Tuesday, June 27, 2017

FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL (1977)




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

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

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

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

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

KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950)



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


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

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

WONDER WOMAN (2017)


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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

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



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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

THE GHOUL (1933)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, June 5, 2017

DEMENTIA 13 (1963)



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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017)



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

I tried to avoid reading other reviews of this film before writing mine, but by chance I read a fragment where some critic lambasted the film for being too much of a repeat of the first film, leading me to assume that this critic wrote his review on mental autopilot.

Yes, given that the series features an ensemble of generally quarrelsome characters, there are plot-threads carried over from the first film, which might give some viewers the impression of repetition. But compared to some of the ham-handed handling of soap-opera plotting in some Marvel films-- particularly CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR-- VOL. 2, both written and directed by James Gunn, represents a quantum leap. Indeed, a lot of the set-up situations in the 2014 film were more than a little forced, given that the ensemble characters were thrown together in "Dirty Dozen" fashion. This time, since the Guardians have now been in one another's company for some time--they're first seen undertaking a mercenary operation for a planetary culture in their sprawling galactic empire-- one can take their bond for granted in VOL.2.

The weakest of the "carried-over" threads-- Rocket the Non-Raccoon's inability to work and play well with others--  is still relatively consistent, as well as efficient in the role it plays in the overall story. Two Gamora plotlines, respectively regarding her sister and her love-interest Peter "Star-Lord" Quill-- are handled nicely, even if neither reveals any hidden twists. The plug-ugly Drax doesn't precisely get a new plot-thread of his own, but his dominant trait-- that of saying whatever comes to his mind, no matter how stupid-- is counterpointed by a new character, Mantis, who is largely an innocent and thus unable to suss out Drax's bullshit. Thus, though Mantis may not be intended to be a series regular, her chemistry with Drax is a highlight of the film's comic dimension. Drax (Dave Bautista) arguably gets the most juicy lines in the film.

However, the central plot is that of Earthman Peter Quill. The first film established the basics of the conundrum: following the death of his mother-- who maintained that Quill's absent father was an alien-- Quill was abducted from Earth by an alien. This was not Quill's daddy, but a buccaneer named Yondu, and for reasons unknown he chose to raise Quill as one of his band of space-pirates. This forced association assured that even though Yondu functioned as a surrogate father to Quill, the hero rebelled against Yondu's authority and escaped his control. Large parts of the first film are devoted to delineating the love-hate relationship between Qiull and Yondu.

Then, fortuitously enough, Ego, an alien purporting to be Quill's real dad shows up and invites the Guardians to his own planet, occupied only by him and his servant Mantis. Two Guardians, Rocket and Groot, stay behind to get involved in Yondu's continued pursuit of Quill, while Quill. Gamora and Drax journey to Ego's world. Ego reveals that he is a godlike being called a "Celestial," one who evolved from a primary mental entity. He says that he mated with Quill's mother but had to leave in order to replenish his energies on his self-created planet, and his story is partly affirmed by the fact that Quill discovers his heritage of Celestial powers (which explains one of the apparent plot-flaws of the first film). However, there would be no real conflict if Ego didn't have some secrets to be revealed, and sure enough, Real Daddy is even more heinous than Substitute Daddy. Gunn charts the relationship of Ego and his former henchman Yondu credibly, so that Quill finds out some hidden facts about his indebtedness to his surrogate father. I won't detail Ego's master plan here. Suffice to say, though, that it starts out looking like a sci-fi version of the Christian Father-God taking his Son, into his bosom, and then ends up as a nasty parody of that trope, slightly cross-bred with the history of Greek Zeus and his multiple spawnings.

I didn't research the persons responsible for VOL. 2's visual design, but the imagery here far excels that of the first film, to say nothing of most other Marvel films (particularly the visually stunted THOR films). A lot of critics have complained about the supposed sameness of the Marvel films, but I don't imagine any of them will celebrate things like the rich, Hindu-istic look of Ego's planet (complete with lots of mandala-circles) or the Luc Besson-like design of the Sovereign people's "virtual bicycles." Here, too, Gunn sets a new level of craft for others to imitate-- though they probably will not.

A lagniappe for hardcore Marvel-fans is to be had in drawing comparisons between the film's characters and the original versions of figures like Ego and Mantis-- not to mention one whose name is dropped in the end-teaser.

THE MANSTER (1959)



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


The  title almost begged for latter-day comedians to view the whole film as cheesy, particularly when one could excerpt a few key scenes (like the one where the protagonist finds an extra eye growing in his shoulder) to make the whole endeavor sound ludicrous. But THE MANSTER-- the only horror film of journeyman director George P. Breakstone (who also provided the original   story)-- is actually a decent take on the venerable Jekyll-and-Hyde theme, with the added touch of placing all the action in a country foreign to "Jekyll."

The Robert Louis Stevenson protagonist experiments on himself, but Larry Stanford is the victim of a mad doctor's obsession with bringing about spontaneous mutations. Rather surprisingly, though Doctor Suzuki is aware that radiation is more likely to cause mutation than chemicals, he chooses to use the same method as the much earlier Stevenson story. Maybe, as a postwar Japanese man, using radiation would have been a sensitive subject?

Before Larry, an American war correspondent, shows up Suzuki's doorstep looking for an interview with the eminent scientist, Suzuki has already experimented on his wife and his brother, both of whom have become ugly mutations, though not taking the "Mister Hyde" pathway that Larry will be forced upon. Suzuki doesn't emphasize any particular reason for wanting to explore this particular avenue of research, but he's smart enough to know that, once he's surreptitiously drugged Larry, the mad doc has to have some way to keep tabs on him. Thus Suzuki not only entices the rather bland American with temptations of exotic Japanese pleasures, the scientist also obliges his mistress Tara-- who knows all about the forbidden experiments-- to play up to the journalist. It's hardly a controlled experiment, though, for soon Larry starts experiencing murderous urges. In true werewolf style he transforms into a hairy killer, slaughters innocents, and then transforms back to his original form. Soon the mutation becomes so aggravated that the "monster side" of Larry begins to assume its own separate existence-- first as an eye in the shoulder, and then as a second bestial head. Finally, to Larry's good fortune at the climax, the Manster completely splits off from Larry, which allows the creature to be killed while Larry is spared the vengeance of the law-- but not before the deaths of both Suzuki and Tara.

I haven't mentioned the fact that Larry, unlike his prototype Doctor Jekyll, is a married man. It's made clear early on that he left his wife Linda behind in the U.S. so that he could pursue his career without hindrance. In fact, when he first visits Suzuki, he's intending to return to Linda, but Suzuki gives him a chance to taste forbidden fruit in an alien culture. Indeed, although Larry's apparently been a "good boy" while jaunting around different countries, his rather erotic experiences may be analogous to those of American soldiers stationed in Japan after the War, looking to collect the Spoils of War. Larry's failure to return forces Linda to journey to Japan, where she locks horns with Tara over her husband's soul. To the script's credit, Tara is not as unfeeling as Suzuki about Larry's fate, and it's clear from a later conversation that she became Suzuki's "kept woman" after being forced into a life of prostitution. Suzuki blandly dismisses Tara's misgivings, and offers to marry her to keep her quiet (having already slain his mutated wife). Both Tara's sympathies and Suzuki's imperial indifference to lesser emotions are well-performed by the respective actors. The other actors are not nearly as compelling, but all of them are serviceable in this well-paced story of a nice-guy American having his dark side unleashed in the shadow of Hiroshima.




Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


I will concede that it’s nearly impossible to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novel as it was written. Some of the brickbats hurled against TARZAN OF THE APES are justified, and in this essay I mentioned some of Burroughs’ unpalatable ethnic humor. Other criticisms seem based purely in contemporaneous rhetoric, such as the canard that TARZAN is racist because it shows a white hero in a position of power over Black African natives, even if that hero is seen liberating the natives rather than enslaving them. The script for LEGEND OF TARZAN suggests that the screenwriters were more than a little aware of current political objections to the character, some of which are grounded not in the depiction of race, but of gender. Yet in contrast to Disney’s ham-fisted 1999 adaptation of the ape-man, LEGEND at least confronts the issues rather than ignoring them. If the only current version of TARZAN one can have has to be politically correct, this film probably makes the best job of the task.

LEGEND's two scripters earn points for locating the action of LEGEND in a long-ago era, roughly twenty years from the ape-man’s 1912 prose debut: to the days when the Belgians were ruthlessly exploiting the natives of the Congo. This proves fitting, since Burroughs—no apologist for the politics of empire building—mentions the European exploitation of Black Africans twice in the first novel. Further, the script wisely starts with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) as a grown man who has set aside his unusual upbringing and has moved to England to live the life of a British Lord, married to the former Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) The ape-man’s origin is seen only in fragmentary segments during the course of the film, and, because that origin-story is so well known, this approach frees the filmmakers from having to recapitulate story-tropes that most of the audience already knows.

Two persons, a Black African and a Black American, are crucial to forcing the more-or-less resigned English Lord to seek out the land of his birth. African chieftain Mbonga (Djimon Housou) encounters evil Belgian enforcer Rom (Christoiph Waltz), and will give the Belgian what he wants only if Rom delivers Tarzan to him. But neither Rom nor Mbonga can force the hero to return. That job is left up to a Black American functionary, Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who guilts Tarzan into lending his famous name to a report on Belgian abuses. Williams' role as a government envoy would have been nearly impossible for a person of his race in 1884, and he certainly sounds like a modern person when he initially sneers at the penny-dreadful narrative of Tarzan’s history. Happily, such anachronistic moments are kept to a minimum, and Williams even has a short speech in which he tells Tarzan about his past history of “Indian fighting,” conceding that he may be as oppressive in his way as the Europeans.

In the Burroughs books the characterization of Jane oscillates between her being being a gutsy fighter or a helpless femme. Here she’s consistently portrayed as an angel in an iron petticoat, demanding that Tarzan take her along on his Congo expedition. As it happens, Lady Clayton’s assertiveness does end up with her being captured by Rom and used to inconvenience the ape-man. Indeed, like a great number of Burroughs books, the plot becomes “find the woman.” Perhaps because of that dependence on this plot, the scripters chose to elide the book’s scene in which Tarzan kills a great ape to save Jane from a fate worse than death. In the movie, Tarzan doesn’t kill his anthropoid competitor, but simply takes several blows from the ape, who leaves after beating up Tarzan. This gives Jane the chance to play “angel of mercy” to the injured hero, suggesting that the act of self-sacrifice is more important than killing a wild animal.

Mbonga is actually more seminal to Tarzan’s new origin than Jane is. In the first book, the ape-man takes bloody vengeance upon a Black African tribesman who slays Kala, Tarzan’s adoptive mother, because said tribesman simply wanted to eat the ape’s flesh. In the book the tribesman’s death has little effect on the course of Tarzan’s adventures, and though the tribesman’s father is referenced, he certainly doesn’t embark on a cruade against the white devil. A big fight-scene between Tarzan and Mbonga allows the chieftain to get some of his own back, without interrupting the hero’s overall arc: seeking to keep Mbonga’s people, and other Congolese, from becoming Belgian slaves.


Since the trope of Tarzan “talking with the animals” has been done to death, the director and writers wisely downplay this aspect. Yet the exemplary performance of Skarsgard holds all the animal-scenes together. Like Burroughs’ protagonist, Tarzan is fully capable of civilized discourse. Yet he knows how to interact with the animals, often more with physical signs rather than Burroughs’ imaginary ape-lingo. Skarsgard is excellent in the fight-scenes as well, making it clear that Tarzan is not just some white man’s fantasy of physical supremacy. Rather, he's the image of what any human being could be, if he were able to emulate the feats of his animal ancestors.

ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972), ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1985)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy,* (2)*irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

  
An extreme Anglophile might assume, when presented with two musical films based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, that the movie done with a British crew—including respected theater-thespians like Ralph Richardson—might do better in adapting the work of British author Carroll than the film with the American crew made up of somewhat schmaltzier performers like Martha Raye, Carol Channing, and Sammy Davis Jr. However, that hypothetical Anglophile would be wrong.

It’s always risky to re-think one type of narrative into another form. I noted in this review that Disney’s 1950 “Alice in Wonderland” is at best a fair knockabout-comedy version of Carroll’s darkly ironic fantasy, while the Tim Burton version was a fairly rousing action-heroine tale, though one that had nothing to do with Carroll’s narrative.

The problem with the 1972 film is that although it’s somewhat faithful to the plot of the first “Alice” book, the filmmakers chose, like Disney, to go the route of “funny ha-ha” rather than Carroll’s “funny-strange.” The “ha-ha” approach is hard to resist in adapting the vignette-structure of the Carroll books; it’s tempting to just unleash performers in goofy costumes, strutting their stuff as the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat. And for the most part that’s all the audience gets from the 1972 effort, directed and adapted by William Sterling. Ralph Richardson does his bit, Spike Milligan his bit, Dudley Moore his bit, but none of their antics are particularly witty, and the parts don’t add to a coherent whole. Fiona Fullerton gives the strongest performance as Alice, but she was about sixteen years old at the time, making her a bit long in the tooth for the role. Only once does Sterling draw upon the dark vision of Lewis Carroll; when Alice, once more reduced to insect-size, is menaced by a predacious crow. Since the film clearly had no money for special FX, Sterling simply resorts to editing shots of a real crow so as to give the illusion that it’s giant-sized. This cost-cutting stratagem usually yields bad results in giant-monster films. But because the crow-scene is so short and well edited, it’s the only time when one sees innocent Alice at the mercy of a mad and merciless cosmos.

The 1985 effort, directed by Harry Harris, appeared on network television as a two-part special, with each of the parts devoted to one of Carroll’s two “Alice” books. Whereas the books chronicle two separate dream-visits to Wonderland, the special never has Alice wake up from the events of the first book; she merely stays in Wonderland and begins to experience the events of “Through the Looking Glass.”  I didn’t reread the two books prior to watching the films, but my general impression is that Hamlin sought to keep the general order of events in both books, even though he creates a little new stuff along the way.

The most notable revision is that scripter Paul Zundel, after keeping most events of “Adventures in Wonderland” true to the original novel, gives the Jabberwock a major makeover. The Jabberwock, originally a monster in a poem that Alice simply hears recited, becomes a rubber-suit creature who appears to menace Alice and other inhabitants of Wonderland. Perhaps Zindel or someone involved in the project was uncomfortable with some of the abstruse philosophy that appears in “Looking Glass,” and so wanted a more traditional plotline, one which makes the Jabberwock the incarnation of Alice’s juvenile fears. This is fairly banal pop psychology, but it’s interesting to speculate that someone involved with the Burton version might have seen Harris’s effort, and thus chose to make up another type of Alice-Jabberwock conflict in the 2010 film.

Although this Alice is subject to a little more psychoanalysis than other versions—she’s impatient to be considered a grownup, for example—the Harris version at least gives viewers a seven-year-old Alice, pertly played by Natalie Gregory. The TV-movie is chock full of well-known celebrities, and most of them can’t do much more with their short roles but belt out tunes and trip the light fantastic. Oddly, Telly Savalas gets one of the best moments, playing a rather insidious Cheshire Cat. Yet Zincel’s script does what Sterling’s does not. All of the short star-turns contribute to a greater whole: a vision of a child being continually flummoxed by the unfathomable whims of absurd adults, who don’t even acknowledge any ofthe pedagogical knowledge Alice has obtained.

The songs, credited to Steve Allen, are sometimes just sprightly doggerel. But as if to offset the unmemorable ditties, Allen—of whom I’m not much of a fan—does at times “get” Carroll. Thus in the vignette devoted to the child-abusing Duchess and her cranky cook—not one of the most-adapted segments-- performers Martha Raye and Imogene Coca deliver some fun with a song called, “ There's Something to Say for Hatred.” 

The only real misstep in the special is that once Alice has escaped Wonderland, there’s a moment in which she watches all the colorful grotesques on the other side of the mirror, as they sing her a loving farewell song. I think one of the main points of Carroll’s books is portray a world where love is impossible; where, with rare exceptions, everyone is out for himself or herself. But a seven-year-old watching the show might merely enjoy seeing all the grotesques given a more benign aspect.

Both works conform to my “delirious dreams” trope, in that Wonderland is entirely the product of Alice’s vivid imagination.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SCOOBY DOO / WWE: WRESTLEMANIA MYSTERY



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


This, the twenty-second direct-to-video "Scooby Doo" film, is one of many such films in which the cartoon characters encountered fictionalized versions of real-world celebrities: the next year would also see a crossover with KISS, who in that film may or may not be superheroes.

As is usually the case in such films, one or more of the regular characters are suddenly revealed to be avid fans of the visiting celebrity or celebrities. Unsurprisingly, WRESTLEMANIA posits that Shaggy and Scooby are diehard fans of WWE wrestling, and so are in hog-heaven when events take the Scooby Gang to a major bout in "WWE City." Over a half dozen real-life celebrity wrestlers-- John Cena, Triple H, Kane-- voice the cartoon versions of themselves, as does the WWE's famed emcee/promoter Vince McMahon. The gang's visit to WWE City is very close to being a movie-long commercial for the ostensible virtues of WWE in particular and big-time wrestling in general. Initially only Shaggy and Scooby are devotees, but Daphne is soon converted to wrestling-fandom by John Cena's manly muscles, and even rational Velma gets into the sport. Fred, while diffident about Daphne's affections for Cena, remains a good enough sport to speak no discouraging word.

What saves WRESTLEMANIA from being nothing but an extended ad is the movie's monster, the fearsome Ghost Bear. While no one who's seen a Scooby Doo flick expects anything but the usual hokey resolution, the script and the animation devote some time to building the backstory of the ursine menace. Said backstory even includes ties the Bear in with the luchadore ancestor of a current WWE fighter, Sin Cara, which to my mind was an attempt to tie in modern glamour-wrestling with the thrills and spills of the Mexican wrestlers-- to say nothing of superhero wrestlers like Santo and the Blue Demon. Further, while many Scooby-pics have the juvenile heroes chased around by some counterfeit terror, WRESTLEMANIA has the gang pursued by the Bear into a system of caves under the city, and the flight is actually choreographed with some attention to making it fairly scary.

Like the KISS crossover, this one too ends in the combative mode, as the Ghost Bear is defeated in the ring by several WWE wrestlers. For that matter, in a development similar to one in 2009's SCOOBY DOO AND THE SAMURAI SWORD, the physically incompetent Great Dane gets a sort of power-boost, so that Scooby Doo too is able to take part in the Ghost Bear's defeat. But for the same reasons I discussed in SAMURAI SWORD, I regard Scooby's power-boost as atypical for his normal modus vivendi.

THE FURY (1978)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*


It's by no means axiomatic that movies are always inferior to any prose works on which they're based: indeed, FURY's director Brian dePalma had succeeded in filming Stephen King's CARRIE, producing a definitive movie version of a strong novel. I saw THE FURY many years ago, and once again more recently, and didn't get much out of either viewing.Further, to the outsider's eye it looks like dePalma was trying to duplicate his CARRIE success, right down to adapting a popular horror novel that became a bestseller. There's even roughly two years separating the two film adaptations from the publishing-dates of both source-novels. So, before writing this review, I decided to read John Farris' 1976 source-novel to see if it gave me any insight as to what went wrong.

I briefly discussed the prose FURY in this essay, where I was most concerned not with the quality of the writing but simply with determining which of the book's characters qualified as the protagonists. I enjoyed the book much more than the movie, even though the book possesses a very rambling storyline and a downbeat, unsatisfying ending. The plot deals with how a super-secret government organization, name of MORG, is plotting to kidnap and brainwash psychics to use as weapons for the U.S. In the book, the two teen psychics-- male Robin and female Gillian-- are not initially in the hands of MORG, and Farris devotes considerable time to showing how the two young people live before being plunged into spy-jinks. In addition, Peter Szandza, father of Robin, is out to find his son before MORG does. Peter is unsuccessful, for MORG, led by Peter's old boss Childermass, manages to capture Robin. Childermass keeps Robin confined to an estate that appears to be a school for psychics, but while testing the docile boy the agents are also trying to break down his will with drugs and sexual temptations. Meanwhile Peter makes contact with Gillian and, after many involved plot-lines, the two of them infiltrate the estate. Unfortunately, Robin's development of his great psychic powers has made a monster of him, with the drugs and sex contributing to the "power corrupts" theme, and both Peter and Gillian are imperiled as much by Robin as by the MORG agents.

Though the plot heaps spectacle on spectacle, the book is a good thriller, and Farris shows his greatest strength in devising detailed characterizations for his protagonists and antagonists. However, most of his best character moments take place thanks to the novel's blend of external dialogue and internal reflections. Film, of course, is never at its best in the "internal mode;" the medium can barely emulate what prose can do with characters' thoughts. John Farris, who adapted his own story into the screenplay for the 1978 film, must have realized this, for he elides most of the novel's rambling plot-action, and simplifies the characters in order to make them more broadly appealing for the movies. Indeed, he, like de Palma, may have had the success of CARRIE on his mind, since he throws in a gratuitous "special FX" scene in which Robin kills dozens of people with his psychic power-- a scene which seems to have no real purpose in the story as such. Sadly, while it was inevitable that Farris had to cut a lot of the book's pleasing secondary characters from the screenplay, he also "dumbs down" his principal protagonists, Peter and Gillian, so that they seem to be no more than stock figures.

Most prose works go through a process of simplification in being adapted to film, but the process can be overdone. For the CARRIE screenplay Lawrence D. Cohen left a lot of King's more complex ideas behind, but Cohen retained the essential appeal of the narrative. Similarly, even though there are many differences between Thomas Harris' RED DRAGON and Michael Mann's MANHUNTER, Mann too succeeds in communicating the significance of the film's characters without the benefit of internal thought. Farris' script for THE FURY, however, is simply dull, and dePalma's direction shows none of the natural charms of CARRIE, emerging as just another big Hollywood set-piece.

Ironically, the only part of the novel that is faithfully rendered is its weakest part: that violent but rather pointless ending. Farris' screenplay naturally devotes much less time than the book does to metaphysical justifications for psychic powers, except for a quickie reference to a "bioplasmic universe." Robin and Gillian also have a more involved reincarnation-connection in the book, although I'd admit this could have been tough to put across in this sort of high-octane film. The neutering of the two main characters removes all of their psychological quirks, and leaves us only with Robin, whose mental deterioration is not that memorable in book or movie.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

GUNGA DIN (1939)



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

In the many years I've devoted to this blog, I've touched on a number of religious societies that have been either uncanny (THE SEVENTH VICTIM) or naturalistic (COOL IT BABY), but until now I've yet to deal with one of the more unusual religious movements to receive cinematic treatment: the Indian cult of the Thuggee.

Of course, there haven't been very many films devoted to the subject. In recent years the thoroughly marvelous film INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is probably best known for its lurid portrait of the cult, who were renowned for killing travelers in the name of the bloody goddess Kali. Before TEMPLE, GUNGA DIN was probably the best known depiction of the exotic society.

Not having seen the film in some time, I wondered if how it sorted out phenomenologically. The majority of the film follows the adventures of three knockabout Brit soldiers in colonial India, played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen. There are some intense scenes toward the end-- when Grant's character beholds the cult's guru (Eduardo Cianelli), who exhorts his followers to "kill for the love of killing." Though the scenes depicting the weirdness of the Thuggee cult are brief, their length is less important in the phenomenological sense than how they work within the whole film.

On close consideration, I find that director George Stevens plays down the potential grotesquerie of the cult, emphasizing rather the threat that the cult poses to the generally beneficent rule of the English (though the script happily doesn't run the "Rule Brittania" cliches into the ground). After Grant and his buddies capture the Guru and use him as a shield against his men, it becomes clear that most of the Thuggee threat is sociopolitical. Here's the Guru's denying the superior military (and racial) power of his captors:


You seem to think warfare an English invention. Have you never heard of Chandragupta Maurya? He slaughtered all the armies left in India by Alexander the Great. India was a mighty nation then while Englishmen still dwelt in caves and painted themselves blue.

It wouldn't be hard to imagine an film that placed more emphasis on the weirdness of the society, and thus became "uncanny," but these lines suggest to me that the film-makers were concerned with only the world of naturalistic concerns.

As for the film proper, it's a good lightweight adventure, all about three chums defending one another in the service and managing to impress the titular water-carrier so much that he gives his life for the cause of the English. Even for someone like myself, who gets a little tired of political correctness, it's impossible not to see GUNGA DIN as being, at the very least, a fictional "clash of civilizations" in which it's predetermined that the "dark side" must lose. At the same time, scripters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur probably had some awareness of the real India's struggle to gain independence from Great Britain, and perhaps that's why the Guru, alone among the faceless cultists, projects a solid personality, as well as a fierce dignity despite the ultimate immorality of his position. Conversely, one may get tired of Grant's heroic-yet-comical character "Archie." He's the epitome of the low-income soldier who harbors dreams of stealing some incredible treasure from the Indian people, so that he can go back to England and become high-class. He never exactly renounces the basic immorality of his treasure-hunting, either. At most he becomes chastened by the noble death of Gunga Din, and perhaps becomes a less profit-driven servant of the Crown.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

DORORO (2007)



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


Based on the translations of Osamu Tezuka's DORORO series, this Japanese live-action film is a rare example of the film registering as better than the source-work.

Tezuka's concept for the manga-series is episodic in nature. A ruthless feudal lord named Daigo chooses to sacrifice his infant son to multiple demons, so that he Daigo can gain temporal power. The demons then harvest nearly every functional part of the baby's body-- for what reason, I never quite understood-- so that the child is no more than a dying lump of flesh. However, a brilliant medical man finds the lump before it expires. The doctor builds artificial limbs and other organs for the child, allowing him the chance to grow to maturity. When the child, dubbed "Hyakkimaru," grows to manhood (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki), he's informed that he can reclaim the body-parts stolen from him by slaying the demons who harvested them. The following episodes in Hyakkimaru's career deal with him wandering from Japanese town to town, killing demons and reclaiming his lost parts. If he kills a demon that stole one of his eyes, a magical transference returns his original eye to him, squeezing one of the swordsman's artificial eyes out of his skull. However, after Tezuka ran through assorted episodes-- adding comic relief in the form of a thief named Dororo-- the manga-artist seemed to lose interest in the story, giving the narrative a "hurry-up-and-finish" conclusion. Allegedly a 1969 anime adaptation provided a more satisfying ending.

The live-action film, not being episodic at all, manages to focus more upon the relaitonship between Dororo and Hyakkimaru, often treating the encounters with various demons more like lively music videos than like organic parts of the story. In the original tale, Dororo is an urchin bent on stealing Hyakkimaru's sword, but the two of them bond through shared danger-- and to some extent, because Dororo, who dresses as a boy, is actually a young girl, who forms a quasi-romantic attachment to the older swordsman. Not surprisingly, the makers of the 2007 film didn't go there, for this time Dororo is portrayed by a grown woman (Ko Shibasaki)-- and while she gives a fine performance, she isn't for a moment believable as a boy.

The best aspects of Tezuka's story are preserved in the film. Feudal Japan is no picnic for the poor, particularly when power-hungry rulers go to war, and Dororo and Hyakkimaru, who have themselves suffered from such power-grabs, constantly encounter evidence that humans are even worse than demons in this respect. In fact, Dororo has sworn vengeance against the family of Daigo, and is less than pleased to learn of Hyakkimaru's heritage. The ending places a strong emphasis on Hyakkimaru's psychological need to vanquish his father, which conflicts with Japan's cultural insistence than the father is sacrosanct.

There are some clever uses of both "suit-mation," limited CGI, and "wire-fu" in DORORO, which I liked a good deal more than a lot of modern, over-produced CGI effects. But the two primary actors provided the film's best asset, the unambiguous girlhood of Dororo notwithstanding.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

WOLVESBAYNE (2009)



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


I've often assigned the mythos of "drama" to stories that involve vampires or werewolves, following the myth-critical notion that such monsters have a dominantly *purgative* character. However, WOLVESBAYNE-- a six-years-late knockoff of the UNDERWORLD series-- pits one werewolf, a bunch of good vampires and some vampire-hunters against some really evil vampires. Like UNDERWORLD, WOLVESBAYNE's focus is so much on theoretically invigorating fight-scenes and saving the world from doom, and so despite the horror-elements, this one falls within the mythos of adventure.

This telefilm was almost certainly someone's idea for a horror-themed TV series, for it ends with the two principals, experienced vampire Alex Layton and newbie werewolf Russell Bayne (as in "wolfsbane," get it?) planning to sally forth against evil once more, even though they've just defeated a Big Bad capable of establishing a vampire dominion of the world. Alex and Russell originally have a "meet awkward" moment in which they don't really get along, but Alex senses that Russell's in for trouble. Sure enough, he gets bitten by a werewolf, so that he's informally initiated into the "monster club"-- although no other werewolves appear, and most of the conflict is just half-decent vampires vs. really bad vampires. Possibly the script meant to suggest some common origin for this world/s vamps and wolf-people, since there's a tossed-off mention of a "retrovirus." Once Russell has become a wolf-guy, Alex accepts her duty to train him in the fine points of monster-existence, like tapping into your super-powers without changing form. This comes in handy, because at the same time there's a cult of power-hungry vamps who want to resuscitate an ancient vamp queen, Lilith, so that she can help them conquer the world.

The action and makeup FX are standard, but I might have found this road-company horror-opus entertaining if the two leads had been decently conceived. Alex, however, oscillates inconsistently between being a strict taskmaster and a kind Samaritan. Russell might have been interesting had he remained a self-absorbed type from start to finish, but he "gets religion" far too easily, and on top of that, the script reveals that his great-grandfather was some sort of vampire hunter who had ties to the venerable Van Helsing himself-- who ALSO has a modern-day descendant heading up the modern vamp-hunters.

A good summary statement for this one:

"Too many tropes spoil the script."



Thursday, May 11, 2017

THE TIGER WOMAN (1944)



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

The major "serial queen" films of the silent era came into their own in 1914, roughly two years after the debut of Tarzan in ALL-STORY MAGAZINE. Serial queens were enormously popular for about four or five years, but as it happens, the serial queens started to fade right about the time when Tarzan made his movie debut in 1918. He would go on to star in both features and serials throughout the silent years, while heroines seemed to fade from prominence in the 1920s and the early sound era.

JUNGLE GIRL in 1941 seems to be the first concerted attempt by a major studio-- in this case, Republic Pictures-- to create a heroine who could to some extent fight like a male hero. I can't resist the speculation that Hollywood was at least dimly aware of the market success of the comic-book character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, who debuted in America shortly after the bombshell success of Superman in 1938. There had been other jungle girls in 1930s cinema, and even in serials like 1935's QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE, but for the most part the ladies were not fighters. Did some studio pitchman decide to cook up a counterfeit Sheena, pretending to base the character on a completely dissimilar figure from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel? The answer will never be known, but Nyoka of JUNGLE GIRL was popular enough that Republic put out a quasi-sequel the next year: PERILS OF NYOKA, in which the central heroine was even more dynamic than the one from JUNGLE GIRL.

Two years later, Republic dug for jungle-girl gold with THE TIGER WOMAN, which was also the debut for one of the most celebrated serial actresses, Linda Stirling. Whereas both versions of Nyoka were white women raised by white parents, the Tiger Woman was more in the Sheena mold, a "white goddess" who had been raised in a jungle by a savage tribe (albeit one in South America rather than Africa). In addition, the Tiger Woman-- who is never given any other "native" name-- is clearly meant to be just as assertive as the 1942 Nyoka. On occasion she gets knocked out like any other serial heroine, in order to put her in some sort of cliffhanger peril, but unlike other heroines she's seen punching, wrestling, using judo-holds, riding horses and shooting pistols. Further, Linda Stirling has a physical glamour not often seen in the serial queens of the sound era, so that she combined stunning looks with indisputable toughness. It helped that many of Stirling's stunts are performed by a stuntwoman rather than by a man in female costume.

The plot of TIGER WOMAN, though, is not nearly as intricate as PERILS OF NYOKA. As in many jungle-adventure films, a native tribe is the "bone" over which two sets of opponents fight: a group of well-meaning white people and a gang of exploitative whites. In addition, not only is Tiger Woman the high priestess of a tribe whose resources are coveted by the two groups, she's also an heiress. Thus the villainous group is not only interested in making a land-grab from the indigenous tribe, they also want to kill Tiger Woman and substitute an impostor who can claim the inheritance. Both of these villain-plots date back to the silent serials but the overall story doesn't gain anything from blending them.

The villains themselves are also no equal for the two previous Republic heroine-serials, though this time the male lead is strong enough to balance the persona of the jungle-queen. As essayed by cowboy-actor Allan Lane, oil-company troubleshooter Allen Saunders makes a decent embodiment of the "square citizen" who wouldn't dream of doing anything against the interests of the native people. That said, there are times that the cowboy ethos intrudes too much on the jungle-scenario, and there are far too many scenes of good guys simply shooting it out with bad guys. Tiger Woman is indubitably the most visually interesting character, but compared to Nyoka her character is rather underdeveloped, even for an action-oriented serial.




Monday, May 8, 2017

DEMONIC TOYS (1992), DEMONIC TOYS 2 (2010)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

I probably wouldn't have bothered to re-screen the original DEMONIC TOYS if I hadn't become interested in how the franchise had crossed over into the terrains of two more interesting properties: PUPPET MASTER for one, and DOLLMAN for two.

Unsurprisingly, while I did get a little more bang for my buck in re-screening the DOLLMAN crossover, the original TOYS is pretty bang-less. In my moderate praise for the crossover, I noted that Tracy Scoggins gave the best performance as a lady cop. Scoggins gets the best scenes in the original film as well, partly because the toys, in contrast to the manikins from the PUPPET MASTER series, are all very one-note, and they share the same purpose. They've been animated by a demon whose sole purpose is to conduct a sexual ritual with a pregnant woman-- which Scoggins' character happens to be-- and to insert his spirit into a mortal vessel.

The demon's motives aren't convincing, and, aside from the emotional turmoil of Scoggins' character, the toys' other targets-- a young guy who delivers chicken, a female runaway-- are largely dull. The film depends almost entirely upon keeping its victims stuck in a warehouse so that the toys can continually attack them, and the attacks are as unimaginative as the toys themselves.



Almost twenty years later, the TOYS franchise gets a second stand-alone outing, one that, in theory, takes place immediately after the first story, ignoring the two crossover tales.

TOYS 2, written and directed by William Butler, doesn't score any major triumphs. However, Butler's direction is more fluid and well composed than most Charles Band-produced films. This time a toy collector with the predictably villainous name "Doctor Lorca" brings the toys to an Italian castle. A young realtor, name of Caitlin, has brought to Lorca's attention the fact that there's a special "moving toy" within the uninhabited castle. As a setup for putting a bunch of potential victims within a restrictive locale, this is no better than fair, but it's certainly a little more fun to see said victims running around a castle rather than a dull warehouse. The potential victims are also at least a little more interesting: cheating wife, weirdo psychic, and so on, and this time the Toys use a lot more CGI to give the illusion of life. But given the limitations of the demon-possessed toy concept, I certainly hope that this is the last trip to the toy box.


Friday, May 5, 2017

DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS (1993)




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


I confess one of my main reasons for seeing DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS-- the last cinematic version of the Dollman character, following the 1991 origin-story-- was to see whether the two "focal presences" featured in the title were equally central to the story. I've often encountered combinations in which two monsters share the spotlight, as with 2004's PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS, or two heroes, as with BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. But in none of the films I've reviewed thus far have I found a situation where a hero and a monster (or in this case, a group of monsters with a common origin) were equally important to the story-line.

I had seen DVTDT before, but didn't remember much about it, except that most of the story takes place indoors, principally within a big warehouse which serves as the HQ of the evil Demonic Toys. I had also seen the 1992 DEMONIC TOYS, and they struck me as a poor variation on the earlier PUPPET MASTER franchise. 

However, having re-screened DVTDT, I find that even though the film wears its low production values on its sleeve, the script-- totally by Charles Band this time, who also directed-- is better than that of DOLLMAN, and may well exceed the original DEMONIC TOYS as well.

Band's script wisely dumps the relationship between Brick Bardo-- an alien cop who's only about six inches tall on Earth-- and a "giant" Earth-female named Debi. Instead, as DVTDT opens, Bardo-- who rather unashamedly introduces himself as "Dollman"-- goes looking for a woman who won't make him feel inadequate. This happens to be a character loosely recycled from another 1992 Band production, BAD CHANNELS, which I found unmemorable. The plot of that film dealt with aliens who were shrinking Earth-people for some reason, but by the end of that film, one Earth-woman-- redubbed "Nurse Ginger" for DVTDT-- remained small. The newspapers have publicized Ginger's plight, and so Bardo goes to the small town of Pahoota to make a possible booty-call. The two of them "meet cute"-- or as cute as things get when the guy has to blast a huge spider off of the girl-- and then they relate their respective origins to one another. It's to Band's credit that the recycled footage from DOLLMAN and BAD CHANNELS respectively doesn't slow the film down appreciably.

Meanwhile, a cop named Judith Grey-- played by Tracy Scoggins, giving the most appealing performance in the film-- alienates her superiors by insisting that the Demonic Toys-- with whom she battled in the 1992 flick-- are still around, planning to sacrifice some innocent virgin for their unholy rites. Unfortunately, Judith can't prove that the Toys ever existed-- which makes it surprising that she's not confined to an asylum somewhere. The Toys are actually dormant until a homeless man enters the warehouse, managing to cut himself in the process-- and his fallen blood revives the demon-possessed toys. For some reason the grizzly-bear toy-- who does re-appear in the PUPPET MASTER crossover of 2004-- is absent, and in his place is a slightly more interesting "GI Joe" clone named "Zombietroid." Somehow Judith gets wind of Dollman and enlists his help against the Toys. In contrast to the original DOLLMAN, this time Brick Bardo has to engage with opponents his own size, and he has a couple of good battles with Zombietroid and the evilly laughing jack-in-the-box Jack Attack. To add insult to injury, the Toys' repulsive leader, Baby Oopsy Daisy, decides to use Bardo's new girlfriend Ginger in a ritual of sexual penetration. 

As cheesy as it all is, there are some cute lines, as when Oopsy Daisy, who looks like a demented infant, informs that he wants Ginger to wear a "baby-doll nightie," and there are a few clever uses of the giant-sized surroundings. DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS is no neglected classic, but it may be a rare case in which two weak concepts worked better with one another than either one did on its own.