Thursday, August 17, 2017

THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES... (1964)



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

I've often had the experience of re-viewing some film I hated in youth and finding in it some motif that I found interesting, even my general sense of the movie's merit was no greater. However, when I was young I despised Ray Dennis Steckler's INCREDIBLY LONG TITLE THAT I'M NOT GOING TO TYPE, and a recent re-viewing did nothing to change that opinion.

I tend to sympathize with the efforts of low-budget filmmakers, who don't have the luxury of expensive sets and must often resort to shooting "on location" in situations that aren't very enviable. But I think I could forgive Steckler's charmless scenes of carnival rides or vaulting buildings-- lots of tedious zoom shots by cinematographer Joseph Mascelli--  if Steckler had possessed any semblance of a story to tell. But INCREDIBLY doesn't even have the virtue of being good low-budget sleaze, like Michael Findlay's FLESH trilogy.

In essence, Steckler's story is a lot like Universal's 1943 MAD GHOUL, in which a mad scientist takes control of an innocent pawn and sends him out to commit assorted murders. Here the pawn is a young wastrel, Jerry (played by Steckler under the pseudonym "Cash Flagg") and his manipulator is Estrella, a carnival fortune teller who apparently took lessons in being a poverty-row plotter. Though Estrella seems to living a fairly marginal existence, in that she has to fleece rubes for a living while employed at a local carnival, she happens to be a master hypnotist. She takes offense when Jerry pursues her sister Carmelita, and the two sisters, for no particular reason, subject Jerry to hypnotic treatment. He becomes a psycho-killer who kills a couple of women but doesn't remember doing it until the climax of the film, when he returns to the carnival to confront his tormentors.

I might even buy Estrella as a bargain-basement Svengali, except that in her carnival domicile she somehow keeps a dungeon full of earlier victims, whom she and her hunchbacked assistant have mutilated with acid, and who have apparently all devolved into madmen, perhaps due to more hypnotic manipulation. I found myself wondering how many fortunes she had to read to feed all those deformed freaks, whom she didn't apparently keep around for any purpose. Of course the only real function of these "strange creatures" is to go berserk at the film's conclusion, incidentally interrupting one of the film's mediocre musical numbers. (INCREDIBLY was billed as the "first monster-movie musical.)

There are various other support-characters, all of whom exist just to eat up running-time, and none of whom are any more interesting than Jerry and Estrella. That no one can act worth a damn should go without saying.

I haven't seen most of Steckler's later work, but will note that his 1970 SINTHIA THE DEVIL'S DOLL was at least better than this work. INCREDIBLY will probably always be his signature work, though. if only because it was "clean" enough to be shown on mainstream television.






Friday, August 11, 2017

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is a fine idea given mediocre execution. Even without researching the career of its director Edward Dein-- who co-wrote the script with his wife Mildred-- I suspected that this was a "writer's film," one in which the business of following the plot took precedence over finding interesting visual ways to direct the film. Sure enough, even before his first directorial credit in 1952, Dein spent most of the 1940s scripting assorted flicks, including JUNGLE WOMAN. As director UNDEAD is surely Dein's best known credit, though he also helmed 1960's THE LEECH WOMAN, which if anything is even more workmanlike than this film.

The inhabitants of a small Western town are besieged by two disparate menaces. One is a standard Western element, a landowner who covets his neighbors' property. Ambitious rancher Buffer tries all sorts of barely legal tricks in his quest to drive the Carter family-- the widowed Doc Carter and his children, young Dolores and her teen-aged brother Tim-- off their ranch. The other menace appears to be nothing but an infectious disease, but it only seems to target nubile young women, and the local preacher, Dan Young, notices that one of the victims has curious bite-marks on her neck.

The two menaces converge on the Carters roughly at the same time, perhaps a bit too conveniently even in a B-film. The source of the mysterious deaths-- a black-clad gunman named Drake Robey-- suddenly decides to take an old man as a victim, the aforementioned Doc Carter. For some reason, though, the disease doesn't get the blame when the doctor's body is found. Hot-headed Tim Carter, who already nursed a grudge against Buffer, challenges the rancher to a duel, and loses. This moves Dolores to post "wanted" posters in town, inviting any hired gun to take down the man who killed her relatives. Then, for the first time, Drake Robey shows his face, first to the townspeople (and his intended victim, Buffer), and then to Dolores Carter. Preacher Dan, engaged to Dolores, already doesn't approve of her hiring a killer, naturally dislikes Robey on sight, but can't prevent Dolores from letting the gunfighter stay at her ranch. This western female's assertiveness, however, results in her getting a night-visit from Robey. As will have become obvious by this time, Robey is a vampire, and he drains Dolores of her blood without her knowledge.

The main plot, with Young eventually figuring out Robey's true nature, plays out efficiently if predictably. It's a shame that the Deins' plotting and characterizations weren't a little more venturesome, though, because their twists on the vampire concept are ingenious, far superior to those of the previous year's RETURN OF DRACULA. The preacher discovers an old document, explainin how Robey became a vampire because in life he committed the crime of suicide-- not to mention fratricide, though this isn't a direct cause of his curse. When Robey first rose from the dead, his distraught father located his corpse, sleeping its day-sleep, and tried to impale him with a silver knife. This fails to contain Robey, because something along the lines of a wooden stake is needed. This foregrounding of the knife-gambit suggests that the Deins knew that the stake-mythology came about as a means of "pinning down" the unquiet dead. Still, at the conclusion Robey is "staked" in a very anomalous manner, using wood supposedly taken from Christ's crown of thorns.

The actors all turn in solid performances, with Michael Pate's vampiric gunslinger naturally being the standout. In fact, the script had so much under-used potential that I wouldn't mind seeing some modern talent take a shot at remaking UNDEAD. I for one think it would be better to try improving on a less-than-great film, rather than endlessly seeking to remake films that are already well-executed, as with later versions of INVADERS FROM MARS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and so on.


MURDER AT DAWN (1932)



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


This is an "old dark house" film that offers none of the expected tropes. There's a dark house, to which a young couple and their friends show up, but nobody's trying to scare them with ghostly phenomena, nor are there any masked masterminds hanging about.

The owner of the house is Professor Farrington, and his daughter Doris wants her father's blessing on her coming nuptials. However, Farrington has just finished a new invention, a device that accumulates energy from the sun, with which he hopes to liberate a world of "wage slaves" by giving the world infinite power. However, one of the servants (Mischa Auer) wants to get the plans to the invention in order to sell the accumulator as a death-ray. To this end, he not only murders one of Farrington's other guests, he ties the scientist to a chair and threatens to let him be incinerated by his own invention, when it gathers up the energy of the dawning sun and discharges it right at him.

MURDER is limply directed by Richard Thorpe, a journeyman who would later become known for various musicals of the Classic Hollywood years, as well as four Tarzan films, starting with TARZAN ESCAPES. The feature itself has nothing much to recommend it, except for the rare sight of comic player Auer playing a nasty villain and the appearance of Kenneth Strickfadden's wild electrical FX, making their second appearance after 1931's FRANKENSTEIN.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THOSE DEAR DEPARTED (1987)



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


IMDB says that this obscure Aussie film stated out with the title seen above, though I've also seen a VHS entitled GHOSTS CAN DO IT. Did some enterprising marketer re-title the film so as to take advantage of the 1989 American-made flick GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT? The latter film, while it was roundly panned, at least possessed considerable star power-- that of Bo Derek and Anthony Quinn-- while in the earlier movie, only New Zealand native Pamela Stephenson (SUPERMAN III) was the only cast-member who was somewhat familiar to American audiences. A marketer might have hoped that the Bo Derek film would be enough of a sensation that the Aussie film could coast on that success. As things turned out, the only attention that the Aussie film gained from the name-change was from people putting together concordances of fantasy-films, since those people had to try to keep the two titles distinct from one another.

The two GHOSTS are about equally unfunny, but whereas the Bo Derek train-wreck is just dumb sleaze posing as eroticism, DEPARTED has a curious psychological angle that might have been rewarding given a little more thought.

The aforementioned Stephenson plays Marilyn, who has married a rich actor, Max Falcon, but would like to get rid of him because-- well, eventually you learn that she still loves him, but she's pissed that he hasn't been very attentive lately. Unfortunately for other people in Max's orbit, Marilyn's not a very efficient black widow: she keeps killing everyone but Max. All of Marilyn's victims, being aggrieved about getting bumped off in this manner, congregate in a sort of purgatory, and since they're mostly theater-folk, for them purgatory is a theatrical stage presided over by a nasty producer. These ghosts seem impotent to do anything about their situation until Marilyn finally does off Max. Once he joins their number, they all take on the ability to "haunt" Marilyn and her chauffeur-accomplice, who are the only ones able to see the ghosts. However, the ghosts can't perform any physical acts in the living world. Thus they have to resort to psychological pressure in order to get Marilyn to confess her evil deeds, which in turn will allow the unquiet spirits to move on.

DEPARTED is essentially a love-farce, in which Max and Marilyn eventually confess their mutual feelings, and, like the altered title, even manage to "do it" even though to the eyes of onlookers she seems to be "doing it" all by herself. The script glosses the dysfunctional relationship of Max and Marilyn with the following Freudian tropes:

(1) Max is first seen performing in a play entitled "Freud, the Musical," in which he sings about how he as a child-Freud wanted to kill his father and marry his mother.

(2) Max, after dying, meets his father Gordon in purgatory. However, Gordon isn't hanging around because Marilyn killed him, but because Max did when he was still a child. In the middle of a quarrel between Gordon and his wife Ruth, Little Max "accidentally" leaves his teddy bear out on the floor where Gordon trips on it, thus breaking his neck. Thus it's all but stated that Max did the Freud-musical because in real life he was a subconscious daddy-killer (though Gordon seems pretty mild about the whole patricide thing). The film's flashback even shows Ruth consoling her son and promising to stay with him forever now that Daddy is gone: however, in this flashback "Little Max" is replaced by the adult figure of Max Falcon.

(3) Despite his mother's promise, Max's mother isn't even seen in the bulk of the picture. Max's patricide doesn't keep him from marrying-- but does he marry his mother, as Freud would say he must? Marilyn isn't especially maternal, but with a little psycho-tinkering, one might see her as the obverse of the erotic mother: a punishing mother who seeks to kill Max as he killed his father. It's not a great correlation, but the writer clearly wanted some carry-over, since the murder-weapon, the teddy bear, shows up again. Gordon for some reason wants the bear to help him move out of purgatory, and he even appears before his still-living Ruth looking for the toy, only to be told-- since she can see him-- that he can't have it. The bear then shows up at the conclusion, and proves instrumental to killing off Marilyn, so that she and Marilyn are united in the afterlife.

DEPARTED presents, to say the least, a fairly lame hodgepodge of Freudian tropes, and even though I'm not a Freudian, I've seen much better renditions of his psychology, even in a movie as half-baked as HAUNTED HONEYMOON. I can't actually recommend anyone sitting through THOSE DEAR DEPARTED, but I will say that I wasn't entirely bored by all the chaos.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)



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


VALERIAN has already been labeled a box-office failure in America. I found it a conceptually solid film, one which accurately captured the protean visual creativity of Christin and Mezeries (authors of the "Valerian" comic-album series from the shores of France). It's far from a perfect film, but it's not guilty of having "charisma-challenged" lead actors, nor is it devoid of a plot, which are both routine dismissals of the film.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne portray the space-soldiers Valerian and Laureline, who are charged in part with the safety of the Terran Galactic Empire in the 28th century. Both actors give decent but admittedly not outstanding performances, but given the film's emphasis upon wild sci-fi scenarios and bizarre forms of alien life, I doubt that any actors of greater repute could have done any better. DeHaan and Delevigne are at their best in the action-filled sequences, partly because their romantic ones are very badly written by director Luc Besson. As I've not read the original French comic on which this movie was based, it's possible he transcribed bad dialogue from the original, though I tend to doubt that.

My experience with other "Valerian" albums is that they tend to be leisurely paced, in which the main plot is frequently interrupted by "and then this happened" sequences. This stands in opposition to the type of linear storytelling most American moviegoers favor. There is a substantial plot in VALERIAN, but it often gets sidetracked by some of the ancillary stories. Some of these also relate the romance subplot, and they also do the actors no favors.

At least one review attacked the movie for the temerity of casting two white actors to play two white comics-characters, but this sort of "diversity-by-any-means-necessary" attitude overlooks the fact that the plot concerns the suffering of a race of innocent aliens at the hands of the Terran Empire. For a good portion of the film the audience isn't given sufficient clues about what happened to the beleaguered aliens, and I suspect this caused many filmgoers to lose track of the main plot.



Besson may be fairly critiqued for getting too caught up in depicting the wonders of the Christin-Mezeries universe through the agency of modern CGI. Yet there can be no question that Besson did so because he was seeking to emulate a major theme in SF: an almost giddy enthusiasm for the variegated life-forms one can conjure forth. It's true that most of the time these SF-entities recombine aspects of life-forms that modern humans already know-- aquatic creatures, insect-aliens-- but this is all but inevitable given the difficulty of anyone imagining a wholly original organism.

I also suspect that VALERIAN is one of those summer films that critics simply dump on because they're big and expensive, not because they've offended against the Aristotelian unities.

HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941)



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


The 1930s stage production HELLZAPOPPIN' was reputed to change from performance to performance, working in new, more topical jokes whenever possible, and always seeking to keep a sense of anarchic comedy. Thus there was no "final text" for the revue. In contrast, the film adaptation presents a version of the play that is frozen in time, representing exactly what the filmmakers thought might prove funny in 1941.

The film is almost inevitably a mixed bag, but it boasts a bravura sequence at the beginning, in which "society swells" get dropped into the maw of Hell, where they're roasted on spits or jammed into drums marked "canned guy" or "canned gal." After an intense of nonsensical comedy, it's revealed that it's taking place on a movie set, and that two of the people condemned to Hell are comedians Olsen and Johnson (who also appeared in the Broadway production). However, in contrast to most movies about movies, the moviemakers' reality is also nonsensical. Ridiculous things keep happening on the side while Olsen and Johnson strive to convince their director that they can make a film without a standard script. Soon Olsen and Johnson magically step back into their movie, whose story proper starts with a standard "girl loves boy who doesn't notice her" schtick. Yet even when they rejoin the movie, they're still capable of talking to people back in "reality," including a daffy movie projectionist (Shemp Howard). They even interact with their "real-world" counterparts. When the duo aren't busy trying to arrange the obligatory romance, they spoof conventions of the film world, like causing themselves to become invisible by doing a "zipping" routine, or having the Frankenstein Monster appear in a stage audience.

The musical numbers are sometimes interrupted by comic bits of business, but not always, which may speak to the producers' desire not to get too far from the standard presentation of a light comic musical. Since most of the action takes place in a mansion filled with rich people, there's a modest amount of mockery of the upper classes, which lines up well with the opening sequence of "swells going to Hell." A lot of jokes don't work, especially those involving Shemp Howard and Hugh Herbert. On the plus side, Mischa Auer is amusing as a social climber trying to court a rich girl, but who is constantly pursued by an aggressive Martha Raye. I've never been a Raye fan, but she shows the most energy here, outdoing even the main stars of the show.

Everything in the film is a "fallacious figment," so of other films I've reviewed so far, HELLZAPOPPIN' has a great deal in common with 1968's HEAD.



Monday, August 7, 2017

DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, metaphysical*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I rather wish I'd reviewed this film side by side with Larry Buchanan's remake, IN THE YEAR 2889. In that review I complained a little about the acting "histrionics" of DAY, in contrast to the "somnambulistic" performances dominating the later film. Yet now I'd say that the acting in DAY isn't all that bad; it's just that the characters are one-dimensional types, giving the actors little to work with.

In contrast to THE SHE CREATURE, written by DAY's scripter Lou Rusoff the next year, the characters of this post-nuclear drama are no more than schematic figures. In the aftermath of nuclear conflict, an older man named Maddison flees with his grown daughter Louise to a box canyon out west. Lead permeates the canyon-walls, in theory shielding the occupants from fallout, which takes the form of radioactive vapors that swirl outside the canyon yet somehow can't pass the canyon's walls. Maddison is a rather circumscribed Noah, who hopes to repopulate the polluted world with a marriage between his daughter and her fiancee. However, the fiancee is lost in the chaos, thus making Louise "up for grabs" when other survivors of the conflict find their way into the canyon. These include stalwart scientist Rick, nasty gun-wielding hood Tony, Tony's aging moll Ruby, an old guy with a burro, and a fellow who's contracted radiation poisoning.  In addition, Maddison has a fear of precipitation that Noah could not have imagined, since the next big rain may be radioactive-- and thus will seal the fate of the last humans.

These repeated apocalyptic references-- even presenting mankind's devastation as part of God's plan in the opening prologue-- are the strongest symbolic aspect of DAY, an aspect pretty much mucked up in the late YEAR 2889. Significantly, Maddison doesn't gather any animals into his redoubt, not counting the old prospector's burro. He relates, though, that he's seen how radiation mutated test animals under military experiments, so it's understandable that he's a little reluctant to bring other creatures under his aegis. The proper breeding of humanity is Maddison's main concern, and thus there's a continuing battle between "good guy" Rick and "bad guy" Tony to see who will get access to the fertile female.

Further, mutation is an ongoing concern, for the man with radiation poisoning begins to develop strange habits, making it seem like he may be mutating to tolerate the fallout. There's also a humanoid monster stalking the area, and though it only eats contaminated animals, it seems able to communicate with Louise on a psychic level. She even claims that the creature calls her by name, opening up the possibility-- never confirmed in the script as filmed-- that the monster may Louise's lost fiancee, rapidly mutated by the fallout. This deformed suitor, who in his absence has been eclipsed in Louise's eyes by the square-jawed Rick, is something of a loose parallel to Ruby, who is thrown over by Tony when he starts obsessing over Louise. Rusoff shows considerable empathy for Ruby, a former exotic dancer, just as the scripter did for the camp-follower from SHE CREATURE.

In contrast to Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel I AM LEGEND-- published the year before DAY THE WORLD ENDED-- Rusoff's characters view mutants as a stain upon God's creation. Thus it's no coincidence that when nature's rain at last comes to the canyon, it's a rain representing the mercy of God, a deluge that dissolves the humanoid mutant and may also function to get rid of any others skulking around the decimated planet. Thus humankind gets another chance at survival, and though everyone in the group dies except for Rick and Louise, there's also a last-minute revelation that other normal humans have survived the cataclysm.

This was the fourth directorial credit for Roger Corman, though his work on THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES was not credited.

Friday, August 4, 2017

KING OF THE CONGO (1952), FLYING G-MEN (1939), CONGO BILL (1948)



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


Though I've frequently given ample space to serials that are top-of-the-line, the majority of them are pretty workmanlike, and don't reward close study. It's certainly not because many serials are cheap, since I've devoted full reviews to 90-minute horror films that might not be great, but may have some interesting theme or motif worth mentioning. American sound serials, however, offer almost nothing but action, and when action is handled in a repetitive manner, rather than by people who know how to make it fresh every time, the serial can become a study in tedium.

KING OF THE CONGO hails from the era when serials were beginning to be marginalized by television. It's a little surprising that the filmmakers chose to derive their scenario from a comic book that wasn't especially well known in its day. Of the three serials I cover here, CONGO had the greatest potential, which it didn't really exploit, though it's still the best of the three.

The serial's opening loosely resembles the setup of the 1950s jungle-comic, THUN'DA, KING OF THE CONGO, which concerned Roger Drum, a modern-day pilot, who crashed to earth in one of Africa's many unexplored valleys. In the comic, Drum enters a pocket "lost world" inhabited by both dinosaurs and primitive cave-people, and he becomes the leader of one such primitive tribe, who give him the name "Thun'da" to denote his leadership. The comic didn't keep the prehistoric elements very long, but CONGO presents them in an ambivalent fashion. There are of course no dinosaurs, which would have cost big bucks, but though there's a mysterious mist shielding the valley from the outside world, the script never explicitly says that the tribes living there are descended from prehistoric ancestors, even though the tribe that takes in Drum has a giveaway name like "the Rock People." Nevertheless, Drum's transformation into barely-clad jungle-hero is unusually faithful to the comic book origin.

However, Dtum isn't the only one to land in the mist-shrouded valley. A group of spies-- never explicitly called Communists, though they use terms like "comrade" to one another-- infiltrates the terrain, looking for a legendary mineral that might help them win the Cold War. The mineral gives CONGO a more marvelous nature than one finds in most jungle-serials. Though one can't be sure that the Rock People and their neighbors are direct descendants of Paleolithic types, the weird mineral is apparently the source of the enshrouding mists. It also has strange effects on those who come too close, for one episode's cliffhanger consists of Thun'da and another good guy getting "magnetized" to the side of a mineral-bearing rock.

Aside from the mystery of the miracle mineral, and the peregrinations of the prehistoric peoples, CONGO is largely another serial full of seesaw battles and little character interest. Buster Crabbe essays Thun'da, and though he was about 15 years older than he was in his Flash Gordon days, he still gave his role considerable charisma. Unfortunately, the spies are all one-note villains, so Thun'da doesn't have much to work with. One odd note is that in a couple of scenes the Rock People's elder seems to display limited magical powers-- he can foresee ongoing events in a crystal ball-- but there's no attempt to credit his powers to the miracle mineral or any other pseudoscience-explanation.




Jaunting back to pre-WWII times, FLYING G-MEN was one of many pop-culture stories to subject America to Axis attacks long before the country was officially at war-- though naturally, the saboteurs are not explicitly identified as agents of Germany or any other Axis ally. Still, acts of sabotage are on the upswing. American intelligence decides to bring together four G-men who all have piloting-experience to serve as counter-terrorists. All four men flew together as a group called "the Sky Hawks," and they're charged with ferreting out the mysterious leader of the sabotage-ring, "the Professor."

In the first episode, one of the G-men is killed. Since the four pilots are almost identical to one another, the murdered man simply functions as an emotional rallying-point for the three remaining crusaders. As an additional touch, one of the three men operates with a double identity, occasionally taking on the identity of a masked pilot, the Black Falcon. The reasoning for the masked identity seems fuzzy at best, and was probably just a bald imitation of a similar motif in the successful LONE RANGER serial, in which that Ranger was suspected of being one of three local cowpokes. However, there doesn't seem to be a clear and present need for any single pilot to do his work in a costume, though there's some eyewash about the Falcon being able to do things that the other agents cannot. This time both the mystery hero, the other two hero-pilots, and their villains are all pretty vanilla, though there are some OK aerial dogfight scenes.




CONGO BILL, an adaptation of DC Comics' long-running second-stringer, rates even lower than the previous two. The basic plot traces back to the serials of silent days, as it involves schemers who want to profit by getting an heiress out the way. The script for BILL crosses this plot-germ with the "white queen of the jungle" notion. In this case, the heiress in question, one Ruth Culver, became lost in Africa, and became the white queen to an isolated tribe. However, even while the villains mount an expedition to find and kill Ruth, in order to protect their access to the trust fund that should be hers, Congo Bill is asked to find her and bring her back to civilization. Thus is the stage set for (again) an assortment of seesaw battles between thinly characterized goodies and baddies.

On one level, Ruth's status as "white queen" over an African tribe isn't as socially problematic as it is in other films. This hidden tribe is composed of a bunch of white people, even though, as in many jungle jaunts, the tribesmen dress more like Polynesians than like Black Africans. The fact that the tribe is white is the only thing that causes me to label them as uncanny in nature, for they're not exotic in any other way. BILL's script doesn't give the natives any interesting cultural habits or practices, and they aren't even all that possessive of their white queen when Congo Bill shows up to liberate her.

Only one other element makes this a metaphenomenal film: one of the villains tries to torture information out of Congo Bill using a peculiar rotating-blade device. It's not clear as to why someone in the deep jungle chose to concoct such a Poe-esqae contraption. Further, the fellow who owns it doesn't have the marginal excuse of being an evil genius, like the villain in FEDERAL OPERATOR 99, who utilizes just one metaphenomenal gimmick against his heroic antagonist.

The Congo Bill of the comics was a marginal presence at best: largely just a space-filler whose career has never been well-regarded by afficanados of Golden Age comics. Thus, in contrast to the adaptation of THUN'DA, this serial doesn't lose points for not making the best possible use of the original material. Don McGuire portrays the white hunter-hero with a brusqueness unusual in serial heroes, but he's not at all likable, while Cleo Moore's Ruth lacks any queenly attributes. There's one good scene where Bill is menaced by a gorilla, but everything else is fairly ordinary.



TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975)



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


I didn't enjoy TERROR the first time I saw it, but decided that before re-viewing it. I'd give a look to Steve Ryfle's thoughts on this film, the last of the "Showa series," from Ryfle's book JAPAN'S FAVORITE MON-STAR.

Ryfle made a pretty intelligent defense of the film, finding its script to be superior to most of Godzilla's other 1970s offerings, and that its potential had been undermined by budget cuts. In addition, the American version, the one that usually shows up on TV screens here, made the Japanese version far more incoherent, The most daunting example of this that the main villains of TERROR-- the so-called "Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens," seen in the preceding film GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER-- are conflated with the aliens from MONSTER ZERO. Why did the American editors do so? My guess would be that because the actual aliens in the original TERROR look pretty wimpy, the editors chose to excerpt the neat-looking aliens from ZERO to give the villains more heft.

For the final time in the Showa series, we have aliens who have decided that Earth is a plum ripe for picking, and who justify their aggression by nattering about humankind having treated the old planet badly. On top of bringing back their previous creation, the always snazzy-looking Mechagodzilla,, the Black Hole dudes also acquire the services of a mad Japanese scientist, Doctor Mafune. The doc long ago discovered a new breed of surviving dinosaur, whom he named "Titanosaurus," but apparently he couldn't produce the monster in the flesh. The scientific community embittered Mafune by mocking him, though their scorn seems unusual, given that a new mutant dinosaur seems to pop up every other year in the Toho-verse. Anyway, the nastiness of other scientists motivates Mafune to turn against his own people, though some seeds of future discontent are planted when the aliens begin acting rather high-handed. Not only do the Black Hole guys start using Titanosaurus as their own catspaw against Godzilla, they also turn Mafune's daughter Katsura into a cyborg, programmed to help them control Mechagodzilla. This naturally plays havoc with Katsura's love life, as well as eventually turning Mafune against his alien masters.

Most of the human characters are incidental, and though Katsura's subplot has potential for tragedy, the treatment yields only shallow melodrama. The film's sole merit is in the battle-scenes between Godzilla and his two opponents. Mechagodzilla always looks great, though he doesn't really move a whole lot. In contrast, Titanosaurus is a highly mobile antagonist, but his design, right down to his squalling battle-cry, is something less than winning. Only Godzilla himself gains points this time out, for though he's not a figure of terror that he was in his early years, at least he's not a clownish, world-saving superhero-monster. He just seems to be a big ornery beast protecting his chosen stomping-grounds-- though certain future versions of the character would eventually restore the Big G to his lost glories.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Though I appreciate a number of ultraviolent movies, I've never had a warm spot in my heart-- or should that be stomach?-- for the "cannibal film." Still, like any other genre, it's theoretically possible for some of them to be exemplary for their kind. MOUNTAIN isn't such an exemplary work. It was directed by Sergio Martino, who had directed westerns and SF-adventures, but seemed to excel with giallo horror-mysteries.

The narrative for MOUNTAIN seems strongly indebted to assorted jungle-adventure films-- not least 1950's KING SOLOMON'S MINES-- in that it deals with a jungle-guide being hired by a woman to find her lost husband in some wilderness far from civilization. Here the woman is Susan, played by Ursula Andress, and her statuesque, blonde appearance may be just as responsible for the film's financial success as its ultraviolence. Certainly the majority of film-posters linger upon the sight of a bound Andress, being subjected to terrible torments by the titular cannibals.

Susan's looking for her anthropologist-husband, lost during an earlier expedition into the wilds of New Guinea. Susan's accompanied by her obnoxious brother, some bearers, and a mysterious man, Foster, who turns out to have some past history with the cannibals. Foster's origins are about the only thing that keeps the trek from devolving into complete tedium, as the less-than-great white hunters keep stumbling over various jungle perils-- though none of the animals, however menacing, are anything more than naturalistic types.

The cannibals, though, are very much a people whose exoticism verges on the demonic. They are a dwindling race, though it's not clear if they've almost been wiped out by white colonials or by rival tribes. Foster reveals that when he was taken prisoner by them, he was spared because he cared for the chief's son. However, for reasons unexplained, Foster has made it his personal crusade to stamp out the tribe if he can. Does he want to finish what other whites have started? There's no clue, for MOUNTAIN is not internally consistent enough to display strong sociological content.

Most of the film's gross-out moments occur when the travelers have fallen into the cannibals' hands, and one torment, in which Susan is painted with some gooey substance (honey?). was recycled in a later jungle-film, John Derek's 1981 TARZAN THE APE MAN, where Bo Derek gets the sloppy torture. By this point there's no evidence that the cannibals are in any way capable of sentiments like gratitude: they are entirely demonic creatures, represented by a nasty dwarf who torments one of Susan's allies.

Frankly, the most entertainment I got from this film was from an extra included on Blue Underground's DVD edition. Martino gives a standard interview about the filming of MOUNTAIN, except for one moment, in which he claims that he didn't put much sexual material in the film-- at which point the director of the featurette cuts to a half-dozen scenes showing men screwing animals and the like.

Friday, July 28, 2017

JUNGLE JIM (1948)



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


I've already reviewed the majority of the JUNGLE JIM films that starred ex-Tarzan Johnny Weismuller, but for assorted reasons never got round to the first one.

On occasion I've found these ultra-cheap jungle jaunts moderately entertaining, when viewed through a lens of low expectations. The first one, oddly enough, is one of the dullest in the series. Jungle Jim, nominally the hero of the story, is introduced with zero attention to giving him any history or consistent characterization. I've read too little of the original comic-strip character to know if its protagonist was anything more than the stock "jungle guide," but clearly the producer of these B-films wanted a stock figure, possibly to match his frequent use of stock footage.

Like many other JIM films, this one hinges on a scientist who needs the hero's help to find some exotic tribe of scientific or historical interest. In this case, a lady scientist named Hilary (Virginia Grey) comes to the jungle, questing after the secret of a special poison used by a clique of witch-doctors, on the theory that it may be a polio cure. Jim, his native buddy Kolu, and other males in the expedition are smugly disrespectful of a "woman scientist," and Hilary only aggravates the situation by being hyper-sensitive. But the expedition starts out with two flies in its ointment. Edwards (George Reeves), the main villain of the story, is an opportunist who wants to make a lot of money off the purported cure. More in the "nuisance" category is sexy young Zia (Lita Baron), sister to Kolu, who clearly tags along in the hope of sparking Jim's interest in her.

The expedition faced by the expedition are all pretty dull, as is the clique of witch-doctors, who are given no characterization beyond trying to protect their secrets from outsiders. There's a little more tension in wondering when the not-too-bright Jim is going to figure out the threat of Edwards, since the villain almost goes out of his way to sign his evil deeds. There's a fight at the end, but it's so ordinary that it makes the Weismuller-Crabbe combat in CAPTIVE GIRL look good.

The script's smarmy contempt for feminine accomplishmentsis further reflected by Zia, who mocks Hilary's upright demeanor, in part because she senses a rival in the older, more settled woman. Given that Jim gives no indication that he wants to romance either of them-- aside from smiling a lot when Zia does a sexy dance-- it's hard to figure out what either of them sees in him. It's probably a little mean to take pot-shots at a B-actress like Baron, but whereas Grey's reactions to this tedious material is always fairly natural, Baron always looks like she's waiting for the next set-up. At one point both women are captured by the witch-doctors. Grey responds as her character ought to, trying to fight off her assailants, but Baron freezes and lifts her arms so that her "captors" can grab onto her. And that was about all the entertainment I got out of JUNGLE JIM.

As a minor trivia-point, while Kolu was a long-running character in the comic strip-- which took place in Southeast Asia, not in Africa-- this is the only film in the series to give Kolu some cinematic attention.


Monday, July 24, 2017

JUDEX (1963)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


I've read any number of commentaries on the 1916 silent serial JUDEX, directed by Louis Feuillade, that compare the serial's hero with Batman and Superman. This 1963 quasi-remake by George Franju furthers this conceit, with a prelude that deems the original Judex as the putative ancestor of both characters. The only nice thing I can say about this is that I presume it was written before the Batman teleseries, so that Franju is perhaps innocent of pandering.

I may be alone in this opnion, but I found Feuillade's original JUDEX serial tedious and unimaginative. Franju's shortened version of the rambling serial-episodes is an immense improvement, and the crisp black-and-white cinematography gives the rather simple proceedings a vibrant look.

But-- Judex, a superhero? It's like no one thinks superheroes are defined by anything but the idea of having a funny name and a double identity.

Judex is an obsessed fellow, somewhat after the fashion of the Count of Monte Cristo, who holds a grudge against Favraux, a corrupt businessman who ruined the fellow's father. At the movie's beginning Favraux begins receiving letters sent to a mysterious "Judex,"threatening the man's ill-gotten security. Favraux tries to retaliate against the supposed blackmailer, who hides in a secret sanctum-- his "Batcave," I guess-- and wears a slouch hat, which I guess is supposed to be just as awe-imposing as the costumes of Shadow or Zorro. Eventually Judex drugs Favraux at a costume party. It's a fine scene, made surreal by the fact that Judex and many of the guests wear weird bird-masks.

But it's not a superhero scene. It's a "obsessed avenger" scene; an "exotic crime story" scene. Judex displays a few magician's tricks, which alone are enough to give the film an uncanny vibe. But there's no larger-than-life combat between Judex and his enemies, so even if Judex had bothered to wear a mask or a cape, I would not have deemed him a true superhero. (I should mention that there is a mildly interesting catfight in the film's climax.).

Franju succeeded in making an homage to the subtle aesthetics of black-and-white silent films, though one online source asserts that the director would rather have remade Feuillade's FANTOMAS.
But in terms of narrative, neither version of JUDEX has anything to do with the myth of the superhero, and only a lazy mind would make the connection.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2016)



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

I see that I was incorrect when I made the following statement in my review of last year's CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: 

The newest iteration of Spider-Man—“on loan” to Marvel Studios from Sony—is more of a mixed bag. The costume and the webbing look good, and after the last two movie-versions, it’s pleasant to see a wall-crawler who continually cracks wise. However, the rest of the hero’s characterization is extremely shallow—which is understandable, in that Marvel Studios have no motive to do anything more with the character than was strictly necessary for their movie’s plot.

Wikipedia reports that "n February 2015, Marvel Studios and Sony reached a deal to share the character rights of Spider-Man, integrating the character into the established MCU." This means not only that, for the foreseeable future, Spider-Man is part of the MCU, but that his depiction is entirely in line with Marvel Studios' long-term plans for the character. And those long-term plans appear to be-- to make him into "Iron Man Writ Small."

I've seen it bruited about that HOMECOMING's concept of Spider-Man is partly indebted to the 2000-2009 series ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. I read only one collection of these comics, and so I can't speak as to whether HOMECOMING borrowed any specific tropes or ideas, though the comic-series' simplistic rewriting of the Lee-Ditko character seems to resonate at about the same level of mythicity as HOMECOMING. But in a strange bit of hubris, the producers behind the MCU seem to have thought that the proper way to pay respect to the character most associated with the Marvel Brand was to tie him to the mythos of the cinematic Iron Man-- which, of course, is the bedrock on which the MCU stands.

Happily, since two of the three Sam Raimi spider-flicks gave viewers a more than exemplary adaptation of the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, there's nothing wrong with the MCU doing their "Ultimate S-M crossed with Iron Man" concept of the character. HOMECOMING is a fairly entertaining film, filled to the brim with the trademark Marvel Studios humor, and with loads of eye-popping FX, including a technological upgrade for "The Vulture," an Old Favorite among the ranks of the Lee-and-Ditko rogues' gallery. So it's not a bad film, like AGE OF ULTRON, it's just a little under-ambitious.

Tom Holland is the new Peter Parker, and happily, there is no attempt to retell the iconic origin-story of How He Got Spider-Powers. Though he's aged 21, Holland plays a believable 15-year-old high-schooler, which plays into the central idea of this Spidey as a kid who's Got a Lot to Learn. The events of CIVIL WAR appeared to bring this Parker into Tony Stark's orbit purely to make the wall-crawler into another weapon against Captain America's forces. However, HOMECOMING informs viewers that Stark now sees his relationship to Parker as one of mentor to student, possibly even as father to son (Stark's storied difficulties with his old man are front-and-center here). To cement this new bond, Stark doesn't just give Parker a suit that can do "whatever a spider can:" he gives him a suit that can do almost everything that Iron Man can-- which, for my money, results in making the Spidey-mythos unnecessarily dependent on the Iron-mythos. In addition, if there was any area where the film's humor was more overabundant, it was with respect to jokes about Spidey's difficulties with the suit's capabilities. (The schtick involving an "enhanced interrogation" function was probably the low point.)

Parker's old cast of characters has of course been updated, many with the idea of emphasizing "diversity." However, few of the updates have any substance. The revision of the Vulture is the one exception. Originally just a thief who used artificial wings to commit robberies, this Vulture (Michael Keaton) is a discontented middle-class guy who gets ahold of alien tech and begins using it to sell illegal weapons to career criminals. (The script dances away from any implication that he might also sell to terrorists: apparently this Vulture restricts his clientele to American crooks.) Alien tech makes the Vulture a much more powerful menace than he ever was in the comics, and Keaton delivers an intense performance that counterpoints Holland's softer, more tentative character.

Most of the thrill-ride doesn't have much symbolic significance, but I did find one interesting trope. The first few Spider-Man stories by Lee and Ditko give the hero both a "good father" (saintly Uncle Ben, killed by Parker's act of omission) and a "bad father" (J. Jonah Jameson, who wields economic power over Parker and constantly kvetches about the activities of Spider-Man). HOMECOMING does not bring in Jameson at all, while poor Uncle Ben is only briefly mentioned. Yet, in a fitting turnabout, the web-slinger is still haunted by dueling fathers. True, middle-aged "Bad Dad" Vulture wants to kill Spidey rather than just berate him, but in a nice turn, the villain is also implicated in the life of Parker's support-cast. Tony Stark is more or less the Good Dad, for all that he's not there for Parker a lot of the time. I suspect that this mirroring, though, was mostly dumb luck rather than good planning.





DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE (1980)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

I confess that my only interest in reviewing DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE-- the only film produced by writer-director Robert Hammer-- lay in deciding whether or not it was an uncanny horror-film, given that it focuses on a serial killer preying on women in Los Angeles. My verdict is that it is not a horror film at all, but a thriller with horrific elements, more or less in the vein of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.

PHONE became a minor cult-film thanks to the vibrant performance of Nicholas Worth as the killer, Vietnam vet and pornographic photographer Kirk Smith. The "phone" angle implied by the title actually involves little of the story. When Smith begins his crime spree, strangling women while roaming the streets of L.A., he begins calling a talk-show hosted by a female psychologist, Doctor Gale. Even by 1980 I would say this motif-- that of the psycho who announces his crimes to a talk-show host-- was pretty common, as was the trope that the host is usually female, and is ultimately the psycho's ultimate target. It's as if the madman has to work himself up through the ranks of "common women" before he aspires to slay an upper-class female, who also happens to be his "mother confessor." Hammer's script doesn't really do much with the cat-and-mouse relationship of Smith and Gale, though. The writer-director's main concern seems to be with detailing the seamy world in which Smith dwells, which Hammer managed to capture via "guerilla filmmaking"-- i.e., filming sites in L.A. without express permission.

The character of Smith is probably influenced by that of Travis Bickle in Scorcese's 1976 TAXI DRIVER. Both Hammer and Scorcese seek to give the viewer an anatomy of a disaffected loner, though Hammer is usually content to do no more than allude to the culture that made Smith, as opposed to analyzing its sociological content. Nor does Hammer draw upon the "slasher-film" conventions that were being formulated in this period. Smith wears a stocking-mask during a couple of his murders, but there's nothing uncanny about the killer or his methods.  There's a lot of violence and hard language during the slayings, and the psycho dies in a bloody fashion, but it's all very six-o'-clock-news.

There's one odd moment in the film, when the cops pursuing the stalker have to interview a psychic who claims he can help find the psycho. The psychic does seem to know things that he should not know, but he only exists for comedy relief, in that the cops arrest him on suspicion. There's no firm evidence that the psychic has faked his feats, but given that this possibility is left open by the script, this part of the film conforms to the naturalistic trope of "phantasmal figurations," The character's a little like "the robe of Christ" as it's presented in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, which addresses the question "does the robe have special powers" with more of a "probably not" than was the case in THE ROBE.

TERROR IN THE JUNGLE (1968), THE OVAL PORTRAIT (1972)



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


These two films happened to be on the same disc of a DVD collection called PURE TERROR, and their only connection, besides being both of a marvelous phenomenality, is that they seem to be vying with one another for "worst movie in the collection."

TERROR is a mess, made by three directors of minimal experience and (reputedly) a producer who thought the whole thing was gold. It also used largely non-professional actors, though the cast does include exotic dancer Fawn Silver, best known for Ed Wood's ORGY OF THE DEAD. Most of the story's characters, however, perish when their plane crashes in Peru in the film's first thirty minutes. This leaves one little boy, name of Henry, to struggle through the Peruvian jungle, with only his stuffed toy tiger for companionship. By chance he's taken in by a tribe of Jivaro Indians, because one of their number has a vision of Henry with a golden halo over his head. The guy who sees this claims that the white boy has been sent to the tribe by the sun-god Inti, but other parties in the tribe resent the kid's presence. Meanwhile the boy's father mounts an expedition to find Henry, though the film shows far less of the expedition's progress than it does loads of stock footage, particularly of fabulous parades in one of the country's tourist traps.

There's just one sociological motif that makes this turkey slightly memorable. There have been dozens of flicks in which tribes of various colors became immediately fascinated with white people simply because of their skin-color. Here, however, the only reason the tribe saves Henry is because he's believed to have some supernatural power-- and the payoff to this trope, probably inspired by the producer watching an old TWILIGHT ZONE, is that Henry really does have such power. At the climax, he's attacked by one of the Jivaro naysayers, and Henry turns his stuffed tiger into a real beast that savages the would-be assassin.  Then he's rescued. The end.



TERROR's pretty terrible, but at least it doesn't purport to be anything but a low-grade jungle-adventure. The other flick lies outright in claiming to be based on one of Poe's lesser-- and lesser-known-- short stories, but this Mexican-made film has nothing in common with the Poe story except that they both feature "oval portraits" of beautiful women.

PORTRAIT also gets the nod for being far more incoherent than TERROR. It shouldn't be all that hard for a film with just a handful of characters to convey, in the first ten minutes, who they are and what motivates them. Instead, an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter (former B-actress Wanda Hendrix) appear at an old mansion, where they meet the housekeeper and somehow manage to say almost nothing about who they are or why they're there. (Eventually there's a mention of a "reading of the will" that's supposed to take place there.( The mansion seems to be haunted by the ghost of a woman in an oval portrait, and daughter Lisa begins to identify with the history of Rebecca, the recently deceased woman in the portrait. Is Lisa really being possessed by a ghost, or is she simply identifying with an imaginary spectre? Don't ask me. The film didn't even make clear in the opening scenes that it's supposed to be taking place shortly after the end of the American Civil War, which turns out to be a very important part of the story-- such as it is. There's also a crazy young man hanging around, who happens to be connected to both the late Rebecca and the mansion's housekeeper, but the film is so haphazard in its continuity that I found it impossible to invest any emotion in the story. For what it's worth, Rebecca's ghost is real, though I have no idea if she was really trying to possess anyone.

It's definitely a career low-point for both Wanda Hendrix-- whom I liked in Roger Corman's HIGHWAY DRAGNET-- and director Rogelio Gonzalez, whose best-known work today is probably the 1960 SF-comedy SHIP OF MONSTERS.


MOANA (2016)



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

Though Polynesian mythology offers the animator a wealth of mythological motifs mostly untapped by American cinema, MOANA fails to take advantage of this potential and merely delivers a routine fantasy-adventure glossed by homilies like "be yourself" and "have the courage of your convictions."

The title character is a young Polynesian girl who lives with her tribe on the isolated island of Motunui. The tribe worships the creator-goddess Te Fiti, but years ago the capricious demigod Maui sought to steal the goddess's mystic heart. A lava demon, Te Ka, pursued Maui, and while the demigod escaped, both his prize and his principal weapon, a giant magical fishhook, are lost in the ocean.

Moana grows up amidst people who tend to stay close to their island-home, and her father Tui in particular does not want Moana venturing out past the island's barrier reefs, since Tui lost his wife to the ocean. However, a blight, spiritual in nature, strikes the crops of Motunui and the fishing-grounds in the waters near the island. Moana comes to the conclusion that the blight is caused by the separation of Te Fiti from her sacred heart, and that the only way to end the malady is to search out the enigmatic Maui and get him to find the heart again.

Though there have been some recent Disney films in which the "girlpower" heroine was essentially the main character, MOANA offers an "odd-couple" ensemble composed of Moana and Maui. Moana is only able to compel Maui to help her because she possesses a hereditary power over the ocean-waves, but Maui can't perform any great feats until he regains his special fishhook. The two of them are also a non-romantic couple, whose quarrels and reluctant moments of respect form the backbone of the story, far more than the adventurous quest-theme. In this MOANA is much like 2000's THE EMPERIOR'S NEW GROOVE. MOANA is not nearly as funny. though the movie gets points for not encumbering the heroine with a cute pet or sprite. Instead, Moana is accompanied by a chicken who has no more anthropomorphic qualities than it has a single brain in its skull. The dumb fowl is used for comedy-relief sparingly, but he's still more amusing than any of the head-butting between the heroine and her reluctant ally.

The designs look good, but the musical numbers are negligible, and the central menace-- which involves returning the heart to the goddess-- lacks much dramatic weight. The goddess's lava demon more or less fulfills the role of the "villain," but it's really just a monster with no character, so he doesn't offer anything but some climactic opposition. Yet in order to keep most of the focus upon Moana, Maui is still not able to raise any major magic against the creature even after the demigod regains his sacred fishhook. Thus, although the actions of Moana and Maui in resolving the crisis are courageous enough, the lack of a strong battle may leave some viewers wanting more.

The film was financially successful,  though I predict that it'll never take on the cultural cachet of a FROZEN or LION KING.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (1940)



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


There's often an adversarial relationship between works of prose and works of the cinema. Prose is of course the older medium, and it's far more the case that films are adapted from prose works than the other way around. But films often change the works they adapt, sometimes to meet the nature of cinematic storytelling, sometimes just because some filmmaker wants to tell his own story while tying it into a "presold property." Multi-chapter serials were particularly notable for this, as witness 1941's JUNGLE GIRL, which derived nothing but a title from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which it was supposedly based.

DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, directed by William Witney and John English, uses the title of the 1939 Sax Rohmer novel. However, the serial's basic plot-- in which the Asian villain seeks to gain control of diverse Asian tribes by finding a rare artifact-- derives from both Rohmer's 1932 THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, as well as a (very loose) film-adaptation with the same title and in the same year.

Perhaps because Fu Manchu had not appeared in a live-action film since 1932, the serial-makers felt it necessary to remind audiences of his literary provenance with a prologue that reads, in part: "From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time-- Fu Manchu! Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient, he is as modern as tomorrow!" Rohmer's character in fact kept his feet planted in both worlds. The Oriental mastermind's main modus operandi consisted of committing thefts and assassinations with skillful assassins or with the use of artful devices involving poisonous creatures, all very "low-tech." Yet at times Rohmer's Fu also dabbles in science-fiction weapons like reanimated dead men and a handheld disintegrator ray. The six scriptwriters assigned to DRUMS wisely chose to dispense with overt SF-weapons, so that all of this Fu's weapons are of the "uncanny" phenomenality, though a couple of them-- which I'll discuss in closing remarks-- strain the definition.

As in Rohmer's MASK novel, Fu's mission is "the conquest of Asia," and here the master plotter must do so by unearthing the Scepter of Genghis Khan, concealed in the (still unknown as of this date) tomb of the Mongolian leader. Fu finds out that various Western archaeologists have pieced together clues as to the tomb's location, and he seeks to find the tomb, implicitly somewhere in Mongolia, so that he can gain control of the resentful tribes-- which, given the boogieman status of the Mongol hordes, is apparently covalent with gaining control of all Asia. Aside from one major firearms-battle in the final chapter, Fu almost always seeks to conquer Asia using archaic weapons like knives, strangling-cords, and poisonous creatures, all wielded by the villain's vicious, slavish dacoits. Though Witney and English, like Sax Rohmer, generally support the rightness of British colonialism, Fu can't help but seem admirable for taking on the superior forces of Caucasian Europe with primitive weaponry. One chapter of the serial even directly adapts Rohmer's device of the "Seven Gates," a series of wooden gates that bring starving rats closer and closer to Fu's intended torture-victim.

DRUMS provides audiences with the closest cinematic match to Rohmer's villain. Fu Manchu is easily the intellectual superior of all of his antagonists, a master of chemistry and a skilled surgeon (he makes his dacoits subject to his will via an operation that sounds somewhat like a lobotomy, except that it leaves them with fang-like teeth.) He's also a master of hypnotism and the arts of disguise, and he receives feminine assistance from his cunning daughter Fah Lo Suee-- though she's perhaps a little more servile than she is in the books. As essayed by the masterful Henry Brandon, Fu has a sardonic sense of humor absent from most other cinematic productions, as well as his own code of honor, despite his penchant for murder and torture. One scene even allows him to display grief when his daughter is gravely wounded. displaying a level of emotion not seen in other adaptations of the character.

The other players acquit themselves well. William Royle makes for an unusually heavyset version of Nayland Smith, agent of the British Empire and Fu's eternal enemy. Most of the hand-to-hand fights are handled by a younger character, Allan Parker, who much resembles some of the "stalwart young heroes" of Rohmer's books, though actor Robert Kellard gives Parker a greater vim and vigor than the average square-jawed hero. The character of Doctor Petrie, who functions in the books to narrate Nayland Smith's exploits, obviously doesn't have a lot of relevance to this project, but it's pleasant to see him included for a few chapters, and there's even an eccentric collector of artifacts who's probably patterned after Rohmer's "Lionel Barton" character. The two female characters, Fah Lo Suee and Mary Randolph, aren't given much to do overall, but the serial gains some gravitas from short-term participation by actors like Dwight Frye and Philip Ahn.

In terms of the serial's greatest asset-- the action-- I'd say that DRUMS is the FURY ROAD of its day. Many serials just coast on repetitive fight-scenes broken up by talking-heads of the heroes discussing their next plans. But although DRUMS has its share of talking-head scenes, Witney and English manage to make even these compelling, possibly because the plot has a sense of sustained progress from one point to another, a sense of progress many serials lack. Dominantly, the heroes and villains are seen doing exciting things: fighting, running, jumping, riding horses, scaling telephone poles. DRUMS also benefits from cliffhangers with some logical payoff, as when Fu Manchu trap-doors Allan Parker into a tank with a predatory octopus!

Witney and English also structure the story to resemble Rohmer's stories in mixing elements of both mysteries and horror-tales, making greater use of shadowy or exotic locales than most serials are wont to do. One particular exotic locale, an isolated temple in Mongolia is the source of one of those "verges-on-the-marvelous" phenomena. The temple falls under Fu's aegis, and it just happens to possess a unique method of executing infidels: a great crystal that can focus the sun's rays so as to incinerate anyone placed in the path of the rays. It's almost needless to say that there's no real crystal that can perform this laser-like function. And yet, since the crystal isn't presented as being an artifact from some super-scientific civilization, like a similar item in LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE, I have to regard it as an "outre device" that operates the way it does just because the story says that's how it works/ It's just an arbitrary rule of the game, sort of like Fu using hypnosis to instantly enthrall people into subjection.

But the outstanding "outre skill" used by Fu Manchu here is like nothing seen in the novels. In many episodes Fu Manchu's approach is heralded by drumbeats, and for most of the serial, the audience would probably assume that some of his minions are nearby, beating drums for their master. Indeed, there are comparable scenes in one or two Rohmer books. But only in Chapter 10 does it become evident that-- Fu Manchu himself makes the drum-sounds! He's only seen doing so once: Parker and Smith are in a cavern whose stalactites are poised to fall at any loud sound, and Fu, off to one side, begins emitting drumbeat-sounds from his very skull, so that the stalactites fall and nearly kill the heroes! It is, in my educated opinion, the single most delirious episode in the history of American serials. There's no explanation as to how Fu can make such a sound, and though I've played with the idea that he's somehow amplifying his own heartbeats, the truth is that it happens just it looks awesome. It's a scene that makes the audience feel as if, for a moment, they're trapped inside the skull of that supreme enemy of all things Western: the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE TERROR (1963)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

"That [development] came about... because I was thinking this picture is a really kind of dull. I was wondering what kind of twist we could put into it to make it more interesting"-- Roger Corman, quoted in ROGER CORMAN: INTERVIEWS (2011)

THE TERROR, credited to two screenwriters and (on IMDB) seven directors, is a great mood piece, but a mess in terms of a coherent narrative. According to Corman's reminiscences, Leo Gordon, with whom Corman had worked on THE WASP WOMAN and TOWER OF LONDON, was the initial source of the story. So it would seem that the "twist" Corman introduced is responsible for  a lot of the narrative incoherence.

Many reviews have already covered the behind-the-scenes history of Corman's TERROR, but it would appear that the core of Gordon's original story goes like this. A young French officer, Duvalier (Jack Nicholson), becomes separated from his regiment in an unidentified European territory. He meets a beautiful young woman, Helene, who almost kills Duvalier by luring him into the ocean. He's rescued by an old woman, Katrina, and her male servant, Gustaf. Katrina denies that the woman exists-- in fact, she uses the name "Helene" for her pet falcon-- but Gustaf takes Duvalier aside and says that the soldier can find Helene at the castle of the local aristocrat, Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff). Duvalier shows up at the castle and more or less imposes himself on the Baron's hospitality. He spies Helene again, and is given the impression by Gustaf that she is "possessed" by an evil spirit, which may be the ghost of the murdered Baroness Von Leppe, killed twenty years previous by the Baron for an act of infidelity. Duvalier is too rational to believe this, but the truth proves even more extraordinary. Katrina is proven to be a witch who has conjured up the spirit of Ilsa Von Leppe, because she Katrina is the mother of Ilsa's lover, whom the Baron also slew. For two years previous to Duvalier's arrival, the ghost has tried to convince Von Leppe to commit suicide, which Katrina believes will automatically condemn the Baron's soul to hell. Duvalier, far from preventing any of this, possibly aggravates Von Leppe's murder-guilt and helps the ghost seduce the old man to commit suicide by drowning (a mirror image of the death Helene almost brings upon Duvalier at the beginning). After pretty much everyone is dead, Duvalier rescues Helene, but she deteriorates into a rotted corpse, apparently having been not a possessed woman, but a reanimated corpse.



TERROR's pre-twist plot might be considered a standard Gothic scenario, fraught with an Oedipal theme. Usually, when a young man penetrates the lair of an older one and steals away a beautiful woman, the woman is the older man's daughter. Here, the woman's youth is an illusion brought about by a old witch, and in terms of the generation into which the fictional Ilsa is born, she's closer to being a "mother-figure" to Duvalier than being a "daughter-figure" to Von Leppe. Technically, though Ilsa is sort of both, since in life she's explicitly said to be the Baron's second wife. (I would guess that this detail came about because the actor playing Von Leppe was over seventy years old.) The original script is built upon the notion that Von Leppe was responsible for the deaths of his wife and her lover, though it's still rather confusing as to why Katrina, who appears to be a quite powerful witch, would wait eighteen years after her son's death and THEN finally conjure up the ghost of Ilsa to take vengeance upon the Baron. It's also pretty fuzzy logic as to why it takes Ilsa a full two years to break down the Baron, who isn't exactly having a lot of laughs during his golden years.

Corman's last-minute twist is that Eric, the former lover of Ilsa, was not killed in the struggle that took Ilsa's life. Instead Eric took Von Leppe's life and was so traumatized by the deed that he convinced himself that he was Von Leppe. Symbolically, the twist does have the effect of making Eric and Duvalier virtual doubles, since both are young men trying to steal an older man's wife. But in terms of narrative, Corman's addition makes the script insanely over-complicated. If the original Von Leppe was killed twenty years ago, and Eric has assumed his role with the unexplained compliance of Von Leppe's only servant (Jonathan Haze), what sequence of events led Katrina to believe that her son Eric was dead in the first place? And how does Eric pull off his imposture for twenty years, even with just one servant in his castle? AND if Von Leppe is really Eric, why doesn't Ilsa recognize him as Eric in the final confrontation scene between the two?

Corman clearly didn't care about plot coherence; he just wanted a gimmick that would theoretically pull audiences into the movie-houses. I tend to doubt that anyone who liked THE TERROR back during its original release was blown away by the "Big Reveal," though. The movie is at its best when it simply focuses on nearly surrealistic scenes of supernatural violence. I've mentioned the film's best scene, in which Helene walks into the ocean and thus obliges Duvalier to try rescuing her. Not only does she disappear while he's being battered by the surf, the falcon Helene shows up and tries to claw the officer's eyes out. The female Helene is sometimes, but not always, identified with the falcon, but they are once seen to be separate beings, which may just mean that they're both the occult pawns of Katrina. The other major scene, in which the falcon does manage to rip out Gustaf's eyes, is still compelling, even though it's never clear as to what motivates Gustaf to give aid to either Duvalier or to Helene, whom he must know is not really a living woman, despite his "possession" claim.

Still, THE TERROR may not make much narrative sense, it boasts some stunning scenes, and stands as one of Boris Karloff's more substantial parts in his last decade, with the exception of his voice-work for animation projects like MAD MONSTER PARTY and HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946)



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


Strangely, though I've liked the majority of Abbott and Costello comedies, I haven't found most of them laugh-out-loud funny, with the exception of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Like a lot of TV sitcoms, A & C offer the viewer "comfort comedy," whose whole appeal lies in putting one or more fairly simple characters through assorted minor travails. For me at least, even when Bud & Lou were placed in situations that involved life and death, there never seems any real possibility of a bad outcome.

One of the biggest comforts A&C offer is their amiable "straight man / goofus" chemistry. For that reason, THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, in which the two performers barely interact, measures up as one of the duo's least impressive efforts, even though TIME boasts excellent production values-- including the most expensive FX of any A&C film-- and some fine support-work from the cast, particularly from Gale Sondergaard playing a dotty psychic.

The story goes that Abbott and Costello had a falling out in 1945, and thus they did not play a "duo" in their films that year, LITTLE GIANT and TIME OF THEIR LIVES. Instead, Costello's character, Revolutionary-era tinker Horatio Prim, is teamed with am aristocratic female of the same era, Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds). Horatio and Melody, are barely acquainted with one another at the outset of the picture. An anti-Revolutionary conspiracy forces inadvertently causes the deaths of both the tinker and the lady, and for good measure, their spirits are cursed to haunt the grounds of the estate where their bodies were slain, thanks to one of the pro-Revolutionaries cursing them as traitors to the cause. The spirits of Horatio and Melody can only be released to their heavenly reward if someone uncovers the truth, that both of them were loyal Americans. Thus the ghosts hang around the abandoned house until the 1940s. Then the current owner of the property renovates the estate, furnishing it with much of the original fixtures-- which gives the ghosts hope that they can find a vital letter attesting to their innocence.

Even from this brief description, it should be apparent that this is a rather limp plot. To make viewers invested in the only conflict-- will Horatio and Melody be freed from their curse, and be allowed to enter heaven-- they would have to be fairly involving characters. But Horatio is just a routine Costello goofus, and Melody is no better than she has to be. Had the two ghosts fallen in love during their long exile from paradise, the movie might have offered some sense of character change. But the script deliberately short-circuits this potential in the opening scenes, establishing that both main characters are loyal to their respective aniours from the 1780s. Or mostly loyal, for there's a pre-1940s scene in which Melody tries to get a little affection out of Horatio, if only to break the monotony, and he, being a dunce, doesn't even understand what she intimates. I suspect that the scripters were instructed to keep the two characters romantically unattached to one another, in large part because they were not married to one another. (For that matter, they also don't get to marry the fiancees that they knew in life, so their marriage prospects were pretty well cut off by untimely demise.) The overall result of this curious team-up is that the two ghosts don't even forge a friendship, much less a romance. Melody is the sensible one, who tells Horatio the best ways to interact with the 20th-century Americans, and Horatio is the goofus who, even as a ghost, keeps falling over things a lot. Reynolds gives her role her all, but she's simply got no comic chemistry with Costello.

As for Bud Abbott, he gets to play two characters. One is a 1780s romantic rival to Horatio, and that character's schemes indirectly bring about the tragic misunderstanding. Abbott also plays a 20th-century psychiatrist, as well as a descendant of the earlier fellow, and Character #2 has no idea why the ghost of Horatio seems to be particularly peeved at him. Sadly, the scenes in which the chubby Costello-ghost gets to torment the confused modern-day Abbott-character are probably the highlight of this strange, generally unfunny misfire.

FWIW, Costello did succeed in sustaining a comic romantic duo in his last film, THE 30-FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK, in which he and Dorothy Provine displayed the chemistry this film so badly needed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A MAN CALLED DAGGER (1968)



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

The explosion of the superspy genre gave rise to dozens of transitory flicks seeking to coast on the meteoric success of the James Bond franchise.  Most of them are resoundingly mediocre, but if I catch even the cheaper Eurospy films when I'm in the right mood, they have a modest charm, as seen in these two quirky products. However, had I desired to find the decade's most charmless spy-flick, it's probably the American-made A MAN CALLED DAGGER.

Directed leadenly by Richard (STUNT MAN) Rush, DAGGER feels like it was the product of writers who were trying to duplicate the major appeals of the Bond films but had never actually seen one of the pictures. Agent Dick Dagger (Paul Mantee) tries to project an insouciant air, and he comes armed with a few gadgets (an infrequently-used laser beam in his wristwatch supplies the film's only marvelous content). Three or four gorgeous ladies swarm around him, anxious to give evidence as to the superspy's enormous animal magnetism. There's an evil mastermind with some sort of vague world-conquering plan, and he's even served by a hulking henchman, played by Richard Kiel, who would later take on the original superspy in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. But the attitude of the director and the scripters project an utter lack of interest in their material. They were just going through the motions, and didn't care who knew it.

Though Mantee makes a drab secret agent, the film's biggest problem is unquestionably the casting of Jan Murray-- a comedian whom I personally never found funny even in outright humorous works-- as the mastermind Koffman, who was a former Nazi officer but somehow can't put across a decent German accent. I've forgotten Koffman's master plan, though it involved turning human beings into packaged meats. Koffman spends most of the film in a wheelchair until the end, where he suddenly gets out of the chair in order to fight Dagger. Just as he can't come up with a decent master plan, he can't contrive a believable reason as to why he stayed in a wheelchair most of the picture. Murray plays the role in a hammy fashion, perhaps under the impression he was doing some sort of "camp."

I can't think of any good reason to watch A MAN CALLED DAGGER unless one happens to be interested in seeing a particular actor or actress.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)



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


The last Chris Lee "Dracula" film from Hammer-- a fairly direct sequel to the studio's first modern-day opus with the Count, DRACULA A.D. 1972-- is far from perfect, but it's not the worst way to wind up the series. I give thanks to the late Mr. Lee for having refused the offer to portray the vampire-lord in LEGEND OF SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, for his non-appearance allows me to pigeonhole that film as outside the bounds of the series proper, despite the presence of "a" Dracula and Peter Cushing once more portraying Van Helsing.

Just as LEGEND would attempt to meld vampire-thrills with kung fu action, SATANIC seeks to fuse vampires and spy-drama-- but fortunately, the espionage stuff is fairly low-key, more in line with John Buchan than Ian Fleming. Alan Gibson, also the director on A.D. 1972, uses a couple of characters from the earlier film, notably Cushing's modern-day vampire-hunter, but one need not have seen A.D. 1972 to follow what happens here. Gibson's direction is fluid and efficient, allowing for a modicum of suspense even though the viewer should be able to figure out the true master of the Satanic cult threatening not only English society, but the fate of the entire world.

Scripter Don Houghton, given the only credit on A.D. 1972, shares billing with Roy Skeggs for SATANIC. It's possible to see the team utilizing some of the religious imagery found in that film, and expanding on it so that Dracula is not just a perversion of the Christian religion but a would-be Antichrist, trying to bring about a secular version of the "end of days." In short, Dracula has decided to wipe out humanity rather than seeking to rule over it, and does so by having an enthralled scientist develop a strain of bubonic plague capable of doing the job.

I enjoyed some of the more mundane shootout scenes, and found that the writers created better secondary villains in comparison to the previous outing, with Barbara Yu Ling a standout amidst Drac's menacing minions. However, I still found that the spy-stuff tended to undermine the film's potential for horror, even though Gibson and Co. are careful to interject enough fang-scenes that no viewer is likely to forget that this is a vampire film.

Lee's screen-time in all the Hammer Draculas is of limited duration, possibly for reasons related to his asking-price. Thus the script's solution to this difficulty-- keeping Dracula off screen most of the time until the end-- was probably unavoidable. The greatest consequence of this, though, is that the script cannot explore in depth the villain's reason for embracing Armageddon. A few possible motivations are tossed out by Van Helsing, but Lee doesn't have enough time on-screen to put across the film's most interesting idea: why would the Lord of the Undead finally choose to embrace Death? In fact, a movie focusing on such a Dracula, from start to finish, would probably have been much more memorable than this simple espionage plot-line.

That said, though the climactic confrontation of Dracula and Van Helsing falls far short of the first Cushing-Lee battle in HORROR OF DRACULA, it's at least a lively encounter. Though the familiar stake comes into play once again, I give the writers points for trying to give the Count a new nemesis: the thorns of the hawthorn tree, of which Christ's crown was supposedly composed. It's a minor addition to the Hammer vampire mythology, but at least it "keeps faith" with Hammer's principal conception of Dracula as a blasphemous reversal of all things Christian.