Saturday, April 29, 2023



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

First off, I did not read the original 2005-09 limited series, written by LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof and drawn by Lenil Francis Yu, on which this motion-capture animated OAV was based. 

Second off, I'm glad I didn't, because this adaptation works on its own level, and that means that it serves as a counter-example to my very bad experience with the WOLVERINE ORIGIN adaptation.  In that case, I did read the comic book series first, and I considered it a major accomplishment in the annals of Wolverine mythology. 

Now, would I have liked the ORIGIN adaptation better had I not read the comics original? I don't think so, for the reasons outlined in the review. The comics original had many subtle moments, but the adaptation had, as I said, only a bunch of "peak moments" that caught none of the story's emotional resonance. And I've seen other motion-capture films I found just as vapid. 

What worked about this adaptation-- WVH, for short-- was that it worked perfectly because there was no deeper emotional resonance to capture.

I've read few of the Marvel ULTIMATES line, but in part the line is famous for issuing out-of-continuity of Marvel icons. Since these variants were not tied to official continuity, their authors had the freedom to posit scenarios that would have compromised the standing of regular serial characters. This sometimes included allowing characters to commit gratuitous acts of violence. The in-continuity Hulk, for example, never really hurts anyone in his rampages. When WVH opens, it's quickly established that the Hulk of this world has committed mass murder, and that SHIELD, as represented by head honcho Nick Fury, tried to execute him. Yet because Fury has learned of the escape of both Hulk and his alter ego Bruce Banner, the agent hires Wolverine to assassinate the fugitive monster.

Damon Lindelof's script only suggests a handful of parallels with established Marvel continuity, and the only significant allusion is that Wolverine and Hulk had had some contentious history, as they did in "Real Marvel." The opening dialogue between Fury and Wolverine exemplifies the pleasing superficiality of the entire project. This is a world where all of the characters, even the women (scientists Betty Ross and Jennifer Walters), are constantly uttering "tough talk," sort of a superheroic version of the hardboiled detective ethos. Yu's art, in which male characters look craggy and female characters look pale and drained, perfectly matches the utter anomie of this world. Lindelof's dialogue here is also an admirable emulation of the way characters talked on his show LOST, in that they veer wildly from crisis to crisis with nothing in between.

The movie actually begins in media res, in that the adamantium-enhanced X-Man is literally torn in half by the Green Goliath, and much of the story consists of the virtually immortal Wolverine relating the convoluted story of what led up to that moment, and what happened immediately afterward. There'are a comparative minority of scenes taking place in "real time," but there's not a lot of rhyme or reason to the character-interactions, not even those of the failed romance between Bruce/Hulk and Betty Ross-- who has some alterations made to her character like nothing in real continuity. Incidentally, Lindelof also brings in a handful of Marvel-character cameos, mostly to little effect, though the plot necessitates an appearance by the X-MEN super-genius Forge.

It's just as well that Lindelof's script is so lacking in deep nuance, for the motion capture techniques could not have encompassed nuance. WVH works because it's all tough talk-- and though it has its share of grotesque moments, I never felt they were self-indulgent, as I did with the similarly themed OLD MAN LOGAN.

Since WVH is so good and WOLVERINE ORIGIN is so bad, it's hard to believe they came out in the same year.

Friday, April 28, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

DUNE WARRIORS was Cirio Santiago's next trip to the post-apoc well after 1988's THE SISTERHOOD, and even with the participation of headliner David Carradine, it's just the same dull mishmash of guns-and-bombs setups. The most interesting point of comparison is that, whereas SISTERHOOD had just one central hero given an unimpressive name, that of "Vera," DUNE saddles both heroes and villains with utterly underwhelming cognomens like "Michael" (Carradine), "William" (main villain Luke Askew), and "Jason" (the villain's main lieutenant). Really, how seriously can a viewer take a line like, "We must guard against the forces of William?"

So you've seen it all before. Isolated post-apoc community has one thing going for it, an ample supply of well-water. Commander William and his cadre of armed goons decide to make the village their base of operations-- a very slight change-up of the usual threat in the usual MAGNIFICENT SEVEN rip-off. A courageous young woman (Jillian McWhirter) goes looking for hired guns, but she can only find five this time out. Most of them agree to defend the village because they'll be paid in the commodity of water, but Michael and Miranda (Maria Isabela Lopez, the movie's concession to girl power) join because of old grudges against William's depredations.

The fight-choreography here is as boring as the attack-scenes with armed vehicles and their rocket-launchers. Carradine is no better than anyone else in the listless hand-to-hand fights, but I did feel he tried to bring a little conviction to the elderly but wistful Michael-- more than he usually does when paying the bills with post-nuclear nonsense. If one just wants to see every post-apoc shocker out there, as I seem to be doing, then DUNE is at least not the worst, but it's largely for David Carradine completists.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I suppose, given the choice between a serial with no ending and a serial with a bad ending, I'll generally prefer the latter, just for the sense of closure.

I'm deliberately not looking up any filmographies of Dario Argento to explore what he was doing around 2007, or at biographical materials that might tell me why he decided to return to the "Mothers Trilogy" after executing the second installment INFERNO, a stunning twenty-seven years previous. The only question is whether he managed to do anything interesting with his concept of three evil witches who constantly foment horror and death, usually just for the sake of being evil. The most I can say for MOTHER OF TEARS is that it's simply mediocre, not aggressively bad like my current pick of The Worst Argento, the 1998 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

As in INFERNO, the viewpoint character is an American student in Rome. This time, said student is Sarah Mandy (Argento's daughter Asia), and her field is art restoration. While she and her museum-patron are examining artifacts from an archaeological dig, malevolent beings attack the duo, killing the other woman. A phantom voice speaks to Sarah and helps her escape, but when Sarah calls the cops they can find no trace of the attackers.

Argento's conjuring with artifacts makes little sense in the context of his series, since the Three Mothers aren't mummies to be released from people messing with their relics. The exposition in TEARS-- probably the most extensive seen in all three of the movies-- confirms what the earlier movies indicated: the Mothers are witches who have existed for centuries and who have carved out special niches from which they propagate evil, apparently for the sake of being evil. The first two witches perish in the respective movies devoted to them, and now there is only the legendary Mother of Tears, who maintains her cultus in Rome.

The only plot-thread generated by the museum-scene is the mysterious voice. The voice manifests once again when Sarah, diligently pursuing clues to the horror, is persecuted by both the police and the agents of the witches. (I must admit that Argento or his people made up the actors playing the witch-servants to make them look exceptionally creepy.) With the voice's help Sarah briefly makes herself invisible to detection, and so escapes her pursuers.

Another character provides the information that Sarah's late, never-known mother was a good witch, and the mother's spirit has been attempting to bring forth the daughter's own powers in order to give Sarah a fighting chance. This sounds like a promising deviation from the other two films, but Argento doesn't deliver on the promise. I don't necessarily think TEARS would have been a lot better had Sarah started doing Jedi-tricks, but at least that would have made some sort of sense. But at heart Argento can't get away from his giallo bag of tricks, and so Sarah merely runs from pillar to post, gathering info and just barely fending off her pursuers, including her former boyfriend, ensorcelled by the Mother's powers. Eventually one of her informants sends Sarah to the Mother's underground sanctum, but the way in which the heroine defeats the Mother and her aides is not only subcombative, it's terminally goofy and not in any way set up by all the earlier exposition.

Asia Argento has some decent performances to her name, but here she's stuck trying to evoke something akin to the Jessica Harper viewpoint character in SUSPIRIA, to whom the script makes direct reference, claiming that Sarah's witch-mother was somehow tied to the events of that narrative. The rest of the actors are similarly trammeled by roles that have little emotional resonance. But worst is that Argento, known in the seventies and eighties for his distinctive visual delirium, is entirely pedestrian here. MOTHER OF TEARS looks like a TV-movie as directed by a slumming Wes Craven. Its primary positive attributes are the experience of closure and the fact that Argento's PHANTOM makes TEARS look like a masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

INFERNO (1980)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In my review of Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, I made no comment upon the writer-director's assertions that the 1977 movie was supposed to be one of three films patterned after a concept Argento had found in a work by Victorian writer Thomas deQuincey. I don't entirely buy that the creator, visionary though he often was, had been thinking that far ahead when he worked on SUSPIRIA (co-written with Daria Nicolodi). I fully believe that he took the name of the movie from the title of a DeQuincey essay, SUSPIRIA DE PROFUNDIS. But the film doesn't feel like it was meant to be part of any greater work. There's no actual reference to the idea of "The Three Mothers" mythology in the English dub and I've heard no testimony of any such references in the Italian original. I think it's likely that after SUSPIRIA enjoyed substantial box office, Argento decided to build on DeQuincey's conceit of "Three Sorrows," a trinity of "Mothers" identified by their specialities: Mother of Sighs, Mother of Darkness, and Mother of Tears.

The head witch in SUSPIRIA became the de facto Mother of Sighs in the expanded mythology, though her career is only indirectly mentioned in INFERNO, when viewpoint character Rose (Irene Miracle) reads that one of the Mothers dwelled in Freiberg, the setting for SUSPIRIA. The disposition of the Mother of Tears would not be committed to celluloid until twenty-seven years later, but INFERNO does a fine job explicating the horrors of the Mother of Darkness. The title "INFERNO" doesn't seem reference anything crucial in the story, though this film like SUSPIRIA ends when a building's set on fire. I'd rather believe the title was some veiled reference to the famous Dante poem, though there's no evidence of this.

The movie doesn't really tell viewers much of anything about Rose, just as the heroine of SUSPIRIA was something of a blank slate. Nevertheless, the script states that she's some sort of poet, and when she begins obsessing about the myth of The Three Mothers in an old alchemical tome, I recognized her as an established type in horror fiction: the seeker of forbidden knowledge. When she learns that the Mother of Darkness was supposed to reside in New York, she makes it her mission to suss out said residence-- and not surprisingly, she ends up paying for her curiosity.

Before Rose gets snuffed, though, she passes on her curiosity to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), studying music theory in Rome. Strangely, long before Rose disappears and Mark flies to New York looking for her, the Mother seems to peg Mark as a future victim. He hasn't even read the letter Rose sends him about her investigation, but a strange woman ogles him in class, and a minor weird phenomenon happens in the room. Mark loses the letter and a girl, possibly one who likes him, tries to return it to him. The Mother reaches out and destroys her just for getting even marginally close to her shrouded legend.

There's no denying that INFERNO is constructed, like all Argento movies, so as to put on display his highly colorful set-pieces, usually though not always involving grotesque deaths. But this implication of the Darkness-Mother's ubiquity is far more ambitious than any of the erratic malignity in SUSPIRIA. Mark finds his way to the hotel where Rose stayed, and which she believed to be connected to the Mother in some way. He doesn't know that Rose is dead by this time, so he makes the acquaintance of the many oddball residents of the hotel. Particularly effective is the concierge (Alida Valli, now somewhat heavier than she was in SUSPIRIA three years previous), whose smile is a death-like rictus even though she's not literally involved with anything occult. A sickly young aristocrat named Elise (Daria Nicolodi) tells Mark that she knew Rose, but Elise's attempts to help Mark cost her dearly too. Other deaths take place, not because the victims endangered the Mother but just because they're close by and vulnerable to her malevolence. Eventually Mark figures out a clue from Rose's letter and beards the witch in her lair, though only dumb luck saves the naive fellow from her power.

In contrast to SUSPIRIA, INFERNO seeks to stimulate all the senses in one way or another. An early scene in which Rose plunges into an underwater cavern forces the viewer to imagine being surrounded on all sides by the feel of water, and two characters comment on the odd bittersweet smell in the area of the hotel. Argento's visual poetics are at their best here precisely because they aren't as inundating as those of SUSPIRIA, and on one occasion he even uses the lack of sound-- Mark's inability to hear Rose on the telephone-- to create suspense and anxiety. And though I quite liked Goblin's score for SUSPIRIA, I preferred INFERNO's subtler music, which composer Keith Emerson based in part on the operatic stylings of Verdi.

INFERNO now strikes me as a strange but potent marriage between the intellectual tradition of horror, as exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft, and the visceral tradition of the psycho-killers with which Argento began his giallo career. I saw the final film in the "trilogy" years ago and plan to re-screen it soon, but I'm not sure it's going to prove as fecund as this voyage into Darkness.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


Though I liked SUSPIRIA the first time I saw in a theatrical venue, I've never been in a great hurry to re-screen it. Though there are a lot of movies I like for their use of overwhelming bravura set-pieces, somehow I never quite boarded the train that led me to "SUSPIRIA is one of the great horror films of all time."

One slightly off-putting aspect of the film is that I thought Argento seemed in too much of a hurry to provide his gorehound audience with not one but two grisly murders early on. American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in Freiburg, Germany, to study dance at the famous Tanz Akademie. The young woman arrives at the school too late and she's refused admittance, so she has to go back to Freiburg for lodging. On her way she sees another young woman flee into the night. Argento then follows this woman to her destination, where she joins a friend at the latter's apartment. Both women are killed with the kind of operatic deaths for which Argento had become well known. I don't object to the deaths themselves, but I thought that the film would have benefited from a slower build to its more extravagant horrors.

As Suzy takes up residence at the school, her first encounters with the students are mundane enough, and the staff-- headmistress Blanc (Joan Bennett, just a few years after the end of DARK SHADOWS) and instructor Tanner (Alida Valli)-- merely seem eccentric. But it doesn't take long for weirdness to manifest exponentially. The first manifestation, a maggot infestation, seems to have a logical explanation; that the critters were carried in along with spoiled food. Suzy doesn't witness the death of another student, who falls into a pit filled with lacerating razor-wire, but she hears about how the school's piano teacher is slain by his own dog. Suzy consults various experts on the background of Tanz Akademie. One fellow tells Suzy that the school was established by one Helena Markos at the turn of the century, and that this woman was suspected of being a witch. In fact, her school was supposedly BOTH a dance academy and an occult studies academy, which sounds to me like a bit of stretch for that time-period. Markos supposedly passed away, but Suzy suspects that some sort of witchery is still going on, and she makes it her business to dive down into the belly of the beast.

The big reveal is that the current staff of the academy are indeed a coven of witches, and that they've actually resurrected Markos somehow to be the head of their cult. In fact, for reasons unknown they're even planning to sacrifice Suzy. After many more colorful set-pieces-- one of which references Argento's breakout hit, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE-- Suzy escapes the academy while it goes up in flames, ending the coven's menace.

Though I didn't think the characters or the magical menaces were all that compelling, I did think that Argento's concept of witches felt almost like the concept seen in archaic tribes. In theory the academy's modern witches have no strong motive for bringing about random deaths in their own bailiwick. Argento even has one character say that the witches are motivated to make themselves wealthy, but how wealthy will they be if all their students pack up and leave? I call the movie's idea of witchery "archaic" because it seems as if the witches-- who aren't explicitly tied to any Christian notions-- just can't help doing bad things all the time.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

After the mediocrity of SCORPION KING 4, I would not have believed that anyone could do much with this played-out franchise. But Don Michael Paul and his two writers made at least a decent if unexceptional formula-flick.

Naturally the most absurd tropes from the fourth film, that all magic in this sword-and-sorcery world was really super-science, is discarded. Paul et al even place this version in a dour desert-world that resembles the milieu of the original movie, and even visually evokes the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN at times. It's another new actor taking over the role of barbarian Mathayus, Zack McGowan, but he'd worked with director Paul before on the fourth of the current of the current DEATH RACE series, so possibly McGowan benefited from that experience here.

Almost all jokiness is cast aside, and the mood is more like the third installment, with Mathayus mourning lost relations. He doesn't really care much that the despot Nebserek has gained control of the Fang of Anubis, a sword guaranteed to give its wielder supreme power. In fact, Nebserek's soldiers invade Mathayus's village to capture the famed Scorpion King. A warrior princess, Tala of Nubia (Pearl Thusi), frees the reluctant hero and invokes the name of her dead father, one of Mathayus's past allies, to gain his help. In the name of vengeance, the hero agrees.

Tala only has a vague prophecy about how the Fang of Anubis can be countered, through some usage of the "Book of Souls." On their way to find the Book, the duo fall into the clutches of a desert-tribe, the Black Arrows, who always execute trespassers. Mathayus challenges the tribe's warriors to chase him down in a hunt. The chieftain agrees, with the result that Mathayus manages to overcome all the hunters without taking their lives-- which ensures that the tribe as a whole lets the hero and his companion free. This seems like a time-burning device, but the tribesmen do appear later to help the good guys battle the forces of Nebserek.

They arrive at a secluded temple, inhabited only by Amina, an immortal woman (possibly some offspring of the world's gods) and her golem-guardian, a huge man of clay named Enkidu (Nathan Jones). (The Enkida of Mesopotamian myth is not a golem, but is created from clay in roughly the same way Yahweh gives rise to Adam.) Though Enkidu tries to keep his charge confined to the temple as his "programming" commands, Amina reveals that she herself is the incarnation of the Book of Souls. Therefore to help Mathayus and Tala conquer the evil despot, she deserts the temple. Enkidu reluctantly follows, for though he's big and immensely strong, he fears fire, which can turn his clay body into stone.

It's a slow slog to the big confrontation scene, but SOULS does deliver a pretty good end-battle, with Mathayus squaring off against Nebserek while Tala takes on the villain's female lieutenant Khensa (Mayling Ng). I can't claim that either Mathayus or Tala are very interesting characters, though I suppose the absence of a predictable romance-arc is a small blessing. Yet Enkidu, the inhuman servitor with a fear of torches, provides a few moments of levity along the way. I won't reveal the outcome of Amina's arc, but it has a decent dramatic pathos for a sword-and-sorcery film. My verdict is that though no one would place SOULS high on a list of good S&S movies, at least it would be a fair finish for the King of Scorpions.

Sunday, April 23, 2023



CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

Though Rowland V. Lee directed the first two sound-features for Fu Manchu, MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU and RETURN OF DOCTOR FU MANCHU, the director's chair for the third and last of this Paramount was occupied by Lloyd Corrigan, who had co-written the previous two features. He had a longer career as a supporting actor than as a director-- all of his directorial films were confined to the 1930s-- and today his only other movie that cinemaphiles might know would be the Boris Karloff vehicle NIGHT KEY. DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, though given no bigger a budget than the first two films, proves the best of the trio. There are a couple of okay hand-to-hand struggles that elevate the movie to the combative level, and the titular "daughter," (essayed for the first and last time by Anna May Wong), has a better character-arc than her sire.

The first two Fu-films may have encouraged author Sax Rohmer to revive his long-dormant prose franchise by writing the novel DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU, which began serialization in early 1930. However, though Paramount must have optioned the novel, there are virtually no similarities between novel and film. One of the main variances is that, while the prose daughter is raised as a member of her ruthless father's criminal "Si-Fan" organization, Ling Moy (Wong) is allowed to spend her entire existence having a normal life as a celebrated musical performer, utterly unaware of her lineage. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) and his servants (a tiny handful of Asian thugs, far from the resources of the Si-Fan) intrude upon Ling's life. Fu, though absent for many years (presumably so that Ling could grow to maturity), suddenly returns and makes a very un-Fu-like direct assault upon one of his nemeses, John Petrie. Fu kills Petrie, and attempts to kill Ronald. However, on the scene is Ah Kee (Sessue Hayakawa), a Chinese detective investigating the rumors of the Si-Fan's resurgence, and he shoots the master criminal.

Despite being fatally wounded, Fu escapes and has his men summon the woman who does not her father's true nature. Prior to this scene, though, Ling Moy has already encountered young Ronald. Ronald and his girlfriend Joan (Frances Dade) have seen Ling perform at a nightclub, and they go backstage to express their admiration. Ling and Ronald have eye-sex almost immediately, and in a straight melodrama the story would probably be about Ronald deserting his Caucasian lover for some "Oriental intrigue." However, once Ling receives incontrovertible proof that the dying Fu is her father, she becomes fired with filial piety, and when Fu dies his daughter dedicates herself to slaying Ronald-- and for good measure, Joan, of whom Ling is fiercely jealous.

Complicating the romantic mix is that when Ah Kee meets Ling Moy, he falls hard for the glamorous female, but she only manipulates him to serve her ends. After various complications, Ling proves her indebtedness to her torture-happy dad by threatening to use a device that will channel acid to Joan's features, unless Ronald gives her a mercy death first. However, Ah Kee and the local cops come to the rescue, and Ling Moy meets her end in such a way that it seems unlikely the scripters had any thought of reviving her for future installments.

Though I don't imagine any of the raconteurs working on DAUGHTER thought of the movie as anything but a job, the film does boast a few "firsts." It's one of the first sound films to focus on a female super-villain, and Wong looks great in the role, underwritten though it is. During this period the majority of Asian lead roles were usually essayed by non-Asians, and this practice may have been Hollywood's response to laws forbidding sexual intercourse between different races. Thus DAUGHTER is one of the few films in which the principals in an Asian/Caucasian romance were played by racially accurate actors. Although Ah Kee's love is as doomed as Ling Moy's, he's saddled with none of the "fortune cookie" traits doled out to many Asian characters in Hollywood, and has a fair claim to heroic stature even as a support-character. DAUGHTER is also one of the first sound films to attempt spinning off a new character from an old one, though of course in the silent days there had been flicks like the Zorro sequel DON Q.



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*

I don't have any reason to disbelieve that this Albert Zugsmith effort, which he wrote and directed six years after his horrendous SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, came out under the title ON HER BED OF ROSES, as the poster above indicates. I tend to doubt, as IMDB claims, that the movie appeared with the title PSYCHEDELIC SEXUALIS. The title on the Youtube version I screened merely projects a mock-up cover of a book bearing the title of Richard Kraft-Ebing's famed 19th-century study of sexuality. There doesn't seem to be any advantage for the film to advertise psychedelia, since there are no drugs and only one very short weird dream.

In any case, this is a much more coherent film than the idiotic SEX KITTENS, though it's not without various plot holes. Like most of the softcore features that appeared in the grindhouse venues, the actors are largely unknowns outside of the exploitation cosmos. SEXUALIS does boast much better cinematography than most grindhouse movies, courtesy of Robert Caramico, who started off with low-budget films like this and the Ed Wood-scripted ORGY OF THE DEAD, but ended his career with mainstream works like JUST SHOOT ME. But the biggest "celebrity" associated with the project was forties songwriter Joe Greene. Greene's score is far better than Zugsmith's script, which looks like an amalgam of Freudian tropes (with maybe a little borrowing from PSYCHO) and probably no indebtedness at all to Kraft-Ebing (aside from Zugsmith bestowing that name on his psychiatrist character).

SEXUALIS does start off with a bang, depicting Stephan Long (Ronald Warren), a man in a rose garden undergoing a mental breakdown. He plucks a rose and holds it firmly in one hand despite the way the thorns make him bleed profusely. Then for the next fifteen minutes he collects a carrying-case, drives from the suburbs to an open highway, removes a rifle from the case and randomly fires at passing cars. Before the police can overtake the killer, the disturbed fellow puts his gun in his mouth and kills himself.

From this opening, one might expect that the movie's going to be about how Stephan went round the bend. Instead, Stephan turns out to be a supporting player in the tale of the true, a young woman named Melissa (Sandra Lynn). She's first seen in a frame-story taking place one year in the future from Stephan's death, and in this frame Melissa is only seen visiting her psychiatrist. What she's been talking about with him for a full year, who knows, but because it's the anniversary of Stephan's death, Melissa has a breakthrough, and she relates the unabridged story of her association with Stephan.

Since Melissa and all of the other characters are barely more than flat representations of Zugsmith's pop-Freudianism, I'll keep the revelations as brief as possible. Though Melissa's a mature twenty-something, she suffers from what we now call an Electra complex (actually a term suggested by Jung, and one Freud didn't accept). Unbeknownst to her father, Melissa yearns to push aside her mother Joanna and become her father's sole love. However, both females get the shaft when the father become besotted with one of Melissa's same-age young friends, so that he divorces Joanna and moves out of both females' lives. Melissa begins sleeping around with older men who remind her of her father. But because she's still obsessed with overshadowing her mother, she keeps bringing them to meet her-- and Joanna, being a more experienced seductress, keeps stealing her daughter's beaus, as if in revenge for Melissa's conniving.


However, Melissa notices Stephan, who's moved in next door to live with his clingy mother. Melissa comes on to the naive young man, who's obsessed with the roses in his mother's garden, even though the garden is also (at least once) used by the mother for an assignation with a younger man. Melissa may be still be yearning to replace someone's mother, but she does seem to care for Stephan, enough to take his virginity in his mother's precious roses. However, she isn't receptive when the young man suggests they run away and get married. She refuses for unclear reasons, but that proves fortunate since Stephan has broken away from mother's apron strings by killing her and burying her in her own garden. After that, he goes on his fatal rampage.

I'm not going to dwell on the aforementioned plot holes or the underwhelming performances of the actors, since SEXUALIS is poised as escapist sexploitation fare. I will note, however, that the "raincoat crowd" who would've been the main customers might not have liked the fact that most of the titillation is psychological and not physical. The script does include one long scene, a make-out party in which a handful of characters get naked and simulate sex, while one guest gets up and does a long belly-dance number for everyone's amusement. But there's so little overt sexual activity that one might suspect that Zugsmith harbored the notion of that he was creating was valid psychological drama.

The above poster mentions a "rose fetish," which I feel fairly sure Zugsmith just made up. Flowers in general often symbolize female sexuality thanks to their morphology, but despite the popularity of roses as courting-gifts, that particular bloom has a huge number of associations. Yet in SEXUALIS, roses are always emblematic of female sexual desire, since Zugsmith works in references to them aside from the rose-bed at Stephan's house. The most amusing reference appears when Melissa tries to flirt with her shrink by quoting Robert Herrick's line "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." The guy playing the analyst then replies, "I didn't know you read Henley," which may be his mistake or Zugsmith's, though it's funny either way.

There's even a sense that Zugsmith's roses may connote rapaciousness in females. At the movie's end, a police detective, who's listened to a sizable section of Melissa's disclosures, stops at a flower-shop to get a gift for his wife. When the salesgirl suggests roses, the cop makes a face, and instead selects chrysanthemums, best known for benign associations like friendship and luck.

Friday, April 21, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

What determines any individual's identity? Is each person just the sum total of his experiences and influences, or is there something more, a tertium quid that transcends experience and influence? Most of us would like to think that we are more than the sum of our parts. But then, why do we so often feel as if we can only know people-- real or fictional-- if they are given an "origin story," a chronicle of who the character is and how he/she came to be?

Most anime-adaptations of Monkey Punch's famed "Lupin III" manga emphasize either daredevil adventure or raucous comedy, with only touches of drama or irony. The emphasis surely arose from the context of Lupin's genesis in seinen manga, aimed at the interests of young men. Most if not all manga-adventures concentrate on the wild criminal activities of a trio of super-thieves, Lupin and his uneasy allies, gunslinger Jigen and samurai Goemon. Yet their boys' club is occasionally invaded by the elusive enchantress Fujiko Mine, a super-thief in her own right. Sometimes she works with the Lupin gang, but she's just as likely to double-cross the guys and steal their loot away. Lupin, usually a canny thinker who can outmaneuver any other opponent, often gets rooked by Fujiko because he's besotted with her, and this often results in his having quarrels with his more practical-minded partners. 

As my knowledge of the manga is spotty I don't know whether or not there were ever any "origin stories" for how all four characters met one another. However, one of the aims of showrunner Sayo Yamamoto for this thirteen-episode TV show, A WOMAN NAMED FUJIKO MINE, was that of depicting how each of the Lupin gang-members separately encountered Fujiko before they even became a gang. Thus Yamamoto and his crew sought to invert the normal structure of a Lupin III adventure. This time Fujiko is in all of the episodes and the three men come and go as needed to tell her story. All three men, as well as their nemesis Inspector Zenigata, fall victim to the femme fatale's charms.

Prior to WOMAN, Fujiko seems to have had even less background than the Lupin gang. She's the epitome of feminine allure, as skilled with guns and karate as with the art of seduction, but she must have been a child before she was any sort of woman. What experiences, what influences, proved the crucible of Fujiko?

Though the final episode of the series undermines all apparent revelations, Yamamoto crafts an origin-story of which any heroine (or villainess) could be proud. In the first episode, Fujiko meets Lupin for the first time when both of them are trying to rip off a cult that uses a bizarre memory-drug to enslave its adherents. But the agents of the cult, led by the mysterious Count Almeida, insinuate themselves into Fujiko's life, and it seems as if the Count may have some quasi-paternal interest in her. The drug, which manifests as crystalline tear-shaped droplets, foments hallucinations in the minds of Fujiko and all the nascent Lupin gang-members, so that none of them entirely know what's real. The apparent revelations of Almeida, who wears a creepy owl-mask (as do some of his chief aides), suggest that Fujiko's good-but-weak real father, the creator of the hallucinogen, surrendered his own daughter to the tender mercies of "bad father" Almeida. But what does it mean, that all the owl-symbolism is glossed by the Roman myth of Minerva, goddess of wisdom? And how does the Freudian paradigm change when one learns that one of the "fathers" is really a "mother?"

Though some Lupin III stories are mythic, most of them don't attempt to be consciously poetic in their uses of imagery and elaborate verbal references. Poetic diction is rare in serial television shows, and it's easy to whip out some high-flown phrases that approximate the cadence of poetry. But psuedo-poetry never achieves the quality of mystery. And even though Fujiko doesn't really get an origin story, her mystery is enhanced just by her illusion of having a finite background. And so, even though we aren't getting either her experiences or her influences-- not even within the sphere of her narrative, given that as a fictional character she has neither in reality-- there's no doubt that Fujiko Mine's identity is comprised by the "third thing" that connotes true identity.




"This calls for a drastic step, above and beyond the call of Sigmund Freud."-- sexy psychiatrist Marilyn Richards

MOTHER GOOSE A GO GO, the only writer-director effort by Jack H. (THE BLOB) Harris, is simultaneously one of the worst film-farces ever made, and one of the best translations of Freudian theory into the formulas of farce.  

It's impossible to know why Harris-- most often known as a producer rather than as either writer or director-- would have decided to make this movie. Following the strong box-office of THE BLOB, his next two SF-movies, 4D MAN and DINOSAURUS, were not nearly as popular. But by 1966 a lot of older filmmakers-- Harris was nearing fifty that year-- responded to the "sexual revolution" by trying their hand at sex-comedies. Harris had never written a comedy-film before, and not only is the tone of MOTHER afflicted with a dimbulb, sniggering sensibility, everything looks like a squeaky-clean Disney comedy of the period. He manages to make utterly aseptic an opening scene with newlyweds Ted Hastings (Tommy Kirk) and his wife Margie (Anne Helm) preparing for their first night together.

But as in so many farces of the period, the possibility of sex, even consecrated by marriage, is a tease, for Ted has a little problem that causes him to freeze up and faint dead away, leaving Margie intensely frustrated. Yet the proximate cause of Ted's infirmity is brought about by a character the audience hasn't yet encountered. Before Ted makes his move, Margie can't resist showing her husband a gift from her uncle Jacques (Jacques Bergerac). We will later learn that the very hotel where Ted and Margie plan to have sex is owned by Uncle Jacques, so that what they're doing is symbolically under his aegis. And for some unexplained reason, Jacques chose to send his niece a very weird wedding-gift: a children's book of fairy tales. Since we also later learn that Jacques has always been like a "mother hen" to Margie, the logical conclusion is that he wants to keep her an "unkissed bride." And Margie subconsciously conspires to go along with her uncle's wishes, for she starts reading from the story of Little Red Riding Hood-- and that's what causes Ted to "go stiff," but in a bad way.

Ted dashes over to the office of psychiatrist Marilyn Richards (the sexy Danica D'Hondt). She will be the face of Female Authority as Uncle Jacques is the face of Male Authority, though to be sure, D'Hondt, Kirk, and Helm are all about the same age (late-twenties) while Bergerac alone was over ten years older than any of them. Though Marilyn is planning a vacation, she puts it off to help a patient who rudely barges into her office, possibly because the case of a man rendered impotent by a fairy tale intrigues her. Without doing any medical checks on her new patient, she spritzes him with a "psychedelic drug" from an atomizer. Ted then relates a fantasia in which Red Riding Hood (Helm) is menaced by a Wolf dressed up like her Granny. The Woodsman (Kirk) tries to save the imperiled lass, but he fails (more impotence), so Red has to save herself by bonking the Wolf with the axe (virility transfer?)

Ted suggests that Marilyn take her vacation at the same hotel where he and Margie are staying, so she does. Nosy private detective Sinclair-- a smarmy extension of Uncle Jacques, himself a major player with younger women-- begins watching both Ted and Marilyn as potential offenders against public morality. Margie knows nothing about Marilyn's surveillance, because Ted doesn't want Margie or Jacques knowing all his psychological details. The two young marrieds kiss near the hotel swimming pool, and Marilyn is sun-bathing nearby. But Marilyn's reading a magazine with an advertisement based on "Snow White," and when Ted sees the ad, he goes stiff and almost drowns in the pool. Marilyn, pretending to be nothing more than a professional nurse, helps Margie take Ted to a room, and then banishes Margie ("I'll take care of your husband"). Marilyn immediately spritzes Ted again. This time it's a fantasy about the conclusion of "Snow White," wherein the Queen (D'Hondt) has just tried to kill Snow (Helm), only to learn that a prince (Kirk) has rescued her. After the Queen dies from eating her own apple-- the consequence of her sexual competition with the young woman-- the two young people look into her magic mirror. When Ted comes to, he claims he saw himself as a furry monster-- which, believe it or not, does have a payoff down the line.

Ted and Margie take in a drive-in movie, but sad to say, there's a Three Little Pigs cartoon, so it's lights out for Ted again. Back at the hotel, Margie rather inappropriately asks her uncle if he's ever had similar performance problems. He then shows his first sign of licentious feelings toward his niece with the old "If you were just older, or I was just younger" line. Margie exiles Ted from their room, but both Marilyn and Jacques counsel the confused man to climb the trellis to Margie's room. But a neighbor sees Ted and asks him if he thinks he's Jack climbing the beanstalk. It's "frigid city" again, and down goes Ted, who luckily lands in some bushes.

Apparently Marilyn doesn't think there's need for a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk sex-fantasy. Yet Marilyn and Margie separately get the idea that maybe Ted could perform better if he just gets liquored up and lets his "beast" out. Ted and Margie then waste several minutes at both a club and a bar. Again Margie shows ambivalence toward what is supposedly her anti-virginity mission. She keeps Ted from seeing the name "Goldilocks" on some appliance-- yet when they're back in their room, and Ted's ready to go, she herself speaks the name "Goldilocks," and that's it for Ted. Just to waste more time, Sinclair keeps spying on the couple even though they're legally married, Jacques chats up Marilyn, and celebrity radio spokesman Joe Pyne periodically interrupts the story to get on phones and argue with his listeners.

Oddly, after  this third failure Ted has a breakthrough. There's no telling why Marilyn left her drug-filled atomizer in the married couple's room, but while talking to Marilyn on the phone, Ted accidentally doses himself, and Marilyn talks him through a very short Goldilocks fantasy, consisting of a sexy Goldilocks trying out various mattresses. In the midst of this new fantasy, an old memory pops up-- and you know it's old, because it's black-and-white while the rest of the film is in color.

This provides Marilyn with a clue, so she invites Ted to her room and puts him under hypnosis. The big reveal? When Ted was six, his mother caught him looking at an adult sex-magazine. Harris doesn't say that Young Ted was beating off to a picture of a hot girl, but the unseen mother's dialogue implies it. She tells Young Ted that such things can make little boys turn into "monsters with fangs and fur and a long ugly tail," which to my mind is just one step beyond "it'll grow hair on your palms." To keep the kid away from impure thoughts, she gives Young Ted a Mother Goose book. So "Mother Goose" is actually the same as "Mother Forbidding Sex."

So Marilyn liberates Ted from his complex by revealing its genesis, but as the new mother-imago in his life, she decides to go "above the call of Sigmund Freud" by testing his ability to make love after she says a fairy-tale key-word. ("Think of me as Margie," Marilyn advises.)

Meanwhile, Sinclair has been monitoring the illicit association of Ted and Marilyn, and he tattle-tales to Jacques and Margie. They invade Marilyn's room just as an overstimulated Ted is unleashing his "beast" on the psychiatrist, who didn't anticipate going quite that far. There's a brief exchange of blows between Margie's husband and her father-substitute, but even though Ted loses the fight, he wins Margie afterward. Jacques and Marilyn, the "father" and "mother," are implicitly united, while an end-sequence shows Ted and Margie in bed together years later, a small brood of kids watching their parents make out. I guess after their experience, Ted and Margie decided to be more "liberal" with their offspring than Ted's unseen mother was.

I don't imagine Harris knew that much about Freud's work, but the layered nature of the sex-fantasies here suggests more than a quick read in a Sunday supplement. While Freud argued that children formed Oedipal fixations upon the parent of the opposing sex, the world of Harris's MOTHER actually focuses more on older adults imposing their sexual fantasies on the younger adults who are their symbolic "children." So this is one of those cases where a creative person had a basic idea with some strong symbolic richness, but lacked any other skills to make the idea into an entertaining story. Further, the actors in GOOSE are not much better than Harris. Kirk plays his part as he were trying to ape Jerry Lewis, Helm is dull and has no chemistry with Kirk, and Bergerac is a one-dimensional "sexy French guy." D'Hondt is the only performer who shows a little restraint as the patrician but somewhat horny psychiatrist, and MOTHER was her next to last acting credit before she began pursuing alternative career-paths to Hollywood acting. Her list of movie/TV credits is not long, but it does include one other item I reviewed here favorably: the MAN FROM UNCLE episode "The Girls of Nazarone Affair," which concerns itself with a different sort of "feminine authority."

Thursday, April 20, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

This TV-special apparently aired in Japan with the subtitle "From Russia with Love," but to lessen confusion I'll go with the less Bond-derived version.

This is a solid comedy-adventure that's distinguished from most Lupin III tales by having a fairly formidable villain. This time Goemon pursues a separate course than the other members of the regular ensemble (Lupin, Jigen, and Fujiko), though he ends up uniting with the other three toward the end of the story.

As often happens, Lupin's passion for finding new scores puts him on the trail of a legendary store of gold sent to the U.S. from Russia during the final Czarist years. Lupin's research in a public library involves a dalliance with a busty librarian, but this is soon broken up by the relentless Inspector Zenigata. Lupin and Jigen escape the dauntless detective and seek out a young woman, Judy, who has further info on the gold cache's location. I confess I didn't follow exactly how the gold, which was given to a Russian emigre to the U.S., ended up in the hands of a very special bank whose depositors are all underworld figures. However, once Lupin enlists the aid of his inamorata Fujiko, the plan to rob the bank of its Russian gold begins to come together.

There are, of course, other crooked types conspiring to get the prize before Lupin. Two thugs are sent by the Mafia to monitor the situation (what, the Family couldn't spare more than two mooks?) A more formidable foe is Rasputon, supposedly a descendant of the Mad Monk of Czarist Russia. Goemon gets involved with Rasputon when the villain steals the samurai's precious sword, compelling Goemon to obey his will. Further, Rasputon possesses the power to read minds and anticipate what any enemy intends to do against him, making it difficult for the samurai to request help from his posse.

Though Zenigata doesn't appear as often as in other Lupins, the writers contrive a lot of good comic action for the resourceful thieves, including a couple of double-crosses. There are some involved set-pieces involved in the concealment of the huge gold cache, and these strain credulity after all the relatively naturalistic heist explanations. But compared to many Lupins, SIBERIA is fairly restrained, with Rasputon's psychic talent furnishing the narrative's only marvelous content.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though I rated Jess Franco's previous Franken-film low on my mythicity scale, I must admit that I liked that one better than this one, and that's after giving EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN two recent screenings.

I suppose RITES could be loosely in continuity with DRACULA PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN. Doctor Frankenstein (Dennis Price) seemed to perish in an explosion at the end of PRISONER, but in movie-land everyone's a master of Explosion-Escaping 101. The only other thing that links the 1973 movie to the 1972 one is that the nominal "sympathetic guy" Doctor Seward is still hanging around whatever East European country the action takes place in, and is still played by the same actor. However, there's no reference to the evil doctor's encounter with vampires. Instead, his PRISONER plan to take over the world with some superhuman race is more or less taken over by his new foe, Cagliostro (Howard Vernon). This actor, by the way, has apparently been freed from whatever exigencies kept him nearly immobile in both PRISONER and the subsequent DAUGHTER OF DRACULA.)

There's no clear indication that this bizarre modern wizard is linked to the 18th-century occultist of historical record. As usual Franco doesn't care much for exposition, but he does make some abstruse comment about how Cagliostro appears on the scene as if he called himself out of some "vasty deep" of evil beings. This has a nominal resemblance to some lines in PRISONER, where some gypsies talk about how Frankenstein's evil experiments with vampires can and do call forth countervailing forces.

However, Price's Frankenstein doesn't get a chance to do much of anything. In the opening scene he's in his lab, working on a brand-new Monster-- this time, complete with a weird silver sheen-- when two agents of Cagliostro burst in, killing both Frankenstein and his assistant Morpho (who also didn't die in PRISONER, I guess). One of the agents is just a brutish guy, but the other is Melissa (Anne Libert), a hybrid between human and bird, complete with irregular blue feathers compromising her near-nudity. One line indicated that Melissa was one of Frankenstein's failed experiments, and she's not slow to take out her "daddy" by laying his throat open with her teeth. 

Just as the Frankenstein of PRISONER wanted to create a new race of superhumans to dominate the world, Cagliostro has the same basic idea. The wizard, however, has actually read Mary Shelley's novel, in which the author expressed fears of a new demon-breed resulting from two artificially-created Monsters. So the villain sends the Monster out to collect nubile young women, whose parts Cagliostro will use to make a Bride of the Monster and Mother of a New Race.

Who will stop the fiend? For a little while, it looks as if Vera, daughter of Frankenstein, will become the movie's hero, because she uses mad science to resurrect her dead father in order to identify his murderers. However, Vera all-too-quickly falls under Cagliostro's mental control and becomes his right-hand woman in charge of making the New Bride. Eventually Doctor Seward gets wind of the evil activities and takes action by intruding on Frankenstein's domain. His main function is to turn the Frankenstein Monster against Cagliostro's forces, and he succeeds, killing Melissa and almost killing the wizard (though the Monster lets the villain go for reasons unknown). Cagliostro tries to escape in a modern-day car and the car crashes over a cliff, but Seward is certain he'll return some day.

The most interesting thing about RITES-- which isn't particuarly erotic, even with a whipping scene that Franco later re-worked for GOLDEN TEMPLE AMAZONS-- is Melissa. There aren't a lot of bird-women monsters in cinema, and her main purpose in the story is utter a lot of pseudo-poetic gibberish. It's possible Franco had some idea of her being an oracle who could see the future, since in ancient Greece "meliisae" was a plural name for the priestesses of the oracular deity Apollo. And though "melissa" means "honeybee," the oracles at Delphi and Dodona had some bird-associations, since doves were often sacrificial animals at such temples. Maybe Franco happened to read something about the topic just before making RITES, but if so, there's only a dim suggestion of mythopoeic meaning here.



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

Although Victor Webster is back for his second outing as Mathayas the Scorpion King, the producers decided to get rid of Number Three's vision of a broody hero and to revert back to the jokey, freewheeling approach of the original movie. Trouble is, it's a mostly dismal sword-and-sorcery retread with no good humor and mostly ordinary action.

Mathayas once again puts himself at the service of a royal patron, trying to steal a magical item from the treasure-vault of a minor tyrant (Lou Ferrigno). Ferrigno's only in the movie for the length of his fight with Mathayas and his partner Drazen (Will Kemp), and in truth the two-on-one fight with Ferrigno is the movie's high point. After the tyrant is bested, Drazen betrays Mathayas, leaving him imprisoned while making off with the magic doohickey. It turns out that Drazen's actually the son of another king, the enemy of Mathayas' patron.

Though the hero wants vengeance, his king instructs him to broker peace with Drazen's father. Drazen has the Scorpion King locked up, during which time the hero meets saucy wench Valina (Ellen Hollman). Then Drazen offs his old man, planning to claim the talisman's power for himself, and frames Mathayas for the crime. Mathayas and Valina escape Drazen's sanctuary, and Valina talks the muscleman into getting help from her eccentric scientist-father Raskov (Barry Bostwick).

Yes, that's right; I said "scientist"-- for in the movie's biggest deviation from the other films in the series, supposedly all the "magic" in this world is really science-derived, according to Raskov. The hero and his new girlfriend kill some time listening to the wacky old guy and fighting with some other tribes before they try to obtain the secret concealed by the talisman. All the phenomena they meet are one form of super-science or another, so I'm not sure what advantage the writers gained by claiming this is a "sword and science" world.

Webster's just okay as the muscle-brained hero, and Hollman's about the same, though at least the director and writers give her character quite a few fight-scenes against both male and female opponents. Michael Biehn, M. Emmet Walsh and Rutger Hauer also appear in minor support-roles, for what that's worth.

Monday, April 17, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

One of the oddest things about the monster-film Jess Franco did before this one-- i.e, DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN-- is that this monster-mash lacks the nudity that the director had been injecting into his films since about 1969. PRISONER only has a few moments of sleazy imagery, but it almost seems like Franco might have had some notion of "working clean" on that project, even cleaner than the Paul Naschy films with which Franco's monster-flicks might have competed.

However, in the same year, and with some of the same cast and crew, Franco went back to the vampire well once more, but with large dollops of softcore lesbian sex, much like 1970's NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT.  That said, the structure of DAUGHTER OF DRACULA has a stronger resemblance to 1965's DIABOLICAL DOCTOR Z. DAUGHTER, like DOCTOR, sets up the main monster's reasons for preying on victims, and then just lets the monster do his or her thing while interpolating various conversational scenes about confused officials trying to decide what to do. Then just both films just kind of wind down, as one or more of the good guys invade the monster's lair and finish him/her off.

The opening actually shows some promise. A young woman named Luisa (Britt Nichols) arrives at her family's mansion just as her aged mother is close to death. The mother bestows a key on Luisa and tells her that her heritage as a member of the Karlstein family she must know that her ancestors were vampires, and that the ancient Karlstein castle contains one such vampire, Count Dracula himself. (The "Karlstein" name is probably a shout-out to the "Karnsteins" of Sheridan LeFanu's novel CARMILLA, a literary "ancestor" to Stoker's DRACULA, though Franco may have changed the name to avoid litigation from Hammer, who were in the midst of their own "Karnstein trilogy.")

The scene between Luisa and her mother is fairly affecting for a Franco film, until one realizes that Luisa's mother has given her absolutely no warning about the perils of seeking out your vampire ancestor. Not that Luisa seems like the brightest bulb herself. She duly uses the key to let herself into the castle, and into the burial vault of Dracula (Howard Vernon). Despite the fact that actor Vernon is not seen to move from his coffin in the scene, somehow he gets his distant descendant into his power and makes her into a bloodsucker too, at which point she more or less becomes the starring monster of the movie. (Vernon also barely moved around in DRACULA PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, leading me to wonder if he'd injured his back or something.)

Anyway, once Luisa has become the de facto "daughter of Dracula," she seduces and dominates her hot cousin Karine (Anne Libert), and their girl-on-girl gyrations eat up most of the film's running time. 

To add the illusion of action, there's also a psycho killing people in town, but though I suppose this too was some minion of Dracula, I don't remember that the film ever identifies who the killer is. Various characters stand around reciting dialogue to give the illusion of drama-- a police inspector, a reporter, the modern-day Count Karlstein, the owner of a "no-tell-hotel," and a Karlstein servant named Jefferson (played by Franco himself) who utters a lot of pseudo-poetic verbiage about the undead. None of it adds up to anything, and though one of the characters destroys Dracula in the end it's not clear that Luisa's vampiric career is ended.

The most I can say for Franco's photography here is that he seems at least as interested in actor's faces as in the butts and bushes of the actresses, even though his customers probably only cared about the latter.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In my review of Jess Franco's 1968 psycho-killer film SUCCUBUS, I wrote:

In the [Jess Franco] interview he claimed it was a virtue that he’d made a film that he himself didn’t understand. But viewing SUCCUBUS didn’t leave me with the impression of an artist filled with visionary fire. I might not like a lot of Godard, but there are always some ideas swirling around even in his worst films. Franco is just a con-man, dealing in phony-baloney surrealism.

I don't retract any of this, because the more I see of Franco, the more I'm convinced he had only a superficial appreciation for any of the ideas or symbolic correlations he used in his films. That said, I think the man genuinely loved film, and though he made many bad movies, he may have had the insight that most moviegoers of his time didn't respond so much to solidly crafted stories as to compelling images. It wasn't that Franco never made a movie with a strong narrative, but as he pursued his rather gypsy-like method of filmmaking, it's likely that he began pursuing a concept of film as a dream-like experience.

Roughly two years after Franco finished COUNT DRACULA, which did have at least a fairly consistent narrative, the director executed his first monster-mash. Since I don't think Franco would have done so if he didn't think this sort of recrudescent Universal formula would make money, it's possible he'd observed the dependable (albeit not spectacular) popularity of Paul Naschy's monster-films in Europe. Yet PRISONER is far looser in structure than any of the Naschy movies.

There's barely any dialogue in PRISONER, and the closest thing to a rationale for the conflict appears in an opening crawl by an author named "David Kuhne" (an alias Franco had used over the years), claiming that a great struggle will take place between the vampire lord Dracula (Howard Vernon) and Doctor Frankenstein (Dennis Price), so cosmic in nature (my words) that it will call forth other monsters "like an echo."

What we actually get is a fractured story that barely hangs together. Dracula, made up to look like the vamp from the lost silent film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, is apparently back in Transylvania, since he's seen attacking a local woman and then retreating to his castle. A vampire-killer, given the name "Doctor Seward" from the Stoker novel, enters the coffin in the daytime and impales Dracula with the tiniest stake ever seen. The slain vampire metamorphoses into a very small dead bat, and Seward leaves the castle. It's not clear why he doesn't leave the country as well, given that he believes Dracula to be dead. Possibly Franco wanted to keep a "straight man" protagonist around, though Seward does almost nothing else for the rest of the movie.

Enter Doctor Frankenstein, who moves into the castle and uses his mad science to both revive and enslave the vampire lord. Not that the viewer gets much sense of Dracula's reaction to these events, since in Vernon's few scenes, he merely looks fixedly into the camera and bares his prominent fangs. There are also some vampire brides hanging around, but whether they were created before or after Frankenstein's advent, I couldn't tell.

Frankenstein has a somewhat freaky looking assistant named Morpho (Luis Barboo), possibly on loan from Franco's own mad scientist Orloff. But possibly the current doctor thinks he needs more muscle power, so he creates a new Monster (Fernando Bilbao), who is seen abducting a woman from a coach. Despite the Monster's strength, though, the evil doctor has some vague plan to create an army of superhumans using not his own artificial creation, but the vampires-- not that Franco is ever explicit about the master plan.

However, that cosmic pushback is on the way, apparently from a local gypsy tribe. Unlike the gypsies of Stoker's novel, this tribe suffers from Dracula's tyranny, and the women of the tribe (hardly any men are seen) make enigmatic prophecies that beneficent forces will appear to oppose both the vampire and the mad scientist. Possibly Franco remembered the association between gypsies and The Wolf Man, for a somewhat scruffy wolf-man shows up at the castle and has a short fight with the Monster. Though the werewolf is killed by the Monster, for some reason Dracula at some point decides to rebel-- though it's hard to judge since Vernon has no actual scenes of rebellion. All one sees is a vampire woman killing Morpho, and this defiance sends Frankenstein around the bend. He slays all the vampires in their coffins and then unleashes some sort of electrical chaos from his machines that annihilates both the doctor and his Monster, leaving Seward to intone some meaningless prattle in conclusion.

The best scene in this perplexing film is probably the Monster-Wolf Man fight, which, while not even equal to the best such battles in the Naschy repertoire, at least moves this monster-mash into the realm of the combative. While I don't think Franco had any sincere love for the classic Universal monsters, one might at least argue that he had some partial recognition of their power as dream-images, and that once or twice his use of their mythic power works a good deal better than anything in Al Adamson's contemporaneous DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN.


Sunday, April 16, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Analyzing the movies of deceased filmmakers is sometimes not unlike an archeaological excavation. Some movies are so well made that they stand firm after the passage of many years, and the analyst has no doubt about what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish or what materials he used. Other films are like buildings that have collapsed from either the maker's bad construction processes, his use of disparate materials that don't go well together, or both. SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE is one such "building," and even the title it used as a come-on is something of a mess. An earlier, more accurate working title was SEXPOT GOES TO COLLEGE, which was accurate since the movie focuses on the character of hot-bod scientist Mathilda West (Mamie Van Doren), who "goes to college" in the sense of accepting a teaching position at one Collins University. Of the six films Zugsmith produced with Van Doren, four place the actress in supporting roles. Only in the 1959 GIRLS TOWN and in KITTENS, the last Zugsmith-Van Doren collaboration, is Van Doren the character who overshadows everyone else (in more ways than one). The official title makes it sound as if it's going to unveil racy stories about "kittenish" female students, but there are two who have actual characters-- Jody (Tuesday Weld) and Suzanne (Mijanou Bardot, a.k.a. "sister of Brigitte")-- and though the second of the two is a horny type of girl, the film certainly isn't about either of them.

Nor is KITTENS about the only being who makes this a metaphenomenal movie: Thinko, the sentient robot/computer who advises the college to hire Mathida. An alternare TV-title for KITTENS was BEAUTY AND THE ROBOT, and Thinko does become a mechanical horndog whose true motives for inviting Mathilda are strictly dishonorable. But Thinko too is just a support character despite his borrowing from "Beauty and the Beast." All of the other support-types look like Zugsmith-- credited with writing the movie in collaboration with one Robert Hill-- borrowed all these disparate materials from wildly conflicting sources. Mathilda's nominal romantic interest George (Martin Milner) has an unappealing quasi-girlfriend that the audience wants to see out of the picture, which is similar to the situation of Cary Grant's character in Hawks' BRINGING UP BABY. Thinko's creator Zorch (Louis Nye) is a half-baked Doctor Frankenstein, and Mathilda's only conquest in the student body is "Woo Woo" (Norman Grabowski), who's the epitome of every slow-witted football player from every college-football movie ever made. A couple of dimbulb thugs wander out of a Damon Runyon story and onto Collins campus, in theory to provide either comedy or tension (and succeeding at neither). Finally, Mathilda herself, a buxom intellectual who funded her doctoral studies by dancing in burlesque shows, may have been borrowed from the Virginia Mayo character in the 1952 musical SHE'S WORKING HER WAY THROUGH COLLEGE-- discussed here-- though admittedly Mayo's character in that movie is not a super-genius, as Mathilda is.

So what does writer-director Zugsmith do with all these cobbled-together stock characters? Not much. 

The Runyonesque thugs have come to the college to rub out someone named "Sam Thinko," who's been betting so successfully on the ponies that the thugs' employer wants Thinko disposed of. The thugs don't do much, though Suzanne, the movie's only actual "sex kitten," crushes on one of the two older men, much to his confusion.

The dimwit Woo Woo, on meeting Mathilda for the first time, faints dead away, implicitly from sexual overstimulation, though he has zero enthusiasm for the blandishments of the comely Jody. Mathilda makes a sincere attempt to straighten out the young putz, since her many degrees include psychiatry, though Zugsmith and Hill drop this plot-thread almost as soon as they establish it. Mathilda's helpful efforts are met with acrimony from Jody, who claims that all the women on the campus feel inferior to Mathida's charms. (It should go without saying that many other sex-comedies have done a better job of conveying a "sexpot's" irresistible appeal.)

Finally, though the audience barely gets a sense of George having some established relationship with dowdy instructress Myrtle, the film barely does anything to portray Mathilda moving in on their relationship. Halfway through the film, when Mathilda gets the sense that George might be trying to downplay her presence at Collins because he as a college employee (of some sort) is embarrassed by her pneumatic image, she decides to tweak him for it, though they barely know each other. This involves a long nightclub scene in which Mathilda dresses up in a tight party-dress and performs a musical number reminiscent of her burlesque acts. For good measure, she also uses hypnosis to make some randy old faculty members (including John Carradine) dance around the nightclub with her. Yet by the end George and Mathilda are passionately in love, because the script says so, and Myrtle the killjoy even considerately gets out of the way.

Oh, did I mention there's a chimp wandering around through all this, apparently with no one in charge of him? Well, there is.

Only two haphazard scenes in this farrago prove halfway interesting, and I wonder if these were the creation of Robert Hill, since Zugsmith doesn't seem to have cared about any sort of quality control.

One takes place toward the end, which is a lame attempt at Keystone Kops slapstick. It's confusingly revealed that Thinko didn't place the horse-race bets; that Woo Woo, in the midst of a bout of sleepwalking, programmed the computer to do so. How did a dullard like him know how to program a computer to do anything? There's no knowing, but since Thinko and Woo Woo are both ensorcelled by Mathilda's charms, the two of them seem like goony reflections of one another. There's a second or two when sleepwalking Woo Woo advances on Jody like he was a second-rate Frankenstein's Monster. But Zugsmith wastes this visual trope and when we next see the two collegians, they're suddenly fully in love, just like George and Mathilda.

The second scene of interest takes place toward the beginning. Mathilda appears in an auditorium to greet both the faculty and the student body, and she decides she's going to make some abstruse comment on physics by firing a couple of live-ammo pistols over the heads of the students. To be sure, a lot of slapstick comedy is meant to have supposedly rational characters do stupid things, but Zugsmith doesn't even try to make this seem believable. HOWEVER, there's almost certainly a visual pun here, showing Mamie of the Mammaries firing not just one gun (which would have made her physics point) but two, and then tucking the guns in her skirt-band as if that could serve as a cowboy's holster. 

I should add that the European version of KITTENS, which I finally saw, includes a extra-diegetic scene in which Thinko stands around in a room while a bevy of strippers dance and doff their clothes, presumably trying to stimulate him like Mathilda did. This addition actually fits with the remainder of Zugsmith's career, for as he went independent he ceased doing fairly comprehensible B-movies, like the aforementioned GIRLS TOWN. Except for a high budget, KITTENS is almost indistinguishable from most of the sexploitation movies that dominated grindhouses in the sixties, which also tended to throw together a lot of random story-elements with not much concern for building anything like a story. A lot of filmmakers gravitated to the sex-movies because they had obsessions that wouldn't fit the mainstream. I'm not sure that was true of Albert Zugsmith, though I may see if I think so after screening some of his later offerings.