Monday, February 27, 2017
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
I had no expectations of revisiting a beloved icon of my youth when I decided to screen the 26 episodes of Hanna-Barbera's ATOM ANT show, because I remember thinking it was pretty crappy even when I watched it as a kid.
The football-helmeted spawn of the formicidae family premiered as one sixth of an hour-long cartoon-block. THE ATOM ANT'SECRET SQUIRREL SHOW, although as its producers probably expected, the hour was eventually split into half-hour formats, with the two leads being features of their own half-hour shows, each with two unbilled co-features.All six cartoons were extremely repetitious kid-humor, and were closer in mold to the majority of Hanna-Barbera's TV-cartoon work-- RUFF 'N' REDDY, HUCKLEBERRY HOUND-- than they resembled the groundbreaking JONNY QUEST of the previous year.
The DVD collection includes all 26 shows of ATOM ANT in his half-hour format, wherein his co-features were the tedious PRECIOUS PUPP, which focused on the slapstick antics of a mischievous dog, and the marginally better HILLBILLY BEARS, about a family of four bears getting into slapsticky situations in the backwoods territory. Both of these features-- which I only skimmed for the purpose of this review-- used very uninspired jokes, and the only attraction of the BEARS was that the doofus hillbilly-father constantly mumbled his dialogue. This gave bored young viewers the challenge of trying to understand what Pa Bear was saying while they waited for the next routine hit-on-the-head schtick.
ATOM ANT seems to be Hanna-Barbera's first featured superhero character, but his stories also focused on nothing more than crude slapstick setups and assorted bad puns. It isn't impossible to do superheroes who are dominantly humorous, and in fact Hanna-Barbera did considerably better one year later with a spoofy group of superheroes called The Impossibles. Again, lots of dopey puns and slapstick-- but the scripters for THE IMPOSSIBLES had actually paid a little attention to the structural elements of the superhero genre in order to spoof it. Thus the scripts pitted the three Impossibles against silly but still imaginative villains with names like "the Diabolical Dauber" and "Smogula." Additionally, the visuals were more impressive than anything in ATOM ANT, even though both shows featured the same type of extremely limited animation.
With ATOM ANT, there's no sense that the cartoon-makers are doing anything beyond putting in a day's work. It doesn't really matter that the super-strong ant has no origin-- the Impossibles didn't have one, either-- but it matters that there's nothing intesresting about the world he's in. Most of his villains are stock mad scientists, except for the one insect who could give Atom a decent fight: his "opposite number" Ferocious Flea. Here's an indicator of how little the scripters bothered with thinking through this concept: one of the mad scientists breeds a super-termite, able to chew through anything. And the name the evildoer gives to his creation is-- "Godzilla." Yes, in those days you could get away with using the name "Godzilla" without getting a nasty call from the lawyers at Toho Studios, but it's still a pretty brain-dead name for a super-termite.
For that matter, Atom Ant is a bore as a character. In "Super Blooper," the ant is seen enjoying a fake superhero TV show, even though he himself is a real superhero. In "Dragon Master," the hero is transported back to Arthurian times, and he's only mildly concerned that he's just been separated from everything in his old life. (He doesn't even do anything to get back: that feat is accomplished through a blunder by one of the villains.) I don't imagine that even as a kid I expected much in the way of consistent characterization in a cartoon, but I know I liked characters who had personality. Even Mighty Mouse, from whom Atom Ant is probably loosely derived, had some sort of consistent outlook. The most interesting thing about the show is probably that H-B took two elements seen here-- the wheeze-laugh of Precious Pupp, and the name of a group of motocycle-villains, "the Anthill Mob"-- and re-used these elements to much better effect in 1968's WACKY RACES.
In closing I'll note that just as H-B recycled most of its standard tropes in this show-- hell, they even have Atom Ant help a mouse against a cat!-- they also use ethnic jokes that are objectionable today, and not just because they're badly done (though they are). Atom Ant rings in with one typically depicted "ah so" Japanese character and assorted dopey "redskins," while Precious Pupp manages to take on one little Indian and Pa Bear has an improbable encounter with yet another offspring of Mister Moto.
ADDENDA: On further thought I decided that there really wasn't all that much difference between the actual characters of Atom Ant and the Impossibles trio, in that all three were stereotypical depictions of the "painfully earnest good guy." The Impossibles' only advantage was really that they were occasionally seen in jeopardy, like Multiman constantly worrying about getting killed when the menace du jour plowed through his presumably lifeless carbon copies of himself.
Friday, February 10, 2017
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*
FLESH GORDON is a pretty good sex-comedy send-up of the Universal "Flash Gordon" serials. Reportedly Universal Pictures tried to block it with a plagiarism suit, and this may have engendered the prefatory title-card before the film begins, wherein the producers attempt to convince the public of their deep regard for such "superheroes" as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman and Captain Marvel.
Though I'm sure the producers' main concern was to make a buck, FLESH has its moments if one takes it on its own terms as pure farce, without expecting to see any satirical barbs against the venerable space-opera of comic-strip and movie fame. The narrative's sole concern is to replay the familiar setups of the original 1936 serial-- albeit with a few touches taken from other FLASH movies-- and to jazz up their sexual content.
This isn't altogether inappropriate, for both the early comic strip and the first of the three serials are replete with tons of sumptuous sexual imagery. The other two serials and the strip in its later days become considerably toned down into simplistic space opera, but sexuality was a major part of the early FLASH. Note this tableau from the first serial, showing five of the main players: noble Flash, who wants Dale but who is desired by nasty Princess Aura, while to the side you see both Ming and Vultan, both of whom made unsuccessful assaults on Dale's chastity.
Though FLESH GORDON is never more than baggy-pants comedy, I can appreciate that the producers didn't indulge in a lot of irrelevant silliness, but stuck with their one basic trope: jazzing up the sex in the extravagant situations. Whereas the story originally started out with Earth being menaced by cataclysms brought on by the approach of Ming's wandering planet Mongo, now "Wang the Perverted" of "Porno" bombards the Earth with sex-rays, causing all affected to do the nasty with each other. Flesh, "Dale Ardor" and "Flexi Jerkoff" journey to Porno, though they are hit by the sex-rays en route and enjoy a (not very explicit) three-way. Once the threesome arrive on Porno, Wang takes them prisoner. He decides to keep Dale for himself, to put Flexi to work in the labs, and to hurl Flesh to the arena to be killed. In the 1936 serial, Flash fights two muscular men with fangs, who try to kill him: in place of this, Flesh fights fanged women who might be trying to hump him, kill him, or both. I imagine that this might become tedious for some viewers, particularly since the sex-scenes aren't all that good, but I preferred the repetition of one okay joke in place of a dozen bad ones.
I mentioned that FLESH sometimes borrowed from later serials. The film doesn't parody the devilish Princess Aura, who seeks to seduce Flash away from Dale, but it does, strangely enough, reproduce a MAD-ized version of Queen Azura, who appeared in the comic in 1935, and in the second FLASH serial in 1938. The film gives viewers a "Queen Amora" who can magically vanish like the one in the 1938 serial, and who spirits Flash away from Ming's court, has sex with him, and then gets unceremoniously killed-- which made me wonder why the writers even bothered with her.
Of course, many of the jokes fall flat. I didn't mind that the film's version of Prince Barin is gay-- after all, his main role in the strip is to be Aura's consolation prize when Flash refuses her-- but "Prince Precious" just isn't funny. There are other predictable riffs: ships that look like phalli, "penisauruses," "rape robots," and a gigantic idol who comes to life and flashes the middle finger at his foes. It's all pretty routine, but happily the three main actors playing Flesh, Dale and Flexi play it generally straight, reacting to all the lunacy just as stolidly as the serial-characters. Jason Williams is a particularly good road-company Flash Gordon, and doesn't make the character sappy like the actor who took over the part in 1989's FLESH GORDON MEETS THE COSMIC CHEERLEADERS. Also, Flesh may be in a silly world, but he's given as much combative chutzpah as Buster Crabbe in his day, so this comedy falls into the combative mode.
Monday, February 6, 2017
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
THE MINOTAUR, while far from the definitive cinematic treatment of the famed Greek myth, stands as one of the stronger entries in the ranks of Italian *peplum.*
As most will know, the original Minotaur is the half-human progeny of Pasiphae, Queen of Minos, and a sacrificial bull. Not surprisingly, this scandalous origin is not retold in this 1960 flick, nor is there much of an explanation for the provenance of the bull-man who haunts the labyrinth neighboring the Minoan city of Crete. Since there are few deities in MINOTAUR, the implication seems to be that the creature is just some freaky mutant who wandered into the cave, after which the Minoans decided he was a deity and that they would make annual sacrifices of virgin daughters to the creature. As the film begins, the custom is still going on even though King Minos' princess-daughter Phaedra has been exempt from the ritual.
Then as mother Pasiphae passes on, she reveals to Phaedra that the latter has a twin sister, Ariadne. Pasiphae feared that Ariadne might be sacrificed and so sent her away to some rural village, where she was raised without any knowledge of her royal heritage. Pasiphae dies, but Phaedra, who aspires to the throne, wants no sibling reunions, and sends a horde of mercenaries to kill everyone in the village.
By chance two heroes wander by just as the village is being attacked: the Athenian hero Theseus and the Minoan warrior Demetrio. After the two men rout the mercenaries, they take along Ariadne-- one of the few survivors of the raid-- to their original destination: Demetrio's home city of Crete. Theseus and Ariadne quickly fall in love, though Demetrio remarks on Ariadne's resemblance to the Princess of Crete. That's the last important thing he does in the film. Phaedra's agent escapes the rout of the mercenaries, returns to Crete ahead of the heroes, and lays a trap for them. Demetrio is killed, Ariadne is taken captive, and Theseus is hurled into the sea to drown. Thanks to the intervention of the sea-goddess Amphitrite, Theseus survives. There are a number of complicated palace-intrigues, in which Theseus tries to rescue Ariadne from her evil sister, Phaedra is killed, and Ariadne is forced to masquerade as her sister, At the climax Theseus is forced to descend into the labyrinth, and though he's not quite as "Herculean" as many peplum-heroes, he does manage to slay the beast and free Crete from superstitious ritual and tyrannical rule.
Compared to the original myth, the Italian treatment is a bit of a mix-master version. Ariadne and Phaedra are the daughters of Minos and Pasiphae in the original tale, but they're not twins. Phaedra has no role in the part of the story involving the Minotaur, and only re-enters Theseus' life long after he has (1) slain the Minotaur, (2) deserted Ariadne for vague reasons, despite her essential aid to him in the labyrinth, and (3) had a child, the male Hippolytus, by an Amazon named Antiope. At some point after all this, when Ariadne has gone on to a separate destiny, Theseus decides to marry her sister Phaedra, but Phaedra then performs her most significant mythic action by falling in love with Theseus's grown son Hippolytus, which of course leads to-- can you guess it?-- tragedy.
Clearly Ariadne and Phaedra in the film have been written to be the "good girl" and "bad girl" personae found in various earlier pepla, Some of these have presented a slight "mother-daughter" complex in that the "bad woman," usually a queen of some sort, is implicitly older. Here the same actress, Rosanna Schiaffino, plays both characters, so there's no actual age-difference. There's still a little psychological myth here, though, in that the mythic Ariadne is best known as a daughter-figure helping out a foreign-born hero, while mythic Phaedra has her greatest repute as a "bad mother" figure.
The presence of Amphitrite is a curious touch. She's not strictly speaking necessary to the plot: Theseus could have simply got washed ashore and gone about doing everything he does in the remainder of the film. In the best-known version of the Greek myths, Theseus is a demigod whose father was Poseidon, god of the sea with a special affiliation with Athens. The film doesn't allude in any direct way to the hero's divine status, but possibly such allusions made it in through the "back door," as it were. In late myth Amphitrite was made the consort of Neptune, the Roman version of Poseidon, though this Wiki essay argues that originally she had no connection with any male sea-god. Similarly, THE MINOTAUR has her appear to Theseus in her submarine palace as she seeks to make him her consort, which might have proved unfeasible if she had an unruly husband hanging around.
Why is the sequence in the movie? It does have the nice effect of playing up Theseus's utter devotion to his mortal love Ariadne, and it may be that one of the scripters thought it would be nice to do something along the line of Odysseus remaining in love with Penelope despite the blandishments of Circe. (True, Odysseus does remain in Circe's company for what one presumes was many nights of non-romantic sex, but hey, it's the thought that counts.) One also might view Amphitrite the immortal goddess as being, like Phaedra, another displaced mother-figure, although the goddess is gracious enough to let Theseus go once he refuses her. A final significant motif is that while Phaedra is defeated as are all evil queens of epic movies, her fate is particularly gruesome: a guard, trying to hit Theseus, hurls his spear right into Phaedra's face, and she stumbles to her death in a hyena-pit. It's at that point that Ariadne had to try to masquerade as her evil sister, but it's perhaps a credit to her sensitivity that she can't quite pull off the evil-queen vibe, and so is forced to aid the hero in other ways.
And if one has no interest in tracing myth-motifs, MINOTAUR is still a pretty lively film, with lots of fighting and three sexy women (albeit played by just two actresses).
Friday, February 3, 2017
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!
I had forgotten that THEATER OF BLOOD was as lively a film as it is. It's far more entertaining than either of the DR. PHIBES films, and though it apes the basic formula of "perilous psycho killing people in imaginative ways," this was hardly a trope that the Phibes films invented. THEATER's black comic touches and its penchant for fast-paced action-- a stand-out being the villain's assault of a victim in a lengthy swordfight-- place it heads above most of Vincent Price's later films.
Many reviews have touched on one particular sociological aspect of the film: that the psycho-killer, Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart, schemes to avenge himself on the critics who scorned his thespian talents by "critiquing" them to death. Specifically, he patterns the methods of death-dealing after some of the Bard's gorier deaths-- drowning one writer in a butt of malmsey (RICHARD III), or removing a "pound of flesh" from another fellow (MERCHANT OF VENICE, the "rewrite" mentioned in the quote above). However, for me there's much more pleasure in seeing this horror-film prick the balloon of High Culture, by reminding audiences just how extremely gory the super-literary Shakespeare could be. Director Douglas Hickox, who had completed another black comedy three years before (ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE), excels here as much as does Price, and it's a shame Hickox. also known for co-directing THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, didn't try his hand at a few more horror-films.
Though Price has great presence in all of his scenes, most of the other actors get short shrift, particularly Diana Rigg, who plays Edwina Lionheart, the actor's faithful daughter and accomplice in his murders. At first it's not entirely clear that she's allied to her father's murderous cause, but once the script gets past this point of ambiguity, she gets to collaborate in many of the "designer deaths." However, she doesn't get much of a character, which is a shame, since Rigg was arguably at the height of both her fame and her thespian powers during this period. Strangely, the idea that the madman's daughter is utterly committed to his insane goals may be the biggest rewriting of Shakespeare in the film. In many Shakespeare plays he creates adult daughters of powerful men who defy their fathers by choosing to marry whom they please, or who refuse to bend to their paternal units in other respects. It's ironic that Edwina and Edward are joined together in a climax borrowed from KING LEAR, for Edwina, by doing everything her crazy father demands, repudiates the example of Cordelia, who refused to "love her father all."
Thursday, February 2, 2017
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
As the still above may indicate, GHOST TOWN owes a conceptual debt to 1973's HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.
Back in Old Western days, a sheriff is murdered by a ruthless gang, led by a sadistic outlaw named Devlin (Jimmie F. Skaggs), and the rest of the town lets it happen. The sheriff curses the entire town, and this apparently results in the ghosts of the outlaws and the residents remaining tied to the town for the next hundred years, long after its buildings have fallen into disuse.
Then a modern-day woman named Kate is kidnapped by one of the ghosts, and modern-day sheriff Langely goes looking for her in the local "ghost town." Langley has a memorable encounter with an amimated corpse, that of the dead sheriff, who charges him with a mission of vengeance. Once Langley can wrap his head around the notion of fighting undead ghosts, he and Devlin have a series of violent encounters that culminate in a good old-fashioned showdown.
This Charles Band production is atypical in that there are no midget-sized horrors like his PUPPET MASTER and DEMONIC TOYS flicks: the outlaws, though pretty one-note, are given good grotesque makeup, and Jimmie Skaggs shines as the principal villain. Directors Richard Governor and Mac Ahlberg maintain a nice blend of lively battles and horrific scenes, though the script doesn't do much with the element of the guilty townspeople, condemned to live with the outlaws who terrorized them.
If only because of the showdown between Langley and Devlin, this is a combative film. I categorize it as a "drama" rather than an "adventure" because I consider Langley's goodguy character is not as central to the story of the vicious Devlin, and so the story is mostly about the attempt to banish a seemingly invulnerable "demon."