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.