Tuesday, June 27, 2017

FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL (1977)




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

Though I've not liked the works of kung fu diva Polly Shang Kwan as much as those of competitors like Chia Ling and Angela Mao, she's certainly a solid enough talent. That said, this cheap Taiwanese production is not the best intro to Polly's kickass-ery.

Polly plays Shih Pu Chuan, a girl with an unexplained passion for mastering Shaolin kung fu. However, the Shaolin temple doesn't allow women. Eventually, after some forgettable comic bits, Shih receives succor from a crazy old hermit monk, Chin Li, who has no problems with female students. At the same time, the temple has suffered a recent embarrassment. Thieves masquerading as monks infiltrated the temple and stole a series of books known as the "Ta Mo Classics," which confer great powers on the practitioners. Shih's mentor is versed in these techniques and teaches them to Shih so that she can retrieve the books from the thieves.

The weird abilities here are not borderline-real, like those I discussed in my review of THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.  In the film's most memorable scene, Shih faces off against a couple of kung-fu thieves who have used occult knowledge to stretch their limbs a la Plastic Man. Shih matches them in this respect-- although naturally the effects depicted are very dodgy-- and in another scene displays the ability to paralyze people with a touch. However, the side effect of all this martial training is that Shih starts turning into a man. At times she even grows a mustache, though most of the time the film's content to show her dressing in man's clothes.

Naturally, Shih wants to reverse this situation. However, her dippy master can't remember the "Negative Kung Fu" procedure necessary, so-- he escapes her questioning by faking his own death and having his corpse painted gold to serve as a temple-statue. During Shih's quest she finds her own solution by beating all the thieves and learning their secrets-- though some of the secrets seem rather non-occult, like a guy who seems to be invisible at first but is just using black clothes and makeup to blend in with darkness. In the end Shih, once more female, finds out that Chin Li is still alive, but he redeems himself by beating off a new threat and dying for real-- which is supposed to give the whole megilla a tragic ending, despite all the weird comic stuff that has preceded it. It's because of this conclusion that I can't quite deem FIGHT a total comedy, even though some moments, like a transformed man-turned-woman falling for Shih were certainly meant to be amusing.

KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950)



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


The 1937 adaptation of Rider Haggard's classic novel KING SOLOMON'S MINES was remarkably faithful to the source, even allowing for the fact that the film includes a gratuitous female character to provide the movie with a feminine lead. However, the plot was substantially the same, as were all the elements that gave it an uncanny phenomenality-- the exotic feel of the African terrain where Allan Quatermain ventures with his European expedition, and the weird customs of the people they encounter: the Kikuanas, a tribe so isolated that its people have never seen white people despite Europe's considerable incursions into the "Dark Continent."

However, both the script and direction of the 1950 film take pains to avoid any of the book's uncanny content. In this essay from my literary blog I mentioned how the novel invoked the exotic sense of a pair of mountains known as "Sheba's Breasts:" However, in the 1950 film the mountains are seen from a very great distance, even though they're still used as a functional marker for the expedition's entry in Kikuanaland. The mountains in the novel are also a prefiguration of Quatermain's encounter with a "terrible female," the gnarled old witch-finder Gagool, also the main villain of the story. This versions of MINES not only de-emphasizes the tribe's superstitions about witches, Gagool only appears as a male adviser to the film's main villain, evil chieftain Twala, Even Kikuanaland's mystique as the purported land of Solomon's mines is played down.

The main concern of MINES is a jungle-trek romance, in which married woman Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) hires Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) to find her lost treasure-seeking husband. During the trek the two romantic leads both bicker and fall in love, even before Elizabeth knows that her husband's dead. The film's only concern is this sort of banal "will-they-won't-they," with barely any attention to Elizabeth's moral struggle as a result of falling out of love with her lost husband. I mentioned in my review of the 1937 film that its version of Quatermain was true to the book, having him played as a fifty-something man, but the 1950 film goes with a young he-man image for this version of the Great White Hunter.

Because of the concluding combat between Twala and his goodguy nemesis Umbopa-- whose role is also diminished-- this is a combative adventure, but only in the naturalistic mode, in contrast to both the 1937 version and the goofy one from 1985. 


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

WONDER WOMAN (2017)


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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

It's been two weeks since the American debut of WONDER WOMAN, another linchpin in the "DC Movie Universe," directed by Patty Jenkins and scripted by Zach Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. The film has not only reaped substantial box office revenue-- reportedly the highest ever for a film centered on a female comic book character-- but also considerable critical praise. I agree with some of the praise, where it touches lead actress Gal Gadot, whose nuanced performance far exceeds her merely adequate walk-on as the Amazon Princess in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. Yet, where some reviews have championed WONDER WOMAN as an anodyne to earlier DC films, particular those of Snyder and Christopher Nolan, I find that Jenkins' film has almost as many plot-holes as those of her predecessors-- though the holes are definitely covered up better.

Of the many sins that can be lain at the door of Snyder's DAWN OF JUSTICE, the greatest is that of overweening ambition. The director, or someone involved with the project, picked up a schtick from 1990s DC Comics, which posited that Batman and Superman were not best buddies, as they'd been seen from the 1940s on, but two fractious crime-fighters who could just barely tolerate one another. Snyder took this idea and blew it up to Wagnerian proportions, implicitly as part of a game-plan for the eventual formation of the Justice League out of the chaos of the Batman-Superman conflict. Although other DC heroes are referenced in the course of this story, only Wonder Woman-- though she's never called that in DAWN or in her own film-- takes a direct role in sorting out the differences between DC's Big Two. Moreover, the frame-story of WONDER WOMAN takes place some time after DAWN OF JUSTICE, as Princess Diana records the story of her origin-- that is, the main body of the film-- for the benefit of Bruce Wayne.

I have no shortage of praise for the scripters' conceit of placing Princess Diana's origin within the last days of World War One. As most comics-mavens know, the character's creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, conceived that Wonder Woman came into being when the Amazons of Paradise Island became aware of the chaos of World War Two. Knowing that this havoc was the creation of the war-god Mars (later given his Greek name "Ares" in subsequent versions), they sent their finest warrior, Princess Diana, into "man's world" to stem the tide of fascism while simultaneously fighting for the rights of womanhood against the misogyny in patriarchal cultures. Marston's origin was entirely appropriate for a superheroine conceived in 1941, when America itself was on the cusp of entering the worldwide conflict, but many encounters since then between Wonder Woman and various "cartoony Nazis" has somewhat vitiated the appeal of Axis villains. Placing the character in World War One still allows Diana to be opposed to German military aggression, but the fact that the Germans answer to the Kaiser rather than the Fuhrer makes the scenario seem fresher.

Once the film gets beyond the early scenes on Paradise Island-- the most problematic in terms of consistency-- the script gets superb mileage out of the Marstonesque spectacle of seeing Diana portrayed as a forthright, independent woman playing "fish out of water" in a patriarchal culture. As in Marston's origin, American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) serves as the motivating force behind Diana's decision to leave her home Themiscyra. Perhaps predictably, the film places more emphasis on the mission to stop Ares-- whom Diana believes to be somehow responsible for the worldwide conflict-- than on her romantic infatuation with the first man she's ever seen. Throughout the film Trevor's character-- never much more than a "male Lois Lane" even in the best WONDER WOMAN comics-- takes on nearly as much dimension as Diana himself. He alternates between devotion to his duty-- that of delivering secret documents to the English high command-- and his utter fascination with a woman who is literally a creature born of fantasy. When the high command won't act on the information that might lead them to wipe out the villainous Doctor Poison-- an updating of the first costumed villain whom the comic-book heroine battled-- Trevor assembled a team of raffish mercenaries to help him, as well as Diana, penetrate the horrors of the trenches of "No Man's Land." Trevor also supplies the excuse for the script to work in a new version of Marston's comedy-relief character "Etta Candy" (Lucy Davis), who does supply some laughs but is more significant for making mention of women's inability to vote during the World War One years. Finally, he's also the voice of doubt in Diana's ears as she maintains that the Greek god of war is responsible for the war. She turns out to be right in the essentials but wrong in some particulars, and so like her comic-book predecessor she concludes the film with a knock-down drag-out battle against the embodiment of human aggression (visually modeled on the 1990s version of Ares as conceived by artist George Perez).




Okay, having sketched the events of the last two-thirds of the film-- which is all that most people will remember about it anyway-- now I have to address all the problems in the first third, which virtually scream out "we don't care if this makes any sense or not."

I had no expectations that WONDER WOMAN would be a faithful reproduction of Marston's Paradise Island; I merely hoped that the film's conception of it would be internally consistent  Indeed, I'm just as glad that Jenkins et al didn't try to give us an island where Amazons rode giant kangaroos and piloted invisible jets. But whatever juvenile gimmicks appeared in the original comic book, Marston's conception of the island's backstory possessed an elegant logic. In short, Athena created the Amazons to serve as a bulwark against male aggression in the ancient world, and Jenkins et al do get that much right. But Jenkins hurries past one of Marston's best motifs-- the idea that the Amazon queen Hippolyta ruined it all when she succumbed to a man's blandishments. Instead, the script merely claims that somehow the Amazons were conquered and enslaved, after which Athena liberated them and allowed them to build their isolated colony on Themiscyra. I'll admit that Jenkins and Co. couldn't have made any references to "magic girdles" without getting laughs from their audience. But Jenkins' total erasure of Hippolyta's sexual conquest also screws up the story-logic by which the Amazons then remove themselves from mankind into a literal hortus conclusus, a world without men. The only thing Jenkins is left with is that the Amazons are given their hidden isle so that far in the future they will be able to conquer the menace of Ares-- though none of the scenes on Themiscyra give any indication as to how the Amazons are supposed to figure out when Ares is going to show his face in the mortal world.

Then there's the matter of how the Amazons have hidden from mankind for so long. In some of the comics, the Amazons have mastered an advanced technology, so that they're diverting the attention of man's world though super-science. Yet in the movie, the only "protection" the non-technological Amazons have is a sort of invisibility screen, apparently left in place all these centuries by the gods of Greece-- although the screen does nothing to actually keep out either the plane of Steve Trevor or a ship full of pursuing Germans. How is such a meager defense supposed to have kept away sailing-ships over the eons? Or should one simply suppose that in the past the Amazons simply slaughtered all unwanted visitors, as they destroy the entire German contingent (admittedly in self-defense).

And then there's the question of why the screen should work at all, since all but one of the gods is dead. It seems that in the distant past, the God of War turned into the God of "Get These Kids Off My Lawn," for instead of taking pleasure in manipulating mortals into warfare, he simply wants all of mankind eradicated. When the other gods don't go along with this, Ares somehow kills all of them except Zeus, though the King of the Gods receives a mortal wound in the struggle. Ares is wounded too, which is perhaps why he doesn't seem to doing much of anything until the 20th century. The timeline is very hard to follow, but it sounds like Zeus must have hung on for quite a while, until one day Queen Hippolyte wanted to experience having a child without the direct contribution from a man. Zeus, however, does contribute to the equation, bringing the clay statue of Diana to life (which the film does not show), but also investing Diana with his power before he Zeus dies. As in the Marston origin Diana, the only child to actually grow to maturity on the isle of these immortal women, achieves a sort of "the last is the first" distinction. Still, there doesn't seem to much point to this "slash and burn" assault on Mount Olympus. I get that a movie-franchise doesn't have a bunch of deities hanging around-- the 1975 teleseries elided the gods for the same reason. But I think there might have been a better way to neutralize the Olympians than mass slaughter.

Adding to the confusion is that the Amazons-- even though they have no way of knowing when Ares will come back-- maintain a shrine containing a magical sword which is said to be the only way to slay the war-god. Or maybe it's not, because everything that the Amazons say about the sword is a little cryptic. But when it's revealed in the eleventh hour that the sword won't kill Ares, and that Diana has to find another way, it makes one wonder why that damn sanctuary was built at all.

I could go on about other acts of conspicuous carelessness, like the fact that the Amazons are fully conversant in dozens of modern languages yet have no idea that there's a world war going on. Yet I'll wrap up by saying that if Jenkins and Co. succeeded at anything, it's in the characterization of Princess Diana. All too often post-Marston versions of Wonder Woman have been over-invested in Wonder Woman's anti-aggression rhetoric-- far more than Marston himself, since he makes clear that his Diana is something of a "female jock." Thus, in later versions Wonder Woman often came off as something of a "plaster saint," rather than a fallible human being. The WONDER WOMAN script makes one misstep, when Diana's aunt Antiope criticizes the young heroine for being riddled with doubts. Perhaps this was an idea that was discarded early on, for throughout the film proper Diana is if anything a creature of unrelenting passions. I found this a refreshing take on the character. When she wants to protect a struggling Belgian village, she's passionate about that, and when she wants to kill the being she holds responsible, she's no less passionate about that. At the very least this ensures that there's no major disconnect between a woman who battles the agents of war by beating up people. And because both Jenkins' direction and the script give Gadot ample opportunity to show different states of emotion, Diana becomes, despite all other script-flaws, the embodiment of what Marston wanted: "a powerful being of light and happiness" amid a world torn by "hatreds, war, and destruction."

Friday, June 9, 2017

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), TWINS OF EVIL (1971)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

Anthony Hinds was no longer in the producer's chair when Hammer filmed SCARS OF DRACULA, the last of the Dracula films set in the 1800s, but under the pseudonym "John Elder" Hinds contributed the script for SCARS, which was the last time the studio adapted one of his vampire tales.

I'd like to say that Hinds pulled out all stops with SCARS. Unfortunately, I'm the camp of detractors, thato finds that the series had become so predictable that even the subsequent attempt to bring Drac into the 20th century,  DRACULA A.D. 1972, was a slight improvement.

The threadbare plot puts Dracula back in Central Europe after his brief trip to England in  TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. How the Count got back to Europe after being killed in England is not addressed, but soon Dracula revives from one of his many deaths and begins preying on locals with a vengeance. He even goes so far as to unleash flocks of bats on his victims. Instead of focusing on any of the innocents around, though, Hinds centers his narrative on the transgression of a foolish libertine, Paul Carlson, who takes refuge in the Count's castle to escape the consequences of shtupping one of the village girls. At the castle Paul gets propositioned by one of Dracula's mistresses, paralleling a development back in HORROR OF DRACULA. The Count kills the vampiress, and keeps Paul prisoner.

For all the appeal Paul possesses, he might as well have stayed there, but he happens to get some help. Simon, Paul's more thoughtful brother who goes looking for Paul, aided by his girlfriend Sarah. (Amusingly, at one point Sarah tells Simon that Paul made a pass at her, but that she turned him down despite being attracted to him.) The two of them and various allies make assaults on Castle Dracula, but not only are they unable to save Paul, Dracula tries to add Sarah to his list of conquests.

Director Roy Ward Baker would do two more vampire films for Hammer after this, and both have better action than SCARS, even though the film displays more ample gore than any Hammer film previous. The script is exceedingly talky and shows little interest in either characterization or the complexities of vampire mythology. While other Hammer vamp-films had been able to give the other actors their moments to shine, SCARS really has nothing but Chris Lee's charisma to offer. This does give the film an advantage over the ones in which Lee barely appears, like the aforementioned TASTE. But it's not much of an advantage without an engaging script.



Strangely, the next year Hammer issued the last of its "Carmilla trilogy," though TWINS OF EVIL barely has anything in common with the LeFanu novel, aside from using some of the same names. Yet scripter Tudor Gates-- who also authored the previous two Carmilla flicks-- does a better job of producing an "Anthony Hinds" script than Anthony Hinds did in SCARS. I don't remember either THE VAMPIRE LOVERS or LUST FOR A VAMPIRE harping on Hinds' favorite hobby-horse-- "Aristocrats Are Responsible for All Evils"-- but I admit I haven't watched them for a while.

The film is set in "Central Europe," which is under the rule of a vague "Emperor," making it impossible to figure out when it takes place. The other Carmilla flicks are, like the LeFanu novel, set in the 1800s, but some of the costumes in TWINS, particularly the Puritan-like garments of the film's witch-finders, suggest the 17th century. The costumes may have simply been what Hammer had available, but they suggest that the genesis of the project might have been a response to other "witchfinder" films of the period, such as 1968's CONQUEROR WORM, which explicitly took place in the 17th century. The storyline even suggests some of the religious upheavals of that time-frame, pitting the stern dictums of European Protestants against the entrenched practices of Catholics and their aristocratic allies.

The other two "Carmilla" films focus upon the female vampires. TWINS has a corrupt aristocrat, Count Karnstein, who sleeps around a lot and ends up selling his soul to Satan to become a vampire. But this time the vampire is a supporting villain. Similarly, the titular twins are not the real focus of the story, and the title itself is a misnomer, since only one twin, Frieda, embraces the evil of vampirism, while the other, Maria, is entirely innocent. The focal character here is actually the head witchfinder Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing).

Weil-- whose name is appropriately pronounced "vile"-- is a stern man, utterly committed to his view of religion, which means that he sees the Devil manifest in all forms of concupiscence. At the outset he and his fellow worshipers raid a lone cottage, haul out its sexy female inhabitant, and burn her to death for being a witch. This is, however, not a film like CONQUEROR WORM, where no boogiemen exist, for it's soon made clear that there are vampires that prey on the citizens. This conflation of witches and vampires as being equal agents of Satan muddles the theme a bit. If no witches or vampires really existed, then Weil and his cohorts would be nothing but nasty old men acting out violent fantasies on (mostly) helpless women. However, since the boogiemen really exist-- though no witches as such surface-- the film seems to be saying that Weil's main sin is not hypocritical lust, but a lack of discrimination in which subconscious lust may play a part.

The twins Maria and Freida, who have fallen under their uncle Weil's protection following their parents' deaths, are pretty schematic examples of the "utterly good girl" and "utterly bad girl." Weil is never seen to show any lustful emotions toward either of them, but their presence in his house seems to mean nothing to him but the opportunity to save their souls. Weil's wife is a slight mitigating influence on his unbending sternness, but it's hard not to sympathize with the earthy Frieda when she rebels against Weil's tyranny.

Another supporting character, a teacher named Anton, offers a more balanced view of the situation than Weil. Anton, standing in for the audience, condemns the raids of Weil's congregation. Yet he's fully aware that vampires really exist, and even criticizes Weil for burning potential vampires, not because it's wrong to burn people without a trial, but because burning merely destroys a vampire's outer shell, so that the evil spirit can still move on to another form. This is a rather eccentric take on vampire mythology, but it serves Gates' purpose. In the last half-hour of the film Anton condemns the witch-hunter congregation for not taking up arms against the real evil of Count Karnstein, and it's clear that they have been guilty of taking on only helpless individuals because they knew that rebelling against the aristocracy could get them in dutch with the Emperor.

Despite the dodgy morality of giving witch-hunters any ethical compass, Anton's speech galvanizes the congregation into attacking the castle of Karnstein, using stakes and axes rather than fire. It's certainly one of the better conclusions to a Hammer horror-film  of the early 1970s, the more so because even though it's a given that nasty Karnstein must die, Weil doesn't get off scot free despite good intentions. I don't know if Gates wanted to suggest that both extremes of libertinism and austerity were bad and deserved to destroy one another, but that's the way I took it.

There are various side-plots revolving around the twins: Frieda gets Maria to cover for Frieda's absences, Freida tries to get Maria burned by the witch-hunters in order to put them off Frieda's track. These plot-lines aren't any more compelling than the characters (though the actresses involved are among the most comely seen in a 1970s Hammer film). Had the film actually been focused on them rather than Weil, it might have resembled those works of the Marquis de Sade in which the virtuous sister Justine is constantly tormented, while Juliette, the sister who represents "vice," is constantly rewarded.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

SPY IN YOUR EYE (1965), FURY IN MARRAKECH (1966)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous*, (2) *uncanny,*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


SPY IN YOUR EYE was the American title for an Italian Eurospy movie, directed by Vittorio Sala. The "eye" of the title refers to the glass eye of Colonel Lancaster (Dana Andrews), who sends the hero Brett Morris on his missions. Unfortunately for the good guys, evil Russian agents have put a miniature camera inside the colonel's false eye, which allows them to see things he sees.

This aspect of the film wasn't highlighted in the original film, and it has very little impact on the main plot. Morris must seek to protect Paula, a dead scientist's daughter, because bad spies suspect that she may have notes on her father's invention, a hand-held death-ray. Paula claims not to know anything, but no one believes her. In fact, as I remember some Chinese agents do get hold of a finished death-ray gun at one point, and use it to shoot down a bird in flight. That's all we ever see of the death-ray, but unlike some of these "Bond on the cheap" flicks, at least you get to see the marvelous doohickey everyone's running around after. Some may remember that in THE SECOND BEST SECRET AGENT, the rumored weapon never becomes more than a scientific theory.

Sala directs this spy-flick in a oddly restrained manner for the first half, as if it were a realistic espionage flick. Then in the fllm's latter half, Morris starts encountering some oddball threats. One, shown above, is a wax dummy of Napoleon that can stab people who get too close. And at the ending, Morris infiltrates a laboratory-- Russian, I think-- in which the whole room is set on a revolving plate, in order to conceal it behind a wall. When a fight breaks out between Morris and the bad spies, this makes for an odd climax, as sections of the room start shifting around. In fact, in a scene reminiscent of AUSTIN POWERS, a henchwoman gets crunched by a moving desk, when she could have simply jumped on top of it to avoid injury. Despite the star power of Dana Andrews, and the nascent talent of Pier Angeli in the role of Paula, it's a fairly dull outing, partly because it lacks a noteworthy villain.



FURY IN MARRAKECH, though also an Italian production, fares much better in its Bondian efforts. In the print I saw the agent is called "Bob Dixon," though the original idea was apparently to make FURY one of the "Bob Fleming" series, the last in the series before this being KILLERS ARE CHALLENGED. But this film has a sprightlier feel to it, and it doesn't mind undercutting some of the spy-genre's serious tropes.

This time there's a plot to flood the European market with counterfeit money, and there's a big bad guy, Karl Kuntz, behind it all, who has a SPECTRE-style conference with other big-time crooks in order to coordinate their efforts. However, there's a fly in the ointment: a female thief infiltrated Kuntz's organization and stole some of the fake money. Kuntz wants to recover the money and kill the thief, but Dixon's organization has already found out about the operation. So Dixon wants to find the girl and use her to find Kuntz, and the printing-plates used to make the fake dough.

That plot set-up out of the way, FURY is then free to send its hero traipsing through the Caribbean, the Swiss Alps, and, of course, Marrakech, During his travels he fights with the henchmen of Kuntz, which includes a tough blonde girl who not only uses a little karate but is also seen beating up a bound victim with her fists-- rather an unusual sight in the 1960s. The film's clever about its spy-gadgets-- a pocket flamethrower, a pen that shoots around corners-- but sadly, Dixon can't use the souped-up car devised by the Q-like technician, because-- he has to travel by plane!

There's a lively chase-scene in the snow-covered Alps, capped off by a bizarre bit of humor, when one of Dixon's female assistants reveals, for no reason save a concluding gag, that "she" is really a "he" (even though it's still a "she" playing the role).

THE GHOUL (1933)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

I wanted to give THE GHOUL a higher mythicity-rating than "poor." In the 1930s Great Britain didn't produce much of lasting interest within the horror-genre, as witness the same-year mystery-horror flick THE SHADOW. Director T. Hayes Hunter, an American transplanted to England, does a good job of giving THE GHOUL the murky, German-Expressionist look of early Universal horror films. and there's a clear attempt to duplicate the success of Universal's THE MUMMY by featuring Boris Karloff in another story with Egyptian elements. From what I can make out, the screenplay used only minimal elements from a now forgotten book-and-play by one Frank King, and what emerges is more like a crossbreeding of Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE (sinister people looking for a fabulous gem) and Edgar Allan Poe (seemingly dead man comes back to life due to catalepsy). These jumbled elements don't necessarily take away from the story's potential for symbolic discourse, but when all's said and done, THE GHOUL just leaves a "good-looking corpse." with no real life in it.

A quick sequence establishes that a sinister Arab, Aga Ben Dragore, is in England looking for a valuable gem, the Eternal Light. (In contrast to Collins' novel, the implication is not that Dragore boasts any authentic ownership of the bauble: he's just an adventurer looking for the main chance.) An informant tells Dragore that the gem is currently owned by eccentric Egyptologist Henry Morlant. Morlant himself is dying, but he's become so invested in Egyptian ritual that he has a statue to Anubis in his bedroom, and he plans a ritual to the god when he dies-- one that involves making sure that he can present the Eternal Light to the god when he Morlant is buried with the gem.

The film then shows Morlant on his death-bed, making his final arrangements with his apparently faithful bulter Laing (Ernest Thesiger doing a rather thick Scottish accent). Morlant swears to come back from the grave after he perishes, and to that end, he even instructs Laing to leave a key on the inside of Morlant's crypt, so that Morlant can get out easily when Anubis gives him "eternal life" for the successful completion of the ritual.

The announcement of Morlant's death initiates the apportioning of his holdings to his heirs, by the family lawyer, Broughton. In many "old dark house" films, this would be an excuse to bring in a small army of relatives, the better for some of them to be killed off during the story, but given that this is "the Moonstone" rather than "Ten Little Indians," we only get two cousins, Ralph and Betty, and Betty's comedy-relief friend Kaney. Despite the fact that Ralph and Betty snipe at each other for most of the film, they're clearly the romantic leads, which happens to cohere somewhat with a major plot-line of Collins' MOONSTONE, also a story involving about cousin-cousin romance. They know nothing about Morlant's weird habits of worship or the fabulous gem, but other people certainly do-- such as Dragore, posing as a scholar-colleague to Morlant in order to snoop around for the gem. On top of that, the audience knows that Laing stole the gem from the crypt before sealing up Morlant's body. Then, as if verifying the truth of the Egyptian magic, a haggard-looking Morlant staggers out of the crypt, looking for the missing jewel.

The film's most powerful scenes are naturally those of Karloff stalking around Frankenstein-style. Because he moves so slowly, he only manages to kill one victim, the butler Laing. Still, Morlant is still a source of horror to those who behold what seems to be a walking dead man. Meanwhile, the hunt for the gem by greedy self-seekers-- Dragore, possibly Broughton, and a thief in priest's clothing. Admittedly, a lot of their actions don't scan too well on close analysis, but they do keep things moving until the climax. Morlant gets back to the tomb, tries to perform his ritual before the statue of Anubis, and dies. One of the thieves traps Ralph in the tomb and only a blazing fire sets him free. It's then quickly revealed that Morlant suffered from catalepsy, and that all of his actions-- including bending metal bars-- are supposedly the actions of a living man.

It's a pretty weak explanation, but since the film has steered clear of the bonafide occultism of THE MUMMY, it seems to be the only one available, and thus the film falls into the trope-category of "freakish flesh," both for Morlant's catalepsy and his demonstration of uncanny strength. Since the film merely uses Egyptian religion as a plot-device and has no interest in its metaphysical ramifications, THE GHOUL's main function would seem to be sociological: not only in terms of describing the way certain Englishmen become fascinated with exotic cultures, but also with regard to the subject of cultural consanguinity.



Monday, June 5, 2017

DEMENTIA 13 (1963)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


DEMENTIA 13 was the first mainstream directorial efforts by Francis Ford Coppola, but if one didn't know of his later fame, the film-- whose script Coppola also wrote-- would not signal any special promise.

To be sure, DEMENTIA began as producer Roger Corman seeking to tailgate on the success of Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and in following this dictum, Coppola was just delivering what the producer wanted. But even imitative directors have been known to produce worthy work, and DEMENTIA, despite some fine visuals, suffers from a weak script that doesn't even do that good a job of imitating its source.

Yes, just as PSYCHO starts out with a female POV character who dies early in the film,so does DEMENTIA. In terms of character Louise (Luana Anders) resembles Marion less than the many golddiggers (of both sexes) from the Hitchcock anthology series. She's married her husband John because she knows he has wealthy relatives in Ireland, and quarrels with him when she learns that his mother's will is set to devote all of the family wealth to charity, in the name of her deceased daughter Kathleen. John has a heart attack during the quarrel and Louise conceals his dead body, the better to travel to Ireland and try to get the will changed to Louise's benefit. How she thinks this will work without a living husband is anyone's guess.

Louise ingratiates herself into the castle of Lady Haloran and her two grown sons, all of whom participate in odd rituals devoted to the late Kathleen. Louise gets the idea of running a scam on the bereaved old woman, but while she's in the midst of laying her plans, an axe-wielding psycho kills Louise and conceals her body. The POV then largely shifts to the local doctor, an intense fellow named Caleb, who decides to solve the mystery of the missing daughter-in-law.

Because all of the characters are so thin, DEMENTIA fails to generate much suspense about who done it, and Corman even injected a little more killing when Coppola failed to provide it. It's interesting that Coppola's storytelling barely resembles the brisk efficiency of Hitchcock. If anything, his slow, meditative style bears more resemblance to DIABOLIQUE, the evocative 1955 that helped interest Hitchcock in attempting a horror film. However, early Coppola not only isn't even close to Hitchcock, he isn't even fit to polish the boots of Henri-George Clouzot.