Tuesday, March 20, 2018

THE MUMMY (1959)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Hammer's MUMMY was the studio's third revival of a monster (or monster-maker) made famous by Universal Studios, though technically it's the fourth "Universal-influenced" outing, coming out after CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, and REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Hammer made other mummy-movies after this 1959 effort, but all of them remained independent of one another, in contrast to the 1959 film's inspiration: Universal's 1940s "Mummy" series, which began with 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND. In that film, ancient Egyptian priest Kharis, who died for the love of his contemporary Princess Ananka, is revived in mummy-form by a modern-day religious fanatic who wants to punish British scientists for defiling the tombs of the ancient Egyptian dead.

Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster, who had collaborated on the previous three "Uni-influenced" productions, may have been constrained to follow the Universal model more than they were on the earlier films, as it's been stated that Hammer made some sort of payment to Universal to avoid copyright infringement. But a more important influence on Hammer's MUMMY was that it was the second monster-film to re-team Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee after their success in DRACULA. Thus the central conflict revolves around the fate of viewpoint character John Banning (Cushing). The requisite fanatical Egyptian priest (George Pastell) somehow smuggles the mummy Kharis (Lee) all the way to England in order to kill Banning and the members of the expedition that invaded the tomb of Ananka, and Banning must find a way to survive the wrath of a walking dead man.

Given the strong focus upon Cushing's character-- who, like the lead male character of the 1932 MUMMY, seems to be trying hard to be a knock-off of his Egyptologist father-- it's not surprising that Sangster's script largely neglects the romantic interest common to the Universal films. True, this motif took different forms over the years. The 1932 film was focused almost entirely on the mummy's attempt to find his ancient love, now reincarnated in a modern woman's body. There followed the next two films, MUMMY'S HAND and MUMMY'S TOMB, in which nothing is said about finding any reincarnations, though two of Kharis's high-priest handlers fall for a modern American woman. and one of them steals a trope from the 1932 film by trying to make his beloved into a mummy-woman. Then the last two films in the Universal series once more turn to the reincarnation theme, with the bandaged killer encountering the spirit of the Egyptian princess in two more mortal vessels before the series wrap-- er, finished up.

As if to show how little this sort of spirit-hopping metaphysics appealed to the men of Hammer Studios, Sangster's script doesn't even address the topic of reincarnation. As was done in the 1932 movie, the same actress played both the mummy's former love and her modern lookalike. However, but this time the resemblance between ancient Ananka and modern-day Isobel (wife of John) Banning is accounted for by coincidence. not reincarnation. Sangster's script introduces Isobel in a very desultory manner, showing no interest in her character, for her only function in the story is to be a distraction to the near-invulnerable mummy. Hammer's treatment of female characters was often problematic, but Isobel, who boasts neither backstory nor agency, is surely one of the low points for Hammer women.

Cushing's best moments in the film are not with his confrere Lee, but with high priest Pastell, when John Banning visits the Egyptian scholar at his home and disses the man's religion, the better to enrage the high priest and cause him to send Kharis into a trap. Still, the heart of the film is to be found not in Cushing's stereotypical character, but in the mute performance of Chris Lee as Kharis. Because the mummy, like some of his Universal predecessors, has had his tongue cut out, Lee must project emotion through the formidable bandage-makeup, while using bodily attitude as much as is possible for a living dead man. The performance bears some similarity to Lee's handling of the Frankenstein Monster, though Kharis's tragic history adds a layer of emotional resonance not present in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Lee doesn't seem to have essayed another character incapable of speech for the remainder of his career, which is all to the good, since he probably could not have topped this.

Franz Reisenstein provides one of Hammer's most memorable horror-scores for this film. The overall verdict, though, is that while the 1959 MUMMY provides efficient enough thrills, and even a little sympathy for its monstrous star, it's not one of Hammer's timeless accomplishments.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

To viewers raised on CGI monsters, the "zipper-up-the-back" fiends of this 1972 telefilm probably look pretty paltry.

Nevertheless, I liked the film back in the day, as did many other "baby-boomer" viewers, at least in part because monster-costumes and puppetry were the only FX-game in town. On re-screening the film, I can see how director Bill Norton used slo-mo and other visual tricks to distract from the fact that most of the costumes, despite the participation of Stan Winston, are not that detailed. Only the one worn by Bernie Casey (see above) is truly impressive, and this stems in part from the fact that only Casey's "head gargoyle" has a speaking role.

A voice-over provides the familiar yet durable set-up: horned reptile-people, both with and without wings, have existed alongside humankind since prehistory. These reptiles are the source of humankind's legends about devils and demons, though they're always called "gargoyles" in the film, despite the fact that these medieval waterspouts are of considerably later vintage. Humans breed faster and more prolifically than gargoyles, with the result that gargoyles have had to dwell in out-of-the-way locales, like a certain desert in the American Southwest.

Pop anthropologist author Doctor Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his photographer-daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) venture into the desert in response to a letter from a hermit who promises to show them something worthy of a book on weird anthropology. At first old codger Uncle Willie seems to have nothing more than a roadside "museum of oddities" to offer, until he shows them the skeleton of the gargoyle species. Boley, though initially skeptical, lets Uncle Willie relate his story of strange beings who have dwelled in the mountains since the Indian days. Then unseen forces attack Willie's museum. Boley and Diana get clear, but Willie dies when his museum catches fire. Boley and Diana witness just enough to convince them that the gargoyles are the real culprits, but there's no way to reveal the truth to the local law-officers without sounding insane.

The gargoyles aren't willing to let the duo get away, though, and they brave the local desert-town to capture Boley and Diana. Boley escapes, but the gargoyles spirit Diana away to their mountain lair. There she learns that the gargoyles have been nurturing a clutch of eggs with which they plan to unleash a new gargoyle horde upon humanity. In addition, the Gargoyle Leader seems to feel that he might be able to do a little mating-action with a human female, though this danger is distinctly soft-pedaled for its TV audience.

Although the gargoyles are a fantasy-race, their determination to become great upon the earth has a definite sociological myth-theme-- and it may not be coincidence that someone in production chose a black actor to speak for the put-upon fantasy-race. For both director Bill Norton and the writing-team Steven and Elinor Karpf, GARGOYLES seems to prove a high-water mark, since it remains one of the better regarded metaphenomenal telefilms of the 1970s.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

FLYING DISC MAN is a quasi-sequel to THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES, but only because it recycles the same basic idea-- Martians coming to Earth and collaborating with America's enemies-- and the costumes. DISC MAN is directed by Fred C. Bannen, who was one of the two helmsmen credited with PURPLE MONSTER, and is written by Ronald Davidson, credited as the PURPLE producer.

Yet, though PURPLE MONSTER is just an average serial, DISC MAN seems to go out of its way not to live up to its predecessor's modest accomplishments. It's not that surprising that the new serial does away with the Martians' propensity for "body-snatching," as this was probably an extra expense and the 1950 serial was already recycling scenes from its predecessor and from other serials. But whereas PURPLE MONSTER had several writers assigned to think up new perils for the heroes, Davidson wasn't even able to think of one good setup-- much less distinguishing his characters. Serial heroes and heroines are not exactly scintillating personalities at the best of times, yet the characters essayed by Walter Reed and Lois Collier impressed me as two of the dullest ever.

The only element that was even remotely exciting was the appearance of the "disc" of the title, which is the Martian spaceship-- and that's recycled from the 1942 serial KING OF THE MOUNTIES.

THE SECRET CODE, made at the height of U.S. involvement during the Second World War, is at least average entertainment.  Like a number of other 1940s serials, it starts with a bang, as policeman Dan Barton is accused of being a collaborator. His betrayal is really a put-up job, though, so that Barton can infiltrate a spy ring endangering U.S. security. The first episode even has a moment in which Barton's best friend is tempted to shoot the supposed traitor, but gives in to his instincts about Barton's essential decency and becomes the undercover agent's confidante. Further, so that Barton can act against the spies without endangering his status, he assumes the masked, black-clad identity of the Black Commando-- thus making for a lot of fights in this knockabout serial. CODE's biggest weakness is the same as that of many wartime serials: an undistinguished collection of espionage villains. Because the plot partly concerns an attempt to break the enemy spies' "secret code," each episode ends with an official of U.S. "military intelligence" explaining examples of code-breaking to the audience. Fortunately, modern viewers, unlike theater-goers in 1942, have the option of ignoring these tedious propaganda lectures.

On a side-note, because the serial fell into public domain (or was believed to have done so), the Black Commando showed up later as a comic-book character for Bill Black's AMERICOMICS line.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


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

TUROK SON OF STONE, a Silver Age comic book about two intrepid Native Americans seeking to escape a dinosaur-filled domain, enjoyed an unlikely revival in the 1990s, spawning not only new comics but also popular video games. I assume that's why Classic Media decided to adapt TUROK for a direct-to-video.

I didn't follow either the 1960s or 1990s comic-book incarnations of the character, so I don't know if any of the plot-elements were adapted. I can say that the Silver Age version focused only on Turok and his younger brother Andar fighting dinosaurs. The video version changes Andar into Turok's nephew, as well as interpolating a backstory in which Turok's brother Nashoba married Catori, a young woman known to both of them. Turok is exiled from his tribe for having accidentally attacked Nashoba while fighting off enemies from another tribe. The film does not state that Turok harbored any desire for Catori, though the brothers do compete to win the maiden's kiss, giving the situation a very "sibling rivalry" vibe-- the more so since Nashoba is later killed, and Turok is joined in Dinosaur-Land by a ready-made family consisting of his nephew and sister-in-law. (The original Dell comic hardly had any female characters, since it was being sold to dinosaur-loving boys, but the video has clearly been pitched to appeal to fangirls as well.)

The video is basic journeyman work, in that none of the characters are particularly memorable, including Turok's opposite-number villain, Chichak. Aside from the "girl power" touches, the only other distinction of TUROK is that there's a little more real blood shed when people or dinos get hit with spears or tomahawks. It's far from enough blood to satisfy gorehounds, but it would probably prove sufficient to give minor grossouts to the younger dinosaur-fans.

KRONOS (1957)

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

In my review of FORBIDDEN PLANET, I remarked that the creative people behind the film seemed to have gone far beyond anything they'd done previously in their respective careers. The corollary to this is also that none of them ever did anything quite so outstanding.

KRONOS came out the year after PLANET, and the later film is also credited to a story idea from Irving Block, a production designer on both films. But KRONOS was also a low-budget effort from a small company called Regalscope, and the credited screenwriter, Lawrence Goldman, brought no particular passion to the story of an alien device-- called an "energy accumulator"-- that invades Earth. Director Kurt Neumann had made his bones as a journeyman director of better-than-average Tarzan films, like TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS, but his only exceptional directorial work wouldn't come along till the next year, when he helmed THE FLY. 

It takes KRONOS quite a while to get going. A flying saucer sends an energy-construct-- possibly alive, possibly not-- down to Earth to possess a commonplace motorist. The motorist is instantly possessed by some vague alien consciousness or program. He then seeks out a redundantly named scientific laboratory, "Labcentral," penetrates the lab's security and passes on his "possession" to a major scientist named Eliot. The motorist dies, and Eliot then serves as the "inside man" for the never-seen alien aggressors. In particular, he wants to make sure that when the saucer is discovered, the U.S. Air Force attacks it. Despite the meddling of some of Eliot's subordinates, particularly leading man and leading lady Les and Vera (Jeff Morrow, Barbara Lawrence), the saucer is shot down and plunges into the ocean off the coast of Baja California. However, this is only a stratagem designed to activate the giant energy-device within the saucer. The monolithic machine has no consciousness-- it shows no reaction when Les and Vera employ a helicopter to land on its head-- but when it gets ready to start sucking energy, not even an atom bomb can stop it.

The name given to the gigantic, energy-absorbing mechanism is the one cool mythologem of the Block-Goldman story, but it's curiously underdeveloped.  A newsman says that someone took the name from the "evil giant" of Greek myth, whose main distinction was that of devouring all of his children so that the giant's reign would never be threatened. Probably Goldman didn't pursue this symbolism because the people of Earth weren't related to the creators of the giant robot. Still, to a small degree Kronos still works on this level, as the spawn of godlike aliens who have decided to wipe out humankind. The idea that the aliens have gone through all this trouble simply to steal Earth's energy with their colossal robot never proves particularly persuasive.

The only hiccup in the aliens' well-laid plans is that Eliot's possession doesn't fully take, and sometimes the scientist recovers enough to pass on insights to the defenders of Earth-- at least, when he isn't being deemed to be out of his mind. However, it's leading man Les who has the brilliant insight to over-feed Kronos with special energy designed to make him short-circuit-- which is less like the outcome of the original Kronos story than various tales in which a monster is slain by feeding it something noxious, as with Bel and the Dragon.

Kronos, looking like a giant capacitor with piledrivers for legs, might be considered a take on the Martian tripods of the 1953 adaptation of Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS-- in which film, it will be remembered, the invading vessels also survive a nuclear blast. It's an imposing presence, but it seems that the producers weren't concerned with anything else. Les the Scientist is no Clay Forrester, and his relationship with Vera is forgettable, lacking even the minor touches of the "dueling romance" theme seen in many SF films of the period. KRONOS is a film with one good mythopoetic concept, stuck in a film with a lot of bland mundane dialogue and characterization. 

Friday, March 9, 2018


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

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn't even close to one of my favorite Frankenstein films. However, it certainly eclipses most of the slapdash sequels, particularly REVENGE, even though Hammer used the same writer and director to bring the mad baron back from death.

The film begins well enough, with one petty thief trying to convince another to help him rob the grave of Doctor Frankenstein, executed at the end of the previous narrative. The business between the reluctant thief and his con-man acquaintance provides the film's only comic relief, but the grave-robbers' scene is only designed to provide the explanation for the baron's return. The thieves find that the coffin of Frankenstein actually contains the headless body of a priest, who was somehow substituted for the Baron on the guilloutine. The reluctant burglar wisely flees, but the greedy one sticks around, and promptly gets a heart attack when he sees Baron Frankenstein himself show up at the gravesite, in the company of the usual hunchbacked aide. It's loosely implied that the Baron has showed up here to raid the graveyard for parts, but it seems pretty counter-intuitive for even a madman to show up at the same place where he's supposed to be buried, not even wearing any sort of disguise. This is particularly egregious since the Baron is masquerading as "Stein," a doctor to the poor in what I assume is the same city

In CURSE, the scientist was aided by an older mentor-figure, who harbored some ideals about using Frankenstein's ideas for the betterment of mankind. This time Frankenstein plays the mentor, for a younger medical student, Hans Kleve, reveals that he's figured out the true identity of Stein. Kleve wants to join Frankenstein in his endeavor, and the scientist accepts the younger man's offer with scarcely the turn of a hair. This presumably gives Frankenstein someone to talk to besides his hunchback, a peer with whom he can discuss his next project: to transfer the brain of the deformed assistant into a new body, once again cobbled together from multiple sources. Karl is only too happy to leave his ugly old body behind, though once the operation takes place, the former hunchback wants to simply return to normal life, rather than being Frankenstein's ongoing showpiece.

The doctor boasts that this time the procedure will succeed because he's not using a "bad brain." However, for reasons the script does not explain, Karl's new body begins taking on the same deformities as his original form. The production chooses to "cheap out" on the appearance of the Monster, leading to many other Hammer-monsters of unprepossessing appearance.

The monster pursues romance, causes a little havoc, and exposes Frankenstein to the public. Though the mad scientist meets his comeuppance, this time Sangster's script gives him a rationale-- however improbable-- so that he can go on to future installments-- which he did, generally to even more unimpressive results.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Since writing these two reviews, I've still not read any of the original Russell Thorndyke novels about the early quasi-superhero "The Scarecrow," a.k.a. "Doctor Syn." The character-- a former pirate named Clegg, who escaped his alleged death and became a parson in a small English village-- might be closer to a "villain" than a "hero," albeit a very benign villain. In the same way that Robin Hood fought the soldiers of the king to benefit the poor, Syn-- who is renamed Doctor Blyss in the 1962 film-- is out to better the lives of Romney Marsh's citizens by helping them smuggle wares in and out of the country. The local lawmen don't like this, just as the soldiers of King John resented Robin Hood's incursions, and on this hinges the conflict-- though Clegg/Blyss adds one touch that the lord of Locksley never thought of; having his merry men dress up in phosphorescent ghost-costumes to scare off the curious. However, one other major difference is that Robin Hood's opposition to the legal authorities comes to an end when King Richard returns and kicks John out. Within the context of the Thorndyke setup, smuggling will always be illegal, and so Blyss can only keep fighting the law until it kills him-- which, to drop a very minor spoiler, is exactly what transpires.

Since the plot-action of CLEGG is pretty close from that of the 1937 DOCTOR SYN, I won't repeat the specifics of the plot. Suffice to say that a new officer comes to Romney Marsh with the intent of rooting any and all smugglers. No one in 1962 or since is likely to doubt that the serene-looking parson Blyss (Peter Cushing) is really behind all the skullduggery, nor that the two young lovers Harry and Imogene (Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain) are destined to come together despite all odds. In one way Hammer's version is racier than that the 1937 adaptation: in both films an older man, who has functioned as a not-very-paternal guardian to Imogene since her childhood, puts the moves on his ward, revealing her tainted past so that she'll marry him. But the Hammer film plays the scene with more attempted bodice-ripping.

In terms of acting, Peter Cushing could do this simple swashbuckling-role in his sleep. The best scenes involve the limber actor showing off his fighting-skills against a bulkier opponent, and later trying to escape the constables at the film's finish. The film's visuals are both stark and evocative, particularly in the scenes with the "phantom horsemen." CLEGG is certainly the most watchable of the three adaptations.