Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)



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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SCOOBY DOO / WWE: WRESTLEMANIA MYSTERY



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


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

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

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

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

THE FURY (1978)



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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

GUNGA DIN (1939)



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

DORORO (2007)



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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

WOLVESBAYNE (2009)



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


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

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

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

A good summary statement for this one:

"Too many tropes spoil the script."



Thursday, May 11, 2017

THE TIGER WOMAN (1944)



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

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

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

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

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

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




Monday, May 8, 2017

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



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

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

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

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



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

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


Friday, May 5, 2017

DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS (1993)




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

DOLLMAN (1991)



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

Given that Charles Band has become famous for producing scads of "morbid manikin" films, starting with 1989's PUPPET MASTER, I would have thought he would've done he'd done a lot more of them before he decided to try his luck with a small-size superhero. Now that I've checked the list of Full Moon productions, DOLLMAN is really the second manikin out of the gate, and only later was followed by DEMONIC TOYS, BLOOD DOLLS and all the rest.

The script, co-written by Band and directed by Albert Pyun, is a pretty straightforward "fish out of water" effort. On his home planet of Arturos, Brick Bardo is a hard-nosed cop who gets on the wrong side of his superiors, a la Dirty Harry (actor Tim Thomerson channels an unadulterated Eastwood). He also incurs the wrath of a crimelord named Sprug, who's been reduced to nothing but a talking head. Sprug sets his mob to kill the tough cop, but Bardo outshoots them with his blaster, and then boards a spacecraft to chase Sprug down. However, both of them pass through a dimensional gateway, and end up on Earth, where they are doll-sized.

Specifically, they end up in the South Bronx, which location provides the film's only sociological myth. A Hispanic lady named Debi (Kamala Lopez) is rescued by Bardo from some drug-dealers, and thus Bardo-- nicknamed "Dollman" much against his wishes-- incurs the wrath of ganglord Braxton Red (Jackie Earle Haley). Sprug briefly allies himself to Braxton, but nothing much comes of this, since Braxton kills the miniature crimelord early on. Debi takes Bardo into her home, introducing the miniature alien to her precocious little son. Given the disparity in size between Bardo and Debi, there are the inevitable sex jokes about things like "does size matter." Yet there's an interesting contrast between the uncompromising "crime is just plain evil" persona of Dollman versus the more reality-based concerns of Debi, given some impressive speeches talking about the hopelessness of life in the poverty-stricken South Bronx. But the script isn't able to do anything with the contrast: the poverty of the Bronx is merely a means of setting up Bardo's battles with the despicable gangster element.

This Dollman differs from most of the "mighty mite" superheroes of comic books-- including a "Doll Man" introduced by Quality Comics in 1940-- in that he doesn't fight with his fists but with a blaster capable of blowing its targets to pieces, even the giant-sized ones. It doesn't make for a lot of variety in the culminating fight-scene, since Dollman's human opponents aren't usually able to draw a bead on the minute crime-fighter. Still, there's a reasonable amount of havoc at the climax, and that's enough to make DOLLMAN adequate entertainment.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*


It remains one of the great mysteries of cinema, that Mel Brooks, working on a script co-written by Gene Wilder, could produce a horror-spoof as good as 1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and yet be utterly unable to come up to that level of humor in all subsequent films. It's especially galling to see him fail so badly with DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, since LOVING generally follows the template of the 1931 DRACULA much as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN emulated SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Possibly not even a good script could overcome the problematic casting of Leslie Nielsen as the vampire lord. I have a mild liking for some of Nielsen's goofball post-AIRPLANE flicks, including bush-league efforts like SPY HARD. But Nielsen's ceaseless mugging seems like a tacit admission that he had no idea how to play Dracula, except as another Frank Drebbin type.

Brooks shares screenplay credit with Rudy deLuca and Steve Haberman, who had previously authored the Italian comedy SCREW LOOSE, for which film Brooks provided only acting services. For what it's worth, LOVING is better than SCREW LOOSE, but only for a sprinkling of grins amid a trash-heap of groans. The three writers reproduce many of the major plotlines of the 1931 film, although they add tropes taken from other vampire films: Nielsen-Drac wears a wig derived from BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, and in the early scenes Renfield encounters two buxom vampire-brides who look like they came from Hammer Central Casting. (Neither of these were funny, however.)

Renfield, as played by Peter MacNicol, is one of the few joys of LOVING, for MacNichol furiously channels the portrait by Dwight Frye while adding his own manic comic touches. The best scene in the film shows the way the film might have gone: Renfield is trying to prove his sanity to Doctor Seward (Harvey Korman) in order to be released from Seward's sanitarium. Unfortunately, they're on a patio, and there are a lot of juicy bugs around...

One odd change in the original template is that this time out, vampire-victims Lucy and Mina (who becomes Seward's daughter in the 1931 film) are not simply friends. Instead, Lucy is Seward's ward-- a change that seems to have happened for no reason except to make it simpler to have her cared for at Seward's sanitarium. Later, when Lucy comes back from the dead, she attempts to poach on the territory of "functional sister" Mina by seducing her fiancee Harker. This might have been an interesting twist if anything had come from it, but the idea is just tossed out there. It also doesn't help that except for MacNicol, everyone else-- Korman, Steven Weber (Harker), and Brooks (Van Helsing)-- give nothing more than journeyman performances.

The conclusion of the film is a little more lively than that of the 1931 film. However, the vampire hunters are all bumblers, so there's no combative mode here.

SUPER SEVEN CALLING CAIRO (1965), THE SPY WHO LOVED FLOWERS (1966)



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


Here we have two Italian-made Eurospy films, both directed by Umberto Lenzi of "Cannibal Ferox" fame, and both starring American actor Roger Browne as an American spy working for the British as he runs around the exotic locations of Rome, Egypt, etc. His code name is "Superseven" (one guess where Lenzi got that name), but he's usually addressed as "Martin Stevens," which may well be the dullest name ever bestowed upon a superspy. Browne does his best to give Stevens a modicum of Bondian cool, but he's less than riveting in the action-sequences and seduction-scenes. Rosalba Neri, a familiar face from various horror-films, spices up the scenery a bit as the secret agent runs around looking for a "new radioactive material" being smuggled by the Other Side.

As always my main interest in these ephemeral flicks lies in seeing the various ways the writers delve into the phenomena of the uncanny and the marvelous. Certainly the McGuffin in this case is neither. The material involved is somehow radioactive but harmless to the touch, but no one does anything with it, or even explains what it can be used for, so even though it's a "new" element, it sounds like nothing but a plain old isotope, and thus falls within the naturalistic domain. Two uncanny gimmicks do appear. one being a "pen-gun" that Stevens wields a couple of times. Another unexplained gizmo appears about midway through the film. When Stevens is lured to the hideout of the villains, he flees into a cellar, and one bad guy throws a switch. The light inside the cellar turns crimson, and Stevens crumbles into unconsciousness as he sees the nasty spies come in, looking like they've turned into photographic negatives. Later Stevens, recovering after escaping from a torture-session, says something about one of the spies being an electronics expert, which is all the "explanation" one gets for the weird light-show. Still, the general sense of the scene implies that the light-show is low-tech, making it closer to the uncanny than the marvelous.




The second and last Superseven film is not really much better, but it has a slightly lighter tone. Stevens tells a shop-girl that he's a superspy named James Bond, knowing that he won't believe her.. and he's saddled with Genevieve, a female agent who seems less than competent, much like Matt Helm in THE WRECKING CREW.  This time Superseven is given a less than heroic mission: to go forth and assassinate three people who know too much about a super-scientific McGuffin. However, perhaps to keep Steven sympathetic, this plotline is dropped in favor of his chasing around after a villain code-named "the Great Dragon." (Flowers are involved in the spies' recognition of one another, thus explaining the title, but I forget the details.) Sadly, the guy who turns out to be the Dragon is pretty colorless. On the up side, one of the Dragon's agents is a Chinese woman named Mei Lang, who shows much more character than anyone else in the film. (She's played by French-born Japanese actress Yoko Tani). Mei Lang has not just one but two catfights with Genevieve, but while they aren't great fights by any stretch, they are a little unusual in that both spies make generous use of karate chops rather than slaps or punches.

The sci-fi weapon that the two sides are fighting over is never seen in action, but one of Stevens' superiors helpfully explains that the gizmo is capable of short-circuiting the power in a whole city, and that one recent blackout was the result of the gizmo getting a field-test. Even though we don't see the weapon, everyone seems to believe it really exists, so I suppose I must rule that its presence makes the film marvelous in phenomenality. If it weren't for the blackout dingus, though, FLOWERS is disappointingly bereft of spy-gadgets.