek Electra was most famous for seeking to avenge the murder of her father Agamemnon by both her mother Clytemnestra and the queen's younger lover. This would seem to put her more on the side of the angels, except that she manipulates her younger brother Orestes into doing her dirty work, which includes the direct slaying of his birth mother to avenge his father. And that's rather close to the denouement of ELECTRA, though unlike Orestes, Billy Duncan gets to make it with his pseudo-mom before he kills her. 

Thursday, March 30, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

As I'd not seen this 1998 DTV film in many years, I was somewhat inaccurate talking about it in relation to its sequel RETURN TO ZOMBIE ISLAND when I said:

I haven't seen the film for a long time, but I remember it as competent enough, given the added fillip that the buddies had graduated to adulthood and had put away childish things-- only to find that the Real Supernatural couldn't be ignored so easily.

Now that I've seen the original Scooby-Zombie, I see that the script never specifically says that the "meddling kids" have gotten much older. Their only cited motive for breaking up their mystery-solving group is because they've become bored with investigating ghosts and finding phonies in costumes. I think I got the impression of adulthood because the four humans and their dog are first seen occupying mundane jobs. To the best of my memory, no previous movie or teleseries ever showed the characters employed, and indeed, one TV show explicitly claimed that the rich parents of Fred Jones subsidized the juvenile detectives' peregrinations. (It's amusing to imagine the teens going to work in the real world after being cut off from some sinecure, though I admit there's no proof of that here.)

Though Velma, Scooby and Shaggy all have mundane jobs, Daphne and Fred have managed to parlay their career as ghost-hunters into a television show. But they haven't had any greater luck finding real ghosts, until the two of them get a lead on a possible haunting on the island of the title, located somewhere in the Louisiana bayou country. Fred gets the bright idea of calling the rest of the gang together to see if this time, they can find a real supernatural phenomenon.

Now, though the original Scoob-series always stuck close to the "guy in a ghost suit" formula, succeeding shows often had the Scoobys encountering all sorts of ghouls and goblins. So in a larger sense ZOMBIE isn't anything new for the gang. But I appreciate that the writers acted as if the original show was Ground Zero for their concept, because they came up with a very stimulating vision of supernatural menace, far more convincing than the catchpenny creeps from the other TV shows. In addition, the producers spent a fair amount of money making the bayou setting look genuinely creepy, not unlike the painted backdrops seen in the original SCOOBY DOO series.

For once I'll refrain from detailing the nature of the menace in ZOMBIE, though it does indeed include real zombies. One key scene, though, is pertinent. Daphne Blake defends herself from what she assumes is a man in a zombie costume, felling him with a neat judo flip. But when she tries to take off the mask-- well, it's not pretty.

I believe this DTV film is the first time Daphne ever displayed any martial talent, which may have influenced the more athletic character as depicted in the two live-action movies of the early 2000s. However, one iteration in the comic books made "Danger-Prone Daphne" a tough mama about a year before ZOMBIE, for what that's worth.



CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

If anyone had told me I'd give even a "fair" mythicity rating to a micro-budgeted superhero flick from the director of WITCHOUSE, I would have considered that a faulty prediction. It wouldn't have helped the case for ROBOT NINJA that, in addition to being written and directed by J.R. Bookwalter, it was produced by another purveyor of DTV junk, Dave DeCouteau.

Nevertheless, even though the titular hero is neither a robot nor a ninja, Bookwalter's bloody-minded hero captures the mood of American comics as they became fully committed to new, adult levels of sex and violence. This movement was foregrounded by certain developments in the seventies, such as the appearance of the claw-handed Wolverine in the new X-MEN comic, but in the eighties, the mode known as "the grim and the gritty" became dominant. Yet hardly any eighties makers of live-action superheroes showed any awareness of this sea-change. The one major exception to this generalization was Tim Burton, whose 1989 BATMAN transformed cinema's ideas about costumed crusaders. NINJA didn't transform anything, and indeed, Bookwalter's been quoted as saying he doesn't like the film these days. But NINJA deserves some credit for tapping into the mentality of the time, and for channeling it into an unusually ironic approach that looks forward to the cinematic adaptations of Mark Millar's KICK-ASS.

Leonard Miller (Michael Todd) has created the comic-book hero "Robot Ninja" out of a fierce passion for justice, though the script gives viewers no reason for his obsession. The hero is published by the rinky-dink looking "Savoy Comics," but Miller has a little control over the comics proper. However, he ceded to the company the right to merchandise the character, and the result is that Robot Ninja has become a hit TV show, but rendered as goony comedy, allegedly in imitation of the 1966 BATMAN. Miller expresses his contempt for the adaptation to publisher Stanley Kane (the redoubtable Burt Ward) and Kane's secretary (Linnea Quigley), but they don't care. Kane warns that he may replace Miller when his contract is up, which sounds like the publisher does have some provisional control, possibly like the arrangement Siegel and Shuster accepted for DC Comics to publish SUPERMAN.

Miller's real troubles stem not from corporate malfeasance, but from street-crime. The artist tries to intervene when a gang of hoods, led by a bulky woman named Sanchez, interfere with a young fellow and his date. The gang kills both innocents and leaves Miller wounded. Filled with a righteous desire for vengeance, Miller appeals to a scientist-friend, Doctor Goodknight, to build him a super-suit like the one worn by Robot Ninja, complete with huge claws extending from the gloves (note the probable Wolverine influence).

The rest of the film is devoted to a series of hit-and-run encounters between Robot Ninja and the street-toughs. In many similar heroic stories, the hero's thrashing of lowly punks is just a baptism of fire. But even though Robot Ninja kills at least one of the gang-members in the first battle, he takes quite a few hits. He escapes to his home, having had his first taste of the challenges of being a vigilante. More, the punks don't simply fade into the woodwork; they keep looking for the masked hero for vengeance. Miller has a falling-out with Goodknight, who thinks the artist is causing more harm than good. Miller does manage to destroy his opponents, but in the process he suffers so much that he can no longer live with himself, leading to an exceedingly depressing denouement. A vigilante's lot, contrary to the hype, is not a happy one.

I don't want to omit NINJA's many faults, the worst being the pusillanimous acting by all of the performers. But Bookwalter does use some interesting angled shots to cover up the paltriness of his budget, and though the budget's also too low for any of the gore-FX to be convincing, the gore does serve the purpose of the story, given that Miller has to find out that it's not all that easy just to put on a fancy suit and kick the ass of evil.

It's standard for low-budget filmmakers to include posters of their own earlier movies in their efforts, and so Miller's walls include Bookwalter's DEAD NEXT DOOR and DeCouteau's MURDER WEAPON. But it's not so standard for a filmmaker to show awareness of key comic-book products. Most film-people avoid specifics. You would never catch M. Night Shyamalan's "comic book movie" UNBREAKABLE mentioning the DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or THE TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. Indeed, Bookwalter probably gave his hero that nonsensical name in partial response to the success of the Turtles. When the artist (who may be named for Frank Miller) attacks the thugs the first time, a hoodlum speaks a line-- "don't do it, hero-man!"-- that sounds like it might have been written by some mainstream scribe like Len Wein. Bookwalter also mentions the term "graphic novel" at a time when not a lot of people had heard it, and exploitative publisher Stanley Kane seems named for two comics-professionals most often accused (whether fairly or not) for exploitation of talent: Stan Lee and Bob Kane.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I once commented to someone that WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN might be the closest thing to an original work by producer and director (and sometimes writer) Jerry Warren. However, I was probably giving BATWOMAN too much credit simply for not being among the four films wherein Warren was paid to add new footage to other directors' films to make them more marketable, beginning with his 1964 re-working of the Mexican horror-flick THE AZTEC MUMMY. But the truth is that Warren did produce and direct four low-budget films first, and while they were both dull and derivative, at least there was some minor linear logic to all of them. My recent re-screening of BATWOMAN had me missing the subtleties of THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD.

BATWOMAN appeared right after the last of Warren's re-workings, and it was the last full feature he worked on until fifteen years later, when he summoned one last old-school effort for 1981's FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, which these days I consider the best of his bad repertoire. (Before his quasi-retirement Warren served as one of three directors on HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH, but I'd consider that to be another "hired gun" job.)

Given that Warren had never directed a professionally released comedy movie in his life, he must have convinced himself that the success of the BATMAN teleseries arose from shoveling any old kind of absurd crap onto the screen, as long as the crap included a handful of sexy women. A disproportionate amount of the film is spent with the heroine Batwoman (Katherine Victor, a veteran of previous Warren efforts) consulting with or dancing alongside her troop of scantily clad "Bat Girls," so at the very least he must have thought he could sell the film on sex appeal. (How he thought he would avoid a suit from DC Comics is anyone's guess.) One story has it that Warren's casting director happened to be on the site of a strip club just as the police closed the place down, and since a bunch of the girls were put out of work, the guy hired them to play "the Bat Girls"-- who do almost nothing in the film but dance around.

The sex appeal angle is the only consistent thing in the script, solely credited to Warren. The titular heroine has no alter ego and there's no suggestion as to how she became a crimefighter, or why she surrounds herself with a bunch of hot-girl aides (and no, there's not even a viable lesbian angle there). The Bat Girls carry out a few duties on behalf of Batwoman, but they show no evidence of having been trained to fight or to use weapons. Apparently Warren didn't want to bother with fight-choreography either, since there's only one "fight scene" as such. Warren suggests that Batwoman has had earlier encounters with a master villain named "Rat Fink," who, when he finally appears, looks like a cross between The Shadow and the masked wrestler Santo. 

Rat Fink isn't seen as often as his chief servant, Professor Neon, who's invented a pill that can make its victims deliriously happy. Used in some strategic manner, this might serve for some world-conquering plot. But Rat Fink has a more convoluted plan. He has Neon kidnap one of the Bat Girls and feed her a happy pill, so that she dances around even more than usual in her cell. Neon then tries to extort Batwoman into stealing a listening-device from a tech company. Batwoman refuses to do so unless she can see that the captive Bat Girl is in good health. The kidnappers, instead of just letting the heroine talk on the phone with her minion, allow Batwoman to come to their hideout for verification. To be sure, Neon tries to gain the upper hand by slipping Batwoman a happy-pill mickey, but she switches cups, tosses a smoke bomb and punches out one hood. (Yes, that's the fight scene.) Batwoman escapes with her aide but somehow can't find the hideout later when she tries to locate Neon's lab.

There's a near pointless interview with the head of the tech company, followed by some Bat Girls dancing on the beach. Rat Fink appears and abducts more of the helpless femmes, taking them back to his lair. Batwoman finally tracks the evildoer to his hideout, and she and the remaining Bat Girls make the scene. Rat Fink somehow conjures up clones of himself and everyone runs around the room in a blatant imitation of the MONKEES TV show. Rat Fink is unmasked, proving to be the only suspect even made available, and he justifies himself by saying he wanted the listening-device because he loves hearing other people's conversations. I guess that counts as some sort of psychological tic, which is more than we get from the heroine and her dancing fools.

Unlike the actors playing the villains, who mug ferociously, Victor tries to play her role straight, though the ghastliness of her outfit undermines any sangfroid on her part. I doubt that Warren made any money from this dull farrago. But of all his films, this one is probably the one best known to collectors of curious ephemera, so I guess BATWOMAN paid off for the director in terms of fame--or at least infamy.

Monday, March 27, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Although I like a lot of "monster-mash" comedies, I've liked none of the previous HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA movies kid-flicks directed by the renowned Genndy Tartokovsky. I can respect well-executed formula, but the three HOTEL films seem to consist of nothing but ponderous schtick-pieces. At the end of my review of the third film, I commented, "Since HT3 was another box-office success, presumably another of these things will be glutting movie screens in the near future."

I guessed wrong regarding the provenance of the fourth HOTEL film, for it appeared on the Amazon streaming service (though originally the cartoon was produced with theatrical release in mind). More importantly, the fourth script-- which Wiki claims will be the last-- is also the first not to rely completely on lame schtick. Tartokovsky abjured the director's chair in favor of two newbie directors and confined his contribution to co-writing the script with two other writers. It may be that Tartokovsky wanted to bring the series to a close, at least as far as his contributions were involved, because TRANSFORMANIA finally deals with the elephant-monster that's dominated the hotel since the series began.

The conflict for the original HOTEL was nothing more than "Daddy Monster Can't Give Up His Little Girl." After centuries in which Dracula was the only "man" in the life of his sole daughter Mavis, the lissome teen vampire girl (a mere 118 years old) falls in love with a goofy male human, Johnny. Dracula's management of a "monster-exclusive" hotel serves mostly as an excuse to bring together a panoply of comical versions of famous monsters of movieland: a mummy, a werewolf, a Frankenstein, and so on. At the end of the first film, Dracula seems to make his peace with the wedding of Mavis and Johnny, which in the second film eventuates in a vampire-human offspring. However, both the second and third films occasionally touch on the fact that the master vampire is still far from captivated with his daughter's husband.

Following the events of Movie #3, Dracula finds his own human lover, one Ericka, and though the movie doesn't say so, her influence may have something to do with the vampire lord's decision to step down from running Hotel Transylvania. He intends to cede the business to Mavis and Johnny at a party for the hotel's 125th anniversary. However, because Johnny proves exceptionally annoying at the party-- though always without intending to irritate his fangster-in-law-- Dracula lies, telling Johnny that he can't run the hotel because he's not a monster. 

But because the bumbling youth sincerely wants to help, he appeals to the Hotel's resident mad scientist. Doctor Van Helsing (also introduced in the third film) promptly unveils a monster-making ray-gun and zaps Johnny, who becomes a big green dragon. Through a series of unfortunate incidents, Dracula and various other monsters also get zapped, which results in their becoming human beings. 

The only way to reverse these transformations involves journeying to South America for special power-crystals, so Human Drac and Monster Johnny set forth, with the embarrassed vamp-daddy doing his best to keep daughter Mavis from finding out about his little fabrication. Mavis finds out after they've gone that if the transformation isn't reversed soon, Johnny may mutate into a malevolent beast. 

As mentioned before, TRANSFORMANIA is just good formula, nothing more. But after having to endure three films in which Dracula always manages to keep his animus concealed, I enjoyed seeing Monster Johnny find out what Daddy Vamp really thinks of him, at least in Drac's less charitable moments. And Johnny's disillusionment plays into his mutation, allowing for a climax which involves some definite peril mixed in with heartfelt confessions. So I hope that the series, for all its minuses, does manage to go out on at least a medium note.



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

On a second viewing I found CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS to be a middle-range Justice League adventure, with a few impressive sequences but not compelling overall. 

Writer Dwayne McDuffie originally conceived the story to take place within the continuity of the two JUSTICE LEAGUE teleserials, back when he was a primary writer for that show, but that narrative was revised for this stand-alone DTV movie. The villains known as the Crime Syndicate originated in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #29-30, wherein the Justice League voyaged to an alternate Earth, dubbed "Earth-3." The Crime Syndicate consisted of five criminal versions of core Justice Leaguers: Ultraman (Superman), Owlman (Batman), Johnny Quick (The Flash), Power Ring (Green Lantern), and Superwoman (Wonder Woman). These characters made assorted appearances over the years until Grant Morrison produced his own take on them in the 2000 graphic novel JLA: EARTH 2. 

The main thing McDuffie took from Morrison was the idea that the five super-criminals, instead of simply using their super-abilities to pull off assorted robberies, become leaders of criminal gangs powerful enough to challenge the government of their alternate Earth. In fact, McDuffie builds on this concept, eliding many of Morrison's more abstruse concepts in order to show the quintet of crooks operating like Mafia dons, each controlling separate territories and constantly quarreling over turf. The federal government, administered by President Slade Wilson, has been forced to broker an uneasy peace with the gangs, though the President does still control nuclear bombs to use as a fail-safe. To counter Wilson's advantage, leader Ultraman has Owlman build a retaliatory bomb for the Crime Syndicate. However, Owlman and his sometime lover Superwoman are actually planning to destroy the entire continuum of alternate worlds by detonating the super-explosive on "Earth-Prime," the original domain from which all other alternates descended.

Fortunately for "Crime-Earth," its version of Luthor, who's a good guy on his world, crosses into the earth of the Justice League and talks the heroes into playing interdimensional cops. Though McDuffie gives all five of the principal heroes-- Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter-- various bits of character-business, the writer unquestionably slants the new narrative toward Batman, in contrast to the Superman-centric focus of the Morrison story. The best scenes involve the Caped Crusader contending with the far more powerful alternate-world version of Wonder Woman, which is a clear shout-out to the romance-angle the TV show generated between Batman and the real amazon princess. And when Owlman speeds off to Earth-Prime to begin the destruction of all realities, it is of course Owlman's "good double" who's elected to stop him. This climax has the greatest psychological heft, since Batman's pessimistic outlook on life becomes distorted on "Crime-Earth" into Owlman's extreme nihilism and fundamental desire for death.

Some of the duller character-bits-- Martian Manhunter has a quickie love-affair with the President's daughter-- are at least executed without taking away from the video's main attraction, big splashy fight-scenes. Arguably Wonder Woman's battles with Superwoman are the most well-choreographed, aside from the aforementioned end-fight between Batman and his doppelganger. There are only a few fleeting moments of metaphysical awe at the very concept of alternate worlds, but there have certainly been far worse JLA adventures than this one.



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

In preparation for this review, I reread the comic on which DOOM was loosely based: a four-part storyline entitled THE TOWER OF BABEL. In it, eco-freak Ra's Al Ghul plots to destroy half the earth's population so as to correct the imbalances of human dominion. But to keep the Justice League from interfering, he springs various traps on the heroes, immobilizing or almost slaying them. Eventually the Leaguers escape and thwart the villain's plot, but the big surprise is that the traps were devised by Batman. The generally dull story hammers home its point with a decided lack of subtlety: that Batman's obsession with contingency plans causes him to betray the trust of his fellow heroes, resulting in his (temporary) expulsion from the League.

Writer Dwayne McDuffie keeps the general outlines of the comic's plot, but adds in many more elements that make the story fun in the mainstream superhero tradition, while playing down the angst-fest elements. Superman, Wonder Womam, Flash, J'onn J'onzz and Green Lantern are still assailed by special "dooms" designed for them by Batman-- who's given a separate death-trap not of his devising. But the prime mover is immortal schemer Vandal Savage, who simply wants to decimate Earth's population to make it easier to conquer. Savage forms his own "Legion of Doom" to spring the traps on the heroes. Naturally each trap is delivered by a major enemy of each respective Leaguer: Metallo, Cheetah, Mirror Master, Malefic, Star Sapphire, and Bane. The greater part of the fun is seeing each evildoer's familiar tics as they spring the death-traps on their nemeses. For instance, the film's version of Mirror Master is more threatening that the comics version usually is, and though there's no backstory for Star Sapphire, McDuffie at least alludes to the complicated relationship between the villainess and her green-clad opponent.

Cyborg is also added to the story as a "wild card" to counter Savage's master plan, and an opening sequence pitting the heroes against the Royal Flush Gang, apparently just a throwaway bout, ends up having a hidden relevance to the main plot. Despite all the improvements, DOOM is still just a good basic superhero movie. There's still a dramatic scene at the end between Batman and the heroes he's indirectly betrayed, but it's shorter and pithier than the comics-version. This was the last DC animated project McDuffie completed before his untimely passing, and the film is dedicated to him. I won't say that I thought McDuffie was one of the great writers of either comics or cartoons, but I'm glad his final DC project turned out so well.

Sunday, March 26, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

I've never been a fan of Orson Welles. An admirer, sure. I've enjoyed almost everything I've seen from his repertoire. But most of his films have a remote, imperial quality, so though I've liked many of his works, I haven't loved many of them, But I finally got a chance to see the film that Welles himself considered his best work-- and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT more than justifies his estimation. It's also one of the greatest cinematic adaptations of a Shakespeare play, perhaps precisely because Welles, a genius of cinema as the Bard was for theater, freely adapted parts of "The Henriad" in order to produce Welles' highly personal take on the character of Falstaff.

By the time he made CHIMES, Welles had long been dogged by a reputation for producing expensive flops. One of the commentaries on the CHIMES DVD argued that Welles was essentially an independent filmmaker who was seduced by the aesthetic of Hollywood. But Welles was no Cassavetes; he clearly loved the spectacle possible only in big-budget movies. To get funding for his exploration of the relationship between the reprobate Falstaff and his symbolic son Prince Hal, Welles told a producer that he was going to film an adaptation of TREASURE ISLAND in Spain. This might be viewed as justifiable larceny, for while the world didn't particularly need another version of the Stevenson classic, Welles' unique reworking of Shakespeare probably had only one shot at getting made. 

The continuity of CHIMES derives from the middle two of the Henriad, which plays are titled for the reigning Henry IV, the ruler who succeeded Richard II by virtue of covert assassination. Despite the title, the central character is really Prince Hal, the roguish heir apparent to the throne. Hal knows that someday he must succeed his father, but he seeks escape from the severe demands of his king-father, and takes refuge in escapades of ribaldry with minor lord Falstaff, who becomes a surrogate father who allows him the license Henry IV will not. 

In keeping with history, the randy Hal of CHIMES (Keith Bailey) must transition into a proper king, one capable of defending the realm from insurrectionists, particularly a Welsh faction that hopes to replace Henry IV (John Gielgud) with the rightful heir to Richard II. Even though Henry IV's claim to the throne may be spurious, Hal must defend his real father, who places endless conditions on showing love for his son, as against Falstaff (Welles), the image of the over-permissive parent. The DVD included considerable commentary, based in Welles' own observations, that Hal's transition to royalty marks the end of "Merry Old England." I don't know if I would have picked up on this theme without said commentary, but there's definitely the sense that the ruler who accepts the burden of sovereignty must in some sense put himself outside the boundaries of ordinary humanity, even if that humanity is represented by lustful, cowardly reprobates like Falstaff.

The original play-cycle is dominantly naturalistic, though two of the "Henry" plays include a character based on the historical Owen Glendower, and Shakespeare briefly suggests that Glendower may be some sort of wizard. Welles does not include Glendower or any other figures with metaphenomenal associations, though. Unlike the playwright, the film director needed to focus upon the role played in Hal's evolution by the Battle of Shrewsbury. During that contest, Prince Hal contends with an opponent his own age, the renowned English knight Hotspur. Welles excels in depicting the rough-and-tumble nature of primitive armed conflict-- indeed, the battles in CHIMES are among the best of their kind in cinema, even though the director had only about seventy extras to stage the action. The simultaneous triumph of Hal over Hotspur, and the forces of Henry IV over those of his rivals, contribute materially to Hal's eventual decision to renounce the self-indulgent world of Falstaff-- though, prior to Henry IV's death, Hal allows Falstaff to take credit for the death of Hotspur.

The death of Henry IV leads to the great end scene in which the newly crowned Henry V forswears Falstaff publicly. As in the play, this leads to Falstaff's death of a broken heart, though Welles implies that on some level Falstaff understands the necessity of the new king's sacrifice, and he approves of the rejection, in a loving manner impossible for Hal's real father. Though Welles' acting in his own films is not always the equal of his direction-- I frankly didn't think much of his character in TOUCH OF EVIL-- here he outdoes himself in both departments. CHIMES failed to become a major success in Welles' time, but thanks to the DVD market, this masterpiece at last has the chance to shine as the cornerstone of the great director's work.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

As the dates cited for this "Sinbad Trilogy" should clarify, I'm not referencing the Sinbad movies of the esteemed Ray Harryhausen. I think there is a portmanteau name for this film-series in the original Japanese, but I couldn't find an English translation for that name; hence "the Sinbad trilogy."

I've seen no other works from Nippon Animation, the principal Japanese studio that produced the Trilogy, but their Wikipedia writeup asserts that, unlike many other Japanese animation units, Nippon has always concentrated on family-friendly fare. The Trilogy-- consisting of three hour-long movies that are more like episodes of a teleseries-- has almost no intimations of sexuality on the part of its male star Sinbad or his female co-star Sana, both of whom look to be about thirteen years old. The dominant aesthetic of kid-friendly graphics put me somewhat in the mind of Herge's TINTIN, but transplanted into an Arabian Nights fantasia.

The Trilogy owes very little to the Sinbad tales in the Thousand and One Nights. Nevertheless, the writers of these interlinked films manage to capture the same approach of the Oriental stories, in which the inhabitants of a vaguely medieval Arabic world find themselves constantly encountering incredible marvels. This juvenile Sinbad, for example, lives with his mother, aspiring to go to sea someday like his father, even though his sire disappeared on his last voyage. Sinbad is at first refused to join the crew of one Captain Razzak because of the boy's tender years. However, when he defends a young girl named Sana in the city-streets from the attack of men on flying carpets, Razzak takes Sinbad under his wing, Later, Sana chances upon the vessel at sea, after which Razzak pretty much puts all regular business on hold in order to take Sana back to her people.

Sana, the daughter of an island of sorcerers, is the perfect medium that allows the youth (along with comedy-relief sidekick Ali) to continually encounter countless wonder-works: a flying wooden horse, a magic lamp, giant pachyderms, a cyclops, water horses, and, of course, the villains who brought about the fall of Sana's people, the evil Galip and his toady Daal (first seen as one of the carpet-riders who attacks Sana early in the film).

Just as Ray Harryhausen's films are often slackly plotted to allow for a panoply of wonders, there's not a strong plot in the Trilogy either. Somehow Sana was exiled from her people, and she has to get back to them, even if that means she and Sinbad may be separated from one another. The relationship of Sinbad and Sana is never romantic as such, though the girl-boy dynamic isn't entirely absent. The first film is the strongest in that it sets up all subsequent action, while the second (which focuses on the magic lamp, though it has precious little impact on the story) is weaker. The third and last movie builds up the idea of the paradise-like culture of Sana's parents, who combined the rigor of science with the charms of magic in some fashion, but this blessed union is ruined by the ambitions of Galip and his minions. Yet even though Galip is poised as a danger to world peace, his threat seems amorphous at best. In the end, once Sana has returned to his people, Sinbad goes back home. There's a suggestion that he might seek out his father some day, but the matter never comes up, though strangely his buddy Ali conveniently learns that his captain is also his lost daddy. 

Since Sinbad and Sana are not fighters, the Trilogy falls under my heading of subcombative adventure. The focus is never on the ostensible conflict, but on the parade of wonders that Sinbad beholds, and this production certainly captures the mood of Arabic fantasy better than any comparable works from American studios.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*

On at least on occasion these two dino-films were paired on a double bill, even though they came from different independent studios. Though  I re-watched both on streaming months apart, I can attest that any viewer unlucky enough to have watched both together would truly have got "the worst of both worlds."

Having said that, neither UNKNOWN nor LOST is truly rock-bottom; they're just aggressively mediocre in comparison to even the simplistic 1960 adaptation of THE LOST WORLD. Like the explorers of Irwin Allen's movie, UNKNOWN's main characters consist of three males and a female. However, all three men are more concerned with contending over the woman than with exploring a contemporary domain where prehistoric creatures still roam. I remember seeing UNKNOWN on TV once some forty-fifty years ago, and it wasn't lost on me that the script-- crafted by two writers whose repertoires were confined to very obscure third-tier flicks-- had very little to say about the wonders of the prehistoric fauna. (Parenthetically, director Jack Bernhard also labored mostly on the third tier, though he recently got some serious film-critic attention thanks to a DVD release of his 1946 noir DECOY.)

The script for UNKNOWN makes no bones about its primary concern with the way in which rich beauty Carole (top billed Virginia Grey) instantly intrigues every man she encounters. She's first seen in the company of her fiancee Osborne (Phillip Read), whose project, to photograph the legendary monsters of the Unknown Island, she Carole is bankrolling. The two of them enter a Singapore tavern looking for the master of a charter vessel, Captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane), and though he disparages their mission as foolishness, the crude, bully-boy skipper accepts their commission, while also intimating that he harbors lustful intentions toward Carole. But Tarnowski also manages to bring along his own nemesis. He invites on the voyage another sailor, Fairbanks (Richard Denning), because Fairbanks had briefly visited the Unknown Island and seen its horrific denizens, even though no one believed the sailor's stories and he subsequently turned to drink. Though Virginia Grey gets top billing, UNKNOWN is really the story of how Denning's character regains his manhood-- and, not coincidentally, how he wins the expedition's sole female away from her fiancee-- who, it is implied, may be less than a man for accepting her financial assistance.

So the short voyage to Unknown Island serves to set up Carole as the bone over which the three male canines will contend, with Fairbanks gradually recovering his courage as he falls in love with this technically engaged woman, and she begins to reciprocate. On the island proper, Osborne gets his chance to photograph some of the shabby-looking dinos (all men in suits), but Tarnowski has greater aspirations, for he thinks he's going to hit paydirt if he can take a prehistoric beast back to the civilized world. Thus he's partly like a purely mercenary version of Carl Denham, as well as being a beast far less noble than Denham's anthropoid quarry. At one point, Tarnowski considers using Osborne as bait for one of the dinos, but it's not spoiling much to say that the nasty captain is the one who ends up being monster-chow-- though only after he tries to rape Carole and gets beaten down by Fairbanks in all his resurgent manhood. I think Osborne survives to sail away from Unknown Island with the happy couple, though frankly the script loses interest in this third wheel early on. 

The badness of the dino costumes is placed on full display toward the end, when UNKNOWN tries to "ape" the classic KING KONG by having a T-Rex battle a moth-eaten "giant sloth." There's a slight sense that Carole, having "worn the pants" in her relationship with Osborne, is put in her rightful subordinate place after a "real man" defeats a "beast-man" for her hand-- though at film's end we don't really know that Fairbanks will prove any better than Osborne in being able to resist depending on a woman with a substantial bank account.

Whatever the failings of UNKNOWN ISLAND, though, at least it's firmly within the tradition of the "recrudescent prehistory" subgenre. TWO LOST WORLDS just barely squeaks into that genre-terrain toward the end of the movie, thanks to its interpolation of footage from ONE MILLION B.C.-- which footage, of course, was just rear-projected lizards and crocodiles made to look like dinosaurs. 

Some online reviews wondered if LOST was actually made up, not of two "worlds," but of two separate episodes of a projected teleseries, since it combines a story of a pirate raid with a separate tale about the main character and his allies ending up on a dino-island. However, this EOFFTV review does better than I can in establishing that LOST actually seems to be a patchwork of FOUR different projects. The revelation that the scenes of two contending sea-vessels comes from 1940's CAPTAIN CAUTION explains why those scenes, including a fire on one ship, look more expensive than anything one was likely to see in an early 1950s TV show. 

The script thus exists to cobble together disparate footage, and I can facetiously imagine Roger Corman seeing this turkey and being inspired to similar feats of footage-mashups. Given that the action is sporadic and the characterization almost non-existent, the movie has only two sources of appeal. One is that its main character, sailor Hamilton, is played by the redoubtable James Arness four years prior to his breakthrough role in TV's GUNSMOKE-- though Arness never has any scenes that take advantage of his rugged charisma. The film's other source of appeal is that though director Norman Dawn couldn't do much with this patchwork carpet, in the same year he turned out the infinitely more amusing WILD WOMEN, the writer-director's final opus and a significant entry in the domain of "femme formidable" cinema.

Saturday, March 25, 2023



FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I can't resist giving ONE ARMED SWORDSMEN a "fair" rating just for the lovably wonky idea of trumping the legendary success of 1967's ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN by teaming up two single-armed sword-wielders against a mystery killer who's ALSO missing an arm. The notion smacks of a comical undercutting of the whole martial tragedy of a skilled swordsman forced to cope with his unique handicap by making the handicap ridiculously prevalent. And yet, SWORDSMEN is played mostly straight, with co-stars Jimmy Wang Yu and David Chiang playing the titular swordsmen, who sport different names from the characters the actors played in, respectively, the first two SWORDSMAN flicks (Wang Yu) and in 1971's NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (Chiang).

The film is also a detective tale in which a young boy witnesses a masked killer slay a martial arts master. The innocent youth is not slow to disseminate the news to the local communities that the master was slain by a one-armed man, and, in marked contrast to the fate of America's "Fugitive," everyone believes the story without question. Thus when two unrelated one-armed swordsmen happen to wander into this territory, they sometimes get attacked by officious individuals. When both swordsmen easily thwart these attacks, a lady restauranteur (I think played by one Viola Ku Yin) tricks one of the swordsmen into attacking the other, on the supposition that the other guy's the true killer and is making trouble for the innocent fellow.

The martial arts here are never better than fair, and given that Wang Yu and Chiang are billed as co-directors, I suggest that they had more interest in playing off one another as characters. All we really learn about the two battlers is that Wang Yu's character is the more serious-minded guy while Chiang's character is a little more jokey, promising to duel Wang Yu to death, but only under the most propitious circumstances. Some of this byplay is fun. Then at some point the heroes pretend to fight in order to draw out the true killer, who somehow manipulated others (like the lady restauranteur, who hangs out in the story till the end for some reason) so that the swordsmen would kill each other.

There's a fair amount of energy expended on the mystery angle, but it's only a means of getting the heroes to seek answers at a local Buddhist temple. This turns out to be the place where the killer has taken refuge, leading to a final (mostly bloodless) death-duel.

I've established that warriors with just one arm don't make a movie metaphenomenal, but there are some minor diabolical devices here, as the masked killer uses some "ninja-tricks" at the start, while at the conclusion he employs the old Lotte Lenya "knife-in-the-shoe" trick to exterminate someone else. So because of these briefly seen devices, this minor effort fits the pattern of the uncanny chopsocky.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

This was the last serial from Universal Studios, the same entity that had launched the Golden Age of Serials with the classic FLASH GORDON ten years previous. It's a fairly ignominious end to the studio's chapterplays, largely because the story has so much unused potential.

The opening chapter begins with an almost Mabuse-level aura of mystery. In a hidden basement of an upper-class estate dwells a reprobate member of the family, Anthony Waldron (Edmund MacDonald), who has organized a plot against the interests of his country. Waldron and a handful of his henchmen have kidnapped one Doctor Kittredge in order to interrogate him as to steal his plans for a revolutionary new submarine, later described as being able to run underwater without batteries and thus capable of being built as large as a battleship (for whatever tactical value that would have). Waldron hopes to sell the invention to a foreign power, and he's acquired an exotic drug, hypnotrene, that can sap its victims of their will, making them virtual slaves. Waldron has already used the drug on his elderly aunt, the apparent mistress of the mansion above, in order to keep her pliable to his will (and to make sure the audience knows what a deep-dyed villain he is). However, things go wrong and Kittredge dies, disclosing only that various other scientists have discrete sections of the submarine plans. This provides the usual motive force for the serial, as Waldron sends his pawns (some of whom are hypnotized innocents) out on errands to collect all the information, while the good guys-- mainly G-man Grant Farrell (Dennis Moore) and insurance investigator Shirley Clinton (Pamela Blake)-- seek to head them off and protect the submarine for the U.S. of A.

All the above is typical enough serial fare, including Waldron's decision to use an alias, "The Mysterious Mister M," through which he gives orders. The Mabuse-like twist comes when Waldron starts getting messages from an unknown plotter who claims to be the true "Mysterious Mister M," and the second Mister M knows enough about Waldron's scheme that he can force the reprobate to follow his remote orders, at least up to a point. 

The idea of a three-way conflict between some good guys, some bad guys and a mysterious third party could have taken the plot in some interesting directions. Unfortunately the only way it could have worked would have been if the "Mister M impostor" had some forces of his own to throw into the fray. But he never becomes anything but a voice kibitzing in Waldron's operation, and I suspect this angle only came about the writers were told to come up with complications that would burn up lots of time with expository scenes.

For, like many forties serials from Universal, action is often sacrificed for scenes of actors standing around filling each other in on what happened in the last episode. Central villain Waldron has no strong motive for his evildoing, and while goodguy Farrell is initially moved to avenge the death of his brother at Waldron's hands, in the later episodes in the serial the brother is not brought up again. It doesn't help that Dennis Moore, the actor we see the most of, is a thoroughly dull performer. (One can imagine how much more personality another contemporaneous Moore, name of Clayton, would have brought to the simple protagonist.) Pamela Blake's Shirley is at least painted as a resourceful investigator, but when any violent scenes begin, she cowers to one side, not even trying to bash a bad guy with a vase. And because Mister M stays "off the grid" so to speak, there are no substantive clues to his identity, which when disclosed seems arbitrary.

There are a few pluses to counter the considerable minuses. Even though Waldron is largely confined to his lab, he always seems a menacing presence as played by MacDonald. Though no super-submarine ever appears on-screen, the will-draining hypnotrene proves a marvelous means of turning innocents into helpless minions of the villain. The opening episode also sports a scene in which the hypnotized brother of Farrell lures the G-man into some sort of power station and then tries to kill Farrell by unleashing numerous bolts of electricity. The genesis of the electrical bolts doesn't make any sense, but it's the most exciting scene in the whole serial. There are various decent if unexceptional fight-scenes scattered throughout the chapters, even if the dull exposition spoils their effect. Finally, investigator Shirley gets the best cliffhanger, when the villain traps her aboard a plane with no pilot, and she, with zero pilot's training, has to save her own life as Farrell talks her down via radio.

I've not seen all American sound serials, but despite a few strong points, MYSTERIOUS MISTER M rates as one of the dullest I've encountered thus far.

Friday, March 24, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I'll be brief: while I think I understand most of the reason that critics esteem Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE, the film simply never adds up to much in my book. My diffidence may stem from a sense that the dialogue, both spoken and in the internal meditations of the star, is too improvisational to add up to much of anything.

The idea of a futuristic society which has stamped out all human spontaneity dates back at the very least to E.M. Forster's 1909 "The Machine Stops." Godard's early working title for the project, "Tarzan vs. IBM," communicates a conflict between a primitive, vital mode of human existence and an artificial pseudo-life, in which the human desire for security engenders a sort of living death.

Naturally Tarzan's name is not conjured with in the French original (though I saw an English-dubbed version in which some character claims that heroes like "The Phantom" and "Flash Gordon" have vanished because of the new technocracy). Whatever Godard thought about contemporary pop-culture heroes, in the final version of ALPHAVILLE he contents himself with evoking the film-persona of Lemmy Caution. This character, originally a prose-fiction detective, had become celebrated for eight earlier French-language films starring actor Eddie Constantine. As incarnated by Constantine, Caution embodied the American icon of the "hard-boiled dick" a la Sam Spade, though the Caution films were certainly filtered through a French sensibility. Godard had already made a somewhat sardonic comment on the French "Cult of Humphrey Bogart" in 1960's BREATHLESS. But in this film, Lemmy Caution is Godard's noble savage, striking back against the Society of the Machine-- which, as Caution points out, is not so much "Alphaville" as "Zeroville."

This Caution has no continuity with the 20th-century detective; in some far-future when humanity has colonized other planets, he's a secret agent assigned to infiltrate Alphaville in order to destroy it. The city, its people and all its devices look just like contemporary Paris, where the film was shot: Godard's only concessions to the imagery of SF-cinema are a few scenes in computer-rooms. During the hero's reconnoitering, he's aided by a female agent (Anna Karina), also the daughter of the genius who created Alphaville's domineering computer-system. The two fall in love, and the genesis of their human feeling, more than any violent action by Caution, leads to the computer's demise.

The supposedly profound lines of ALPHAVILLE are a mixed bag at best, suggestive of things people may say when having psychedelic visions. Godard throws in a few concessions to the "thriller" elements of detective fiction-- Caution shoots a few people, beats up some antagonists, and drives a car real fast-- but the director shoots these diffidently, as if seeking to undercut the violence, much as Robert Aldrich did with his adaptation of Mike Hammer in 1955's KISS ME DEADLY. Thus, despite these elements, ALPHAVILLE does not rate as a combative film, even within its proper category of an irony.

It may be that the Lemmy Caution films had already played out their popularity by the time ALPHAVILLE showed up in French theaters. But for whatever reasons, the Caution series did not continue, even though Godard's film was unquestionably outside their continuity. The cinematic Caution did not re-appear again except in a 1989 telefilm and a 1991 movie in which Constantine was once more directed by Godard, though this movie was not a sequel to the 1965 collaboration. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023



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

In the same way that a lot of Golden Age superhero comics started out strong with the "origin story" and then devolved into predictable routine, the second and last BLACK SCORPION telefilm blows whatever good will the original movie established.

It's likely that the filmmakers had less money to work with this time, given director Jonathan Winfrey's heavy reliance both on steadicam and on shooting on video rather than film. Every "action" scene in AFTERSHOCK is complete rubbish, and heroine Black Scorpion (Joan Severance) does as little fighting as possible. This may or may not be a consequence of the fact that Severance is listed as "co-producer," which may have translated to, "I don't have to block arduous fight-scenes if I don't want to."

During the opening credits excerpts from the first film provide a quick recap as to how L.A. policewoman Darcy Walker became the costumed vigilante Black Scorpion. In addition to becoming the scourge of Los Angeles criminals, the Scorpion also became Darcy's fantasy-ego, able to make moves on her cop-partner Michael that she Darcy was too inhibited to attempt. However, as I mentioned in my review of the original telefilm, Michael's existence is erased from the sequel. In his place is another good-looking cop-partner named Rick (Whip Hubley), but this time, Darcy has fewer reservations about on-the-job fraternizing. Darcy and Rick live together, with no acknowledgement that police departments usually don't endorse such alliances. 

Argyle (Garrett Morris) is back as the tech-wizard sidekick to Black Scorpion, and the only one who knows her identity as Darcy. This time he's dating the much younger Tender Lovin' from the first film, who has given up prostitution for honest labor. Mayor Worth returns as well, but with a meatier part to play in AFTERSHOCK, and his exchanges with his mistress Babette provide some minor comic relief to the dull proceedings. All four characters became regulars on the 2001 teleseries, though not necessarily played by the same actors.

The Scorpion's first big bust in the movie involves corralling the Gangster Prankster (Stoney Jackson), a sort of mashup between the Batman villains Joker and Two-Face. However, Mayor Worth commits the movie's first major villainy. Seismologist Ursula Undershaft (Sherrie Rose) constructs a device designed to counter the repeated earthquakes that have been plaguing the City of Angels lately. Worth tells Babette that he needs more earthquakes in order to get federal aid and balance his books, so he sends a couple of henchmen to sabotage Undershaft's preventive device. The result is that the device creates a more extensive quake, and Undershaft is almost killed in the carnage. She escapes death, but in a trope clearly lifted from BATMAN RETURNS, the scientist's trauma causes her to adopt the super-villain persona of Aftershock. 

Aftershock decides to destroy Los Angeles with her machine, but the Black Scorpion gets in her way. Despite the fact that Aftershock wins the steadicam-happy fight, she decides to break Gangster Prankster and his homeys out of jail so that they can keep the heroine out of Aftershock's heavily pomaded hair. The Prankster does so by knocking on the door of his former getaway driver, Argyle. Despite the fact that Prankster doesn't know anything about Argyle's connection to the Scorpion, the crook wants the ex-crook to make him a car just like the vigilante's. Prankster kidnaps Tender Lovin' to make Argyle obey, and so he ends up giving Prankster the Scorpionmobile. However, later both Scorpion and Argyle later storm Prankster's hideout to rescue Tender Lovin', so I don't know why they just didn't do that from the start. Gangster Prankster apparently dies, though he's revived later for the series.

Throughout Darcy's interactions with Rick, he seems to sense that she's not fully engaged with their relationship, but never realizes that it's because of her double identity. There's a lot of jibber-jabber about Darcy wondering if she really nurtures some deep-seated fear, and this plays into the climax, wherein Scorpion and Aftershock compare traumas and bury the hatchet. Aftershock heroically dies to prevent L.A.'s destruction, but she too comes back to life for the TV show, reverting to super-villainy without explanation.

There are a few sex-scenes but they're as dull as the fights. Severance seems distant and affected this time, so if she was offered to reprise her role in the teleseries, her absence was no great loss. The worst episode of the TV show is not as bad as AFTERSHOCK.

Monday, March 20, 2023



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


From glancing over the IMDB credits of director Jonathan Winfrey and writer Craig J. Nevius, it looks to me as if the BLACK SCORPION telefilm and its sequel are the standout accomplishments of their respective careers. That might seem like faint praise, but it's not meant that way. The two SCORPIONS are very nearly the only memorable entries out of the thirty telefilms that appeared under the Showtime ROGER CORMAN PRESENTS rubric-- and, perhaps more significantly, they do a better job of emulating the Tim Burton BATMAN films than did Joel Schumacher in the same year of 1995.

SCORPION's heroine Darcy Walker (Joan Severance) is first seen as a little girl whose cop-father (Rick Rossovich) reads her the classic story of The Scorpion and the Frog. Walker then leaves Darcy home alone (Darcy's mother is never mentioned) while he answers a call to pursue armed (and manically overacting) thieves. Walker wounds the two crooks and transports them to an ER, where they manage to take a doctor hostage. Walker recklessly shoots at the thugs and hits the doctor first, though managing to take out the crooks as well.

Fast-forward eighteen years. Darcy's become a Los Angeles cop like her father was-- and I say "was" because Walker got fired from the police for killing the doctor. Walker's become a commonplace security guard, though he still believes that, just as the scorpion of the fable had its own irreducible nature, his nature is that of a defender of the social order. Darcy, for her part, is a by-the-book cop, though, this being a Corman movie, she first appears in a hooker-getup as part of a sting operation to snare a murderous pimp. Darcy's snitch, a prostitute named Tender Lovin', claims that the lady-cop's handsome partner Michael (Bruce Abbott) has a thing for Darcy. The dedicated policewoman doesn't want romantic involvement (Electra complex, anyone?) and resents Michael's gallant gestures. Her feminist ire proves justified when Michael is too protective of her and messes up their operation. Later the brutal pimp will have the honor of being the first victim of a very different kind of sting.

After a brief introduction of the precinct where Darcy works, as well as her future ally the tech-head Argyle (Garrett Morris), Darcy goes to a bar to meet her security-officer dad-- but for the last time. Moments after Walker has complained about lawyers being the enemies of the police, in walks a lawyer from the D.A.'s office, who promptly shoots Walker dead. Later the attorney has no memory of committing the crime, and when Darcy tries to make him talk, her weaselly superior expels her from the force.

Around the same time, a heavily armored villain known as Breath-Taker assembles a motley crew of oddball crooks to commit some "random crimes" in L.A.-- though his real plan has something to do with establishing an anti-pollution enterprise in Smoggy L.A. Town. Though the crimes could be easy ways to acquire capital, their real purpose is to give a new heroine a concerted threat to battle.

For Darcy won't abandon her cop-nature simply because she's fired. She dons a skimpy black costume (complete with a hair-braid), somehow gets hold of boot-jets and a ring that shoots an electrical charge, and proceeds to fight crime as a costumed vigilante. You might think she would be the one to proclaim her scorpion-identity to the world, but it's her prostitute-snitch who dubs her Black Scorpion because the heroine's hair-braid reminds the witness of a scorpion's tail. (?) A little later, she confides in former car-thief Argyle and he becomes her tech-wizard, even constructing her a "Scorpion-mobile."

In the heroine's first bout with two of Breath Taker's minions-- a pair of flamboyant lady wrestlers-- Black Scorpion is defeated and almost captured by police. She gets away after wrestling around with former partner Michael, planting a kiss on his lips before knocking him out with a punch. Being a vigilante loosens up Darcy's erotic urges, and she pursues her former partner aggressively. However, like many an avenger before her, Darcy finds that her masked identity has overshadowed her real one, for Michael's obviously a little more taken with the Scorpion. Later in the story, Black Scorpion obliges Michael's slight SM tendencies by cornering him in his apartment and having a little rough trade with him.

Breath Taker announces to the city a rather incoherent plan: he threatens to release poison gas throughout the city, but he'll allow citizens to purchase gas masks. Darcy and Argyle figure out that his real scheme is to use a hypnotic gas, administered through the masks, to take control of the populace. It's still not a believable scheme, but at least it leads the good guys to Breath Taker's real identity: a cardio-pulmonary specialist with the epic-sounding name of "Noah Goddard." But it can't be Noah Goddard, because that (ta-da) is the doctor whom Darcy's father shot to death.

Of course Goddard isn't dead, though his lungs were so damaged by gunfire that he has to wear heavy armor and a mask to continue breathing. The script doesn't explain how or why Goddard faked his death, but it does bring us full circle by stating that he used his hypno-gas to compel an innocent attorney to shoot Darcy's dad-- little realizing that by so doing, he would create his own nemesis.

Though Nevius' script is riddled with holes, even leaving out the ones I've already mentioned, he delivers on many favorite tropes of the superhero genre. The vigilante who commits crimes to defeat criminals. The hero's regular identity, eclipsed by his/her own idealized image. The villain with a mysterious connection to the hero's father. Nevius also sticks assorted campy incidents into his script-- for instance, one of the lady wrestlers won't fight the heroine until her wrestler-partner "tags" her. But there's not really a "camp" vision here as there was in the better BATMAN '66 episodes, so all of these incidents are just comic relief.

All of the villains tend to overact while the heroic types underact: even mouthy Garrett Morris' character is relatively restrained as the tech-sidekick who joins the Scorpion's crusade-- well, Just Because. Severance handles the action scenes well enough for a performer who clearly was not a martial artist, and her height does make her fairly convincing, particularly in her domme-scene with Michael. Unfortunately for his character (though perhaps fortunately for the actor playing him), Michael learns Darcy's secret, which meant that he had no more utility as a character. Thus Michael vanishes from the Scorpion's world in both the 1997 sequel and the 2001 teleseries, though both Tender Lovin' and Argyle remain part of said cosmos.

Thursday, March 16, 2023



FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

From the standpoint of all inattentive juvenile serial-watchers in 1936, PHANTOM RIDER was probably more satisfactory than FLASH GORDON. If a kid didn't want to pay that much attention to what was going on, or even be tied down to watching every episode of a chapterplay to keep up with developments, RIDER would be perfect. It would be easy to miss two or three episodes at a time and not really notice any difference. Even if you missed the conclusion of the serial's only memorable cliffhanger, you could probably figure out what happened. In said cliffhanger, the hero and his girlfriend hide from the villains in a closet, but by coincidence the bad guys take it into their heads to hold a markmanship contest by shooting at a wanted poster, which they hang-- on the door of the closet. (Unsurprising spoiler: the good guys save themselves by ducking really low.)

So once again we're in the Old West, and vile villains are trying to drive all the settlers out of a valley because the railroad's planning to buy up all the property from the lucky owners. Delaney, secret head of an outlaw gang, wants to be the only lucky fellow. A state ranger named Buck Grant (Buck Jones) investigates, but for unstated reasons he decides that he'll dress up in an all-white duster, hat and mask and chase down outlaws under the name of the Phantom Rider. As the Rider routs outlaws and they try to uncover his true identity, there's lots of horse-riding, a lot of shooting in which almost no one gets hit, and nearly no fistfights involving either the Rider or his alter ego. In other words, this is the most slackly plotted serial in my experience.

Two elements made RIDER bearable though. In contrast to most serials, there's a consistent romantic subplot between Grant and lady rancher Mary (Marla Shelton). This was a surprise since most serials, particularly western serials, avoid romance like the plague, and so do most B-westerns of the era. The frequent use of romance put me more in mind of a feature film of the period.

RIDER's other plus was an emphasis on oddball comic dialogue. In the serial's most memorable moment, Grant draws on two outlaws and forces them to toss away their guns. Then he tells them it's time for a game called "dog eat dog." What's the game, you ask? Well, not that big a deal: he forces them to take off their trousers, and then he tosses their pantalones up into a high tree. It's not a great scene, but it was diverting.

Still, only for serial completists.