Thursday, December 29, 2016

WHITE CARGO (1942)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Though politically I don't agree with the tendency of modern critics to cry "racism" at every negative portrait of a given ethnicity-- see THE BAD APPLE DEFENSE for details-- there's no question that WHITE CARGO is one of the most unadulterated racist films ever made.

To be sure, the story was a recrudescence of attitudes that went largely unquestioned at the time it was first written. CARGO began as a 1912 novel, "Hell's Pavement," by Ida Simonton. Thus the narrative, involving white traders presiding over an African rubber plantation, took place at a time when British imperialism was assumed to be the same as natural law. Roughly ten years later Leon Gordon allegedly ripped off aspects of the novel for his successful 1923 play "White Cargo." Simonton sued Gordon and the courts found in her favor, with the result that the credits for the Hollywood film acknowledge both novel and play while using the title of Gordon's play.

Perhaps in an attempt to distance the pro-imperialism sentiments of the narrative, the movie starts in the present, in a dialogue between traders on a 1942 rubber plantation. After a quick reference to current events-- the need to produce rubber to defeat the Japanese threat-- one character begins to reminisce about his experiences when he first came to the plantation in 1910. The main action then takes place in a flashback, with a brief return to 1942 after the story has been told.


The opening scenes of the flashback show Langford, a new employee, arriving to oversee the native workers. As Langford arrives, the man he's replacing leaves, and it's plain that he and his boss Witzel have bad blood between them. Witzel almost immediately takes a dislike to Langford as well, assuming that he's going to be too "green" to prove useful. The conflict between Langford and Witzel dominates the storyline, though neither of them is really the film's main character. Rather, it's the mysterious Tondeleyo, a native woman who was apparently Witzel's lover at one time, and who gradually worms her way into Langford's affections.

Tondeleyo is in every way a caricature of European (and American) beliefs about African natives. She is vain, foolish, and untrustworthy. She knows how to use her sexuality to manipulate men, but doesn't have the ability to care about anyone: the only things she cares about are receiving men's gifts of jewelry or geegaws, which are the only things that reinforce her sense of self. It's purely for this reason that she seduces Langford and gets him to marry her, but she soon grows bored with married life. She may even possess a mild feminine masochism. At one point she recommends that Langford ought to beat her regularly, so that afterward they can make up. But Langford refuses to shoulder the white man's burden: that of curbing the worst traits of the dark races by disciplining them-- and it's for this reason that he's also a failure at controlling the misbehavior of the native workers, all of whom are truculent savages who shirk their labors and pretend not to understand English. Ultimately, Tondeleyo is so bored that she decides that she will murder her husband by introducing gradual amounts of poison into his food. Witzel finds out in time to save Langford, and he dispenses "jungle justice" by forcing the native girl to imbibe a killing dose of her own poison. Langford is shipped back to Europe as "white cargo," which is as good a name as any for a white man who has "gone native."

It would be interesting to study in detail Hollywood's depictions of non-white races during the period when America was at war. Almost certainly there would be some works that were relatively progressive, while others, like WHITE CARGO, were entirely regressive. It seems likely that Hollywood's main interest in the story was largely to find another "exotic" role for Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr, who had become a major star with the release of 1938's ALGIERS. At the same time, there was a limit on how "exotic" a Hollywood actress could pretend to be. Interracial marriages were forbidden by the Hollywood Code, and so Tondeleyo-- apparently originally conceived as a full-blooded "negress" by Simonton-- was rewritten to be a half-Egyptian, half-Arab girl, so that Langford would be able to marry her. Nevertheless, the theme of the original novel is supported in spite of the rewriting: Tondeleyo's bad habits stem from having been raised by the local Black Africans, and so any marriage between the dusky native woman and a white man can only produce a spiritual miscegenation. Interestingly, nothing is said in the movie-- though I can't speak for the play or the novel-- about the prospect of Tondeleyo bearing children. Possibly the idea was omitted because any mention of motherhood might have softened the film's portrait of the character as the demonic incarnation of idle, soul-corrupting femininity. The only aspect that might be even slightly positive is that, whereas most Black African female characters are nearly invisible, Tondeleyo is almost as mythic a temptress as any European witch or siren.




Monday, December 26, 2016

SANTA CLAUS (1959)



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


I actually enjoyed this 1959 Mexican Santa Claus more than either of these other two Santa-flicks I reviewed in 2013, but only on the kinetic level, because SANTA '59 is a much more lively, colorful film than the other two. I rate its mythicity low, though, because even though it shows some chutzpah by having Santa faced off against a mischievous minion of the Devil, it's not so much a story as an assemblage of tossed-off slapstick scenes. Basically, Santa's mission is, as always, to deliver hundreds of toys to children on Christmas Eve, while it's the mission of Pitch-- inept servant of hell-- to foul him up.

The most coherent aspect of the rambling story speaks to a socio-religious motif close to Mexican culture: does God-- more or less taking the form of the eternally beneficent St. Nick-- care about the poor? One poor little girl, Lupita, dearly wants to own an expensive girl-doll. Pitch, who yearns to corrupt the goodness in all the children Santa wants to benefit, whispers in the girl's ear, tempting her to steal the doll. Lupita does steal the doll for a moment, but her decency asserts itself (much to the joy of Santa, watching from a celestial cloud) and she puts it back. The movie might have been stronger if it had centered more on Lupita's woes, but instead director Rene Cardona chooses to spend a lot of time with various "kids from around the world," all of whom are as dull as dirt. There's also a minor subplot about how Pitch suborns a trio of naughty boys to kidnap Santa, but despite the buildup, the subplot comes to nothing.



Santa's peculiar looking cloud-workshop is worthy of comment. It's obviously a bunch of very cheap props assembled in haphazard ways-- yet somehow, it was a lot more visually stimulating than the standard depictions of the Jolly Old Elf's workplace. The movie's highlights, simple as they are, are the one-upping contests between Santa and Pitch, in part because the actor playing the goofy devil, one Jose Luis Aguirre, really throws himself into the role, capering and gesticulating and generally stealing what show there is to steal.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

SUPERMAN III (1983)



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


The most interesting thing about watching the DVD of SUPERMAN III is listening to Ilya Salkind's reminiscences about the script treatment he submitted to Warner Brothers. Though I can see why the studio nixed it, the idea of having Superman deal with the advent of Brainiac and Supergirl had real possibilities for expanding the cinematic film-franchise. (I'm a little less sanguine about his notion of introducing Mister Mxyzptlk to the movies.) Salkind said WB didn't want the script because it was too "far-out," which probably meant, "too expensive," particularly for a franchise that might not make as much money in its third iteration. Salkind mentions the fact that his treatment included a little love-interest between the hero and his cousin, but he doesn't seem to apprehend that this would have been taboo to Americans doing a kid-focused property, even if the relationship never went beyond a brief flirtation. (Luke and Leia get away with it because no one, possibly not even George Lucas, suspected their relationship in the first movie.) I wouldn't have minded it, particularly because the comics themselves occasionally communicated a similar vibe. And certainly Brainiac-- who would have been responsible for Superman losing his sense of morality, as he does in the finished Number Three-- would certainly have been a villain to conjure with. (I suspect that he makes a covert appearance at the end of SUPERMAN III, when Annie Ross' character Vera-- seen above-- is briefly changed into a cyber-being to serve a super-computer.)

Though WB turned down the treatment, Salkind obviously gave a copy to David and Leslie Newman, the two credited writers of SUPERMAN III. Possibly they too were under an injunction to keep things more down-to-earth and thus less expensive, and I don't excoriate them for that. But I grade this film as poor because all the Newmans did was to recycle their one big contribution to the previous SUPERMAN films-- the conception of Superman's villains as a bunch of maladroit cornballs, like the ones from their stage musical (and later telefilm) of the superhero's career. Given the acrimonious separation of the Salkinds from Richard Donner, I'm not surprised that the producers couldn't get any help on the script from Donner's script consultant Tom Mankiewicz-- but did they really think that they just had to use the Newmans again, or that the writing-duo had contributed anything that had made the first two films successful? Then again, from what I've read, the Salkinds were highly susceptible to "star power." That's probably why they accepted the Newmans' script, and why they were so enthused when big movie-star Richard Pryor announced his desire to do a Superman film on the Johnny Carson show.

I'm not a big fan of Richard Pryor, so I won't dwell on my opinion that his humorous persona didn't work in the context of a big-budget Superman film. If I'm right about my "recycling" theory, then Pryor's Gus Norman is basically a retread of Otis from the other films: the innocent-seeming stooge who doesn't quite know what he's gotten into. Similarly, Robert Vaughan's billionaire-villain Ross Webster is another quirky mastermind like the Newmans' Luthor. The third member of the original trio, the sultry Miss Teschmacher, is split into two opposed characters in SUPERMAN III: Ross's sultry "psychic instructor" Lorelei and his sister Vera, who is an unattractive virago who doesn't like sex in any form. The biggest difference here is that Gus actually has some talent-- that of being an innate computer-wizard-- that Ross can use in his mad plans, which reference both the 1970s "oil crisis" and the growing power of computers in civilized life. Both of these "hot topics" of the period badly date the film today, while the first two in the series remain fresh and universal in their appeal. I will note that the Newmans finally provide a reasonably logical method for the villains to get ahold of kryptonite, but maybe this was an idea that just got left out of the 1978 film, when Luthor had to do the exact same thing.

In many respects the Newmans' script matches the talents of Richard Lester, who did his best work with zany comedies like HELP! and THE KNACK-- AND HOW TO GET IT. But the focus on comic bits-- even when Pryor's not around-- undermines any sense of drama in the proceedings. This includes the romance-scenes, in which Clark Kent re-connects with the girl he loved in Smallville, Lana Lang. I don't mind the script putting Lois Lane to one side (whatever the behind-the-scenes motivations). Lois' character-arc, after all, had been given a pretty strong conclusion in Number Two. But the script is heavy-handed about establishing that Lana likes Clark more than Superman, putting forth an over-obvious reversal of the Lois/Clark/Superman triangle. The romantic scenes are slow and ponderous, which surprised me given that the 1976 ROBIN AND MARIAN showed that Lester could direct romance ably.

The action, scoring and FX scenes are all creditable enough, but the only long scene that works well is the big fight scene. Superman-- corrupted by the film's version of "red kryptonite"-- splits into two beings: one his costumed, Kryptonian self (almost indistinguishable from Zod and his decadent partners), the other a super-powered version of Clark Kent, who is implicitly the moral side of the character, nurtured in the ethos of Earth. Lester handles these action-scenes as well as anything Donner did, though I didn't care for the fight's conclusion, in which Clark simply strangles his doppelganger to death. Similarly, the concluding battle between the hero and Gus's super-computer is badly paced, with the computer ratcheting itself up to self-awareness abruptly. A slower metamorphosis, along the level of a film like COLOSSUS THE FORBIN PROJECT, would probably have made the last section more suspenseful.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

SUPERMAN II: THE DONNER CUT (1981/2006)



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

When the Richard Lester version of SUPERMAN II premiered in theaters, I had no knowledge of any of Richard Donner's contributions to it, and my tendency at the time was to say "This guy Lester got it right." The theatrical release of the film seemed to be the first exemplary superhero movie ever made. and I credited Lester with having skirted many (though not all) of the problems I had with the 1978 SUPERMAN. I was uninformed enough in those days to think that the early ejection of Otis from the second film was a validation of all viewers who had hated his character as vehemently as I. Now it seems that this was one of the many crucial ideas, whether good or bad, propagated by Donner and his script consultant Tom Mankiewicz, and that Lester simply added assorted bits that amount to little more than cimematic groundskeeping. Allegedly Donner was responsible for the public's lack of knowledge, in that he was offered a partial director's credit on the finished film and turned it down. However, viewing on DVD the "Donner cut" for the first time doesn't entirely validate everything the director did, or wanted to do, in his original concept.

Just as I did with my review of the 1978 film, I'm not going to dwell on the plot in depth. The first film set up the origin of the hero, his "eternal triangle" relationship with Lois Lane, and worked in such familiar tropes as kryptonite and the hero's major enemy. The sequel amplified an idea that the comics up to that point had barely addressed: the spectacular potential of seeing Superman outgunned by three villains with the same powers. In both versions, just about everything associated with the Kryptonian Trio-- General Zod, Ursa, and Non-- works as well as the Luthorian Trio failed. To be sure, Gene Hackman's comical Luthor works much better here, with three humorless foils off which to play. In addition, I'll admit that once Ned Beatty's Otis is out of the picture, Hackman and Valerie Perrine's moll Miss Teschmacher have good chemistry in the film's early scenes, but she's unceremoniously dropped out of the story thereafter. At no time in either this film or the previous one does genius villain Luthor suspect Teschmacher's culpability in the failure of his original villainous scheme.

The first film treated the Superman/Lois romance subplot respectfully enough, and benefited from an even better chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. But when one knows that the original conclusion of SUPERMAN '78 did not involve Lois' temporary death, the romantic subplot in that film seems to lack a good finish. Only in SUPERMAN II, when Lois suspects the godlike man behind bumbling Clark Kent, does the romance catch fire. Donner's original version started out with suspicious Lois performing a stunt that had appeared a few times in the comics: the lady reporter jumps out of a high window, challenging Clark to change into his other identity and save her. The resulting sequence, in which Superman saves her with tricks to avoid revealing himself, is equally reminiscent of the comics. This sequence was dropped from the Lester version, and in its place is one in which Lois performs a roughly similar action at Niagara Falls. I prefer the latter stunt, because it takes place later in the story, when Lois theoretically has had a little more time to think about her theory. In the Donner version Lois manages to expose Clark as Superman by shooting a blank-filled handgun at him; a scene that Donner didn't shoot for the sequel, but which was rescued from a screen test between Reeve and Kidder. The fact that Donner and Mankiewicz rave over this scene in the DVD commentary indicates that they lacked the ability to think critically about their own work. Did it occur to neither of them that when you shoot blanks at Superman from a distance, he's going to know that they're blanks because nothing actually hits him?

On the flip side, most of the other Lester scenes dropped from this cut are of nominal importance: Ursa's arm-wrestling scene with an Earth-yokel, the short battle between the hero and his super-opponents in the Fortress of Solitude, wherein Superman displays a number of peculiar powers for no good reason (particularly the power to pull the "S" off his chest and fling it like an energy-boomerang). Lester is apparently responsible for a much better final shot of Reeve flying above the Earth and smiling to the camera: I've always thought that shot captured the cinematic appeal of Superman's Boy Scout persona more than anything else filmed. But aside from other scenes having to do with the altered ending, there's a huge improvement thanks to the restoration of the Brando scenes. The Salkinds ordered those scenes cut so that they wouldn't have to pay the actor for the second film, and in Brando's place the film substituted the less expensive Susannah York as Superman's mom. I entirely agree with Donner that the first film had very intentionally established a "God/Messiah" relationship between Jor-El and his son, and that the intrusion of his mother's character was a major fault with the theatrical version. Further, the whole plot in which Superman renounces his powers-- and then must return to Jor-El's computer-spectre to get those powers back-- carries a stronger emotional charge than the equivalent scene in the Lester version. This extends also to the scene in which the computer-image of Jor-El restores the hero's powers, with the stipulation that Kal-El will never see his father's image again, thus cutting off the hero not only from a normal life with Lois but also from further contact with his Kryptonian heritage.



And then-- there's the original ending. Or rather, the endings of the two films. From what Donner and Mankiewicz say, the first film would have ended right after Superman diverted Luthor's missiles. with one of the missiles accidentally opening the "Zone of Silence" and releasing the three aliens, thus ending Number One on a cliffhanger. Donner then meant to end Number Two by having Lois perish-- apparently from falling into an arctic crevasse-- so that then Superman performed his time-reversal primarily to save her life, though with the additional effect of obliterating all the damage caused by the Zoners (and returning them to the Zone) and erasing Lois' knowledge of Clark's double identity. This finally makes clear to me why Donner (though not his principal character) was so unconcerned about what happened to the Zoners at the conclusion of SUPERMAN II. Deprived of their super-powers, all three of them plunge down into crevasses leading somewhere beneath the Fortress, and the film's hero doesn't seem too concerned about whether they'll break their necks as they fall. In addition, Superman later blows up the whole Fortress, and surely some viewers must have wondered about whether he'd just killed anyone who'd survived underneath. (Only a deleted scene establishes that Luthor isn't in the Fortress when it's eradicated.) Now I know why Donner was so cavalier: originally time was going to be reversed, so that no one else is around the Fortress when it's destroyed.

It's of considerable scholarly importance to see the original time-reversal scenes as Donner filmed them, but there's no way they can seem fresh given the retooled version of Number One. Allegedly the studio liked the time-reversal scenes so much that it insisted that Donner add them to the first film. I'm sure that the studio's main motivation was that of commerce, not art. Yet though I never really cared for the time-reversal schtick in a conceptual sense, I think that it delivers a better emotional punch at the end of Number One. It's the only time in that film that Superman isn't on time to save someone, and it just happens to be the woman he most cared about. Admittedly I can't really see the original time-shift scenes with a fresh eye. But Donner's conclusion seems overly "busy" in that, on top of Superman's self-sacrificial triumph, he also has to save Lois from death, make her forget his identity, and expunge humanity's knowledge of everything that's happened in the film. I remain attached to the two solutions of the theatrical version, regardless of who conceived them: the "forgetfulness kiss" and Superman's penitent pledge to the American president, not to shirk his duty again-- making the president a stand-in for the Kryptonian father that Kal-El will never see again.

All these reservations aside, it's clear that Donner deserves the lion's share of the credit for the general excellence of SUPERMAN II, even if Lester added some valuable material-- and having seen the "Donner cut" explains to me at last why Lester was unable to make much out of SUPERMAN III, which unfortunately had no script but that of the Salkinds' favorites, David and Leslie Newman.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

SCOOBY DOO AND THE GHOUL SCHOOL (1988)



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


It's hard to believe, but there was a time when Scooby Doo's TV show was threatened with cancellation. By some accounts the addition of "Scrappy Doo," a puny but feisty version of the speech-impaired Great Dane, may have helped give the show new legs. Of course it might have helped that the show began using real, rather than fake, monsters at the same time. GHOUL SCHOOL is one of three animated telefilms that centered only on Scooby, Shaggy, and Scrappy, and all three of these emphasize boogiemen whose faces can't be pulled off by story's end.

If one can get past the dopey setup-- that terminal slacker Shaggy somehow gets hired as a coach for a preteen girls' school-- then one can probably also buy into the idea that it's a "ghoul school" run by a nice witch named Miss Grimwood, whose students are the daughters of famous monsters.  Of the five in the picture above (not counting the little dragon on the right), four are the feminine offspring of famous male monsters, whom I shouldn't have to identify. Third from the left is Phantasma, the daughter of a ghost, and I found myself wondering if maybe the scripters thought about doing a schtick about "the Opera Ghost" from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, only to decide that there wouldn't be much they could do with another fake ghost, while a real ghost-girl could do disappearing tricks, invisibility tricks, and so on.

GHOUL SCHOOL, one of many Hanna-Barbera "funny monster" efforts, would probably be reasonably amusing to small kids. At least there's some effort to give each of the ghoul-girls her own schtick: Sybilla the vampiress (a bit of a "nymphet" compared to the others) says words like "fangtastic" and injects the word "bat" into everything; the girl with the "Bride of Frankenstein" hairdo is given the fairly charming name of "Elsa" (for Elsa Lanchester, natch).  The movie's first half displays a bit of a "girl power" theme, as the girls have repeatedly lost a series of volleyball matches to a neighboring boys' military academy. Though Shaggy doesn't really seem to be much of a coach, by the time of this match, the girls somehow get their act together and score their first victory. That said, the boys are drawn as basically sympathetic types, who have to impress their martinet-commander Colonel Calloway.

The movie's second half then introduces a witchy villain, Revolta, who might be seen as the observe of Miss Grimwood. Revolta plans to mentally enslave the five girls and somehow make them serve her as a monstrous 'SWAT team." This doesn't make much sense, though I rather like the fact that Revolta complains that modern monsters have become too "soft." This is of course the main theme of the movie: to refashion the formerly scary images of famous monsters so that they become cute and winsome. Calloway's Cadets join with the Scooby Gang and foil the evil witch's scheme, and then the Scoobies are off to their next adventure.




Tuesday, December 13, 2016

STAR TREK: "FRIDAY'S CHILD," "THE DEADLY YEARS" (1967)



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

I don't imagine "Friday's Child" usually ranks on any Trekker's list of favorite episodes, but though it's not one of the better episodes, it benefits from a simple, uncomplicated script by D.C. Fontana. "Child" is basically another story where the representatives of the Federation get involved in local politics for the long-term betterment of native people-- though once again, the proximate goal has to do with gaining mineral rights.

Kirk and his two wingmen visit the world of the Capellans, a humanoid species whose males tend to grow about seven feet tall. (The only native woman seen for a substantial amount of time is 5'11'' Julie Newmar.) The Federation wants mineral rights on Capella, as do the Klingons, and Kirk must deal with Kras, an agent sent to compete over said rights. But the Capellans are the primary menace, for they are a fierce people who believe in the archaic warrior-ethic that both Earth and Vulcan have long renounced. Kirk and Co have their negotiations interrupted when the old leader, with whom the Federation was dealing, is killed in a coup by a Klingon partisan, Maab. Once the fighting is done, Maab has the authority to decide between the offworlders' offers, but first he has to take care of old business: assassinating Eleen, the old leader's wife (Newmar), and her unborn child. Kirk and Co. object to this barbarism, rescue Eleen (much against her will), and head for the hills. The rest of the story is largely a long chase-scene, though it benefits from the consistent depiction of shifting loyalties and of the Capellans' own warrior-ethic. The story's humorous conclusion suggests that Eleen's child, named for two of the offworlders that helped him survive, will be the gateway that gives the Federation a toehold with the natives-- sort of the science-fiction version of all the "Douglas McArthur babies" named in the aftermath of World War II.




"The Deadly Years" was no favorite of mine, and I'd largely remembered it as just a sci-fi excuse for the regular actors to put on old-age makeup and imagine their youthful characters as "grumpy old men." But it does go deeper than that, and makes a better drama than "Friday's Child"-- perhaps because the drama inheres not so much in the regular actors, but in the responses of those around them.

A landing-party consisting mostly of the usual suspects-- Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scott, with newbie Chekhov and a female "redshirt"-- descends to suss out what's happened to a scientific research station on Gamma Hydra V. It's revealed that a foreign radiation has caused all three researchers to age rapidly beyond their years: one has already died, and the other two are hanging by a thread. The guys still don't seem to have learned anything about protecting themselves from foreign contagions from episodes as far back as THE NAKED TIME, and so the whole landing-party returns to the ship with zero cautionary actions. As it happens, though, only the ones who made landfall get the aging disease-- except for Chekhov, who seems immune. This twist in David Harmon's script adds a much-needed element of mystery to the tale, as well as allowing for a last-minute reversal of fortune for the afflicted crewmembers.

The Enterprise happens to be playing host to a Commodore named Stocker: Kirk's superior in rank, despite being more of a "desk officer." For reasons that aren't ever entirely clear, Stocker's burning to get to his new command post at Starbase 10, and when Kirk and the others starts showing signs of senility, Stocker uses their infirmity as an excuse to assume command of the ship and take it to the Starbase. This runs counter to Kirk's desire to stay near the planet that caused the illness, but Stocker succeeds, and then foolishly takes the ship on a straight-line course through the Romulan neutral zone. Though Stocker's actions are ultimately determined by the script's need for a "ticking clock," it's at least refreshing that Harmon doesn't make the character a simplistic martinet. He sincerely respects Kirk but thinks that the Starbase can do him and the others the most good. There's probably a subtext here regarding the superiority of "field warriors" to the desk-bound kind, but the narrative doesn't dwell on it.

More interesting, given Roddenberry's problematic status with American feminism, is the handling of another passenger, Janet Wallace. Wallace is a respected endocrinologist with whom Kirk had a relationship many years previous. The two broke up because both were primarily passionate about their careers, which is quite even-handed compared to some early depictions of "career women," such as Elizabeth Dehner. Wallace then implicitly "rebounded" to a scientist who shared her career goals, though he was much older than Kirk at the time of Wallace's marriage to him, and he's died by the time she takes passage on the Enterprise. There's no suggestion that Kirk and Wallace will revive old passions in the opening scenes, but once Kirk starts showing his advanced age, Wallace becomes a little more interested in him. Does she have a father-complex? Does she want an older husband whom she can control, as she could not control the young, vital Kirk? Or, being that she's a scientist who studies hormones, has she decided that she likes men whose hormonal surges are on the sedate side? Harmon's script happily does not nail her down, and thus she remains more interesting than a lot of Kirk's former flames. She made enough of an impression that her character was originally scripted to re-appear in the WRATH OF KHAN movie, only to be retooled into "Carol Marcus" for reasons that were not publicly revealed.

SORRY WRONG NUMBER (1948), THE NIGHT WALKER (1964)



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


Though I've claimed in some of my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays that uncanny narratives have a greater potential power for the mythic than naturalistic ones, the potential has to be realized with skill and control.

SORRY WRONG NUMBER and NIGHT WALKER are both stories in which the starring actress Barbara Stanwyck is terrorized, by naturalistic forces in one story and uncanny forces in the other. However, the script for SORRY, adapted by Lucille Fletcher from her own radio play, is a skillful psychological and sociological analysis of Stanwyck's character, while the script for WALKER is a sterile rehearsal of routines that were already stale when William Castle started to recycle them.

Leona Stevenson, the central character of SORRY, is a bedridden heiress. Prior to becoming an invalid, she romanced and married a poor man, Henry (Burt Lancaster), and essentially railroaded him into doing everything she wanted through a process of passive aggression.  Leona seems to have everything her own way, but one night, alone in her mansion, she picks up her phone and overhears a call involving a murder. She can't get the cops to investigate the mysterious call, but from her bed Leona tries to play detective through proxies. She eventually finds that the murder being discussed is intended to be her own, and that the scheme involves the husband she's manipulated over the years.

The script's heavy dependence on dialogue betrays its roots as a radio drama, but director Anatole Litvak gives everything a lush appearance to offset the sinister events, so that SORRY is easy to watch, even when Stanwyck isn't on screen. Given the film's memorable conclusion, one might theorize that Leona is being somewhat "punished" for being an assertive woman, which was indeed a frequent trope in films of the 1930s and 1940s. However, despite her "lionlike" name Leona is seen to be a moral coward who has not only beaten down her husband, resulting in his attempt to reclaim his manhood through criminal action, but she's also made herself too sick to resist the assassin who comes for her-- meaning that she's not really an assertive woman; just her own worst enemy.




I have little to say about Castle's NIGHT WALKER. It appears on the tail-end of his notoriety as a horror-showman, and it seems to be the point where he lost his mojo. I wasn't a big fan of his early hits, like HOMICIDAL and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but they had a certain cachet, usually thanks to the performers involved. Some later works, like THE OLD DARK HOUSE and MISTER SARDONICUS, boast decent scripts as well as strong performances.

Not THE NIGHT WALKER, though. Stanwyck is Irene, a middle-aged woman married to a blind, significantly older man. The husband becomes jealous when Irene murmurs the name of a fantasized lover in her sleep, and he tries to find out if she has a real lover. Then there's a fire at the house, not long after Irene quarrels with her husband, and the old guy dies. After that, she begins seeing weird spectres, particularly of a man who's forcing her to marry him. Is she guilty of-- MURDER?

It's naturally a plot so ineptly disguised that even Shaggy could solve it with no input from Velma: a dastardly schemer is trying to drive poor Irene mad using people who wear obvious rubber masks to pose as her dream-spectres. I don't mind a "phantasmal figuration" tale that doesn't have much real mystery behind it: a little while back I gave a minor nod to SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, and that uncanny deception made no more sense than the one in NIGHT WALKER. But there were a couple of interesting psychological twists in SHE WOLF, and the bugaboo of "marital ambivalence" in WALKER lays a big fat goose-egg.

I'm amused by the fact that Irene never once thinks of the obvious: that someone may be messing with her mind. I'm sure it occurred to more than one audience-member, and the degree to which audiences could buy into this old-hat hocus pocus would have depended entirely on their impulse to be charitable. Given that WALKER flopped, I suspect that not too many people in 1964 felt like tossing their money away on this well-mounted folderol. For that matter, they could get better writing on TV for free, as THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR was still airing at the time.

For those who choose to study William Castle, NIGHT WALKER repeats what seems to be his favorite visual trope: floating heads, whether or not they're specifically horrific looking. I imagine Castle was attracted to this trope not because it held any great meaning for him, but because it was cheap. He was evidently depending on the status of the big-name actors to sell this flick, and WALKER does have the distinction of being (1) Stanwyck's last feature film, and (2) her last acting-job with former husband Robert Taylor. Happily, Stanwyck found superior fare later on in the burgeoning growth of the made-for-TV movie, particularly in simple but concise horror-flicks like THE HOUSE THAT WOULDN'T DIE.




Monday, December 12, 2016

SCOOBY DOO AND THE CYBER CHASE (2001)



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

CYBER CHASE was the last of four Scooby-flicks produced for direct video under the theoretical aegis of Hanna-Barbera Studios. Warner Brothers had pretty much absorbed Hanna-Barbera by that time, which may be one reason that another WB property, Superman, gets two separate references. There's an attempt to update the Scooby Gang by having them encounter the world of video games, but it's still the same old schtick. This time there's a villain, the Phantom Virus, and instead of being a man in a mask, he's the cyber-creation of the mystery villain. He initially threatens his victims by coming into the human world and creating chaos, but when the Scoobies get involved, the Phantom sucks them into the video-terrain and imperils them with largely unimaginative dangers: a Roman gladiatorial arena, dinosaurs-- in other words, the same type of dangers Hanna-Barbera had been recycling since the 1960s. In similar fashion, the Phantom Virus is one of the most banal designs for a Scooby villain, as he resembles nothing more than a living lightning bolt.

The sole attraction of the 2001 DTV film is that while the heroes are inside the game, they encounter some of their old villains, whom the programmer created from their own recollections. The video doesn't do much with the idea, but at least it proves that recycling isn't always bad, since the 2004 live-action flick SCOOBY DOO 2 took the same idea and made it work pretty well.





Saturday, December 10, 2016

EVE (1968), KILMA QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS (1976)



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

There's not much to recommend either of these two potboilers beyond the feminine charms of their protagonists.

EVE stars Celeste Yarnall as a blonde jungle-girl whose presence in the Amazon jungle is never very clearly explained. She rescues a treasure-hunter named Yates (Robert Walker Jr.) from some nasty tribesmen, but there's no instantaneous jungle-romance between the two of them: Yates learns that her name is Eve, thanks her, and goes back to civilization, and Eve seems content to stay in the jungle as before. Back in some Brazilian dive of a town, Yates makes contact with the rich man who's been funded the treasure-hunt, Colonel Stuart (Christopher Lee). Stuart has a new lead on the location of the treasure they're hunting, but for the first time, Yates meets Stuart's long-lost brunette granddaughter, whose name also happens to be Eve. It transpires that the brunette is a phony, merely posing as the grown-up Eve who was lost in the jungle, and that Phony Eve is really the wife of Stuart's rival Diego (Herbert Lom, playing a competitor slightly like Belloq in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but with none of the charm). Diego and his party, having ferreted out the info they wanted from Stuart, take off for their new destination. Yates pursues with a few helpers, manages to enlist Real Eve's help, and the good guys manage to get the treasure while the bad guys get dead.

Since Eve remains in the jungle even after becoming acquainted with her aged grandfather, I suspect that producer Harry Alan Towers, famous for his Fu Manchu films, had some hope of spinning the character off into a series. However, the action-scenes are humdrum, though Eve is at least a combative jungle-girl, unlike LUANA, which came about roughly at the same time. The actors-- Lom, Lee, and Yarnall-- are the film's only real charm, and Robert Walker Jr. does a credible job with his adventurous role, despite its not playing to his strengths. This was the second and last time co-director Jeremy Summers worked with Chris Lee following their collaboration on VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU.






The Spanish-made KILMA, QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS does boast somewhat better stuntwork, as seen in the VHS art above, but the story is much more confusing. For many years an all-female (and all beautiful) cult of Amazons have reigned on a secluded Pacific island. Whereas Greek Amazons used to make temporary marriages with men, after which they kept only female babies to swell their ranks, the narrative claims that these Amazons have long, completely virginal lives thanks to an alien gem that they worship in their temple, and that, when they do need new recruits, they just steal girl babies from the nearby islands (though we don't see any children, just a lot of hot Spanish babes who don't look the least bit Polynesian).

A European ship comes near the island just as some of the crew, fancying a life of piracy, mutiny and take command. Ship's navigator Dan Robinson (like Robinson Crusoe, get it?) escapes in a boat and makes landfall on the island. He soon gets wind of the island's unusual inhabitants when he sees the ladies-- led by their high priestess Kilma (Eva Miller)-- take on an invading force of Polynesian men and kill all of the invaders. A little later Robinson encounters Kilma by herself, and she immediately tries to kill him. The only thing that saves the European's life is that just Kilma is about to knife the unconscious man, the priestess' horse tosses its head, as if to say, "No, don't do that." It doesn't exactly fill the viewer with confidence in Kilma's sagacity to see her take advice from her beast of burden, but she spares Robinson anyway, and eventually the two of them become more than friends.
Soon the mutineers arrive on the island, looking for provisions, and they learn that the Amazons have gemstones-- including one big one in their temple.

There are assorted action-scenes for the rest of the picture, a little more lively than those of EVE, but nothing overly memorable. At the climax, when the pirates invade the temple, the gem comes alive and blasts everything to hell-- after which the Amazons abandon their man-less customs and decide to start having sex again.

Though the myth-motif here is pretty well botched, it's evident that the cloistered gem represents the Amazons' cloistered sexuality, and that when the first is gone, the second has no reason for being. Still, director/co-writer Miguel Iglesias devotes so little time to the Amazons' religion that the viewer cannot know how aware he was of the symbolic potential.











THE BOY AND THE PIRATES (1960)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*

Though producer/director/writer Bert I. Gordon will forever be known for the "giant critter" films he made-- most famously, 1957's BEGINNING OF THE END-- Gordon's fantasy THE BOY AND THE PIRATES stands as his best work, whose merit easily eclipses most of the monster films and the slightly more adult fantasy he did as his follow-up to PIRATES, THE MAGIC SWORD.

In addition to directing PIRATES, Gordon also supplied the original story, crafted into a screenplay by two more practiced writers. It was rare for a children's film of the time to possess the structure of an irony-- the sort of story in which all moral compass seems in doubt-- but Gordon may have taken some inspiration from Lewis Carroll's Alice books. As Carroll's young protagonist falls asleep and dreams herself into a Wonderland full of creatures who celebrate pain and death as a rollicking good time, Gordon's kid-hero Jimmy Warren gets a taste of the distasteful realities behind his fantasy.

Jimmy is a modern 12-year-old living in a beachfront house in Massachsetts with his parents. His parents, only seen at the film's opening, are solid, square types who get on Jimmy's case to do his homework and clean up after himself, while the only peer we see is Kathy (Susan Gordon, Bert's daughter), a little girl roughly Jimmy's age. Jimmy fantasizes about the glorious life of being an 18th-century pirate, while Kathy sagely tells him that they weren't glorious figures, just a bunch of thieves and cutthroats. Then Jimmy stumbles across an antique bottle, washed ashore by the surf. He happens to be holding it when he wishes he could have lived the life of a pirate-- and whoosh! Jimmy finds himself on the deck of an 18th century ship, that of the pirate Blackbeard, whom Jimmy has idolized as a roguish hero.

Jimmy also encounters the inhabitant of the bottle, a tiny genie named Abu-- but Abu isn't one of the helpful sprites one could find in the Disney films of the period. Abu has been consigned to the confinement of the bottle for thousands of years, and the only way he can get free is to have someone take his place: a "role-exchange myth" rather like the one that Atlas tries to enforce upon Heracles in the Labor of the Hesperides. By some unjust cosmic law, anyone who holds the bottle takes the chance of being forced to change places with Abu, even if the holder is utterly unaware of the law's stipulations, and said holder can only avoid the role-exchange by putting the bottle right back where he got it in the first place. Abu only grants Jimmy's wish so that the youngster will be spirited away from the Massachusetts beach by Blackbeard, whose ship is busy fleeing from the English navy-- specifically, forces commanded by Lt. Maynard, historically destined to overtake and slay the pirate.

Jimmy soon finds out that there's nothing jolly or roguish about pirates: Blackbeard finds the boy aboard ship and almost tosses Jimmy overboard. Jimmy is saved by the fast talk of a sailor named Snipe, the only decent adult character in the story (aside from the pirates' victims, who only exist to be killed). Jimmy is spared as long as he pleases Blackbeard with his services as cabin boy, but the child is doomed to spent his young life in the magic bottle if he can't find a way to get the thing back to its original source. Additionally, life with the pirates offers peril at every turn: he witnesses the buccaneers ruthlessly pillage a ship and callously kill everyone aboard: a hard scene for kids to watch, even in G-rated form. Jimmy manages to rescue a young girl his own age from the ship-- Katrina, also played by Susan Gordon-- but though this gives him someone to talk to, it also makes his own situation aboard the ship more uncertain. Additionally, though the miniature genie doesn't seem to boast very grandiose powers, he's capable of a few tricks in order to counter any move Jimmy makes to get back to Massachusetts.

Jimmy does manage to triumph over both the pirates and the genie and get back to his own time, but it's something of a costly success (the viewer sees Snipe cut down by his lawless mates: no piratical loyalty here). Like Alice waking from her dark dream, Jimmy doesn't seem to fully know what's happened to him. But the viewer knows, and it's not just the sort of lesson that applies only to little boys glamorizing pirates. It has more to do with the main theme of the irony in all its works: of what T.S. Eliot called "the skull beneath the skin."




Monday, December 5, 2016

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)



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

In my review of MADHOUSE-- Vincent Price's last "name above the title" film-- I said that I preferred its potential in its storyline to that of the "wild but shallow" films that immediately preceded the 1974 film. On re-watching the two "Dr. Phibes" films, I don't see anything to contradict that stance. They're great-looking films, and director Robert Feust does a fine job in putting across what I called their "operatic" look. But they're like a lot of horror-films based on a "Ten Little Indians" concept: the entire plot revolves around a designated set of victims being knocked off by a maniac, and usually neither the victims nor any detective-types trying to corral the maniac are generally more than bare ciphers. The focus of the story is almost always upon the nefarious presence of the killer, whether his identity is known or not. In this case, Dr. Phibes also gets points for originality: unlike such repetitive killers as Dr. Carruthers in THE DEVIL BAT, Phibes never repeats a gimmick.

As a substitute for giving all of the designated victims their own character arcs, both films have the cop investigating the murders (Peter Jeffrey in both of these) team up with one of the prospective victims: Joseph Cotten in ABOMINABLE and Robert Quarry in RISES AGAIN. Cotten is one of nine medical persons involved in performing an operation on Victoria, beloved wife of Dr. Anton Phibes. It's not clear if the operation was definitely botched, but Phibes, mutilated by a car crash while fleeing to succor his wife, believes it. As he has a strong emphasis in Egyptology-- a motif that will be emphasized again in the sequel-- Phibes decides to kill each of the participants with some device modeled on one of the nine plagues of Moses' Egypt.  The murder-methods are without question the most imaginative elements in the story, though the script also gets points for the design of Phibes' mutilated face and his method of speaking (his throat being paralyzed, he must communicate through electronic enhancement). This has the effect of reining in the tendency toward over-flamboyance one finds in Price's work during this period.

The script also allows for some mysteries: Phibes is aided in his work by a silent woman, Vulnavia. Nothing is explained about who she is or why she serves him, but in contrast to many henchpeople, Vulnavia seems more than just someone for the villain to talk with. Romance is not seriously suggested, since Phibes is entirely focused on his dead wife, but at times Vulnavia seems like a mirror-image of Victoria, rather like one of the various doppelgangers in Poe's tales.

Phibes doesn't quite succeed with all of his killings, but he disappears in grandiose Fu Manchu style, leaving the door wide open for the sequel.




A few critics faulted the sequel for not hewing to an identifiable pattern like the "nine plagues," but I found that said pattern made ABOMINABLE a bit predictable. In the second outing, it's not nearly as clear as to what Phibes is going to do or how he will do it, nor whether his enemies might be able to steal a march on him.

Three years pass after Phibes disappears with his dead wife into a shrine deep beneath his headquarters, and apparently Scotland Yard has been pleased to believe that the evildoer immolated himself, without ever bothering to unearth the bodies and examine them. When the moon reaches a certain conjunction in the sky, its radiance revives Phibes from his suspended animation. Vulnavia, though she appeared to get killed in the first film, shows up to assist the doctor in his grand quest, to take Victoria's body to Egypt, expose her to the legendary River of Life, and restore her life. However, to gain access to the River, Phibes must consult a special papyrus that will lead him to the proper place.

Whatever Vulnavia was doing with herself in those three years, apparently it wasn't house-sitting, for in Phibes' absence his house has been razed to the ground-- again, without anyone nosing around into the subterranean tomb. Phibes rushes to a certain floor-safe, containing the precious papyrus, but the parchment is gone. Fortunately for the exigencies of the script, Phibes knows that only one Egyptian authority in London will be on the lookout for such a papyrus: archaeologist Darius Biederbeck. By the time Phibes rises, Biederbeck has translated the papyrus and plans a trek to Egypt with his fiancee Diana and several helpers. Phibes invades the archaeologist's home, recovers the document, after which it's a (rather slow) race to see who can reach the mystic site of the River first. On the way Phibes enjoys himself picking off Biederbeck's men with various exotic murder-methods.

Biederbeck, though no more a worthy foe for Phibes than Scotland Yard, is at least more interesting in that he's living proof that immortality can be obtained through ancient knowledge: he himself has remained young for a few thousand years, and he plans to extend the same immortality to Diana. He's no more sympathetic than Phibes, for he cares nothing about the men who die for his quest, but at least his fate is somewhat unpredictable.

I give these films a "fair" rating for their meditations on mortality and the idea of overcoming it through metaphysical / cosmological means, though I suspect the script-writers gleaned their knowledge of Egyptian lore from a quick trip to the London Museum.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

THE SECOND BEST SECRET AGENT IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (1965)



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


Lindsay Shonteff, perhaps best known for MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, both wrote and directed this film, which originally sported the Fleming-derived title LICENSED TO KILL. Early in the film the bosses of the titular agent, "Charles Vine," make a few arch references to that other spy involved in the "Fort Knox business," but they can't get him, so they assign Vine to guard a prominent foreign scientist while the latter is in England.

With a set-up like that, SECOND sounds like it ought to be a silly spoof of the Bond films. Yet it's really not a comedy, but an irony, devoting itself to the proposition that "things are not as they seen." The script plays the spy-jinks fairly straight, but they're always a little "off." For instance, when Vine-- no relation to "James Vine" of TARGET FOR KILLING the next year-- is given his weapons for the assignment, they include a pistol so tiny that he can balance it on one finger. With a standard comedy, this would be treated in a silly manner and would eventually lead to some slapstick routine. Vine is rather taken aback by the miniature gun, but he keeps it on his person, and sure enough, it comes in handy in getting him out of a nasty scrape with bad guys.

SECOND isn't exactly a scathing satire of the superspy-subgenre, but some of the incidents are clearly meant to diverge from the usual course of things. In one scene, Vine gets into a conversation with the scientist he's guarding. It isn't funny or particularly dramatic. The scientist, having learned that Vine was once a prominent teacher of mathematics, wonders why Vine went into the far more dangerous profession of government agent. Vine makes no bones about the matter: government work pays well, and he Vine has expensive tastes. A later scene has Vine encounter what appears to be a sexy Asian woman, which seems to betoken the usual Bondian sex-scene. Instead Vine gets into a brutal fight with the "woman," who turns out to be an Asian guy in drag. At the climax, Vine gets into a running battle, through conveniently empty London streets, with an assassin from the other side, but the gunfight is handled dispassionately, as if it could go against Vine any moment. Vine does win the bout, but there's no adventurous sense of triumph going with it.

In contradistinction to the Matt Helm films of the period, the scientist here is a working on a science-fiction idea-- harnessing anti-gravity-- but the marvelous invention is never shown, much less used to make people float around. The miniature gun is nearly the only thing that makes this film metaphenomenal-- though the American release added an opening scene that qualifies as an uncanny "bizarre crime:" an assassin dressed like a nanny, killing a British agent with a sten-gun taken from a pram.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

STAR TREK: "METAMORPHOSIS," "JOURNEY TO BABEL" (1967)



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


Though romance appeared in other episodes, Gene Coon's "Metamorphosis" is the show's first true love story. To be sure, it seems to have been conceived to fit into Gene Roddenberry's somewhat masculinist view of the world. The opening scenes feature the show's first depiction of a woman in a position of Federation authority: diplomat Nancy Hedford. Though McCoy explains to Kirk that Hedford's shrewishness may stem from her having contracted a rare disease, the character's depiction, both in the opening scenes and in later exposition, fits the trope of the "loveless career woman."

That said, these sociopolitical aspects are happily kept to a minimum, in contrast to later episodes like "Turnabout Intruder." Kirk, McCoy, Spock and Hedford are en route to the Enterprise when their craft is forced down onto a small planetoid. The waylaid foursome encounter a single male human on the otherwise empty planet. They eventually learn that he is the legendary scientist Zephraim Cochrane, developer of the warp drive, supposedly dead for the past hundred-odd years. Cochrane crashed on the planetoid but was restored to youth and made immortal by a mysterious energy-being, the Companion. This entity also brought Kirk and company to the planet to keep Cochrane company. Kirk has a ticking clock: he needs to get Hedford back to civilization not only to treat her illness, but because she's important to diplomatic peace talks. In the course of trying to escape the Companion's reach, Kirk and Krew learn that the energy-creature is fundamentally female, and in love with Cochrane. Because the Companion will not release Cochrane and his prospective new social group, Hedford's disease catches up with her.

Kirk, in trying to convince the alien that she can't really love Cochrane in her immaterial form, unwittingly allows career woman Hedford to undergo a "metamorphosis." Before Hedford dies the alien fuses with her, giving her body new life but essentially taking over her personality. This removes the Companion as a threat, at which point the main conflict becomes the question of whether Cochrane can come to terms with his emotions.

The episode's high point appears when Cochrane-- who has frequently "merged" with the energy-being in order to communicate-- finds out that she's female by nature. Somehow, this makes him conceive of their unions as sexual in nature, and he reacts as if he were the victim of an unwitting seduction-- or many seductions, over the course of numerous years. The denouement, in which Cochrane and the reborn Companion, pledge to live out their now mortal lives together on the planetoid, strongly resembles the conclusion of "The Menagerie." Apparently Eden is OK when it's made available only to those at the end of their lives, or otherwise outside the bounds of normal society.





"Journey to Babel," scripted by D.C. Fontana, is an excellent "white-knuckle" thriller, as the Enterprise must transport a dozen or so diplomats to their next peace conference. In addition to strife between the less than diplomatic politicians, Kirk must also contend with an assassin in their midst, and an unidentified ship that dogs the Enterprise's tracks. On top of that, two members of the diplomatic party are the Vulcan Sarek and his human wife Amanda, who are the parents of Spock. Father and son have not spoken in eighteen years because Spock chose to lend his scientific talents to Starfleet rather than the Vulcan Science Academy. Though Sarek never admits the ultimate cause of their disaffiliation, it's clear that he resents Spock choosing to ally himself to his mother's culture, rather than that of Vulcan.

This is dominantly a Spock episode, concerned with depicting Spock's strained relationship to his parents, as well as putting forth little gems like McCoy finding out that little Spock once owned a live "teddy beat," Yet Kirk gets his fair share of strong moments, riding herd on the diplomats and suffering a serious wound at the hands of the assassin. Fontana throws even complication after complication-- Sarek suddenly develops a serious illness and needs a blood transfusion from Spock, just when the science officer cannot surrender command-- yet none of the complications seem excessive. The makeup and clothing-design for the alien actors ably sustains the illusion of numerous conferring aliens, even though all we actually see are Vulcans, Tellarites and Andorians.

One interesting psychological angle is whether or not Spock's initial refusal to give the blood transfusion may be rooted in emotional resentment rather than the logic of duty, despite Spock's eloquent defense of Starfleet priorities. Certainly his mother's appeal to Spock's sentimental side is an appeal to make him choose the "law of the father" over "the law of Starfleet." Curiously it's Kirk who puts the Freudian angle into its most concrete terms, claiming that he must, despite his wound, get Spock to surrender command to keep Spock from committing "patricide."

STAR TREK:"CATSPAW," "I, MUDD" (1967)



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


If "Who Mourns for Adonais" was partly influenced by "Squire of Gothos," then "Catspaw," Robert Bloch's second TREK-script, is baldly derivative of both of the. Instead of one alien who assumes the image of a bygone figure from Earth's past, here we have two: a pudgy male named Korob (cherub?) and a witchy female named Sylvia.

For the first time, there's no advance explanation of why the Enterprise chose to beam a crew down to the surface of the aliens' planet, one Pyris VI, not even the standard "anomalous readings." One member of the landing-party, a redshirt named Jackson, asks to beam up and when he gets there, he proves to be a dead man through which the aliens speak, warning the space-sailors to keep away. Of course, if the aliens really wanted the crew to stay away, they would have returned the whole landing-party: by keeping Scott and Sulu captive, they invite Kirk and his usual wingmen to descend in search of them. The aliens' motivation is choppy at best: in one scene Korob claims that he warned the Enterprise away, though none of the crewmen mention their having been warned. Still later, both aliens-- who have assumed the appearances of warlock and witch respectively (while Sylvia can also transform into a black cat)-- claim that they wanted the spacemen to come, in order to test their resolve. They admit that they are not natives of Pyris VII, having used a "transmuter" to get there, but the closest we get to an explanation of their purpose is that Sylvia tells Kirk that her people lack "sensation" in their domain, and that they've come to experience the full gamut of sensations in Kirk's part of the universe.

She says this, by the way, while trying to seduce Kirk to help her in some vague way, but Kirk only plays his Don Juan act for a few minutes before turning down her presumably-Faustian overtures. Bloch may have intended Sylvia to be a sort of Magna Mater type-- and she does come closer to this than any previous female character on the show, though the actress isn't quite up to portraying such a figure. Late in the story it's revealed that she has more authority than Korob, even though he seems to be in control at the outset. Korob, for no particular reason, changes sides toward the conclusion and helps the crew save themselves and their zombified friends from Sylvia's wrath. However, he dies with her and the crewmen go on their way.

Whereas the "Adonais" script does a fair job at depicting the Glory of Greece in the form of Apollo, Bloch doesn't even come close to representing "things that go bump in the night" in the forms of Korob and Sylvia. Supposedly this was conceived as a "Halloween episode"-- even the custom of "trick or treat" is referenced-- but the dominant theme is that of rejecting the superstitious beliefs of man's forbears in favor of the Federation's technology. And of course, the fact that the aliens themselves only use a "science-that-looks-like-magic" does nothing to enhance them. The most interesting facet of the erratic script is when Spock theorizes that the aliens may have taken on these forms by drawing upon the "racial unconscious" of humankind, which sounds like a tacit endorsement of Jung's collective unconscious-- at least, within the sphere of this episode.



"I, Mudd"-- whose title may be a spoof on Robert Graves' 1934 novel I, CLAUDIUS-- is much more successful than either "Catspaw" or the comic villain's previous appearance in "Mudd's Women." Mudd himself is something of a "catspaw" himself. He crashes upon an uncharted planet while fleeing the forces of law and order, and finds that this world was an outpost created by an extinct race and now inhabited only by a coterie of androids. The androids serve Mudd as their emperor but won't let him leave their world, because his presence gives them something to do. Desperate to give the robots someone else to serve, Mudd talks them into sending one of their number, Norman, to infiltrate a Federation starship and bring it to Mudd's world, so that the crew can take Mudd's place as the imprisoned "masters." By dumb luck Mudd gets the Enterprise and his old nemesis Kirk.

Since this episode is a perennial favorite, I won't rehash the many comic routines to which the spacemen resort to get clear of the androids. I'll note that this is not only one of the second season's episodes to emphasize the perils of man's technology dominating him, it also is something of a "plague" story, as Kirk and Crew must prevent the robots from spreading to other parts of the galaxy. Perhaps one of the funniest concetions is that Mudd tells Kirk that he fled to the stars to escape his harpy of a wife-- appropriately named "Stella" (star)-- which is certainly a neat inversion of the old trope about men conquering new terrains to please their women. I also won't rehash how Stella fits into Mudd's punishment after Kirk has defeated the androids, but it remains one of the show's most effective comic endings.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987)



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


Though THE MONSTER SQUAD was not overly successful in its initial release, the film-- directed by Fred Dekker and co-scripted by Dekker and Shane Black-- has become a cult item over the years. It's not a particular deep film, but it offers the first major "rally" of traditional American monsters since the venerable ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

Like the 1948 film, this one also offers the psychological thrill of the heroes getting to be "the Boys Who Cried Wolfman;" of knowing that there really are monsters and that the community at large is too dim to pick up on it. To be sure, Lou Costello's Wilbur is merely a full-grown man who acts childishly at times, while the four members of the Monster Squad are literal 12-year-old boys. I don't watch to prate too much about the typical Freudian "latency fantasies" to which kids in that age-range *may* be prone. Nevertheless, the script strongly hints at a correlation between the ages of the four main protagonists-- Sean, Patrick, Eugene, and Horace (stuck with the name "Fat Kid" for most of the picture)-- and their unrelenting passion for movie monsters. The latency interpretation is somewhat supported by the fact that Rudy, a sixteen-year-old loosely tied to the club, initially scorns the group's monster-love, just as most adults view the boys' club as a passing phase. Sean's five-year-old sister Phoebe aspires to be a member of the group, but the fact that the boys exclude her argues that the club really is for guys of a certain age. That said, if the boys have any Freudian fantasies, they're barely acknowledged by the script, except through the indirect medium of Patrick's teenaged sister, whose dubious status as a virgin becomes a humorous plot-point late in the film.

Of course, the monsters here aren't psychological fantasies, but real creatures of the dark, out to dominate the world. As in the A&C film, Count Dracula is the undisputed leader, probably because he's the most overtly Satanic figure, but in that film Dracula only aspires to use one monster as his puppet, while the original Wolf Man seeks to oppose the vampire's evil. In SQUAD the vampire-lord commands four monstrous stooges:  the Wolfman, the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and the Frankenstein Monster. However, the first three are not able to resist Dracula's power-- although the werewolf' in his normal identity makes a stab at doing so-- and only the Monster is able to win free. Dekker's Frankenstein is more like the pitiable figure of the two James Whale films than most of the creature's later incarnations, and he plays a vital role in the vampire's ultimate defeat. It's regrettable that their climactic conflict is not a major battle, for actors Duncan Regehr and Tom Noonan give their roles an aura of great formidability. By comparison, the Mummy and the Gill-Man suffer rather humiliating defeats at the hands of the preteens, though at least the Wolf Man gets the dignity of being killed with the iconic silver bullet, by none other than latter-day conversion Rudy. But all of the monsters are visually imposing, and even little Phoebe gets to play a role in their defeat.

The "McGuffin" over which the two groups struggle is a mystic amulet, which, rather confusingly, has the potential to either (1) give Dracula and his minions ultimate power over mankind, or (2) exile all of the monsters into a formless limbo. Given that I subjected the kids to Freudian dissection, I might as well subject the amulet to the Jungian magnifying glass. Dekker and Black don't explain the magical bauble, but IMO it represents the power of the imagination itself, which possesses, among other things, the power to bring fictional monsters to life. It's also a power that the kids, despite their love of creepy things, must foreswear by the film's end, as they cast all of the creatures back into the unreality that spawned them. In the film's most poignant moment, even the Frankenstein Monster, despite having aided the Squad, must return to the void (or collective unconscious), unable to fit into the real world from which he sprung.

That said, the film ends with a vindication of fantasy, rather than an injunction to "put away childish things." There are apparently no more monsters on Earth, but nonetheless the movie's last lines consist of Sean telling a flummoxed army officer that he and his friends are "the Monster Squad." Possibly Dekker just wanted to suggest the possibility of a sequel to investors. Yet Dekker's conclusion also celebrates the fantasies of kid-hood-- which certainly includes the wish-dream of being able to defeat evil, even when you haven't yet got your full growth, and even when all the older folks can't see that you're in the right.

Monday, November 28, 2016

KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985), FIREWALKER (1986)




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


I reviewed the second film in this series here, but though the second outing was released two years after KING, these 1980s versions of classic white hunter-hero Allan Quatermain were filmed back-to-back. The first film is, like its sequel, "dumb fun" at best, and only erratically borrows plot-threads from the 1885 novel. The novel begins with Quatermain being hired to venture into an unexplored part of Africa to find an Englishman's missing relative. In this film, released by the cheese-kings Golan and Globus, Quatermain is hired by a sexy young blonde (Sharon Stone), whose father, like the missing man in the novel, was seeking the fabled King Solomon's Mines.

The script for this flick has no sense of the mythic resonance of the Biblical mines, much less the culture-clash of colonial England venturing into "darkest Africa." KING's entire raison d'etre is to copy the comical scenes from 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ignoring all the other elements that made that film a success. Most of KING's slapstick-toned antics don't work particularly well, as director J. Lee Thompson-- never a strong hand with comedy, even in his early years-- overplays most of the scenes, virtually telling his audience, "Laugh here!" 

Only one action-comedy scene works moderately well. Quatermain and Stone's character Jesse are captured by a cannibal tribe and thrown into a gigantic metal cooking-pot, sort of a brobdingnagian version of the sort of cookware seen in dozens of cartoons about white hunters getting stewed-- and not in a good way. The heroes' escape isn't the least bit believable, but it's the only scene in which the absurdity works on its own terms.

One odd scene doesn't rely on goony slapstick. While foraging through the jungle Quatermain and Jesse are given succor by a curious tribe of natives who no longer live on the earth, but inhabit the latticework-branches of the trees, There's an explanatory line about how these natives abandoned the earth to escape the evil of mankind or something like that. I seem to remember reading somewhere that this fantasy-element may have been taken from another Haggard book, and that may be the reason that it's the only scene that carries a little of that author's poetical charm. There's no fantasy-explanation for how the natives can hang from the branches, more or less in Spider-Man fashion, so it may be the natives' uncanny agility shares some kinship with some similar abilities demonstrated in the kung fu film FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. That said, the presence of a giant spider edges the film into the domain of the marvelous.

Stone probably gets the worst part in the movie, as the script writes her "Karen Allen lite" character as a blithering idiot, though Chamberlain doesn't get much better treatment, nor do Herbert Lom and John Rhys-David. Two Black African characters from the novel aren't implicated in the silly hijinks: Umbopa (Ken Gampu), who joins the expedition to uncharted Africa to reclaim his lost throne, and Gagool (June Bethelezi), the evil old witch-woman who tyrannizes over Umbopa's tribe. The latter makes a very good evil old woman, but is not nearly as central to the film as she is in the novel.



FIREWALKER, also produced by Golan-and-Globus and directed by Thompson, takes the same near-comical approach to RAIDERS material, but if anything it's even lamer than KING. It concerns two Americans (Chuck Norris, Louis Gossett Jr.), stuck in Central America and looking for their next big break. Along comes a comely blonde girl, Patricia (Melody Anderson), who informs them of a fabulous Indian treasure, though the script doesn't seem clear on whether the treasure was left behind by the Aztecs, the Mayans, or the Apaches. As the trio set out on their trek, they are menaced by Coyote, a local shaman, also the evil guardian of the treasure. He's also apparently the "firewalker" of the title, though this is barely justified in the careless script.

I've seen other online reviews go into great depth charting the embarrassing inconsistencies of the film, so I won't touch on them here, except for one. After Norris and Co have consulted with a "good shaman" to get help on their quest, they take their leave, and the shaman says something like, "I don't know how Tonto does it." It's not out of line for a Native American to pass arch comments on people looking to plunder Indian artifacts. However, at least Tonto's tribal origins were consistent,while this film's script can't even keep its Native American mythology straight.

Again the humor is largely overplayed by Thompson and largely unfunny, but there's some novelty in seeing Chuck Norris, the Great Stone Face, trying to play things for laughs. He doesn't do that badly, even given the lame lines he has to read, but his relative success might be attributable to a good working chemistry with Louis Gossett, an actor noted for his ability to imbue even the worst characters with total conviction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

CALL OF THE SAVAGE (1935)



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


CALL OF THE SAVAGE is a neglected but perfectly serviceable jungle-serial. I read one of the novels on which it's based, Otis Kline's JAN OF THE JUNGLE, but without re-reading it would guess that very little was borrowed from the book. It's also very nearly an "uncanny" story, except for one minor intrusion of marvelous super-science.

As a young boy at the jungle-sanctuary of his father Doctor Trevor, Jan (Noah Beery Jr,) loses his mother to a lion-attack, while his father is injured and loses his memory. Jan wanders off into the jungle and grows up with the animals, though no particular creature seems to have fostered him. But Trevor was working on a cure for polio, and fifteen years later a scientific expedition returns to Africa to search for Trevor's valuable notes. One scientist is a good guy, another is a bad one. The expedition also includes a young woman, Mona, and a mysterious fellow who believes that Mona is the lost princess of the City of Mu. The latter schemer plans to take her back to her home city-- which she no longer remembers-- at the earliest opportunity. However, most of the serial's chapters deal with Jan's interactions with the expedition-- and with Mona, who gets a G-rated "Jane" treatment, lots of stock animal footage, and various double-crosses, not getting to the Lost City until the tenth chapter. This runs in contrast to the prominence of lost cities in most jungle-serials, notably DARKEST AFRICA. 

SAVAGE, directed by Lew Landers of RAVEN fame, is nicely photographed and lively in terms of action. and it benefits from a cheery performance by Beery as Jan. The jungle-boy, like a road-company version of the Weissmuller Tarzan, never learns more than a few words, but the lack of tedious pidgin dialect is a bonus, forcing Berry to rely on gesture and expression. He also acquits himself well in the fight-scenes.In one chapter Jan and one ally are attacked on a large river-raft by hostile natives, resulting in a big fistfight while the raft careens toward a waterfall.

Given how little time the Mu-natives occupy, it's surprising that they're included at all. Their only super-weapon is an electrical arc that zaps intruders who enter a certain cave-mouth: other than that, their other menaces are standard uncanny-traps from other serials: a room with a descending ceiling of spikes and a room full of flame, for two.

Dorothy Short plays Mona, and looks fetching in her jungle-outfit (see above). Her performance is generally good, except that the script apparently told her to scream piercingly every time danger threatens. It's one thing for Mona to be incapable of jumping into the fights, and another for her to scream gratuitously when she's not immediately in danger. When the guys are busy fighting villains, that sort of feminine indulgence-- even if scripted by male writers-- could prove exceedingly unwise.

ROCKULA (1990)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I hadn't watched ROCKULA in years, and my memories of it were not good, but I gave it another look anyway. The film was directed and co-written by Luca Bercovici, who had his greatest success with 1984's GHOULIES and its three sequels. None of the GHOULIES films are especially good, but they're pure poetry next to ROCKULA.

I have to assume that Bercovici's took his main inspiration from comic horror flicks like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but ROCKULA doesn't understand anything about the vampire-story subgenre. In the setup scenes, we learn that Ralph, a vampire who looks like a twenty-something mortal, is actually over 400 years old, as is his only living relative, his mother Phoebe, with whom he still lives. Neither of them seem to suffer any of the needs or vulnerabilities of vampires, although they do display fangs on the odd occasion.

It's not Ralph's fault he still lives with his mom: he seems to be really, really unlucky at love. Centuries ago he met his one true love, Mona, but before they could be joined, Mona was killed by a pirate with a rhinestone peg-leg. Since that first evil encounter, Mona keeps getting reincarnated in a new body every 22 years. But apparently the Rhinestone Pirate does as well, since he appears at each reincarnation to kill Mona off, before Ralph can know the joy of sex.

It's modern times, and Ralph doesn't even want to stir out of the house, for fear of meeting Mona again and watching her die. Eventually, after talking to his own reflection for a while (don't ask), he ventures forth, and runs into Mona-- or rather, she runs him down with her car when he steps into the street. Again Ralph tries to avoid the cursed girl, but when he finds out that she's a club singer, he finds himself moved to form his own band, of which he is the lead singer-- Rockula!

However, though the Pirate doesn't immediately appear, Ralph has a rival in Mona's ex-boyfriend Stanley, a huckster who sells expensive funeral plots. Stanley observes his ex spending time with Ralph and consults a psychic, the suggestively named "Madame Ben Wa." The psychic tells Stanley that the only way he can defeat Ralph is to dress up as a pirate, compete with rhinestone pegleg. Stanley doesn't plan to kill Mona, though, only to deep-freeze her until she loves him again.

The comedy scenes are lame despite the efforts of the actors, but the lame jokes provide some relief from the even worse music. At times ROCKULA looks like a long music video punctuated by some narrative digressions, and I suspect that the movie was designed with the notion of pushing the music, credited to none other than Hilary Bercovici, brother of Luca.

My SPOILERS is for the film's only interesting psychological motif. It turns out that "Madame Ben Wa" is none other than Ralph's mom Phoebe, who has never wanted her little boy to marry and thus leave her. Implicitly-- though the script glosses over this point-- she's been the sole source of the "pirate curse" for centuries, suborning some schmuck like Stanley to kill off Mona at the appropriate time, so that she could continue living with her precious boy. For what it's worth, Phoebe-- whose name connotes "the moon," even as one derivation of "Mona" does-- isn't planning to seduce her son a la MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE; she just wants him to keep him in her eternal orbit. Yet Bercovici doesn't really play fair with the Big Reveal, since Phoebe, despite acting weird at times, doesn't really act in a way that might throw suspicion on her.

All that said, though, I must admit if there's a little goofy symbolism in the psychic's name. Is Ralph, in a symbolic sense at least, an object she keeps inside her, for her satisfaction? But this bad pun is about the only time the film aspires to the Mel Brooks level of smutty jokes.

ADDENDA: Although the film does end up with a comic battle between Ralph and Stanley, neither character shows a high level of dynamicity, so this is a subcombative comedy, not unlike the later CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH.