FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*
The announcement of the U.S. version of GODZILLA stimulated other producers to try their hand at the giant monster genre.
Released in South Korea the year after the debut of the Americanized monster, REPTILIAN was a very broad re-interpretation of South Korean's only giant-monster of the 1960s, YONGARY, MONSTER OF THE DEEP. The earlier film emulated the popular Godzilla franchise in most respects, having a titanic prehistoric creature resurrected by atomic testing. On the whole, that film was small beer next to the work it imitated.
In contrast, REPTILIAN, crewed by South Koreans but acted largely by Americans, easily ups the game of the sadly derivative 1998 GODZILLA. I remarked in my review that even though the film had a fair share of violence, it couldn't be called combative, because Ameri-Godzilla spends so much of his time running away from jet planes and other modern technology. The American producers, it seems, simply couldn't countenance the idea of a giant animal that could ward off rocket-fire.
The new version of Yongary-- usually rendered "Yongarry"-- is full of combative action, and should satisfy the hardcore Godzilla-lover in that the big critter easily withstands the bullets and bombs hurled at it. To be sure, the creature is under the control of evil aliens, and they've provided their big pawn with a force-field. So maybe the producers threw that in as a sop to modern disbelief. Nevertheless, the visual effect of Yongarry's near-invulnerability beats any comparable scene in '98 GODZILLA.
The human characters are largely forgettable, and are supplied with some truly risible dialogue Yongarry is resurrected along with an ancient written prophecy, though I never figured out who authored the prediction-- not only that Yongarry would arise, but also that he would fight another big monster like himself. Toward the film's end an American soldier frees Yongarry from the aliens' control, so the invaders unleash another big creature on the city. Yongarry wins the contest and the aliens depart.
It's a very silly monster-flick, but because it's done with a lot of energy, it's a much better salute to the Golden Age of Kaiju than the American outing.
In contrast, 1998's GARGANTUA is a dumbed-down version of 1961's GORGO. A biologist and his semi-estranged son come across a small upright-walking dinosaur, looking a bit like a big ambulatory tadpole. The son bonds with Little Gargantua, much to the concern of his father. Then the little one's parent-- I forget whether it was father or mother-- comes looking for its offspring. However, Big Gargantua has even less going for him than Ameri-Godzilla. In his initial contact with the local military, he only manages to kill one or two soldiers before the big guy is slain by their gunfire. The main focus of the story returns to the human father and son, who seek to return the little one to the seas before unscrupulous exploiters can capture Junior.
Pretty much a bore all the way through, and certainly not in the combative mode.
Monday, October 31, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I haven't read the 1967 novel on which this ABC telefilm was based. One online review notes that the original story took place in Depression-era Louisiana, and that the female victim, whose murder starts the story rolling, was Afro-American. The film's changes-- updating the story to present-day Louisiana and beginning with a Caucasian female victim-- don't notably hurt the story, which is at its strongest when it's touching on the American "class gap."
A couple of bayou-farmers find the body of a low-class white girl named Ellie out in the woods, apparently mauled by wild dogs. However, the autopsy by the local doctor reveals that she was knocked out by a blow on the head. The doc tells Sheriff Whitaker (David Janssen) that even though wild dogs may have savaged her body, the blow killed her, and that it may have been administered from the front by a "leftie." This, of course, means that in the course of his investigation, Whitaker starts paying a lot of attention to which hand his suspects use to hold their mint juleps. This isn't a very rewarding pursuit, particularly because the doc also says that for all he can tell the blow also could have been delivered from behind by a "rightie." (We're a long way from CSI, here.) The script harps on this schtick a little too much, and even specifies that one suspect is ambidextrous. Perhaps the aim was to give David Janssen as many scenes as possible where he could grimace and look frustrated?
Whitaker gets more fruitful clue-material from the fact that the body was found near the estate of the Rodanthes, one of the legendary "first families" of Louisiana. Whitaker questions the standoffish head of the family, young Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman), and also finds out that his sister Louise (Barbara Rush) has recently returned to town. In the course of their conversation Whitaker and Louise reveal that each had a crush on the other in high school, and Whitaker claims that he wouldn't act on his affections because of the distinction between their classes. Andrew doesn't seem to approve of any association between his sister and the working-class.
Nothing daunted, Louise runs into Whitaker in town and reveals that despite Andrew claiming that she'd been "sick," he actually brought her back to the family estate because she's been involved with some "socially unacceptable" person up north. Louise doesn't entirely like being under Andrew's thumb but accepts it because he controls the family purse-strings.
The script also reveals that Ellie was pregnant, but Whitaker doesn't have to do much detective work: the doctor admits that he fathered the child, and also that he wanted her to abort it. Again, the conflict seems to arise out of societal disapproval: Doc wants to keep his practice in town, and knows that the community won't approve of his pre-marital liaison. Whitaker keeps his eye on the doc but doesn't see fit to arrest him as a suspect. He does end up arresting Ellie's hot-tempered brother when the guy finds out who knocked up his sister. Brother punches doctor, and the former goes to the lockup. Then the titular "wolf" makes his first appearance. A single man, seen only from the rear, breaks into the jail, knocks out Whitaker's deputy, rips away the door to the brother's cell and kills him.
Up to this point there have been a few tossed-off references to real wolves, while the girl's grandfather warns people about a "lookaroo." Whitaker doesn't seem to have much curiosity about the maniac who killed a man in the lockup, but he gets some help from both Andrew-- who volunteers his services as a deputy-- and from Louise, who volunteers her services to interview Ellie's grandfather, who speaks only French. (Really? Before this, Whitaker couldn't find anyone else in a mid-sized Louisana town who could speak French?) Anyway, Louise reveals that "lookaroo" is just dialect for "loup garou," meaning "werewolf." Whitaker still wants no truck with the supernatural, and continues to be the standard disbeliever even after Andrew-- hospitalized after suffering a strange fit-- turns all hairy and tosses various orderlies around before escaping. A hunting-party goes looking for the wolf-maniac. Andrew shows up at the family estate, where Whitaker proves ineffectual against him while Louise has the honor of destroying her werewolf brother.
I've leapfrogged over a number of plot-details, but I don't think most of them contribute much lucidity to the story, and even after re-watching the film the scenario of Ellie's death doesn't track very well. Assuming that Werewolf-Andrew came upon Ellie and simply killed her out of blood-lust, it's a little hard to picture a werewolf simply clubbing a victim on the head before assailing the body. As to why the wolf-man broke into jail to slay Ellie's brother, I haven't a clue. There are tidbits of werewolf-lore scattered throughout the story, but they don't really integrate with the main action of the plot-- though there's a minor irony in the fact that Andrew, who circulated the story that Louise was sick, is the real "aristocrat-with-a-congenital disease." (In this essay I pointed out a similar distaste for horror-tropes in Guy Endore's novel WEREWOLF OF PARIS.)
Yet, even though I don't think either the mystery-angle or the horror-plot work very well, I still like MOON OF THE WOLF. All of the actors give strong performances with their admittedly half-baked characters, and the telefilm also benefits from some location shooting. Director Daniel Petrie started out in television, and managed to graduate to feature-films for a time (1980's RESURRECTION, 1981's FORT APACHE--THE BRONX) before returning to the small screen. His direction on MOON is best distinguished by the dramatic scenes between Janssen and Rush, and it's certainly not his fault that the production saddled him with sub-par werewolf makeup. MOON isn't one of the better TV-horrors of the period, but the film does at least play around with a few interesting sociological motifs in the midst of its meandering murder-mystery.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
I imagine that this shot-on-video TV-special is the closest I'll ever get to seeing any version of the 1966 stage-play IT'S A BIRD IT'S A PLANE IT'S SUPERMAN. I used to come across a few mentions of the show in the comic books of the period, but even if I'd had the chance to see the play at the time, I probably would have avoided it, given that it appeared to making fun of superheroes, even more so than the contemporaneous BATMAN teleseries.
My verdict from watching this special-- which dropped several of the play's numbers for time-constraints-- is that it isn't so bad. A lot of the humor is lame, though it may not be any worse than that of the play. Whereas I consider BATMAN a sort of adventure/irony than a comedy, SUPERMAN THE MUSICAL is full of lots of dopey gags that put it in the domain of "corn" rather than "camp."
The plot's simple: Superman has been crusading against crime for years, engaging the love of Lois Lane and the envy of others (a smarmy Daily Planet columnist, a goofy mad scientist). The scientist conspires with the columnist and various thugs to eliminate the Man of Steel, first with a death-ray, then by undermining him with psychological tricks. In fact, the scenes in which the scientist tries to persuade Superman that he's a mass of neurotic fantasies-- that even his flying represented a "symbol of frustration"-- are about the only funny jokes in the teleplay.
Lesley Ann Warren excels in her portrait of the dithering girl reporter, while Loretta Swit belts out the play's best known number, "You've Got Possibilities." David Wilson is OK as the comic version of Superman, and since he gets to beat up a bunch of thugs at the story's end, this does rate as a "combative comedy."
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical, cosmological*
I re-watched the theatrical version of SUPERMAN, so as to best recall my original feelings toward the film that hit theater screens in 1978. Those feelings remain largely unchanged: pleasure at seeing all the stuff the producers got right, disappointment at the other stuff.
Amid the DVD's special features was a voice-over by producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, in which Salkind denies that he and his producer-buddies were responsible for the "camp" aspects. Such is the allegation of director Richard Donner, who's said to have brought in Tom Mankiewicz to produce a less "ridiculous" (his word) script. Listening to Ilya Salkind, who's credited with raising the idea of an adaptation with Alexander Salkind, I'd like to believe him, particularly when he talks about wanting to bring a "2001" vibe to the opening scenes on Krypton. But then, I look at all of the scenes with Luthor and his comic accomplices, and strong doubt creeps back in.
Fans over the years have dogpiled on Luthor's stooge Otis (Ned Beatty), but he's no worse than Luthor (Gene Hackman) or his moll Miss Teschmacher (Valerine Perrine). The problem lies not in the actors, but in the conception of Luthor as somehow being both incredibly brilliant and hopelessly inane (yes, I mean "inane," not "insane.") I can well understand why the filmmakers didn't want to bother with any of the Luthor mythology from the comic books, but what they substituted was a Luthor who's more an underachiever than a world-beater. He's introduced as an alleged criminal mastermind who's currently on the run from the law for crimes unknown, and this is the closest rationale as to why he holes up in an underground hideout with Otis and Teschmacher, both of whom seem like Damon Runyon versions of crooked types. One can't even call the threesome's scenes "camp:" they're merely sadly cornball. In my theatrical viewing, I remember feeling disgust at Luthor's idiotic plot to destroy California, but now I think there's a worse scene: the one in which the preening villain "deduces" out the probable existence of kryptonite, sans any evidence for its existence. The only saving grace of the Luthor plotline is that his scheme of nuclear partition is that it gives Superman the chance to struggle with a nuclear missile. If Donner was indeed the guiding genius that gave us this near-masterpiece, then he has to accept a certain amount of opprobrium for letting these scenes ruin what could have been a masterpiece.
And SUPERMAN could have been a masterpiece, at least among superhero movies, based purely on the fortuitous casting of Christopher Reeve. The hardcore comics-fan may well shudder to observe the various actors the producers considered for the role-- Dustin Hoffman, James Caan-- before they decided to select an unknown who had the advantage of looking the part. Reeve's charisma, far more than the expensive flying-FX, sells the film, as well as the film's theme. Simon-pure heroes were usually derided in the pop culture of the time, as they are in Broadway's Superman musical and (to a lesser extent) the Batman teleseries. But when Superman tells Lois that he never lies, or helps a cat down from a tree, Reeve conveys that ideal of innocence absolutely.
The other actors embody their roles well enough, though most don't really have much to do aside from Perry White and, of course, Lois Lane. Much like Reeves, Margot Kidder managed to bring an emotional honesty to a comics-character who was pretty simple in her earliest stories. Kidder's take on the girl reporter has also become something of a benchmark for later actors. I could have done without the strange poetic interlude ("can you read my mind?") during Lois' s flight with Superman, but maybe the guilt for that one can be laid at the door of the entire 1970s decade. On the other hand, I didn't think Marlon Brando brought anything to the role but his enormous fame, though I'll admit that there may have been some ticket-buyers drawn in by his repute.
Other things I noticed in this re-screening: I thought it interesting that the script ditched the old idea that the hero's strength stemmed from Earth's lesser gravity, substituting instead an explanation. Yet I wonder what the scripters were thinking of when they characterized the villainous Ursa as one whose ""perversions and unreasoning hatred of all mankind have threatened even the children of the planet Krypton."
The early section of the film sometimes drags a bit, but it's understandable, given that Donner was trying to recapitulate the character's familiar origin in mythic, even Biblical terms. (Mankiewicz is credited with the dialogue that equates the hero and his Kryptonian dad Jor-El with the Judeo-Christian God and his only begotten son, which are the only "metaphysical" aspects of the story.) I was impressed with some of the symmetry Donner visually exploits. Of course, some of this may have come about because he was originally contracted to direct both this film and its sequel. Certainly the icy Fortress of Solitude is meant to emulate the white-on-white design of Krypton, and while I've never liked Donner-Krypton, I must admit that the Donner-Fortress has become an icon in its own right, easily eclipsing the Silver Age version, which amounted to a juvenile room-fulla-junk.
Donner has been credited by some with having successfully giving comics' premiere superhero a "Hero's Journey" in line with Joseph Campbell's theories. Unfortunately, the journey is at least sidetracked by the villain's banal "B-plot," though not entirely derailed. After all, train-metaphors can't entirely contain him, given that he's "more powerful than a locomotive."
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological. sociological, metaphysical*
It's been a while since I reread Fritz Leiber's novel CONJURE WIFE, but I'm not going out on too much of a limb to declare that of the three film-adaptations, BURN, WITCH, BURN! easily comes closest to the mark.
Obviously the movie's script-- by three genre-favorites (Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Baxt)-- had to elide many of the more complicated aspects of Leiber's novel. However, the script, as well as the stylish direction of Sidney Hayers, are true to the core of CONJURE WIFE. It starts as a martial conflict between college professor Norman Taylor and his wife Tansy. Tansy doesn't seem to fit in with the other professors' wives on the small campus where Norman teaches, and he's largely deaf to her complaints about the hostility being directed against both of them by the entrenched faculty. Even before the main conflict between them erupts, Norman makes a remark about her unusual interest in primitive systems of magic, which he observed during their visit to Jamaica years ago. The mere fact that he would obsess about such a trivial detail shows Norman to be a staunch empiricist, though this version of the story doesn't emphasize the stature he acquired from writing an anti-superstition book, as did the earlier adaptation WEIRD WOMAN. The conflict heats up when Norman learns that Tansy has been secretly enacting witchcraft rituals in order to stave off malign influences. She even tells him that she used witchcraft in Jamaica to save him from a fatal illness. Norman is deeply offended, not only that a wife of his would countenance such irrational beliefs, but also that she doesn't think he earned his position at the college through his own efforts. In short order, he pressures Tansy into destroying all of her protective systems.
As in the novel, all of Norman's good fortune turns sour. Students and faculty-members who were mere annoyances become tangible threats, and a strange presence comes to the door, only to be banished by Tansy's efforts. Norman still does not believe, until Tansy performs a magic spell designed to attract the malign forces upon herself. As a result she almost drowns, but Norman, his love overcoming his sense of rationality, imitates one of her spells and manages to bring her back from the brink. However, the couple still have to deal with the source of the evil sendings.
There are some weaknesses in the script, probably the result of trying to cram Leiber's expansive concepts into a simpler plot. There's an early reference to one character being a hypnotist, which I don't recall from the novel. If this were an uncanny thriller like CALLING DOCTOR DEATH, one could easily understand the inclusion of this talent, as a setup to explaining the witchcraft in semi-rational terms. However, since there's no real viewer-doubt about the reality of the marvelous magicks taking place-- at least not after some unseen presence comes knocking on the Taylors' door-- this point seems irrelevant. The novel makes more of an idea that the villain, an older woman, wants to take over Tansy's body and her life, planning to cohabit with Norman without his knowledge. In the film, this trope is reduced to the villain briefly possessing Tansy's body and trying to kill Norman. I didn't mind that the villain was re-written so that she didn't have any erotic interest in Norman, but the script doesn't really give her any strong motive in its place. The story's worst failing is that, in a scene taking place after Norman himself uses magic to recover Tansy, he confronts the villain and tries to fall back on the idea that she's done it all through hypnotism. Really?
The metaphysical aspects of the novel are played down as well, but at least they are present, in contrast to WEIRD WOMAN, and BURN certainly does a better job eliciting the psychological and sociological conflicts between the couple.
The first adaptation WEIRD WOMAN may have been a little dull, but at least it knew what formulas it wanted to follow, and did so in an adequate fashion. By comparison, I couldn't figure out what WITCHES BREW thought it was doing with the plot of CONJURE WIFE.
Once again, there's no doubt that the witchcraft on the campus is real from the get-go, but it's treated as the daffy hobby of the professors' wives, including Margaret (Teri Garr), wife of up-and-comer Joshua Lightman (Richard Benjamin). (NOTE: unlike BURN, there's not even a partial attempt here to keep any of the novel's characters or their names.) Vivian Cross (Lana Turner) is the one old witch who has darker plans hidden within her witchy ways, and this time they do include taking over the body of the good professor's wife, after he foolishly persuades her to destroy all of her magical wards.
I've seen WITCHES BREW labeled a "spoof," but it's an irony rather than a comedy, for everything in the film's world is rather idiotic, giving the viewer little reason to care about the heroes any more than the villains. This ironic detachment mirrors well the persona of Richard Benjamin, whose ennui seems to inform the performances of Garr and Turner as well, but Benjamin isn't credited as one of the writers. The script is credited to the film's co-director Richard Shorr, whose principal occupation was that of sound editor, and to Syd Dutton, who has no other writing-credits on IMDB but does have a slew of visual effects citations-- though, strangely, not on WITCHES' BREW. Another possible source of the detached attitude might be the film's other director Herbert L. Strock. But none of the works in Strock's writing'/ directing repertoire director really suggest this level of smarmy disinterest in the ostensible subject matter.
The nicest thing I can say about this tepid brew is that it has an engaging theme song by Lennie Bleecher and John Carl Parker.
Monday, October 17, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
I was not a great fan of the 1975 ROLLERBALL, with its attempt to meld Orwell's 1984 with the staid intellectual's aversion to a supposed "bread and circuses" culture. And on occasion, when a given film seems overly self-important, I've even enjoyed seeing it get ripped off by a dumb pop-culture imitation.
Not this time, though. Despite some serious money behind the scenes, FUTURESPORT manages to copy the main plot of ROLLERBALL without adding anything of its own. Again we have one single sport that has, in a future society only about 20 years from the present, pushed all other sports out of American consciousness. (At least FUTURESPORT doesn't extend this development to the whole world, as ROLLERBALL did.) Again, the popularity of the new sport invites politicians to use it, very improbably, to settle their arguments. Here, for reasons never articulated, Hawaii wants to secede from the U.S.
The foremost American player of Roll-- I mean, Futuresport is Tre Ramzey (Dean Cain). He's an arrogant prick, and somehow, long before any government start betting the farm on The Big Game, the Hawaiian secessionists target him for an attack. He and his team-buddies use their combat-skills to trounce the terrorists. This incident,if anything, pumps up Ramzey's ego even more, so that he starts showboating on the Futuresport ball-court, failing to give them support when needed. Ramzey's ex-wife Alex (Vanessa Williams) busts his chops for this, which leads the fractious duo to become a couple again. At some point Ramzey gets religion and begins working with the team as its coach, paying more attention to teamwork in time for the Big Game that will decide whether or not Hawaii can secede from the union.
Wesley Snipes, listed as one of the producers, has a small role here, and since he was an A-list star at the time, I'd bet that this TV-film was a financial investment for him. Neither he nor anyone else puts much effort into their acting, though Williams brings a certain conviction to her part, and even gets a little bit of fighting alongside the sports-heroes. The action-scenes are watchable but nothing more.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*
There's not much similarity between this film and the Korean comics-series on which it's said to be based. The comic-book PRIEST is very much a "weird western" story, taking place in some alternate-world version of 19th-century Europe and America. Demons and rogue angels are continually fighting one another in this world, often unleashing plagues of zombies. One demon makes a pact with Ivan Isaacs, the Catholic "priest" of the title, giving the former priest fabulous powers in order to battle the minion's of the angel's enemies. Though not all of the story takes place in the American West, "spaghetti western" tropes are seen in abundance.
Though the comic book is somewhat philosophically disorganized, the 2011 film has little interest in any philosophy, Catholic or otherwise. The story takes place in the future, and replaces angels, demons and zombie hordes with one primary menace, that of vampires. Prior to the film's main action, vampires have warred on humans for centuries. The human world, now governed by a Catholic theocracy, triumphs by somehow creating a warrior caste known as "Priests," who can leap great distances and wield mighty weapons. The Priests make it possible for humans to destroy most of the vampires and confine the rest to a reservation (though why any are left alive is never suggested). However, having won the war, the Priests-- all of whom seem to be called "Priest" if they're male, and "Priestess" if they're female-- are forced to re-integrate into society, while the theocracy continues to hold power over the post-apocalyptic society.
A sheriff from an outlying (and somewhat Western-looking) community seeks out a man known only as Priest (Paul Bettany), who, though he had another name prior to his ordination, is always called just "Priest." The sheriff relates that a new gang of vampires have killed Priest's brother and sister-in-law, and have absconded with his niece Lucy. Against the orders of his, er, order, Priest and the sheriff leave the city to investigate the vampire's new plot. On the way they also enlist the services of a surviving Priestess (Maggie Q), and eventually Priest learns that the vampires have also managed to suborn a new ally to their crusade against humanity.
The story is overly familiar, but the action sequences are often better than average, particularly in terms of the designs for the warriors' weapons and conveyances. The script is pretty timid about making any particular references to Catholic Christianity, and unlike the comics-character, Priest and Priestess have only vague visual resemblances to the Catholic image. The vampire menace is woefully under-characterized.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
Like 1981's THE HOWLING, the original PUMPKINHEAD is a touchstone for the 1980s FX-advances. Effects-wizard Stan Winston, directing a film for the first time, had already become well known for his inventive designs, and the titular monster may be his best creation. Winston also collaborated on the story, which is just fair of its type.
Through a prologue, Winston establishes that a demon called "Pumpkinhead" has become a legend in an unspecified part of America's "hill country," and that the demon can be summoned to avenge wrongs. Focal character Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) manages a small country store with his young son, and their life seems peaceful if unremarkable.
As in many other films about rural terrors, trouble starts when big-city outsiders appear on the scene. A group of city-kids show up at the store, planning to ride their motorcycles in the country. In contrast to some rural flicks, most of the kids are reasonably nice types, but there's one bad apple in the bunch, and he accidentally runs down the young son with his bike, with fatal results. The vengeful Harley seeks out an old witch, and, following the exhumation of a body from a pumpkin-patch / graveyard, the witch sends Pumpkinhead forth to kill all the city-kids.
Winston proves a decent if not extraordinary director, and he keeps things looking spooky and sepulchral at all times, with snatches of "hillbilly music" to give the story local color. Henriksen, though, is the only actor who acquits himself well here, but admittedly he's the only one given a strong character-arc. The old witch doesn't tell him in advance that he'll suffer a sort of Corsican Brothers sympathy with Pumpkinhead whenever the demon kills one of his targets, and so Harley turns against his pawn-- though not before most of the city-kids are knocked off.
The sequel is a more mixed bag. Visuals under the direction of Jeff Burr are generally dull, sort of "JAWS II" next to "JAWS." However, the story starts out with an interesting new direction. About 20 years prior to the film's main story, Tommy, a deformed teenager, haunts the woods, being fed by an old witch-woman (no relation to the witch of the first film). Wikipedia claims he is the spawn of Pumpkinhead himself, but that's not beyond doubt: all we here is some mythology claiming that deformed people are often thought to be the result of demon-human mating. Certainly Tommy has no demonic powers when he's assaulted by a group of local louts. who end up killing him. The witch claims his body and buries it, but takes no action against Tommy's murderers.
Twenty years later, the killers are all respectable men in a particular rural town clearly modeled on the beach-city in JAWS (right down to both having a mayor who worries about the impact of monster-hunting on local commerce). The focal character this time is Sheriff Braddock, who was formerly a resident of the town, moved for a time to the big city, and who has now returned to his old roots, along with his daughter. The daughter falls in with some trouble-making teens, and it's their actions that lead to the recrudescence of Pumpkinhead-- although the script is muddled on this point, giving both the teens and the old witch credit for the demon's resurgence.
As if trying to avoid the program of the earlier flick, the demon doesn't immediately go after the teens; instead it starts chasing down the killers of its its formerly mortal body. It seems to take its time about it, too, giving Braddock and the teens plenty of scenes in which they puzzle over the unexplained murders. The somewhat sedentary film only comes alive when Pumpkinhead kills someone, and though there's a little more potential for individual characterization, the script doesn't take full advantage of said potential.
Saturday, October 15, 2016
PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny // marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
In my review of SHAOLIN BROTHERS, I observed that the film maintained two plotlines-- one marvelous, one naturalistic-- which never came together, at least in the English version. I wrote:
In SHAOLIN, the real vampires have no effect whatever on the main story, and so I've come up with a new category for this sort of metaphenomenon: the "peripheral-marvelous."
This serial came very close to having the same bifurcated phenomenality, with a "naturalistic" core story and peripheral marvelous content. MASTER KEY, appearing in theaters in April 1945, concerns government agents in America seeking Nazi spies back in 1938. The Nazis, working under a mysterious figure called "the Master Key," are trying to obtain the scientific breakthrough of Professor Henderson, whose "Oroton Tubes" can harvest raw gold from the ocean, presumably without spending more than one uses for the harvesting-techniques. Despite the efforts of G-Man Tom Brant (GUNSMOKE's Milburn Stone in his salad days) and his aides, the spies do capture Henderson, but the scientist fears being killed if he simply gives up his secret. He cooperates only to the extent of buying time with requests for the materials to build the Tubes. Thus, as in many serials, both good and bad guys are sent chasing after any number of McGuffins. The idea of a gold-making device is sufficiently advanced that it registers as a marvelous phenomenon, although one doesn't see it in action more than once or twice. Aside from providing the Nazis and their enemies with their motives for fighting, the Tube-machine is peripheral to the main action. Even the death-ray in BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD, used only twice in the film, gets more emphasis.
So Brant fights the servants of the Master Key amid blazing guns, flying fists (though not many fight-scenes here) and cliffhangers, usually cadged from previous serials (as is the music, swiped alternately from 1941's WOLF MAN and 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.) However, although the villains are led by a mastermind with a fancy name, the Master Key does not literally appear on screen for the majority of the serial. Rather, the underlings simply receive their orders from him via radio-conferences.
Merely having a weird name and a creepy voice is not enough to propel a narrative into the domain of the metaphenomenal, as I asserted in my review of these two serials, both of which include a mystery villain who also communicates with henchmen via radio, and who in both stories takes the sobriquet "The Voice." For twelve of MASTER KEY's thirteen serials, the Master Key makes no appearances, costumed or otherwise. Then, in the very last chapter, the villain appears in a masked outfit-- nothing very fancy, but enough to qualify her (yes, I gave it away) as a genuine "masked mastermind." Thus the serial does use, very belatedly, the "outre outfits" trope.
Also tossed in, nearly at the last moment, is an "outre device," when the spies attempt to lure Brant into an electrical trap. This is much more mundane technology than a gold-harvesting machine, but it's also just bizarre enough for me to consider it within the domain of the uncanny.
So why is my phenomemality-category still bifurcated? In essence, though the masked mastermind and the zap-trap seem like last-minute additions to the story, they are still *centric* to the story, whereas the gold-machine is truly *peripheral."
Back in January I rated two obscure "spooky westerns" as uncanny because their stories did include owlhoots pretending to be ghosts, even though the spectral impostures were really pathetic. However, on further consideration, since the main action in these flicks is that of a naturalistic hero fighting naturalistic villains, then by the rule I've elaborated they too might best be classified with a bifurcated phenomenality, just because the uncanny dingus has no direct influence on the narrative, just as the marvelous in MASTER KEY could easily have been a new bomb-sight or the like.
Monday, October 10, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
This silent Tarzan film-- adapting (not very accurately) Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1923 novel of the same name-- was deemed lost for many years, but a French copy was found and duly released in subtitled form.
Though it's a handsomely mounted film, it seems to have been conceived as a more or less standard jungle-adventure in which Tarzan and his wife Jane are inserted with cumbersome effects. Actor James Pierce was selected by Burroughs for the role of Tarzan, but Pierce proves a stiff and uncharismatic hero for modern tastes (though Burroughs' own daughter married the fellow, and he did continue to act for many years). Though the novel includes many melodramatic twists and turns, some of which call upon the ape-man to rescue his equally famed mate, Jane has little to do in the 1927 film. She, Tarzan and Tarzan's sister-- a character invented purely for this film-- participate in a caravan seeking a legendary city full of diamonds but inhabited by sun-worshippers with a bent for human sacrifice.
Surprisingly, the narrative focus seems to be on sister Betty Greystoke-- seen in the still above, being rescued by her brother while she's garbed in her sacrificial regalia. Betty also has a romance going with one of the white hunters. This was a plot-thread that Burroughs had used in other books: once Tarzan and Jane were safely married, the author often created subplots that threw another heterosexual couple into one's arms. However, though that seems to be the intent of the film's early part, Betty's romance with the white hunter never becomes nearly as important as her role as the Girl Tarzan Saves.
The sun-worshipers are just a standard tribe of savage natives, whose origins are not explored, and the climactic action scenes are no better than fair. The one major plot-thread taken from the novel-- that a man resembling Tarzan impersonates the ape-man for a time-- is underused in favor of meandering jungle scenes. Boris Karloff has a small role as a bad native, but he has no scenes of moment. Two years later, there appeared a far better Tarzan film, TARZAN THE TIGER. It not only portrayed a much more charismatic hero, it also made use of the same tribal villains that had appeared in the GOLDEN LION novel, and who were tossed aside in this film for a bunch of bland sun-worshipers.
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
"The past is never really the past. It stays with me all the time."-- Norman Bates, early in the film.
"But I'll be free. I'll finally be free."-- Norman, late in the film.
One of the few rewarding aspects of watching sequels is their occasional defiance of entropy. In the majority of cases, an excellent first film is followed by follow-ups that are either progressively worse or identical in their unremarkable qualities.
PSYCHO III is the rare film to buck the trend; by making a silk purse out of the ordinary sow's ears of PSYCHO II. The third film in the franchise takes the gimcrack plot-devices of Film Number Two and finds a way to meld them with something closer to Hitchcock at his darkest. This 1986 film is no classic like PSYCHO, but in addition to returning Norman's story to the Fryean mythos of irony-- where everyone, not just Norman, is fundamentally crazy-- it does so by building on the tropes that Hitchcock and Stefano refined from the Robert Bloch novel. Scripter Charles Edward Pogue, best known for his work on the 1986 FLY, may deserve a great share of the credit. However, I tend to credit the film's rich visual style to Anthony Hopkins, this time occupying the director's chair in addition to reprising the central role of Norman Bates. The look of the film is excellent, and given that cinematographer Bruce Surtees had produced largely generic-looking work prior to PSYCHO III, I'll advance the possibility that Hopkins was responsible for masterminding the film's look and tone. No doubt, given that Hopkins had been somewhat typed by his PSYCHO fame, the actor-- who only directed one other film-- hoped to increase his fortunes via the association. Unfortunately, PSYCHO III did not fare as well in the box-office as the mediocre second entry, so I don't imagine Hopkins' career prospered as a result of this installment.
The story picks up about a month after Norman has been cleared of the murders committed by his supposed "real mother," Miss Spool, and also after Norman has secretly murdered her, stuffed her as he did with the woman he'd previously considered his mother, and went back to having argumentative conversations with the "mother in his head." Yet, just as PSYCHO began with one of Norman's victims rather than the psycho himself, PSYCHO III starts out by introducing the viewer to Maureen Coyle (note the initials, identical to those of Marion Crane). Maureen is a troubled young woman first seen in the attire of a postulant nun. In an opening somewhat reminiscent of a concluding scene in Hitchcock's VERTIGO, Maureen tries to leap to her death from the top of her nunnery, yelling that "there is no God!" Several nuns try to corral the potential suicide, with the result that one of the nuns falls to her death. Later Maureen, clad in commonplace clothes, leaves the nunnery on foot with her suitcase, and is soon picked up by a driver, a wastrel named Duane. Duane gives her a ride for a little while before trying to take advantage of her, forcing the former nun to flee again.
Both Maureen and Duane then enter the orbit of the Bates Motel. Duane, low on cash, answers an ad placed by Norman to help manage the motel, which has become a little more profitable since the first movie. Maureen makes her way to the neighboring town, looking for a place to stay, but before she arrives at the motel, Norman meets a new nemesis: Tracy Venable (note similarity to a family-name in Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER). Tracy is an aggressive reporter seeking a story on Norman, and she makes common cause with the money-hungry Duane, to find out whether or not Norman has truly been reformed.
Norman, of course, is back in full mother-mode, his mania if anything further aggravated when he meets Maureen. Though she doesn't look much like Marion Crane, Norman sees her initials on her suitcase and makes the connection. He gives her Marion's old room at the motel, Number One, and soon the reborn "Norman-Mother" is on the loose again. However, instead of taking a shower Maureen takes a bath, and opens her wrists in it. Seeing the threatening woman already dying throws Norman back into his normal persona, and after doffing his maternal guise, he takes Maureen to a hospital and town, thus saving her life.
Not that this cures his tendency for bloodbaths. After Maureen has been released from the hospital and has returned to the motel, she and Norman begin a tentative relationship. However, this activates the psychotic belief that Mother will be pathologically jealous of any female rival, and so Norman's wrath falls upon another "loose woman," and then another days later. Both bodies are concealed so that the law only lists them as missing, but reporter Tracy continues to investigate Norman's peculiar history. Duane, looking for more lucre, finds the mummified body of Miss Spool and tries to extort money from Norman. Suffice to say that for once, Norman doesn't need to change into "Mother-Man" to kill someone.
Tracy then learns a bit of news that reverses the turnabout of PSYCHO II's script: Miss Spool was not, as she claimed, Norman's mother. That honor belonged to the original Mrs. Bates (who would not be seen in a "live" flashback until the last film in the franchise, PSYCHO IV). Miss Spool was indeed sister to Mrs. Bates, but she was also in love with Norman's married dad. She both killed her would-be lover and briefly abducted baby Norman in the belief that he was hers: this got her put in the nuthouse. This reversal has the advantage of explaining how easy it was for her to start down the slasher-path in Part 2, as well as making Norman's relationship with his main parental figure genuinely Oedipal.
Maureen almost succeeds in forming a romantic bond with Norman, but by sheer accident, she meets the very death she'd courted earlier. Norman goes round the bend, menacing Tracy as the reporter tries to reveal the truth to him. As a further irony, Tracy-- the least sympathetic major character in the film-- is spared when Norman chooses to turn against the image of the mother who has possessed him-- although by the denouement, it's by no means clear that he's managed to win free, as he claims.
I don't have much to add about the first season of BATES MOTEL, recently re-screened, since I've not yet screened the other seasons. It is, unlike the film-franchise, a purely naturalistic dramatic series, with lacks even the uncanny aspects of the inferior second and fourth films in the series. Perhaps taking some inspiration from PSYCHO IV, Norma Bates in the opening episodes is far more intense-- though not quite psychotic-- than she is as represented in the first three films. It's a competent enough melodrama, though it adds elements of organized crime to the bucolic mix that never quite fit the PSYCHO mythology. The performances of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga are uniformly excellent, but the producers are really not interested in exploring the dark corners of Norman Bates' mind, much less in inquiring into what he represents: the tendency of all humans to become caught in what Norman calls "traps"-- which in turn represent the human tendency for delusion and darkness.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
I liked this PRC cheapie a little more than DEAD MEN WALK. There's actually more storytelling potential in the later film, also a starring vehicle for George Zucco and also directed by journeyman Sam Newfield. I might have expected MAD MONSTER's story to be the stronger of the two, since MONSTER was PRC's initial attempt to find out if support-actor Zucco could carry a horror-film a la Bela Lugosi. But despite a routine plot-- that of the mad scientist who experiments on some poor, good-hearted schlub-- MONSTER does carry a little emotional resonance beyond the ordinary. For modern viewers it helps that the victim of the experiment, a handyman named Petro, is played by Glenn Strange. I wouldn't say Strange sets any houses on fire in playing a science-spawned werewolf, but it's fun to see him in the role, since he was then about a year away from his first outing as the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Given that I touched on the potential Oedipal theme in DEAD MEN WALK, I considered whether or not this tidbit also appeared in the earlier film. Certainly, going back to Mary Shelley's original "mad scientist" novel, there have been such experimenters who would create monsters, in part to have them commit the acts that the scientists themselves dared not perpetrate. Handyman Petro shows a doggish devotion to Lenora (Anne Nagel), the daughter of misguided experimenter Cameron (Zucco). Still, Cameron isn't a standard "heavy father," which might signal some Oedipustuff. In fact, Cameron seems quite content that his daughter has a best beau. The scientist's only issue is that the beau happens to be a reporter, who endangers the experiment by nosing into certain murders committed by a marauding werewolf.
Sociologically, Cameron's motive for making werewolves is the film's most interesting touch: he has the idea that he's going to create an army of werewolves to hurl against the Axis enemy. Unfortunately, though Zucco gives a crisp and well-mannered performance, he doesn't have the chutzpath to sell the idea that Cameron's crazy enough to consider his idea a sound military strategy.
Thursday, October 6, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
TARGET FOR KILLING-- known under many titles, including one that alludes to the yellow-robed monk in the above still-- is one of the better low-budget Eurospy films of the 1960s, though purely in terms of offering some simple visual treats while killing time.
While TARGET is not a comedy, the script often includes bits of ludicrous business. The hotshot government agent "Jimmy Vine" (Stewart Granger), flying to Germany to locate a mysterious spy-chief known as the Giant, makes the acquaintance of Sandra, one of the Giant's "targets for killing," when the pilots jump out the plane with the intent of letting everyone aboard perish. Later, Vine makes a pretense to a stranger about being an expert on snakes, and the stranger promptly puts Vine in the position of handling a poison serpent. Throughout the film there are references to the Giant having some special method of brainwashing people to join his cause, and it turns out to be a combination of plain old hypnotism and the weird idea of shocking victims with electric eels-- a bit of ingenuity that rivals, but does not quite pass, the goofy "goldfish-bowl" device seen in the serial SHADOW OF CHINATOWN.
Director Manfred Kohler may be best known to American film-hounds for his writing on Euro-thrillers like BLOOD OF FU MANCHU. In his day he didn't do a lot of directing, but here he keeps the action lively enough: fights, daredevil escapes-- all on a budget of course, but still some scenes show imagination, as when the villain's henchwoman uses a machine gun to pepper the walls around a female victim, scaring the hell out of her but not actually killing her. However, most Bond-fans will like the film mostly for its casting, as it brings together several veterans of the Bond franchise-- leading lady Karin Dor (singularly bland), Adolfo Celi, and Molly Peters-- and one actor who would only make a Bond-film later, Curt Jurgens.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
One thing I'll say in favor of PSYCHO II is that it's a better follow-up than the 1998 remake of the Hitchcock film, both reviewed here.
In 1983 both writer Tom Holland and director Richard Franklin had racked some fair credits in the genre of horror: the former wrote THE BEAST WITHIN and the latter both wrote and directed ROAD GAMES. Arguably Holland went on to greater heights within the genre, writing and directing the original outings for both FRIGHT NIGHT and CHILD'S PLAY. So it seems likely that both men, quite aside from their knowledge that the Hitchcock film was an avowed classic, knew that it was one of the films that made the horror genre relatively popular with mainstream audiences in the 1960s.
In my review of the 1960 film I opined that it fell into the Fryean category of "the irony," in that it offered a bleak and almost pointless view of human existence. Holland and Franklin were not interested in showing the skull beneath the skin: what they've rendered is an efficient thriller with a little more gore than the 1960 film. perhaps as a selling-point to the then-current rage for slasher-films. Because the film is more interested in exploring the interactions of the characters rather than their function within a cruel universe, PSYCHO II is not an irony but a drama, closer in spirit to other Hitchcock works, notably his breakthrough success THE LODGER.
Twenty-two years after the events of the Bates Motel, Norman (Anthony Perkins) is judged sane by his psychiatrist and is released into society once more. Lila Loomis (Vera Miles, also reprising her role from the original film) protests Norman's release, because her sister Marion was killed by the mother-fixated psycho, but her protests avail nothing. Norman takes up residence at his old home next to the motel. The motel is now run by a manager appointed by the hospital, but strangely Norman does not encounter him upon his return. Instead, on the advice of his psychiatrist, Norman takes a job in town at a diner, working as an order-cook. Norman spends the day learning the ropes of the new job, and makes the acquaintance of a winsome young woman named Mary (Meg Tilly). By day's end she lets him know that she has no place to stay, so gallant Norman invites her to stay at the motel. Only that night does Norman conveniently meet the new manager, who has turned the no-profit business into a "no-tell motel." Norman, heartily offended to find his quaint hostel turned into a refuge for the sex-and-drugs crowd, expels the manager. A day later, he almost comes into violent conflict with the aggrieved ex-employee-- and the same fellow is killed, and his body hidden so that no one but the audience knows of his demise.
Norman finds himself gaslighted by notes and phone calls purporting to come from his dead mother, and soon he quits the job, intending to manage the motel full-time. Mary continues to stay at the house in a non-romantic relationship, but there always remains the possibility that sex-phobic Norman will "cut loose" once more, so that these scenes communicate the greatest tension in the film, in part due to the strong chemistry between Perkins and Tilly. However, this time the woman's the one with the secret: Mary is the daughter of Lila, and the two of them have been conspiring to drive Norman back to the nuthouse. However, neither of them is the mystery-murderer. The Big Reveal as to the true killer's identity doesn't track all that well logically and, as I recall, is mostly ignored by the next two sequels in the franchise.
It's interesting that PSYCHO II comes close to duplicating the progress of the first two FRIDAY THE 13TH films. The original FRIDAY THE 13TH only suggests the presence of Jason as a killer and reveals that it's actually his mad mother; the sequel then brought Jason into play as the ongoing horror-icon. The monster of the original PSYCHO starred a boy who was a bit too attached to his mother, and PSYCHO II comes close to promoting the idea of "Norman's mom" as the real monster. However, the denouement of the film eliminates any possibility that anyone but Norman would be the Master of Bates (heh).
Hitchcock's films tended to vary between stories that uncovered the quiet horror of life, and stories that were just efficient, if mechanical thrillers. In essence, Franklin and Holland focused only upon the thriller-aspects of the original PSYCHO, and failed to delve into anything deeper.
EDIT: I've now re-screened PSYCHO III, and have to admit that this second sequel, rather than ignoring the Big Reveal of Part II as I wrote above, actually reverses it, in order to bring the Bates mythology back to its original configuration.
Monday, October 3, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
I've little to say about the low-budget SF-oeuvre of porn director Tim Kincaid than to use it as an object lesson of how not to make even a halfway decent low-budget film.
ROBOT HOLOCAUST is the first of Kincaid's miniscule output in the SF genre, and I'm amazed to read on IMDB that it apparently did show up in some theaters, rather than going straight to theaters. It almost goes without saying that it's a mind-numbing mix of formulas swiped from STAR WARS and MAD MAX, acted by people who couldn't act, filmed mostly underground (the basements of abandoned buildings, maybe?), and using ragtag outfits that even the addition of greater nudity could not make less abominable.
The basic idea is that after the usual nuclear apocalypse, many humans fled to the wastelands, but some stayed within a generic city. I guess the city's got a dome over it, or else the threats of the local tyrant, "The Dark One," to cut off people's air wouldn't come to much. The idea of an air-monopoly has a little promise, but the idea is rendered risible by the idea that some of the outsiders have mutated so that they somehow don't need air. Oh, and there's a brilliant professor who's somehow immunized himself and his lovely daughter from needing air to supply. Okay.
This is just barely a combative film by virtue of the struggles of the rebel leader "Neo" (no, not that Neo) against the Dark One. It's far too dull to be "so bad it's good."
In contrast, MUTANT HUNT went straight to video, but it does at least boast some cheesy action sequences, and a lead who can act: Rick Gianisi, best known as Troma's "Sergeant Kabukiman." The plot concerns a mad scientist who begins dosing a troop of cyborgs with a new drug, so that they become sex-hungry maniacs. I lost count of the number of times the script uses the word "psychosexual."
Purely because of the fights and the occasional cyborg meltdowns, this one might be funny to watch for laughs, preferably when stoned.
By contrast to these two cinematic canines, I found myself experiencing a mild liking for ALIEN FROM L.A., even though neither its director (Albert Pyun) nor its production company (Cannon) have been known for producing high-quality work. That said, Pyun, unlike Kincaid, does know how to produce a viable action-sequence, having initially made his mark with the derivative but lively CONAN knockoff THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER.
I don't know how much money Pyun had to work with, but he does end up pursuing roughly the same filming strategy as Kincaid: lots of filming in subterranean corridors. Wanda Sacknussem (Kathy Ireland) is a nerdy, squeaky-voiced Valley Girl who follows her lost father down to the Center of the Earth (where Jules Verne also placed another character with the name "Sacknussem"-- though that's all you get of Verne here). Wanda finds herself wandering around a grungy under-earth civilization that's supposedly the remnant of lost Atlantis, though the inhabitants look like they'd have been more at home in a Mad Max film.
Two things save this film-- which is by no means good-- from total tedium.
First, even though Pyun's dealing up a cut-rate Atlantis, the costumes are moderately good-looking in a trashy way. Pyun also knows how to keep his camera focused mostly on people's faces, which both distracts from the poverty of the production and makes the Atlantean denizens seem more sinister.
Second, Ireland, while no great actress, makes the character moderately interesting. One's ability to enjoy her character may stand or fall on whether one is amused by her faux-squeaky voice, but it worked OK for me. Her character is standard enough-- the shy nerd who has never really been able to emulate her adventurous father-- but in the early scenes Ireland does sell it fairly well, for all that you know she's concealing a supermodel figure under her klutzy clothes. Wanda wanders around the underground, making enemies and a few friends, and she does succeed in rescuing her father, though she remains an entirely subcombative character throughout.
Saturday, October 1, 2016
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
These two serials are similar in that the majority of the action in them is strictly naturalistic, but each of them tosses in a few gimmicks that propel both of them into the domain of the uncanny.
In earlier years I'd seen G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON in a re-edited TV version. Now that I've seen the entire film, I'd say that it ranks with the best of the sound serials. True, it doesn't have a really memorable starring hero, like THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, or starring villain, like the MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN. But like most of the serials directed or co-directed by William Witney, G-MEN delivers a great variety of well-mounted action scenarios, some of which are pleasingly shot on location rather than on studio sets.
During the height of WWII, G-Man Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron) is assigned to seek out agents of the infamous Black Dragon espionage society. This spy-ring is bent on acts of sabotage, directed by its mastermind Haruchi (Nino Pepitone), who's smuggled into the U.S. inside a mummy case. Aiding Bennett throughout the serial is a resourceful female agent, Vivian (Constance Worth, memorably seen wielding a machine-gun against some thugs) and a Asian fellow named Chang Sing-- though the latter character doesn't do very much after the early chapters. He may have been introduced largely to remind American audiences of the period that not all Asians were identical with the nation's Japanese enemies-- though the opening chapter of the serial does itself no favors in modern eyes by boasting the chapter-title "The Yellow Peril."
That said, in contrast to some of the more notorious wartime films-- notably the first BATMAN serial, which came out the same year-- there's no racial derogation of the Japanese, though Haruchi is not played by an Asian (unlike the aforementioned Chinese agent) and his main servants are Caucasians. If anything, the Black Dragons seem a pretty formidable bunch, and in one episode the husky Bennett has a lengthy struggle with a smaller enemy agent, who equalizes the size differential with judo moves.
As for the gimmicks, Haruchi avails himself of three. A Black Dragon uses a pen full of knockout gas to stun a guard, and one of his agents employs a trained raven whose talons have been poisoned to get rid of yet another guardsman. I have to mention one of the serial's death-traps not because it's uncanny, but because it's a hearkening back to the silent serial era: Haruchi's men tie Vivian to a sawmill-like contraption and threaten to split her differences. However, Haruchi also puts together his own more ingenious trap in one of his hideouts-- an "infernal machine" set with a timer so that at a certain point it will shoot forth a metal spear to impale a bound victim-- Vivian again, seen in the above still waiting for her fate.
Cameron is quite good as the practical-minded, square-jawed hero, and Worth provides a fine backup. Pipitone's villainous spy, however, is more than a little monotonous, and the actor's performance gives no evidence that he sought to emulate the sound of real Japanese speaking English.
The postwar serial FEDERAL OPERATOR 99 turns from war to crime for its thrills. For almost all of its 12 chapters, the serial concerns the adventures of the titular Operator 99, Jerry Blake, to ferret out the robbery-schemes of master criminal Jim Belmont. In addition to the fact that hero and villain possess the same initials, the British-sounding Blake is a bit more elegant sounding than the standard staccato-sounding American serial lead-- and this accords with the portrait of Belmont, a sophisticated thief and killer who likes to lay his plans while playing classical music. Unfortunately, all he seems to know how to play is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which lends a certain sameness to each of Belmont's planned transgressions.
Only in one chapter does Belmont depart from naturalistic depredations-- like the one in the still above, where the heroine is menaced by a spinning airplane propellor. Belmont lures Blake to a special chamber, wherein one wall is transparent, Blake shoots at Belmont, only to find that the glass is bulletproof. Thus Belmont can watch the destruction of Blake, after Belmont sets off a device that causes the sealed room to go up in flames. The hero escapes, of course, but the cremation-room is still one of the more memorable serial death-traps, though a little out of line with the mastermind's usual modus operandi.
Both serials are strong in terms of offering lots of fistfights and gun-battles, but G-MEN does succeed a little better in terms of sheer style.