Friday, January 31, 2014

TAI CHI ZERO, TAI CHI HERO (2012)



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


The TAI CHI films of director Stephen Fung offer good basic fantasy kung-fu  set in China at the turn of the 20th century. This has been a fertile ground for Hong Kong/Chinese filmmakers, but Fung offers a different touch: the machine-loving West in this film is more technologically advanced than it was in the real world, so that once or twice we see wild "steampunk" mechanisms that would have been impossible during the real world.

On the Chinese side, the traditions of magical martial arts, this time subsumed under the discipline of "tai chi," remains pretty consistent with other cinematic depictions, in that true masters of the art can perform phenomenal physical stunts.  As an extra added attraction, the hero Lu Chan (Jayden Wong) seems to have some sort of demonic persona within him, but this aspect of his nature is not explored in any detail in the two films.  Presumably Fung intends to wrap up the supernatural subplot in a sequel, but anyone watching should be aware that this plotline will not be resolved.

In the first part, Lu Chan-- the "zero" of the title-- seeks out a remote Chinese village in order to learn the art of tai chi, in order to cure his particular demonic malady.  The locals all refuse to train him, including the pretty daughter of the village's grandmaster, Yu Niang, and they meet his requests for tutelage by thrashing him in assorted comic scenes. Over time Lu Chan learns to approximate the moves of the villagers from watching how they move as they beat him up.  At the same time, Yu Niang's fiance Feng Zei-- obviously the villain, since he wears Western clothes-- plots to dispossess the people of the village and use their land for a new railroad.

The first film has a nice blend of comedy and action, particularly when Lu Chan and Yu Niang join forces to defeat the monstrous octopus-armed wrecking machine Feng Zei brings with him.  However, the second film loses the comic feel once Lu Chan becomes a kung-fu superman, losing all the winsome qualities he had before, and even winning over the stubborn female lead.  HERO is just as spectacular as ZERO, but it lacks the heart of the original. And as said before, the lack of closure with respect to the demon-plotline is aggravating.

At times Fung's script hints at some rapprochement between the science-based outlook of the West and the mysterious arts of the East.  All too often, though, he succumbs to the frequent chauvinism of Chinese films about this historical period, and so undermines the validity of his implied theme.

ADDENDUM: Originally my rrview was accompanied by a repro of a TAI CHI lobby card. But even though there are numerous film-review sites featuring similar material for these two films, someone associated with the film and/or its distribution chose to file a legal infringement complaint. Presumably they didn't notice my site in particular, but just targeted a bunch of sites to justify their billable hours.

Since I don't care enough about these extremely minor films to counter-claim, I have erased the offending picture and substituted a picture of the Gooneybird from TARZAN ESCAPES, which sums up my opinion of the whole business.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

SPY HARD (1996), YOUR HIGHNESS (2011), YEAR ONE (2009)


 
 
 
 
 
PHENOMENALITY: (1,2) *marvelous,* (3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


Though "gross humor" is often derided as an "easy" way for a comedian to get a laugh, in truth it's just as hard to do *good* gross humor as any other kind.

SPY HARD, the earliest of the three I'll review here, is not a particularly good film, but it probably comes closer to its goal than the other two.  Like the ZAZ-team parodies it emulates, SPY HARD takes a scattershot approach to spoofing its subject-- this time the genre of the "superspy film"-- but its best jokes only come up to the level of the Zuckers' lesser ones.  (To be sure, ZAZ didn't do that well with its superspy spoof in TOP SECRET.) 

All the expected jokes, particularly the sexual ones, make their usual appearances, particularly in the name of Leslie Nielsen's bumbling spy, "Dick Steele," aka "Agent WD-40."  Nielsen's character is indistinguishable from his Frank Drebbin character of the NAKED GUN films and teleseries, so it's not surprising that the villain steals the show.  Andy Griffith plays the evil genius General Rancor, who gets all the mileage he can out of being a spoof of James Bond's "Doctor No."  Where No merely lost one hand, Rancor lost both arms due to Dick Steele, and tends to lose his substitute robot arms at the drop of, well, an arm. Best Rancor joke: Steele greets him by saying, "I'd shake your hand, but I don't remember where I left it."

Aside from Griffith, SPY HARD's main asset is that, like the better Bond films, it supplies an ample quantity of sexy women, including Nicolette Sheridan, Stephanie Romanov, and Marcia Gay Harden, most accompanied by goofy names of the "Pussy Galore" variety.  The gross humor is applied with a light touch, which puts the film a little ahead of the second two AUSTIN POWERS films.  The script is partly credited to the Friedberg-Seltzer writing-team, who have become infamous for a spate of lame, unfocused gross-humor spoofs whose titles are always some version of "[fill in the blank] MOVIE."  These films, which are almost uniformly awful, have earned the scorn by many film-fans, but detractors of F&S may be surprised to find that SPY HARD sticks pretty close to the subject of Bond-spoofery rather than wandering into a host of irrelevant pop-culture venues, as the "MOVIES" do.  However, SPY HARD does take a shot at HOME ALONE for no good reason.




I was largely bored when I watched YOUR HIGHNESS in the theater, but I decided to give it a second try. I still didn't like the film's attempt to package American comedian Danny McBride along the lines of a new Jack Black, this time in an otherworldly D&D fantasy where everyone, particularly McBride's character, finds themselves unable to pass even a few moments without a reference to cocks, pussies, or someone or other being "gay."  I should note that, in the interests of political correctness, the one really gay villain is treated with a dollop of compassion.  The plot involves Thadeous getting dragged along when an evil wizard kidnaps Fabious' fiancée, but eventually finding his own brand of heroism-- as well as forming a booty-call relationship with tough lady warrior Isabel (Natalie Portman).

On my second viewing I did think that there was some potential in the set-up: perennial screw-up Prince Thadeous (McBride) nurses a resentment of his near-perfect brother Fabious (James Franco) because Fabious is automatically guaranteed to become king, insuring that everyone's always sucking up to Fabious.  (The thought that Thadeous would still be in line for the kingship if Fabious kicked off doesn't occur to anyone in the kingdom.)  So Thadeous' horndog nature could be seen as overcompensation for being constantly downgraded.  The script's intelligent enough to put this much psychological insight out there, which is more than most "gross humor" films even attempt.  But the writers-- who seem to understand the dynamics of high fantasy fairly well-- don't really want to poke any holes in the image of Fabious' perfect hero-prince, so there's not really anywhere for the story to go except for Thadeous to get over his sibling-envy and "man up." The fight-scenes and the FX-- particularly the five-headed dragon seen above-- impressed me more than a number of more expensive fantasy-flicks of recent years, particularly the recent I, FRANKENSTEIN.  The perfect blend of "high fantasy" and "low humor" still has yet to be made, though.




As of this writing YEAR ONE is the most recent outing for Harold Ramis as director.  Though most celebrated as a writer, Ramis also directed a number of good comedy-films, including CADDYSHACK and GROUNDHOG DAY.  The decade of the 2000s wasn't so fortunate for director Ramis, starting out with the dismal remake BEDAZZLED (2000) and ending with this film.  In YEAR ONE Jack Black and Michael Cena play two dumb cavemen, "Zed" and "Oh," who wander out of their enclosed valley into the world of the Old Testament.  They encounter figures who are wildly separated from one another by the Bible's version of history, meeting first Cain and Abel, then Abraham, Isaac, and the city of Sodom.  For good measure, Sodom's reigning princess has been given the non-Biblical name "Inanna" (original name for the goddess best known as "Ishtar").  Some of the cavepeople from the tribe of the two dummies also get taken as slaves in Sodom, and two of them are women coveted by the doltish cavemen.

Black and Cena deliver as much moxie as they can playing a sort of reverse Laurel-and-Hardy-- that is, a team in which the passive member of the team keeps getting screwed over by the bullshittery of his more aggressive buddy.  The jokes, though, are even more unfunny and repetitive than those in YOUR HIGHNESS, and on top of that they feel forced, as if Ramis was just delivering the goods he thought the audience would want. 

What's most interesting about the script is what it doesn't do: no mingling of the fantasy-material often found in both the caveman-genre and "the Bible film."  As I've observed elsewhere, most cavemen films can't resist tossing in dinosaurs.  Such movies attain an "uncanny" status given that they're producing an altered version of real history, not positing the dinos as an intrusion of the marvelous upon the commonplace world.  YEAR ONE, though, isn't mixing dinos with cavemen, but cavemen with Biblical priests and patriarchs.  I suppose I should also judge YEAR ONE as "uncanny" on the same basis, given that historical periods are lumped together in the same cavalier fashion as the cavemen/dino flicks.

The film also avoids any hint of supernatural phenomena, whether on the side of God or his various competitors.  With this elision Ramis, one of three writers of YEAR's script, is certainly meant to undermine Hollywood's history to validate Biblical history, including the Bible's version of deity.  Zed trespasses on the "forbidden fruit" of a "tree of knowledge" in his secluded valley, but it's really just a fruit, so that Zed gains no knowledge by eating it. A snake does show up, but it doesn't tempt or talk to anyone; it just tries to strangle Oh.  The encounters with Cain and Abraham also suggest that God isn't really sending down any commandments to anyone, and though Zed tries to convince others-- and himself-- that he is God's chosen one, he ends the film by exhorting the natives of Sodom-- whom God never gets round to destroying-- to put an end to all such superstitions.  But YEAR ONE is no LIFE OF BRIAN, which managed to make its raunchy moments work in the context of genuine satire.  The most one can say is that thanks to the stars it's a little more entertaining than BEDAZZLED.

ADDENDUM: SPY HARD and YOUR HIGHNESS both qualify as "combative comedies," but YEAR ONE is merely punctuated by unfocused bouts of slapstick fighting, and so remains subcombative.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

KING KONG (1976)





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*


He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their god.-- Jack Prescott, KING KONG, 1976.

Though the '76 KING KONG is riddled with many bad lines of dialogue, the quote above is a happy exception, and may well be the best line ever written by notorious BATMAN-teleseries scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr.  This line sums up a theme that might be listed alongside some of those I listed in my review of the 1933 classic:  White Explorers as Running-Dog Imperialists, stealing the culture of Third World (and often nonwhite) tribal peoples, this time in the form of the natives' violent god.  This theme is not overt in the 1933 film, though arguably it's strongly implicit in the sequel SON OF KONG. In that film Carl Denham's ship is taken over by sailors with Marxist sentiments, but this doesn't stop the entrepreneur from looting an ancient temple on Skull Island and maybe-not-coincidentally witnessing-- albeit not causing-- the destruction of the island and all of its inhabitants.


I'm not saying, though, that Semple's script is deeply concerned with the fate of Third World natives.  The line, spoken by hero Prescott (Jeff Bridges),  may be interpreted as the writer's attempt to derive added pathos from the original film's famous line, "[Kong] was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity." With his "terror and mystery" line, Semple touches on something profound regarding the relationship of divinity and violence in humankind's early religious history.  Not surprisingly, the rest of the script isn't capable of sustaining this insight, so Semple usually falls back on trite attacks aimed at the vulgarity of the movie industry.  This approach is typified by the massively unfunny line spoken by ingénue Dwan (Jessica Lange): 'Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by "Deep Throat"?'

Equally trite-- though probably much more resonant in 1976-- were the script's villainization of the oil industry.  The basic idea is a good update of the entrepreneur-scenario of the original film, in that in 1976 one cannot as easily imagine Carl Denham's daring if unethical "seat-of-his-pants" filmmaker.  In place of Denham we have the colorlessly named "Fred Wilson" (Charles Grodin), who initiates a voyage to a mysterious fog-shrouded island in search of oil reserves.  Grodin gives a fine performance, making Wilson the ultimate corporate finagler looking for a big score, but one who so lacks Denham's courage that he doesn't even want to pose for a photo with Dwan because he's "a married man." By comparison, Prescott is brave at all the right times, but though he's potentially more rounded than Bruce Cabot's Driscoll, Prescott remains a flat-as-cardboard stereotype of a Concerned Environmentalist.  He says all the right lines, yet curiously fails to earn his status as the film's moral center-- perhaps because for a short period, he does sell out and co-operate with Wilson's idea to take Kong captive.  Prescott is at his best when he first stows away aboard Wilson's ship, and intrudes on Wilson's mission-statement to assert that the readings from the island may have been caused not by petroleum deposits but by "animals breathing."  Had the producers wanted to follow the original film in making the island a haven for many prehistoric terrors, this could have supplied an interesting irony, as the seekers of fossil fuels would have been brought into contact with still-living fossils.

Lange's Dwan takes the place of "Ann Darrow," the third principal character who intrudes upon Kong's sanctum.  Perhaps because she is an aspiring starlet, the script does not position her as an innocent, much less a virgin, though strangely her "Deep Throat" line may be the closest she comes to that mythic status. (Dwan ends up on Wilson's ship because she took passage on another ship to audition for a film-role, left a below-decks party in which "Deep Throat" was being screened, and survived the ship's sinking because she was on deck and managed to escape in a lifeboat.)  It seems that the producers wanted Dwan, like Prescott, to be more rounded than the original character from 1933.  Yet Dwan, like Prescott, doesn't always convince one with her character shifts.  Initially terrified of Kong, she gets over her fear a little too fast, as Semple hedges his bets with more goofy lines, as per the famed "You Goddamn chauvinist pig ape!"  Once free of Kong's grasp, she does evince sympathy for the doomed giant, something Wray's Darrow never did. One of the film's best scenes-- a scene without any parallel in the 1933 film-- takes place in the ship's hold, where the drugged Kong has been imprisoned.  Dwan falls into Kong's prison and is saved from death when Kong catches her. His more-than-beast magnanimity-- releasing her when he could have crushed her for her role in his captivity-- so impresses her that at the film's climax she puts aside her glory-seeking ambitions and tries, without success, to save the king from his execution.

But as I said in my first KONG review, these three viewpoint characters are not the center of the film: Kong is.  It almost goes without saying that this Kong lacks the symbolic richness of the original.  To the filmmakers' credit, the references to Kong's animal nature-- as when the sailors debate what the big monkey's going to do with his prize-- don't completely overpower Kong's status as a "terror and mystery." This was a danger, one that arguably was fulfilled by the impoverished script of Peter Jackson's 2005 remake.  As many before me have said, Kong's sympathetic status is enhanced by Rick Baker's lifelike facial masks and his overall performance in the "ape suit," though it's also fair to say that the suit doesn't look too good in long shots.  Director John Guillerman's reshoots of Kong's big battle-scenes, both on the island and in New York, are fair at best, and Kong's one encounter with another dino-critter is tedious.  This Kong isn't allowed to be as gratuitously bloody-handed as the original-- no biting people in half, or dropping them from great heights-- though to be sure Kong still kills a bunch of train-passengers in one of the better-executed scenes. 

I viewed the original KONG as a film in the "combative mode." The big ape's triumphs over various monsters on Skull Island were more than just exercises in Willis O'Brien's superb animation skills; they also furnished proof that he was the King of All He Surveyed-- thus making it more pathetic when he falls victim to the power of modern technology.  It's understandable that the 1976 filmmakers had no interest in providing the same number of Kong-dino conflicts, but one consequence is that Kong loses some of his sovereign status.  Also, the script errs by allowing Kong to run loose in the city for a period.  The original wisely realized that Kong's threat would fade once modern weapons, even those of 1933, were wielded against him: his horror proceeds from his erupting on the city-dwellers like a bomb.  By having Kong lurk around in hiding for a time, his menace is dissipated. Something similar occurred in 1998's GODZILLA, and even in 1953's BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, where the creature's disease-bearing nature insulated the monster from a direct attack.  This delaying action seems predicated on arranging things so that Kong's Last Stand at the World Trade Center can be made moderately logical, and to give Prescott a way to redeem himself for his sins.  But the attempts of Dwan and Prescott to save Kong take away from Kong's status as an icon of power and terror.

I observed in my review that the biplanes of the 1933 film may carry a resonance of "respect for a fallen foe."  From a graphic angle, this film's use of attacking helicopters is a decent compromise, since biplanes would not have been feasible.  But there's no deeper symbolic reading of the 'copters, though the film's attitude toward technology as a whole suggests that Man the Tool-User has won the fight before it even started.  In any case, because Kong's battles on the island and in the city are not central to the theme, this is not a film in the combative mode.




Thursday, January 23, 2014

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (1961)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


BATTLE OF THE WORLDS was the second film whose direction was entirely credited to famed Italian genre-director Antonio Margheriti.  Previous to BATTLE Margheriti had directed a much more static science-fiction film, ASSIGNMENT OUTER SPACE.  BATTLE, while hampered no less than ASSIGNMENT with a miniscule budget, does a far better job in conjuring the "sense of wonder" that was the province of most Italian-made SF films.

In my review of two 1970s Italian space-operas, I noted how much Italian SF-cinema seemed entrenched in the tropes of "the Buck Rogers comic strip."  BATTLE, however, is more kissing conceptual cousins with the Flash Gordon comic, which, as all SF-devotees should know, begins when a rogue planet invades Earth's solar system and begins causing havoc.

In the comic strip, Earth's havoc is the fault of the evil master of the planet, Ming the Merciless.  In BATTLE, the audience eventually learns that there is no living villain behind the rogue planet: that it was originally meant to function as a "Noah's Ark" for the alien race within, but instead became "their tomb." 

Both the comic strip and the movie felicitously ignored the more cosmic disruptions that would ensue if an entire planet somehow forced its way into a solar system.  Such disruptions probably would have wiped out all life in said system before any denizens had a chance to be heroic. But of the two, BATTLE OF THE WORLDS makes a modest attempt to treat the planetary catastrophe in straight, pseudo-scientific fashion, rather than as an excuse for pure heroics, a la Flash Gordon.  That's not say that the science invoked by BATTLE's script is credible.  But there's at least an attempt to provide a reasoned account as to how the planet enters the system, and how the embattled Earthmen can get rid of it.

The spokesman of the glories of science is also the film's most noteworthy character, the acerbic Doctor Benson (Claude Rains).  Benson seems to have been conceived somewhat along the lines of Conan Doyle's equally caustic Professor Challenger, in that Benson considers all of his colleagues to be illiterate jackasses and that he alone has the genius to counter the threat.  Even allowing for the vagaries of the English translation, I suspect that even the Italian dialogue is no less loopy, as Benson says things like “I do not maintain! I ascertain!” To be sure, at the conclusion Benson shows that he can walk the walk as well as talking the talk, for at the climax he accompanies the younger astronauts in their exploration of the alien world, which Benson has dubbed "the Outsider."  This name is providential, for Benson loses his life in his pursuit of this scientific Holy Grail, displaying a quasi-heroic idealism that ameliorates his cantankerous crankiness.  BATTLE has been called Claude Rains' worst performance by some reviewers, but at worst I find it serviceable, and certainly not out of line with what the producers apparently wanted.  I have certainly seen worse performances by American actors taking "jobber" roles in Italian cinema.

The film's worst aspects are not its wonky science or its budgetary limitations: rather, the script tries to throw too many ill-defined viewpoint characters at the audience.  Two of those characters, Fred and Eve, are about to elope at the film's opening, and later they break up for reasons that are far from pellucid. One character, a Mrs. Collins, is seen hanging around the eloping couple and Doctor Benson, but whether she's a servant or a neighbor is never clarified.  The only relationship that works, even meagerly, is that Eve somehow sees through Benson's crusty defenses and attempts to make him admit his own humanity.  But though this is the closest the film comes to human conflict, it lacks any real payoff. 

The most interesting aspect of BATTLE may be its attempt to provide a space-battle-on-a-budget between Earth rockets and flying saucers. Some of these scenes are risible.  A rocket deliberately collides with a saucer, but they both just spin away without being breached.  At one point the Earth-pilots employ music against the saucers for some damn reason: all I remember is Claude Rains quoting Pythagoras.  But from a purely historical vantage, BATTLE does provide one of the first cinematic realizations of an outer space dogfight.

THE MAGIC SWORD (1962), THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, cosmological*


Up for consideration this time are works associated with two of the most important names in 1950's metaphenomenal cinema: writer/director/producer Bert I. Gordon and writer/director Jack Arnold.  In the latter case Arnold functions largely as a "hired gun," but in the former, Bert I. Gordon was fully in charge of 1962's THE MAGIC SWORD.  The results, unhappily, were not as some of Gordon's other films reviewed here, like THE CYCLOPS and VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS.

SWORD's script is credited to noir-film specialist Bernard Schoenfeld, whose only other metaphenomenal film was the more celebrated SPACE CHILDREN (directed, incidentally, by Jack Arnold).  SWORD has a fairly winsome setup. George (Gary Lockwood), a young would-be knight, is born to a noble family but is raised to manhood by benign witch Sybill (Estelle Winwood).  He wishes to rescue Princess Helene, his "love at first sight," from the evil wizard Lodac (Basil Rathbone).  Lodac's motives are a little more familial than most evil wizards; he wants to feed Helene to a dragon because the king of the land burned his sister when she was the same age as Helene-- implicitly because Lodac's sister was genuinely guilty of witchcraft, though no one dwells on this point.  We later learn that Lodac has been feeding other maidens to his dragon, so Schoenfeld may have been aware of the sacrificial aspects of maiden-and-dragon myths in general, and of the St. George legend specifically-- on which SWORD is very nominally based.

Lodac has an ally in court: the nasty Sir Branton.  Branton has custody of a magic ring which Lodac desires, so the magician agrees to let Branton rescue Helene in exchange for the ring, so that Branton will then receive both Helene and the usual reward of half of her father's kingdom.  Branton's plan is complicated when George shows up to join the rescue party, along with six other noble knights, who were frozen in Sybil's cave and whom George thawed out to serve as his retinue.  Lodac unleashes seven curses to kill off the seven unwanted knights before they can reach the wizard's castle.  One by one George's brother-knights-- who are from nations other than George's English locale-- are killed off by such curses as a giant ogre, a quicksand pit, and a woman whose beauty is the disguise for an ugly hag (Maila Nurmi, aka "Vampira").  One of the oddest deaths is that of the Irish knight Patrick, who even in dying saves George by what Lodac describes as "the power of his faith"-- the only overt Christian reference in the film, and one I found jarring amid all the wild fantasy.

Naturally George makes it to the wizard's castle, though thanks to the meddling of his foster mother he loses his magical weapons and is captured by Lodac.  This misfortune gives Helene the chance to reciprocate his love before she's lined up to be the dragon's next meal.  Sybill redeems herself in helping George re-arm himself to fight the dragon and for good measure finishes off Lodac as well.  The happy ending is so happy that by some unspecified grace the six slain knights are all brought back to life.

SWORD's simple FX, mostly supplied by makeup or puppetry, were nothing that would given Ray Harryhausen any sleepless nights.  I remember vaguely liking SWORD when I saw it at some young age, but while I can easily imagine its FX being charming or frightening to persons in the right mood, I don't think I got much out of them back then, and they didn't do much for me now.  All things considered, despite some pleasing moments-- mostly those involving Winwood's dotty witch-- Schoenfeld's script lacks the heart of the better Harryhausen productions, or for that matter Gordon's previous kid-film outing, the far superior BOY AND THE PIRATES (1960).



In contrast, I remember liking THE MONOLITH MONSTERS quite a bit when I saw it in my youth.  Having been exposed to any number of films about giant ants or apes or dinosaurs, I liked the comparative originality of MONOLITH's menace: meteoritic minerals, whose crystalline facets expanded on exposure to earthly H2O.  Their menace was at once pitless and motiveless: they would grow into titanic Babel-like towers, which would then collapse under their own weight, and scatter their pieces into new territory, like lethal seed-pods.  Like any other unthinking organism, the monolith-minerals were utterly unconcerned about anything that happened to be in their path.  In addition, the deadly crystals automatically leech silicon from living forms, causing their bodies to petrify.

What I now notice, though, is that while the mineral menace is still impressive, the so-called "human interest" is, well, kind of inert.  Director Jack Arnold's two famous "desert noir" films-- 1953's IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and 1955's TARANTULA-- use the same police-procedural plotting seen in MONOLITH. There's a slow, gradual introduction of the metaphenomenal whatsit into some low-key, humdrum setting-- then some catastrophe, shrouded in ambiguity-- and finally, the revelation of the metaphenomenality's true nature, at which point the viewpoint characters labor mightily to find some solution.  However, the characters of Arnold's desert noirs are simple but reasonably compelling.  In MONOLITH, for which Arnold has only a story credit while the final screenplay is credited to Norman Jolley and Robert M. Fresco, the characters are no more than ciphers, drearily fulfilling their roles-- the hero, the hero's girlfriend, the innocent victims, the gruff newspaperman who gets his wish to see something break the monotony of small-town life.  I'm not necessarily assuming that Arnold's final input made the difference, since MONOLITH's screenplay writer Fresco was Arnold's collaborator on the TARANTULA script.  But for whatever reason, the human characters don't provide the pathos needed to counter the grim neutrality of the monolith minerals.

I will note that the opening of MONOLITH provides some interesting symbolic considerations of the meteors, regarding them as both "bits of the universe" and "shooting stars on which wishes have been made."  However, these metaphors are not developed during the remainder of the film.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)



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


At present FREDDY VS. JASON appears to be the swan song for both franchises, not including remakes. I personally would not mind seeing their stories end on this apocalyptic note.

In contrast to the HALLOWEEN franchise, which boasted one exceptional film and then descended into general mediocrity, the ELM ST and FRIDAY THE 13TH franchises have an organic feel to them, incorporating new elements as various raconteurs came and went.   Both franchises had their share of bad entries, but even the inferior stories show some appreciation for the mythology created for each monstrous presence.

FREDDY VS. JASON, directed by Hong Kong film-alumnus Ronny Yu, is not long on psychological insight.  Still, the scripters' zeal to give props to both "titans of terror" in their crossover results in some insights into the psychological makeup of the two monsters.

For instance, based on the interaction of Jason and Freddy here, one might characterize them as "the terror of the child" and the "terror of the parent." 

Jason, ever since he was promoted to starring monster in the second FRIDAY THE 13TH installment, has been depicted as a literally childlike man who imagines that he is killing for his beloved-- and deceased-- mother.  Freddy, even before he was retconned to make him into a literal parent, was a horror born of the mistakes of Springwood's parents, so that Freddy becomes metaphorically identical with his killers.  Though both Jason and Freddy attack primarily teenagers-- who were of course the target audience in the extra-diegetical real world-- Jason kills them for having failed him when he was a child, giving his murderous rampages the intonation of a child's tantrum.  Freddy kills teens in order to feed upon them, and even to incorporate their souls into his ghostly flesh, a pop-cultural version of Saturn devouring his children.



The first half of FREDDY VS. JASON is fairly forgettable, in that most of it is pure set-up. For once the adults of Springwood-- who are no longer seen as inhabiting a childless community, as they were in FREDDY'S DEAD-- come up with an effective, if not especially moral, way of inhibiting Freddy's power.  Using the power of parental censure, they strike the Freddy case from the records and imprison the few kids that remember Krueger to asylums.  Apparently someone among them-- possibly Campbell, father of teenaged Lori-- came to understand that Krueger's power depended on fear, and that he would lose power if people ceased to believe in him.

In his dream -realm Freddy has endured this marginalization for some unspecified time, with no references as to how he came back from FREDDY'S DEAD.  After a long search he discovers his perfect catspaw, the undead Jason Voorhees, currently in a death-like state from his last appearance.  By taking on the image of Jason's beloved mother-- far from the first time Freddy impersonates a parental figure-- the dream-demon impels the hulking Jason to seek out Springwood.  Once Jason arrives, he begins killing at will, and accidentally foments the legend of Freddy once more.  However, once Freddy's fear-based powers have been restored, he wants to be rid of his catspaw-- whom he terms a "bad dog"-- because Jason keeps killing Freddy's victims.  Freddy causes Jason's consciousness-- such as it is-- to enter Freddy's dream-world, where Freddy eventually takes control.  Borrowing a motif from the eighth FRIDAY THE 13TH, evil Krueger even manages to revert Jason back to the helpless child who supposedly died in the first film.  I suppose I would be a dirty spoilsport to remind anyone that the second film establishes that Jason did not originally die in Crystal Lake, though to be sure he does perish in the general area of the lake back in THE FINAL CHAPTER.

A character from POGO once said, "when two dogs fight over a bone, do you ever see the bone fight?"  Here the bone, or bones, in question are the teen denizens of Springwood. Lori gathers about five like-minded teens together in order to ferret the mystery of the twin terrors besieging their city. (These characters are the weakest link in FVJ: in contrast to some characters from both franchises, none of these young'uns are remotely compelling.)  Once Lori's group manages to figure out who's who, and researches their weaknesses, the film finally shifts into overdrive for the last half hour, as the teens take Jason back to Crystal Lake so that he'll have "the home field advantage" in his fight with Freddy.  It more or less works, and for good measure Lori is able to drag a more or less mortal Freddy into the real world, where he and Jason have an epic "claw vs. machete" battle.

Though the all-out, Hong Kong-style action is inventive, what I like even better is that in this incarnation Freddy and Jason become the Dracula and Frankenstein of the eighties and afterward.  Jason is the Monster of Frankenstein, lumbering and pitiless, shrugging off almost every assault via sheer strength and near-invulnerability.  Freddy, as much a shape-shifter as Dracula, proves far more agile and clever about wearing down his brutish foe.  The only minor deficit of the Big Fight is that it doesn't find any way to reflect the monsters' respective parent/child orientations, which is relegated strictly to the set-up portion of the film. 

Another neglected notion is that both characters root their monstrous nature in rejection by the normal-- Jason for being a physical freak, Freddy for being "the son of a hundred maniacs."  There's even a sequence in which Freddy probes Jason's mind for weaknesses, and witnesses for himself how young Jason was tormented at camp.  But if Freddy remembers any of his own early torments, he keeps them to himself.

Though the climax allows for potential closure in case one or both monsters never came back within this ongoing series, there's also a coda that plays to those audience-members who want their monsters to be truly undying.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

JUNGLE MOON MEN (1955)



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


I speculate that the only reason actor Johnny Weismuller got to play "Jungle Adventurer Johnny Weismuller" was because producer Sam Katzman had presold theaters on his three last "Jungle Jim" cheapies.  Rumor has it that Katzman lost the right to adapt the "Jungle Jim" comic strip, so the last three films in the series starred Weismuller as "himself," up to the usual jungle hijinks.  Johnny even kept Jungle Jim's pet chimp Tamba.

JUNGLE MOON MEN, the second of the three Weismuller-as-himself outings, is a little more imaginative than the usual potted-plant peregrinations, even though the imagination has been borrowed from H. Rider Haggard's novel SHE.  The "moon men" of the title are not-- as would have been fitting for the mid-50's-- aliens from our lunar satellite, but a tribe of pygmies from the realm of "Baku," who worship a moon goddess named "Oma." Their actions become important to Jungle Johnny when a poisoned pygmy dart slays a member of a normal-sized tribe of Africans-- that is, "Africans by way of Polynesia"-- thus causing the tribe's chief to declare war on the pygmies.  Jungle Johnny seeks to bring the pygmies' leader, the aforesaid goddess, to justice in order to prevent further hostilities.

The nature of the pygmies' goddess causes me to label one of this film's functions "metaphysical," strange as that may sound when applied to a routine jungle-adventure film.  But where most jungle-films were satisfied to recycle the old schtick of the "white goddess" who's actually some modern-day Caucasian castaway, Oma is at least a supernormal entity.  She claims to have been alive since the era of ancient Egypt-- hence the Rider Haggard comparison-- and that she remains alive because her people discovered the secret of eternal life.  She invokes two pagan Egyptian deities in her story, just as Haggard did in SHE and its sequels.  Oma claims that all the rest of her people were destroyed by the sun-god Ra, who was jealous of their attainment of immortality. Whether a real Egyptian god truly existed is left up for grabs, but Oma is definitely vulnerable to the radiation of the sun.

She was able to continue her life by fleeing to a series of underground caves, to which she was led by "Osiris, god of destruction." Some scripter desperately needed an Egyptian mythology-book! At most one could say that the real Osiris was a god of death, but Anubis and other death-deities were more intimately associated with the aspect of after-death burial-- which in a sense is what Oma has done, "burying" herself in order to escape the sun's rays. Oma proposes to Johnny that he becomes her new high priest and give her the nookey she needs.  In the end Jungle Johnny exposes Oma to the sun, and she dissolves-- again, roughly along the same lines as the priestess Ayesha in the first SHE novel.

Though MOON MEN offers only bargain-basement thrills, it's more visually interesting than most of the JUNGLE JIM oeuvre, in large part thanks to the pygmies, led by Billy "WIZARD OF OZ" Curtis.  Though the sight of Curtis trying to drive a jeep is hardly great comedy, it's a distinct relief from the antic of Tamba the Chimp.  Jungle Johnny's tagalongs include a lady archaeologist, her rather dull would-be boyfriend, and the usual nasty white adventurer, out to swipe diamonds from the pygmies.  This is one of the few films directed by Charles S. Gould, who logged far more credits as an assistant director on many classic Universal films, including DRACULA, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.  That experience may be the reason that MOON MEN looks crisp and professional despite its meager budget.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*


Thomas Wolfe penned the famous motto/book-title "You Can't Go Home Again."  For many filmgoers, George Lucas would be the best proof of Wolfe's dictum.  But whatever failings the Second Trilogy had, I submit that Wes Craven makes a far better exemplar.

I can understand that Craven may have resented the fact that the character he created went on to make massive amounts of money for the producers who owned Freddy.  That said, though he claimed that he wanted to make a more "cerebral" version of Freddy than the producers had been turning out, NEW NIGHTMARE is short on ideas and long on repeating narrative tropes from the first film.  If Craven had wanted to prove himself the superior writer of all things Krueger, it might have been better to break fresh ground.

The only novelty in NEW NIGHTMARE is a metafictional notion that wears out its welcome very quickly.  The 1994 film, rather than taking place with the diegesis of the ongoing series, takes place in "our" reality, wherein Freddy Krueger is believed to be nothing but a role played by actor Robert Englund.  The same is true of Freddy's nemesis Nancy, as the film follows the workaday world of actress Heather Langenkamp.  But her real world begins to crumble as strange things begin to befall her family.  Initially she merely has dreams of Freddy's metal claw coming to life on a movie-set.  Then her "real-life" child Dylan begins to recite lines from the ELM films even though he has not seen them, and her "real-life" husband is killed in a mysterious automotive accident that leaves the semblance of claw-marks on his body. 

These phenomena dovetail with a new script being circulated in the industry by Krueger's creator Wes Craven, appearing as himself in the film.  Both he and Robert Englund experience the same unsettling dreams to which Langenkamp is subject. Oddly actor John Saxon is not affected at all-- recalling to mind my earlier remark that Freddy seemed to have no interest in knocking off Saxon's character at any time in the regular film series, even though that character facillitated Krueger's execution.  After Langenkamp suffers for roughly an hour, worrying about her son having attacks and psychotic episodes, she finally manages to take a meeting with Craven.  He advances the notion that there is some real demonic entity that has become linked to the story of Freddy Krueger, but that rather than being summoned by it-- the most common trope of similar stories-- the demon is contained by the story, like "a genie in a bottle."  (Naturally, one could hardly expect Craven to find himself guilty of having conjured forth a murderous demon.)  The thing that releases the demon depends on the degree to which the story is maintained in the culture, much as a myth is ritually celebrated in tribal society. If the story becomes too familiar to the audience, or is watered down to make it more saleable, or is banned from society for being too upsetting, the demon can be set free.  I particularly like the last one: it's a nice turnaround to say that the people banning books are responsible for unleashing the demons-- which some would say is true, at least in a metaphorical sense.

That said, perhaps because he's dealing with the simulacra of real people, Craven doesn't manage to make the perils of Langenkamp and Dylan all that compelling.  Naturally he dispenses with most of Freddy's signature sadistic humor, since that was a contribution of other writers.  Occasionally it was interesting to see Freddy Krueger again played as the ruthless murderer from the first film.  But I found myself becoming impatient when Craven actually repeated visual tropes, like Freddy lengthening his arms or killing a victim by invisibly hurling her up against the room's ceiling-- both tropes from the first film.  Because the budget was about seven million dollars higher than that of the first film, Craven does indulge in a few more spectacular effects-- but at other times I wondered where the money went.  And I certainly didn't think it imaginative to unveil the "true identity" of the Freddy-demon as a clichéd horned devil.

The film's most enjoyable moment for me was a scene which is merely supposed to fill Langenkamp with unease.  She's guesting on a talk show, conversing with the host about the ten-year anniversary of the ELM STREET franchise, when the host unveils a surprise appearance by "Freddy Krueger"-- this time, merely the real-life Robert Englund in full makeup.  The scene in which Englund plays to the crowd, while the crowd exults in his portrait of a savage murderer, is the single best part of the picture.





FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (1989)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*

This film-- whose title I'll shorten to FINAL, even though it wasn't anything of the kind-- suffers from a bad reputation, even among ELM STREET sequels.  Yet for all its flaws I found it an improvement over DREAM CHILD, which as I noted here suffered from a theme inappropriate to the ELM series.  Though a lot of the scenarios in the script-- co-scripted by first-time director Rachel Talalay-- are far too broadly comic, at least the story returns to the theme of "never trust anyone over thirty," a far more fruitful theme than "the right to life."

If DREAM CHILD was all about Freddy becoming a son again-- though in a metaphysical sense he also would have been his own father-- FINAL is all about Freddy himself being a real parent.  As always, having been closed off from entering the real world by his previous gateways, Freddy seeks a new one.  Apparently his time being imprisoned in the body of his ghostly nun-mother reminded him of the Facts of Life, for he suddenly remembers that when he was a living human, he sired a child.

The film begins in the dreams of an unnamed male teenager, who for the remainder of the film will be addressed as "John Doe."  For some reason he dreams that he is the "one surviving teenager" in a world where some phenomenon-- read: "Freddy"-- has slaughtered almost all the other teens in the country.  He encounters Freddy in the dream. Freddy expels him from the dream into reality, uttering the odd phrase "be a good little dog and go fetch!"  Because John has no identification or memories, he's taken to a youth shelter, where he encounters case worker Maggie Burroughs.  Maggie in turn interacts with three of her teen charges, and with Doc, a psychologist who uses dream-therapy on his patients.  All three of the teens-- males Spencer and Carlos, and female Tracy-- suffer from bad dreams, brought on by some form of parental abuse.  Carlos' mother deafened him by probing his ears to clean them, while Tracy's father sexually molested her.  Yet rich boy Spenser's father gets the most opprobrium, for not only does he demand that Spenser be just like him, Spenser accuses him of having committed "date rape" and having tried to set Spenser up with "his girlfriend's older sister." In conversation Doc hints that Maggie too has bad dreams.  He's also the first character in the ELM series to supply a rational as to why Krueger's ghost is so damn powerful, as he mentions to Maggie the lore of "dream demons," creatures that inhabit the dream-world and are willing to bestow power on "the most evil, twisted human imaginable."

A Springwood newspaper clipping on John's person leads Maggie to take him to the cursed community; by chance-- or possibly by Freddy's designs-- the three troubled teens stow away in Maggie's van, hoping to escape the shelter.  After Maggie and John research the story of Springwood's kid-killer-- which Talalay handles in an overly jokey and inconsistent manner-- they learn that he had another life beyond being a serial murderer: that he also had a child, though they can learn nothing about the child's identity. John becomes convinced that Freddy spared him because he is the child of the Dream Master.

Talalay doesn't tease the viewer long with the true identity of Freddy's offspring.  Not long after Freddy kills John and mentions that his sole offspring was a daughter, Talalay doesn't even try to create suspense about whether it might be Maggie or Tracy, but reveals it to be the former almost right away.  Tracy, Carlos and Spenser are all put the mental meat-grinder as their dreams force them to confront their bad parents-- always disguises for Freddy's sadistic pleasures, of course.  He's particularly nasty to deaf Carlos, and even mocks Tracy with Carlos' severed ear. Tracy is the only one to survive, though the duty of forcing Freddy into the real world in order to re-kill him is left to Maggie.  This she does manage, though it sometimes strains credulity that a caseworker for troubled teens could use edged weapons as well as Maggie does.  Freddy enjoys a fairly imaginative death that reveals a touch of sadism in his darling daughter-- something in the blood, no doubt.

I have reservations about the depiction of Freddy Krueger as having been any sort of "family man," even a deceptive one.  In my view the character works as a disaffected loner who takes out his animus for society on children-- an image implied by the majority of the films.  On the plus side, FINAL is the only film to devote much time to depicting Freddy's maltreatment by "normal" children and adults, being beaten by a foster father and having schoolmates call him "son of a hundred maniacs."  And in addition to providing a much needed rationale for Freddy's powers-- the "dream demons" are seen emerging from Freddy's body after he is destroyed-- the film dwells quite a bit on the Sadean qualities of pain, as Freddy tells his foster father, "You wanna know the secret of pain? If you just stop feeling it, you can start using it."  It's also interesting that the film briefly toys with the idea that Freddy may be able to "rewrite" reality as he pleases, an idea not advanced since the first ELM film.

But the best line in the film is when Freddy asserts his universality.  He's not confined to the place of his original death simply because "Every town has an Elm Street!"  This universality may help explain the appeal that Freddy has, that he goes beyond the limited goals of most vengeful spirits.
 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3-5 (1987. 1988. 1989)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1,3)*fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*


The third NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET-- subtitled DREAM WARRIORS-- abandons the body-possession angle of ELM 2, though arguably some of the sequels will pick up on its idea of the protagonist being in some way consubstantial with Freddy, as opposed to Freddy being the representation of chaos in the protagonist's life.

Wes Craven, billed as one of four scripters on ELM 3, is probably responsible for elaborating the idea of "dream-fighting" suggested in ELM 1, but with greater attention to empowering the film's heroes in the dreams.  Nancy Thompson and her father return from the first film, though oddly the mother, who figured strongly in ELM 1, is barely referenced.  This development also signals the return of Craven's main theme: the inability of adult authorities to listen seriously to their juniors, and their near-fanatical insistence on getting the teens to zone out and "get some sleep"-- which is tantamount to their giving their children over to dream-demon Krueger.

It would appear that Freddy was never particularly interested in seeking out those who actually murdered him. He only killed Marge Thompson after failing to slay Nancy, and for all one can tell he would have left Lieutenant Thompson alone if the cop simply stayed out of Freddy's way.  Like a mythic child-killing demon Freddy was principally interested in "young meat," and so the film establishes that the last remaining offspring of Freddy's murderers are now confined to a mental institution in Springwood.  All of these teens suffer from bad dreams that presage Freddy's return, particularly Kristen.  This young woman has developed a rare ability: in a reversal on Nancy pulling Freddy into the real world in ELM 1, Kristen can pull others into her dreams.  Nancy Thompson arrives at the asylum and immediately recognizes the symptoms of Krueger's attacks, though she has a battle convincing sympathetic psychiatrist Neil Gordon that Krueger is real.  Nancy has no luck whatever with the head of the asylum, who is Craven's usual well-meaning but dense authority-figure.

To be sure, Gordon is swayed by other factors.  Following the death of two of his patients, Gordon receives a visitation from a mysterious nun who tells him Krueger's origin story: that he is "the bastard child of one hundred maniacs," who raped a young nun and impregnated her.  The mystery woman also informs Gordon that Krueger's evil spirit can be laid to rest if he can find Freddy's earthly remains and bury them in consecrated ground.

Thus the battle against the dream-demon takes place on two levels.  Nancy seeks out her estranged father and eventually forces him to show Gordon where the bones were buried.  Meanwhile, Kristen manages to pull Nancy and the other teens into Freddy's dream-world.  However, Nancy is able to advise the teens to assume powers in the dream-world even as Freddy does.  Thus Kirsten and her fellow inmates summon up powers like super-strength, wizardry and the like, though strangely Nancy never does.  Freddy reveals in this film that he gains more power from the teens he slays, whose souls are literally imprisoned in his flesh-- a trope suggested in ELM 1 but not elaborated as it is here. Freddy is defeated, but at the cost of the lives of Nancy and her father.

ELM 3 is the film that established the most-used template of the ELM series, focusing on the persona of the dream-demon who makes bad jokes as he kills people. Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont seem to have been responsible for articulating this persona, as well as the notion of ultimate evil-- Freddy-- being spawned from a force for good: nun Maria Helena, who is not coincidentally gang-raped during the Christmas season.  The FX are excellent but the screenplay does not take advantage of making the dreams truly scary.



Renny Harlin's sequel, subtitled THE DREAM MASTER, does a far better job in the department of creepy dreams, and even though it has some of the weaknesses of any sequel, I don't blush to state that it's my favorite in the series.  To be sure, it doesn't bother to provide any reason as to why the banishing-ritual ceases to work, and Freddy's mother-- the source of this advice-- is not referenced.

ELM 4 picks up with the former inmates, who have all been released into normal life.  This means that they are back in the care of unthinking parents, though only Kristen's mother is seen for any length of time.  Kristen is once again first to foresee Freddy's imminent return, but this time her ability to pull her friends into the dream-world doesn't pan out so well.  However, the script introduces Rick, a new boyfriend for Kristen, and his sister Alice.  Alice assumes Kristen's role as the central heroine when Kristen buys the farm-- ironically, because her overprotective mother slips Kristen sleeping pills and thereby places her in Freddy's clutches.  Alice is a mousey type who can't even summon the guts to approach her love-interest Dan, though soon enough he too is drawn into the pool of potential victims.

Clearly one of the purposes of this film was to expand Freddy's reach, so that he would not be confined to the children of his murderers. ELM 4 succeeds admirably in this respect, as well as sculpting scenarios that take advantage of dream-illogic-- particularly one in which Alice must watch Krueger destroy one of her friends in their classroom, while the rest of the students remain oblivious of the mayhem.  More importantly, Alice begins to become somewhat like Freddy-- not in the simplistic "Jekyll-Hyde" manner of ELM 2, but in that she too begins to absorb powers from those Freddy kills.  It begins when the soul of the murdered Kristen literally sends energy into Alice, giving her the ability to enter dreams.  After the deaths of friend Shelia and brother Rick, Alice absorbs some of their aspects as well-- all of which leads to a martial confrontation between Alice and Krueger that manages to be thrilling and forbidding at the same time.  Alice turns the souls in Krueger's flesh against him, destroying his dream-body-- at least for the time being.



ELM 5, subtitled THE DREAM CHILD, returns to the origin-mythology elaborated in ELM 3, albeit with mixed results.  The level of FX remains the same with director Stephen Hopkins and writer Leslie Bohem, but the story feels far more mechanical, as well as being saddled with what seem like clumsy "pro-life" statements in fantasy-getup.

It's possible that such sociopolitical statements could be intelligently realized elsewhere, but I found such sentiments out of place in the ELM STREET franchise.  The notion of Krueger being spawned in the Christmas season is an incisive twist on the werewolf legend, and it's interesting that the nun who births him is yet another irresponsible parent, putting little Freddy up for adoption and thus indirectly contributing to his corrupted existence.  But Bohem's script takes the opposite tack from Craven's original notion, in that Bohem places greater confidence in the adult authorities-- one of whom is Alice, who learns early on that she is an expectant mother, having been impregnated by Dan before he is killed by Freddy.  In ELM 5's first thirty minutes, we even learn that Alice's hard-drinking father from ELM 4 has cleaned up his act, though this development has absolutely no impact on the plot.

That plot hinges on the notion that because Alice has blocked Freddy from manifesting the way he did before, he can only do so by entering the dreams of her unborn child.  In itself this is a good angle, leading to several scenarios replete with "horrible-child" fantasies. It's even interesting that Bohem implies an equivalence between Freddy's opponent Alice and his mother Maria Helena, for in Alice's first two film-dreams she finds herself in the persona of the nun, first being attacked by the asylum-lunatics and then witnessing the obscene birth of Freddy from his mother.  The latter dream isn't all that logical, though, for why should Freddy want Alice to know that he plans to merge with her unborn infant?  Talk about the villain giving away all his plans to the hero in advance!

The "birth-horror" dream is a hotspot for the "pro-life/pro-choice" tensions, even though no one in the film speaks the word "abortion."  The birth of "baby Freddy" is distorted in the dream, so that the infant looks like adult Freddy rather than a real baby.  This causes one doctor in the dream to claim that the infant should be destroyed, while a female nurse-- also a nun-- asserts that it must be allowed to live because "it is a child of God." Though at the time of this dream Alice does not yet know that she is pregnant, but in essence these contrasting voices speak to her ambivalence as a mother, not just to carrying the reborn Freddy Krueger but any child.  Later in other dreams Alice meets Jacob, a six-year-old who represents what her normal child will be.  In the first dream Jacob does not know that Alice is his mother but he thinks Freddy is his friend; later he clearly understands their relationship and rails against Alice because "you didn't want me!" I realize that I may be accused of reading too much into a fantasy-horror film, but I can't help but see in these sentiments a real-world rejection of "the woman's freedom to choose."

After Freddy kills his first victim-- Dan, who would have been the "daddy" to the vessel of Freddy's rebirth-- he naturally continues to prey on other acquaintances of Alice's.  Only one of these manages to muster a "dream power" like those displayed by the "dream warriors," and he's killed instantly.  Alice never regains her ass-kicking powers from ELM 4, but only defeats the dream-demon with the help of Amanda Krueger's spirit. 

Political content aside, there are a couple of interesting myth-motifs here.  One is that when the Amanda-ghost absorbs the Freddy-ghost, she is last seen fighting to keep him inside her, though his claw-hand is seen cutting through her: a motif of "breaking the womb" seen in the Egyptian myth of Set.  Another is the name given to Alice's child, for the name Jacob is sometimes translated to mean "supplanter" in keeping with the role of the Biblical character:

[Jacob] was born holding his twin brother Esau's heel, and his name is explained as meaning "holder of the heel" or "supplanter".
Thus it seems Bohem was aware that Freddy was attempting to be the "supplanter" in relation to the living child Jacob, usurping the child's role as Bible-Jacob usurped the birthright of Esau.  It's a shame that Bohem didn't focus his attention on this aspect of the birth-fantasy, which carries ample ambivalent aspects without the intrusion of personal politics.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

THE RUNNING MAN (1987), THE BLOOD OF HEROES (1989)




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


Mundane sports films are most often "dramas" rather than "adventures."  Going by my Frye-influenced definition of the drama, the most frequent conflict of the sports protagonist is one of finding some expression of his talent-- be it athletic or intellectual-- without "selling out" to parasitic interests.  Since such films take place in contemporary settings, there can be no question of overthrowing the status quo. At best the sports-protagonist's best shot consists of carving out his own place in a corrupt world.

In futuristic scenarios, there exists more potential for the individual to strike back against the system, though some scenarios are more founded in reality than others.  In the dramatic novel THE RUNNING MAN-- written by Stephen King under the Richard Bachman pen-name-- protagonist Ben Richards needs money badly.  He surrenders his life to the deadly "Running Man" game, which means that he must elude killers licensed to slay him on sight-- a scenario which probably owes something to the Robert Sheckley short story "The Seventh Victim."  King keeps his sci-fi future very close to the current naturalistic world; the only "marvelous" aspect of it is the Orwellian level to which King elevates his world's repressive government. From the first it's clear that Richards has no chance to overthrow the ruling class that keeps the populace suppressed with televised "bread and circuses."  The best Richards can manage is a pyrrhic victory against Killian, the man in charge of the "Running Man" game.

The Arnold Schwarzenegger film largely jettisons any of King's quasi-Marxist sociological themes in favor of a big, splashy action-film.  This RUNNING MAN also begins by showing that the future is dominated by a corrupt leadership that allows "murder for entertainment," but there the similarities to the novel cease.  First, the film's script allow for a covert underground resistance movement that will make it credible that the evil government will be overthrown without all that much trouble, thus dissipating the depressing Orwellian spirit of the King novel. Second, in the novel the police department is fully implicated in the corrupt status quo.  In the movie, Schwarzenegger's Richards is first seen as a police helicopter pilot.  When some person in authority orders Richards to open fire on unarmed rioters, Richards nobly refuses-- but one has to ask, how did such a noble soul ever advance to that position, to a point where his superiors would assume he would carry out such orders?  It's clear that the scriptwriter merely wanted to put the Schwarzenegger persona in a "heroic" mode as quickly and simply as possible, without maintaining the logic of the premise.

At any rate, Richards goes on the run from the law.  He makes some potential allies with the resistance movement, but he's betrayed to law enforcement by ordinary citizen Amber Mendez (a loose rewriting of a King character).  Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), who is both the manager and the TV host of "the Running Man," decides that he wants Richards to be his next televised victim, and uses foul means to compel Richards to sign on to the game.  In place of the mundane armed men who pursue the novel's protagonist, the film offers stalkers with names and costumes out of a superhero film-- "Subzero," a hockey-skating killer, "Dynamo," garbed in an electrically charged suit, "Buzzsaw," who wields his titular weapon on a motorcycle, and "Fireball," who sports a flamethrower.

Though it's moderately fun to see real-life game-show host Dawson essaying an evil version of that role, the script is bereft of any sociological meaning, and even the Orwellian theme of "rewriting history" falls flat.   Arnold's battles with the various menaces are the film's only saving grace, and they're fair at best on the purely kinetic level.



"I don't like brutality.  I like heroics. I like the blood of heroes."

Though BLOOD OF HEROES takes place in a post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" type of world-- right down to being shot entirely in the Australian outback-- the 1989 film doesn't have a hero in the mold of Mel Gibson's Max.  Whereas Max's struggles against the savage denizens of his world were meant to lead to a renovation of the fallen order of things, the protagonists of BLOOD fight only for their own survival. To be sure, as is often the case with sports movies, survival is also tied in part to a sense of personal honor.  But though this futuristic society is also divided into your basic "haves" and "have nots," there is no convenient revolution as we see in RUNNING MAN. 

The "haves" are the elite classes that inhabit the Nine Cities, the only remaining citadels of civilization. The "have nots" are various tribes that eke out a hardscrabble life in their "dog-towns," where their only entertainment is furnished by traveling bands of players called "juggers."  The juggers engage local players in "the Game," which is best described as a combination of football, hockey, and gladiatorial combat.

The two main "heroes" of the film comprise the basic ensemble of the "old pro and his young student."  Sallow (Rutger Hauer) and his team arrive at a small dog-town for a game.  Kidda (Joan Chen), a young local woman yearning for a way out of her miserable existence, fights on the locals' side in the game and permanently injures one of Sallow's team-mates.  This leaves Sallow short a team-member, and gives Kidda a way to pursue her dream of prominence through sports.

Sallow, she learns, has seen better days than the dog-town route.  At one point Sallow was a member of the Cities' official "leagues," who receive high salaries and esteem from the elite classes.  Sallow made the mistake of openly romancing a woman of the upper classes, which got him kicked out and relegated to the dog-towns.

However, ambitious Kidda proposes that their team could journey to one of the Cities and issue a challenge to the local League-team.  Her motive is self-advancement in that she hopes to be "spotted by the majors," so to speak.  But once she puts the idea into Sallow's head, the Old Pro feels compelled to put his team on the line-- not to overthrow the elites, but just to find his self-respect once more.

The characters, including principal heroes Sallow and Kidda, are not deeply drawn, though they're Shakespearean compared to the protagonists of most post-apoc adventures.  The emphasis here is on the action-scenarios-- given verve by the driving rhythms of Todd Boekelheide's score-- and the basic theme of personal honor.  This theme is borne out by the "blood of heroes" line quoted above.  The line is spoken by a spectator of the climactic game, a woman who may well be Sallow's former lover.  She has no significant action thereafter, so it seems her main purpose is to enunciate the theme: that there is a "heroism" in sport that transcends its brutality.  In contrast, the man to whom she speaks the line, a high mucky-muck with the risible name "Lord Vile," can only see brutality.  Like most sports films this one ends with a victory for the underdog, but BLOOD sells something more than facile victory, as does RUNNING MAN.  As the title suggests, it suggests the sacrificial aspect of sports, and the notion that such sacrifice springs from a nobility that does not depend upon social stature.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST (1984), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST 2 (1985)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Over the next week I plan to review all the Freddy Krueger films in order of appearance.  That is, assuming that I can hold out and the series doesn't kick the elm out of me...

ELM I, as I'll dub the first flick, is at once the more elemental and the most elementary-- elementary with regard to the special FX.  Given that the film deals with an evil ghost who can warp reality, both in the world of dreams and in the real world, the limitations of the effects sometimes undermine certain scenes.  Similarly, the first version of the evil Krueger is more primitive.  Thought this Freddy makes a couple of witty remarks, he's rather lowbrow and at times inarticulate.  Though it's arguable that later films in the series overdid the use of bon mots, the nasty quips would prove indispensable in establishing the iconic Freddy's persona of a super-sadist.  Similarly, though Robert Englund has some good moments here, his version of Freddy here is still a little too brutish, a little too like the "Jason" type of slasher-villain that Freddy would later battle.

Wikipedia notes that the first version of Freddy could have come off as more sexually oriented than the one in the film: "Initially, Fred Krueger was intended to be a child molester, but Craven eventually decided to characterize him as a child murderer to avoid being accused of exploiting a spate of highly publicized child molestation cases that occurred in California around the time of production of the film."  This alteration, though based in expedience, situated Krueger as a modern version of a child-stealing demon: a being that preys on children because they are weak rather than out of sexual urges (a motivation tediously put on display in the execrable 2010 remake).  The de-emphasis of sexual motives works better in terms of giving the Krueger character some  psychological consistency, as well.  If Krueger had been turned on by the deaths of little children, this would beg the question: why did his ghost not continue to prey on kids rather than teens?  But if his mortal self murdered children as a substitute for more nubile targets, it becomes a little more logical that as a powerful ghost Krueger goes after "older meat" than he would have pursued in life.

Similarly, in my re-watch of the first film I felt myself less compelled by writer-director Craven's plot-- which somewhat dissolves into inconsistency at the conclusion-- than by his interesting variation on the virgin/whore dichotomy suggested by HALLOWEEN.

In my essay on HALLOWEEN,  I said:

Criticism seems to focus on the idea that Laurie survives the assault of psychopathic Michael Myers because she's a "virtuous" teen, while Lynda and Annie are sluts who have slept around.  In actuality nothing in the Carpenter-Debra Hill script suggests that Annie and Lynda are killed because of their promiscuity, though the critics may have influenced many, many derivative films to use that very formula.

ELM 1 is indeed derivative of HALLOWEEN, but not in a slavish manner.  ELM I begins with four high-school teens-- Tina, Nancy, and their respective boyfriends Rod and Glen-- of whom three have had identical nightmares portending the arrival of Freddy.  One might assume that Craven was following "the formula" slavishly in that in the first half hour, Tina dies after having pre-marital sex with Rod-- whom Freddy will also kill later.  Meanwhile, Nancy refuses to give her boyfriend any nookie, so she survives the better part of the film-- though a confusing coda will eradicate her triumph. 

But on closer examination, Tina and Nancy are more alike than they are different, for they, like the other teens highlighted here, suffer from Parents Who Just Don't Get It.  The film opens with Tina's nightmare of being stalked by Freddy in a boiler room-- in reality, the site where he slaughtered his victims-- and this ends when Tina's screams awaken her mother. Though Tina's mom has no important scenes after this, it's significant that she is accompanied by a randy male lover-- implicitly, a sleazy pick-up-- who shows no compassion for Tina's terror but just wants the mom back in bed. 
This scene sets the stage for the notion that all the parents in the suburb around Elm Street are deficient in some manner, whether they sleep around or not.

Nancy, in contrast, lives alone with her mother Marge, who maintains a cordial relationship with Lt. Thompson, her ex and Nancy's father. Both parental figures will prove supremely inept in dealing with the threat to their daughter, even though both were involved in the execution of the child-killer and so are indirectly responsible for Krueger's undead recrudescence.  The viewer does not know why the Thompsons separated, but the failure of their marriage speaks to the failure of adulthood generally in Craven's world.  On a side-note, some deleted scenes did suggest that they separated from stress caused both by Krueger's having killed one of their children and guilt at having taken vengeance on him.  So in a sense Freddy Krueger "breaks up" the Thompson marriage, and in this sense he may be seen as homologous with the pick-up whom Tina's mother invites into Tina's home.  With this parallel in mind, then, one shouldn't leap to assume that Nancy Thompson survives her stalker simply because she keeps things cool with her boyfriend, any more than one should with Laurie Strode.

It's certainly possible to see Krueger also as the standard sexual psycho, beleaguering high-school Nancy at a time when sexuality is still threatening to her psychological makeup-- something that the famous "claw in the bathtub" scene captures.  After Freddy kills Glen, he mocks Nancy by claiming that he's her boyfriend now.  Yet when Nancy manages to outmaneuver him-- even setting Krueger on fire in imitation of her parents' actions-- Freddy's last target is Marge, not Nancy. In ELM 1's oddest psychological scene, Nancy and her father burst into Marge's bedroom, looking for a still-on-fire Krueger.  They see Krueger attacking Marge in her bed.  Thompson tries to extinguish the flames with a bedcover, after which Krueger and his prey-- the only adult he attacks in this film, and possibly his true target all along-- sink into the bed and vanish.  After Thompson leaves, still confused at the reality of evil spirits, Nancy outdoes her parents once again and exposes herself to Freddy once more, only to banish him by refusing to give him her "energy."

This seems to be more or less where Craven would have liked the story to end, with Nancy's act of will restoring her mother, if not all of the teens who died.   Instead, the producers wanted a coda suggestive of Freddy's return.  Thus the film ends in a muddled diegesis, wherein Marge is once more Freddy's final direct victim and all the teens are put in peril once more-- with a visual device lifted from PLASTIC MAN comics, of all sources.



Despite all the rough spots in ELM 1, though, the strength of the idea shines through.  Not so much ELM 2, written by David Chaskin and directed by Jack Sholder with no input from Craven.  ELM 2 very nearly jettisons everything that made Freddy Krueger unique in favor of a rather dog-eared possession story.

To be sure, ELM 1's box-office success insured that more wallets would be opened for Number Two, resulting in a greater proliferation of the wild dream-scenarios most associated with the series (though IMDB claims the budget only went up about $400,000).  The Krueger persona is closer to the iconic version here, even though the claw-gloved ghost is saddled with the device of reincarnating himself in the body of teen boy Jesse. 

Possibly the scripter chose this route because there really wasn't a good way to follow up the actual ending of ELM 1, since one can't tell from it where reality begins or ends.  ELM 2 proceeds as if Nancy did succeed in banishing Freddy for a time-- specifically, five years before Jesse's family moves into the house owned by Nancy and Marge Thompson.  Chaskin's script quickly relegates Nancy to the nuthouse and rewrites Freddy's M.O. so that he becomes interested in Jesse simply because he moved into Nancy's old house.  The ELM 1 Freddy was of course not tied to any particular abode.  The script's move toward standard ghost-story tropes also takes the story's emphasis away from the topics of deficient adults and the consequences of their actions.  Indeed, most of the adults in Sholder's film are inoffensive types, none of whom were implicated in Krueger's death.  Even Schneider, the high-school coach whom Jesse somewhat dislikes, is not seen doing anything particularly nasty or irresponsible.

The key aspect ELM 1 takes from its predecessor is that element of juvenile uncertainty-- not so much about having sex, as about what kind of sex to have.  Chaskin later claimed that he intentionally loaded his script with homoerotic references, beginning with the unsubstantiated claim-- by Jesse's "friendly enemy" Grady-- that Coach Schneider is not just a homosexual, but a frequenter of gay S&M bars.  As noted, the script does not define Schneider's sexual nature.  But Grady's claim apparently functions to plant a seed in Jesse's mind-- a seed that will serve as the "gateway to Freddy," for Jesse dreams of being in a gay bar in the company of, if not precisely "with," the coach.  The real Schneider becomes Freddy's first victim in this film, as well as the first to be explicitly tormented in a sadistic manner before being killed.  Perhaps Sholder and Chaskin can be fairly credited with developing this aspect of Freddy's persona.

Chaskin also gets considerable mileage out of Jesse's "maybe-gayness" when he deserts his potential girlfriend Lisa-- during a make-out session, no less-- and flees to the room of his schoolmate Grady.  Not surprisingly, Grady's thinks that this is pretty gay of Jesse.  But if Jesse has any buried feelings for Grady, they can only be expressed through violence, and Grady too bites the dust.

This is about as far as the script goes into "gay-curious" waters, for the main arc throughout concerns Lisa's valiant attempt to save Jesse from the evil male influence upon him.  In this regard, ELM 2 might be viewed as less than "gay-friendly." Lisa does succeed in inspiring Jesse to cast out his demon.  This somehow causes yet another scene in which Freddy catches on fire.  Jesse, taking control of Krueger's powers and using them against him?  Perhaps it doesn't really matter.  After this temporary victory, ELM 2 ends like Number One, with a bunch of teens caught in another lethal dream-- though at least this sequence didn't claim it was bringing anyone back from the dead.