Saturday, September 23, 2017

SATURDAY THE 14TH (1981), SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK (1988)




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

I suspect that SATURDAY THE 14TH was already in production as a standard monster-mash comedy before the fortuitous success of FRIDAY THE 13TH, and that said success prompted the oh-so-humorous title, since nothing about the film even slightly resembles the famous slasher-flick.

A haunted house is bequeathed to the family of clueless yuppies John and Mary and their two kids. However, it's haunted not by ghosts but by a Lovecraftian "Book of Evil," which starts causing weird things to happen (for one thing, the television set plays "the Twilight Zone" all the time.") Monstrous apparitions start appearing, some of which choose to model themselves on then-recent pop culture. For instance, a shark-like thing, complete with "Jaws" theme, shows up in the bathtub of John and Mary's teenaged daughter, while a gill-man resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon attacks a plumber. Meanwhile, outside the house a married vampire couple, Waldemar and Yolanda, conspire to get into the house and find the book for themselves. Waldemar even vampirizes Mary, which leads to some jealousy on the part of Yolanda. So many weird things happen that the two yuppies welcome the appearance of supernatural sleuth Van Helsing-- but it turns out that the vampire-hunter has his own designs on the Book of Evil. At the climax Van Helsing and the two vampires unleash great supernatural energies upon each other, accompanied by making silly faces at the same time. (Since none of them are the movie's focal characters, SATURDAY does not qualify as a combative movie.) 

The first SATURDAY, like its sequel, was both written and directed by Howard R. Cohen, who did a lot of schlock pictures, the best being IMO 1985's BARBARIAN QUEEN. Both films were also produced for Roger Corman's company New World Pictures by Corman's wife Julie, and thus both are full of cheapjack effects and much recycled footage. John and Mary are essayed by husband-and-wife team Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, and it may be that SATURDAY was greenlighted in response to Benjamin's participation in 1979's successful LOVE AT FIRST BITE. Certainly both Benjamin and Prentiss attempt some dry humor comparable to that of FIRST BITE, but Cohen's script is incompetent to pull off anything but the most obvious horror-comedy schtick. Since the works of Lovecraft had yet to be mined to good cinematic effect in 1980s flicks like REANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, I theorize that Cohen may have used the "evil book" routine in homage to Roger Corman's 1963 HAUNTED PALACE, which also involved a family moving into a creepy old place and encountering a book of evil spells. Only Severn Darden (as Van Helsing) and Jeffrey Tambor (Waldemar) do moderately well delivering the stupid dialogue.



Surprisingly, seven years later the same producer and writer-director assembled for SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK, and though there were no overt connections to the first film, again the plot concerned a family moving into a house bequeathed by a relative.  However, this time the focus is not on two clueless parents-- this time out, played by genre vets Avery Schreiber and Patty McCormack-- but on their teenaged son Eddie (Jason Presson). Eddie's existence, in fact, gives the title more relevance than it had the first time, for Saturday the 14th is his impending 18th birthday. Eddie is only slightly younger than his teenaged sister, but he feels generally marginalized and out of touch with his family, except for his seemingly dim grandfather, Gramps (Ray Walston).

Then weird things happen and monsters again start roaming the halls. There's no book responsible, though. Rather, there's a crack under the house that unleashes spirits. Eighteen years ago the same crack unleashed a magical mist, and this was the method by which a "dark force" (Satan, I assume) marked Eddie to inherit unlimited powers on his eighteenth birthday. No one else sees the monsters, particularly sexy vampiress Charlene and Kharis, an Egyptian high priest who looks like John Carradine but talks like Boris Karloff. Moreover, the rest of the family, except Gramps, began to act strangely, at one point turning on Eddie and trying to kill him. By the next day, though, they go back to being oblivious.

The mystic contagion even spreads outside the house, affecting Eddie's teacher (who launches into a song in a miniature golf park; one of three or four bad production numbers). Kharis and Charlene keep working on Eddie, trying to make him use his incipient powers for evil. STRIKES BACK thus has a slightly better core idea than its predecessor, rooted in the idea of the "monster-nerd" as a potential Faust, willing to indulge in fantasies of omnipotence. The idea fails partly because Eddie may be the most boring character ever to undergo temptation. When the spirits ask him what he wants to do with his power, the first thing that comes to his mind is to one-up his bossy sister. (The sister fusses so often about Eddie going into her room that I thought this might go the way of AMITYVILLE II, but Eddie's too boring to contemplate even comical incest.) Moreover, Presson has a really annoying whiny voice, so it's hard to identity with him. Walston gives the film a boost when it's revealed that he's not anyone's grandpa, but a mystic protector who makes it possible for Eddie to fight the force of darkness. At the climax, there's sort of a psychic struggle between Eddie and the Dark One, but it consists mostly of stock footage from earlier Corman films, so one could hardly call it any sort of "combat." Basically, Eddie just wishes things back to normal. We may be thankful that the conclusion was so underwhelming, for it may have helped put an end to any further entries in this lame series.

KUNG FU: SEASON 2, EPISODES 7-9 (1973)



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

"The Tong" is Caine's first encounter with the Chinese criminal organization. The Tong is explicitly said to have arisen when renegade Shaolin priests sought to oppose the imperial forces of China, which led only to the Tong becoming purveyors of vice rather than liberatorsn-- a moral very much in keeping with the series' skepticism regarding organized movements.

Caine drifts into a town where Sister Elizabeth, a Christian proselytizer, has been seeking to convert lost souls in the Chinese section of town. The adults ignore her, but Wing, a little boy brought over to serve as a slave to Mister Chen, a Tong functionary. Wing doesn't understand Elizabeth's Christian rhetoric, but he hides behind her skirts to avoid punishment by Chen. For his part, Caine seeks to peacefully persuade the Tong man to "cut his losses," but Chen considers the loss of his slave to be a loss of face as well. He appeals to his superior, Master Li, to intervene and send "highbinders" (Tong henchmen) to collect Wing.

Unfortunately for Chen, Li wants him to clean up his own mess, which means taking on Wing's protector Caine. Chen makes a clumsy attempt to kill Caine with a thrown hatchet, and naturally Caine simply catches the weapon in flight. Nevertheless, Li has always planned to unleash a more formidable opponent-- his henchman Ah Quong-- to kill the interfering priest, as Li believes that "a superior man fights only great battles."

Ah Quong is initially up for the coming fight, but when Caine shows off a little of his own skills, the henchman tries to fix the fight by having a hidden associate shoot the priest with an arrow. Caine does get shot. Yet  his determination to meet his opponent, despite the arrow-wound, so cows Ah Quong that the highbinder hightails it outta there, and the Tong loses its hold on Wing. Caine doesn't display any uncanny skills here, and he's at pains to inform Wing that his efforts had nothing to do with what the boy calls "magic."

"The Soldier" is a straightforward meditation on the perils of trying to live one's life according to someone else's standards. Caine stumbles across a massacre, the result of a bandolero attack on a detachment of pony soldiers and the civilian they were escorting. Caine gets a degree of personal involvement as the civilian dies in his presence, asking Caine to give a keepsake to his soon-to-be widow. Then Caine learns that there's one soldier left alive. As Caine watches, Lt. Wyland-- who apparently took cover during the bandit-raid and failed to engage the enemy-- shoots himself in the leg. Then, seeing Caine, Wyland takes the priest prisoner, accusing the stranger of being one of the raiders.

Caine is transported back to the fort from which the detachment set out, but despite being falsely accused by Wyland, the Shaolin does not reveal what he saw Wyland do. The soldier's convictions about Caine weaken once he sees the priest interact with the widow, and it comes out that Wyland has chosen the life of a soldier to follow in the footsteps of his officer-father. Eventually Wyland frees Caine and chooses to pursue his own path. One of the flashbacks retells a familiar story: a monkey reaches into a jar to get a fruit inside, but can't remove his paw as long as he holds the fruit. Master Po, seeing the monkey's distress, comments that the creature is additionally perverse because he could seek out any of the fruits in the garden, but chooses to focus only on the one that's hard to get.

"The Salamander" is one of the weaker second-season episodes. The priest sees Andy, a young man on a bridge, apparently contemplating suicide with a hangman's noose. Andy tells a sad story about how his mother went insane and had to be placed in an asylum, while his father, a miner named Alonzo, deserted the family. Caine and Andy journey to Alonzo's last known address, a -played-out mining-town where Alonzo still seeks to make a great strike. External conflict is foreshadowed by a claim-jumper named Bates, who hopes to steal any new claims. Andy and Alonzo go back and forth on the reasons Alonzo left, which involved his attempt to separate his wife from a father she loved too much. Those efforts resulted in the woman's insanity, which amounts to some rather facile plotting. The flashbacks are more interesting than the main story, for it mirrors Andy's desultory suicide-attempt with a successful suicide, committed by one of Master Kan's teachers. Kan uses the tragedy as a teachable moment for Young Caine, stressing the importance of seeing the world clearly.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1971)



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


ASSIGNMENT TERROR is, in effect, the second entry in Paul Naschy's "Daninsky-verse," following FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR. Although another film, NIGHTS OF THE WOLFMAN took place between these two films, it was either unfinished, lost, or both. Still, whatever took place in NIGHTS, the second TERROR seems to follow through on plot-threads from the first one. Naschy's "El Hombre Lobo," shot to death in the first film by the woman who loved him, is now revived with the excuse that the werewolf can only be permanently destroyed if the woman is willing to die with the monster (!) In addition, the werewolf's vampire foe from the 1968 movie is also revived, though with a slight name-change, assuming imdb credits are accurate to the two films. though the vampire has so little time in ASSIGNMENT that one wonders why the scripter-- who was also werewolf-actor Naschy-- bothered to bring him back.

I've given this erratic Eurofilm a "fair" rating in mythicity simply because the crazy script displays a sincere affection for the horror-tropes developed by Universal Studios in the 1940s, particularly in "monster mash" films like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. That said, Naschy's script has less in common with the Universal classics than with Ed Wood's most famous work, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Wood's magnum opus dealt with aliens resuscitating dead people in order to throw the planet Earth into chaos, and while there's no way to know if Naschy ever saw PLAN 9, he uses the same essential idea here. The motivation is a little different, though. Wood's aliens wanted to prevent Earth-people from creating a deadly super-weapon, while the aliens from Naschy's "Planet Ummo" want to eliminate Earth-people because Ummo stands in danger of destruction.

Given that the Ummo-ites are on a time-clock, they seem to take their sweet time unearthing famous monsters of Earth's history, but never get around to using them as part of any specific program to get rid of humanity. Half the time Naschy's script seems to treat the Ummo-aliens-- who are, incidentally, alien intelligences who have taken over human bodies-- as if they were just examining all the monsters as part of a big research-project. This idea finds some support in the fact that the main three-- Warnoff, Kieran, and Maleva-- talk a lot about how they've advanced beyond the petty emotions of humankind. Naturally, it proves easier for the aliens to talk the talk than to walk the walk. When alien Maleva beholds the manliness of Waldermar Daninsky, it gives her some human stirrings, and though leader Warnoff continually claims to be above emotion, he subjects another female minion to electrical torture with a sort of suppressed sadism.

Waldemar, as I said, is resurrected when the aliens pull the silver bullet out of his body, conveniently mentioning that he didn't really die because his lover didn't have the decency to die with him. In addition to reviving Waldemar, the aliens find the vampire "Jamos" in a traveling carnival, a scene lovingly swiped from HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  The Ummosians also bring back a mummy named Tao-Tet and a Frankenstein Monster whose proper name is garbled, at least in translation. (Was someone afraid that the producers would get legal static from Hammer Films, who were still coming out with Franikenstein films?) The werewolf and vampire both get free a few times, and cause enough havoc that a tough local cop starts looking for monsters.

The cop has nearly no effect on the plot, for it all comes down to the werewolf getting free and taking on the other monsters. (Janos the Vampire just goes off somewhere without explanation. Maybe he didn't want to tangle a second time with El Hombre Lobo?) Since mummy-characters have typically got the short end of the "monster mash" stick, I can appreciate that Naschy's script concocts a decent enough battle between the hairy guy and the bandaged guy. In fact, the way the werewolf destroys the mummy, turning him into a Catherine Wheel, is rather ingenious. It's an improvement on the fight between the wolf-man and the artificial monster, anyway. It's a given that this cheap production couldn't equal the fight-scene from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, but it's also sabotaged by the decision to have the actor playing the monster look like his eyes are always closed. (Admittedly, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN uses the same peculiar visual trope, which no longer had the significance it did in earlier films, where the monster had been blinded.) It's worth mentioning that the werewolf's claws are given the chance to shed more monster-blood than they did in the Universal film, though.

In the end, Waldemar and his beloved embrace death, and the aliens give up on their plot to exterminate humankind, with a little moralizing about the superiority of human emotions. Waldemar would then come back again and again, often with a new origin for each new flick.


KUNG FU: SEASON 2, EPISODES 4-6 (1973)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1)*good,* (2-3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*


In "The Brujo," Caine has apparently wandered down toward the Mexican border, since in this episode he'll find himself in San Martin, a town inhabited by people of Mexican ancestry. They even have a "grandee" of sorts in wealthy landowner Don Emilio (Henry Darrow), though the real power in San Martin is a male witch (brujo) named Carlos. The audience witnesses the brujo pronouncing a spell of some sort, while far away, a wagon crashes in the rocky wilderness. Caine happens across the wrecked vehicle, and discovers its two occupants. One is a young Caucasian boy with white-golden hair, who is unharmed; the other, an old Mexican woman who dies despite Caine's efforts to help. The relationship of the two is never explained. nor the reason for their being in the wagon, but the old woman charges Caine with returning the child to San Martin. Somewhat later it will be attested that the woman inhabited the town, and that she had the reputation of a witch, but the reason as to why she drew the hostility of Esteban is not made explicit.

Before Caine reaches the town, he and the boy encounter Don Emilio, who has apparently been hunting with a trained hawk. The nameless boy beckons to the hawk and it flies to him, establishing that he, like Caine in certain episodes, possesses at the very least a strong affinity with lower animals. Emilio recalls his hawk with some difficulty and makes a note to watch Caine and his charge.

Once Caine reaches San Martin, he finds that the town suffers under the curse of Carlos. Caine successfully treats an infant whom the townsfolk believe to be cursed, but Carlos claims a new victim. The nameless boy, apparently affected by the brujo's voodoo-like magic, falls into a coma and Caine cannot revive him, because the boy believes in the magic. Apparently the boy resided in San Martin as well as the witch-woman, since it's said that the reason he falls sick is because he believes in the power of Carlos. Caine confronts Carlos and learns only that the brujo is utterly heartless and consumed with a desire for power. Later, he extends his power over Don Emilio, who once slept with Carlos's wife, but learns that Carlos sent the woman to Emilio in order to seduce him to evil. Carlos's game plan is to assume Emilio's temporal power and totally subjugate the town.

Structurally the episode resembles a scenario familiar in many genres of popular fiction: one in which a outsider, usually Caucasian, enters a community, often made up of "People of Color," who are in the thrall of superstitions, sometimes manipulated by a phony priest or witch-doctor. "The Brujo" is subtler than the standard depiction, however, and not only because Caine is half-Chinese (regardless of the actual ethnicity of the actor, of course). Within the naturalistic context of the standard scenario, magic and superstition possess no reality. Yet in this tale, the audience doesn't know for certain that the Brujo has not used magic to wreck the wagon, nor that the nameless boy has not reached out to the hawk with his mind. All that the audience for this episode can say with certainty is that some of the Brujo's power depends on keeping the community under his thumb, and the community obliges by celebrating "the Day of the Devil," an implicit expiation-rite. When Carlos finally decides to prove his power to Caine, he draws a circle around the Shaolin priest-- with a devilish pitchfork, no less-- and tells Caine that he will die when the shadow of the church's cross passes over the circle. Caine obligingly waits, and breaks Carlos' power by declining to give in to his legerdemain. It helps that back in China, Young Caine briefly interacted with a magician who promised the boy "the secrets of the universe," though the youngster fled and returned to the safety of the Shaolin temple.

"The Squawman" contrasts with "the Brujo" in that it's all about the power a community can have over an individual, even one whom the community has more or less cast out.

Caine-- who in this season has almost totally forgotten his quest to locate his half-brother-- wanders onto the ranch of Marcus Taylor (Jack Elam). Marcus is largely secluded from the nearest town because he's a "squawman," a white man married to an Indian woman, who in this case is named Kiona and is pregnant with their first child. While Caine is enjoying lonely Marcus' hospitality, a thief tries to steal the rancher's horse. Caine fights the man, but Marcus, assuming Caine is in mortal danger, shoots the thief dead.

Marcus, Kiona and Caine take the body to town to report the death. At first the townsfolk seem suspicious of Marcus, not only because he married an Indian but also because they've been plagued with bandit-raids, and someone wonders if Marcus might be an ally of the outlaw-gang. Then the crowd's mood changes when the slain thief is identified as a member of the same gang. Immediately everyone in town wants to be Marcus's friend, though they won't allow his Indian wife to enter the local saloon. Worse, the townsfolk talk Marcus up into thinking he's a hero, so that he seriously thinks about meeting the outlaws when they come to avenge their dead comrade. Caine uses his skills to save Marcus and Kiona from the bandits, and teaches Marcus a lesson about false glory.

In "The Spirit Helper" Caine again crosses paths with superstition, though this time the priest is unable to dispel it. Caine happens upon a young Indian brave, Nashebo (Don Johnson) when the latter has been undergoing a vision-quest for days. Nashebo assumes that the gods have sent Caine as a "spirit-helper," and Caine cannot convince the brave otherwise. The Indian youth specifically wants Caine to show him how to become a man.

When Nashebo escorts Caine back to his camp, however, he finds that he needs more help than he thought. A gang of robbers has despoiled the camp, killing Nashebo's father and taking his mother captive to be sold as a slave. This brings forth bitter memories for Caine, whose parents were slain in China by the violence unleashed by a petty warlord, General Chung. Caine's experience made him thirst for vengeance on Chung, though he transcended that desire to an extent thanks to the Shaolins who took him in. Still, though Caine will not help Nashebo seek vengeance on his father's murderers, he is obliged to lend the young man aid to help rescue his mother. It may be argued that this gives Caine the chance to put some of his own demons to rest, by fighting robbers who have perpetrated a deed not unlike that of General Chung.

The robbers, as it happens, have a ruthless leader named PIke, a towering Irish brawler who cheerfully kills one of his own men to keep the others in line. Events culminate with Caine fighting Pike in single combat, and when Caine wins, he has to keep the other bandits from adopting him as their new leader. In addition to saving Nashebo's mother, he also prevents the young brave from murdering Pike-- though the audience is not denied satisfaction, as it's indicated that Pike won't enjoy any tender mercy from his former minions, once Caine and company have departed.

Friday, September 15, 2017

GODZILLA 2000 (1999), GODZILLA, MOTHRA, AND KING GHIDORAH (2001)



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


GODZILLA 2000 started out the "Big G" reboot known as the Millennium series, but 2000 is somewhat less than "millennial" in quality.

The film runs two parallel plot-lines which eventually dovetail, but to no great effect. The principal viewpoint characters are members of a small group of "Godzilla sighters," made up of scientist Shinoda, his precocious young daughter Io, and a jaded lady reporter, Yuki, who hangs around with them to get advance info on the monster's rampages. Shinoda makes clear in his speeches that he wants Godzilla contained but not destroyed, since he's an important example of post-nuclear adaptation. However, the "Godzilla Prediction Network" has no clout, and the officials of the "Japan Self Defense Force" continue with their plans to destroy the giant reptile. In fact, the JSDF is led by the obsessive Katagiri, whom Shinoda knows from his days working for the same organization. Both the scientist and the military commander are fairly flat figures, designed to embody "good view of Godzilla" vs. "bad view of Godzilla."

The JSDF is also responsible for giving Millennium Godzilla his first sparring-partner, when the military tampers with a sunken UFO. The UFO comes to life and promptly seeks out Godzilla, blasting the reptile in order to harvest the creature's DNA. However, the aliens in the UFO can't control the monster's "wild card" genes, and the whole shebang-- the craft and whatever beings are inside it-- morph into a big monster, whom the Japanese dub ":Orga," There's a seesaw battle between Godzilla and Orga, which Godzilla predictably wins. Katagiri actually gets the best scene: roaring his defiance of Godzilla just before the monster destroys him.

While Ogra is a dull opponent that made me long for the days of the Smog Monster, 2000 at least boasts an impressive new design for Godzilla, certainly better than the slinky iguana-critter from America's 1998 GODZILLA. The 2000 film even does its own version of the 1998 film's much longer and more involved "car fleeing big monster's feet" scene. Still, the Japanese characters are not as appealing as those of the American version, much less those of the earlier "Heisei period."



2000 was followed by the equally weak GODZILLA VS, MEGAGUIRUS, which allegedly did not do well at the Japanese box office. This spurred the producers of the next fun to attempt another "monster mash" with roots in the original Godzilla-series. Originally the plan was to oppose the Big G with three revamped versions of Angilas, Varan, and Baragon, though only Angilas had any explicit connection with Godzilla's series. Marketing considerations led to the use of Mothra and King Ghidorah, who had always been two of Godzilla's more popular foes. The stratagem proved profitable, as the third film did very well, despite (or because of) its exhaustingly long title:GODZILLA, MOTHRA, AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK.

Picking up on some of the more mystical elements from the Heisei days, ATTACK advances a new origin for Godzilla's three opponents. Now Mothra, Baragon and Ghidorah are all spiritual defenders of Japan, and all are much less powerful than in their earlier versions. This time there's no strong opposition between the military and civilians, for the main viewpoint character is reporter Yuri Tachibana, daughter of Commander Tachibana of the JSDF. There's a minor conflict between the two over the proper investigation of Godzilla, but by film's end they are reconciled-- not that their interpersonal drama is all that interesting.

Despite the film's box office success, I found the battle-scenes routine at best, and even a scene in which Mothra and Ghidorah fuse to produce "King Ghidorah" did not help. Baragon actually gets the best scenes, for though he's no match for Godzilla, his burrowing-talent literally knocks Godzilla's feet out from under him-- which is something you don't see every day in Big G films.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (1993), GODZILLA AGAINST MECHADOZILLA (2002)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*

I'm continuing in my eccentric habit of reviewing Godzilla films that weren't even intended to be part of the same continuity, if only for the personal pleasure of having a "G VS. MG II" show up in 1992 before a "G VS MG 1" appears in 2002. Of course, this is mere semantics. "G VS MG II" is in theory a conceptual sequel to Mechagodzilla's first 1974 appearance, known as GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA in Japan as as GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER in the U.S. Even so, it seems odd for the Japanese to call the 1993 work "second in the series," partly because it's actually Mechagodzilla;s third appearance (following TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA), partly because the producers of the 1993 film have chosen to give the Big MG a brand-new origin.

Building upon developments in GODZILLA VS, KING GHIDORAH-- though another film, GODZILLA AND MOTHRA, interposed itself between GHIDORAH and the 1993 film-- MECHAGODZILLA II posits that a Japanese self-defense batallion, G-Force, is empowered to dredge up the remains of Mecha King Ghidorah. Mechagodzilla is to be constructed from these remnants, thus establishing that this robot has no connection with the alien-made mechanism from the 1970s.

Time passes, during which the movie's viewpoint character Kazuma is more or less drafted to serve in G-Force, where he's something less than a great fit. Nevertheless, he ends up being part of the crew working with Mechagodzilla, along with the "monster-whispering" psychic Miki, previously introduced in earlier "Heisei era" Godzilla films. To further complicate G-Force's situation, a Japanese research team visits a Pacific island, where they discover a giant egg. No sooner do the humans show up than so do Godzilla and a radically redesigned Rodan (making his first apperance in the Heisei series). The monsters fight over the egg and the team escapes with the egg. Back at G-Force a lady scientist examines the egg, and figures out that it contains a mutated dinosaur of the same species as Godzilla  (so that MECHAGODZILLA II is also a reboot of the "Son of Godzilla" character from the original film-series). Once G-Force knows that the infant in the egg is sending out telepathic broadcasts, they decide that they can use the hatchling to lure Godzilla into the city and then attack him with Mechagodzilla. However, Rodan also shows up for the party, and good havoc is had by all.



Given that I have never liked the classic version of Rodan, whom I considered too cartoony, the Heisei Rodan is a huge improvement. When he fights Godzilla this time, he looks like he has a chance to peck a hole in the Big G's head. The hatchling is also less cutesy than the original Son of Godzilla, and the scenes in which it imprints on the lady scientist is handled without too much false sentiment. However, the plot doesn't accomplish anything beyond getting the monsters together for another battle, and the human characters don't have much heart. And I never figured out why Rodan wanted the egg. Surely, even with the telepathy angle, the pteranodan monster never thought it was its own offspring? Or did he/she just really want to make a monster omelet?



GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA, is the fourth film in the so-called "Millennium series," and it gives the Big G one of his best human opponents, Lt. Ayane Yashiro. The Godzilla films have always been erratic in their creation of strong female characters, but Ayane is almost certainly the best of these.

Ayane, a member of Japan's self-defense force, is called into action when Godzilla makes one of his peripatetic attacks on her country. She and her fellow officers operate a maser-tank, but due to a storm that hits even as Godzilla attacks, her maser-rays fail to slay the monster. Ayane refuses to defend herself for her failure and so she's made a scapegoat for the JSDF's embarrassment. Then someone gets the idea to create a mechanical version of Godzilla to fight the real one. However, whereas the 1993 film chose to cobble its robot out of Mecha King Ghidorah's pieces, the JSDF goes to the source of all Godzillas: the bones of the 1954 monster, still in one piece all these years later and resting on the ocean's bottom after the original was slain by the oxygen destroyer.

Ayane's piloting skills earn her the chance to redeem herself by piloting the new Mechagodzilla, who is here given the proper name "Kiryu." Her fortunes are also improved (sort of) by a possible romantic encounter with maladroit scientist Tokimitsu, who even comes with ready-made family (his precocious daughter Sara). However, when Godzilla returns to Tokyo again, Ayane misses her chance to close with the enemy once more. Once Kirya sees Godzilla, the organic matter in the robot's makeup rebels against human control, and Kiryu begins to ravage Tokyo instead of fighting Godzilla.

However, Tokimitsu manages to submerge the organic instincts of the robot, and finally Ayane manages to square off in her long-delayed combat with Japan's favorite monster. She succeeds where most human-operated devices fail, and drives Godzilla back into the sea, at least for a time.

The 2002 film succeeds best in its exacting view of Ayane's military world, and this in turn resonates with the original GOJIRA's post-war themes. Both Ayane-- again played by the excellent Yumiko Shaku-- and Kiryu return in the next entry, GODZILLA TOKYO S.O.S, but they take something of a back seat to the development of new characters and an involved Mothra subplot.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

GODZILLA VS. KING GHIOORAH (1991)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

GHIDORAH was the third film in the so-called "Heisei series" of Godzilla films. I commented that the previous film in the series, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, tried to bite off more than it could chew. GHIDORAH also takes in an awful lot of story-developments, but manages to produce some decent "food-for-thought" nourishment, even if the plotting is a little helter-skelter at times.

GHIDORAH rethinks several key ideas associated with the Godzilla franchise, particularly with respect to the origins of the "King of Monsters." In the original GOJIRA, the monster is a multivalent presence, at times seeming like the incarnation of Japan's traditions, at other times like the forces of modernism that threaten those traditions. Writer-director Kazuki Omori, who also performed both functions on BIOLLANTE, seemed to apprehend this ambivalence. In the original conception, Godzilla was a dinosaur who somehow remained alive beneath the earth until he was both awakened and mutated by an American atom-bomb test. Omori imagines a period, previous to the dino's mutation, in which the creature happened to be awake on a Pacific island during the end years of World War II. A squad of Japanese soldiers have retreated to the island, fleeing the advance of American troops. By chance the bombings disturb the dino, which attacks the American ground troops. This makes it possible for the Japanese soldiers to get away, though the dinosaur is killed by fire from an American ship. Implicitly, the "Godzillasaurus" revives from the dead, rather than from sleep, when its body is irradiated by a bomb-test ten years later.

The film's rather forgettable viewpoint character-- Kenichiro, a science fiction writer-- first learns of this incident from the Japanese field commander, Shindo, now a wealthy businessman. Kenichiro is joined in his investigations by a biology professor and psychic Miki, previously introduced in BIOLLANTE, who has been able to communicate with giant monsters to some degree. The three of them are also brought in as consultants when Japan receives a visit from a UFO, containing three denizens of Earth in the 23rd century.

The "Futurians" inform Japan that the world stands in danger to total destruction because at some point Godzilla will start attacking nuclear plants on a regular basis. Not only will there no longer be a Japan in the future-- although of the three time-travelers, a female named Emi is of Japanese stock-- the rest of the world will suffer devastation as well. The Futurians' solution is to go back in time and prevent the dinosaur's irradiation, so that there will be no Godzilla.

Given how much destruction Japan has suffered from Godzilla's attacks, the modern-day Japanese characters have no problem lending aid to the Futurians (though, to be sure, I was never sure why the time-travelers even needed their aid). The moderns and the Futurians travel back to the Pacific isle in 1944, and witness all the events narrated earlier by Shindo. They even see Commander Shindo salute the courage of the fallen dinosaur, just as if it were a fellow soldier, rather than an animal who aided the Japanese squad by accident. At the right moment, the Futurians teleport the dinosaur's carcass away from the island, tossing it under the ocean waves. (Given what transpires later, one may wonder why they didn't hurl the corpse into an active volcano, just to be sure that it was entirely disposed of.) Unbeknownst to the moderns, the Futurians also leave behind three cute little bio-engineered imps called "Dorats," whose purpose unfolds later.

The Futurian named Emi, due to being exposed to the authentic culture of her ancestors, reveals to Kenichiro's bunch that the mission has been a lie. Future Japan, rather than being destroyed, becomes an economic superpower in the 23rd century, to the extent that all other countries have become subservient to Japan. The Futurians don't make any claims about Future-Japan being a tyranny; they just want all countries to be of equal stature (thus proving that Marxism is still around in their century). The Dorat-imps undergo the mutation that would have happened to Godzilla, and turn into King Ghidorah. For some reason, though Ghidorah is created at the 1954 bomb-test, he waits around almost forty years before attacking 1992 Japan. The country's utter destruction will ensure that it never dominates the future economy, while the elimination of Godzilla from history makes sure that the Big G cannot interfere with the Futurians' plans, if only by accident.

"All we have to do," says Kenichiro, "is blast [the submerged corpse of the Godzillasaurus[ with some radioactivity." But, in one of the movie's weakest plot-developments, the good guys somehow find out that the dino-corpse has been exposed to radioactivity by a sunken nuclear sub at some past point in time. Just like that, Godzilla appears in Tokyo once more, and successfully thrashes King Ghidorah. However, with Ghidorah gone, Godzilla begins another of his many rampages, making it possible that he may do the same thing the Futurians wanted their pawn to do. In a rather confusing turnaround, Emi journeys to the future, and brings back Mecha-Ghidorah, a cyborg composed of the original Ghidorah and various mechanical parts. The battle ends with Godzilla being hurled into the ocean for a "cooling-off" period. Emi departs, leaving open the possibility that Japan will still become the future world's economic overlord.

While I wasn't crazy about the rewriting of Ghidorah's raison d'etre, the film does successfully take the mythos of Godzilla in some interesting new directions. Prior to the successful worldwide  marketing of manga and anime in the 1990s, Godzilla films were one of the few products of Japanese culture that achieved widespread recognition, and so, in a loose way, the success of Godzilla in the 1960s does approximate Japan's later "economic miracle." When the modern Japanese agree to get rid of the Big G. they open the door to a worse menace, and this comes close to stating that Godzilla is essential to Japan's destiny.

Even more interesting is the extension of the martial motifs of the 1954 GOJIRA. In 1944 Commander Shindo salutes the fallen dinosaur, and by so doing, he also implicates Godzilla in the fortunes of his nation. When Shindo expresses regret at having to leave the creature behind, the scene carries the resonance of an officer being forced to leave one of his own men behind. Later, after Godzilla has defeated the original King Ghidorah, he happens upon a massive building belonging to the modern-day Shindo. In a scene echoing Steve Martin's "face-down" with Gojira, Shindo alone remains in his building, exchanging meaningful stares with the giant reptile, Happily, the film doesn't go so far as to claim that the encounter is as meaningful to Godzilla as it is to Shindo, for Big G then destroys the building pitilessly, killing the same man whose life he spared by chance fifty years ago.

Necessarily, future films in the series did not address this modified origin. But if one could hazard that, in some metaphysical way, Godzilla was covalent with a Japanese soldier deserted by his unit, then that would go a long way toward explaining why Godzilla seems obsessed halt the time with raining destruction on "his" native land, and, at other times, determined to protect Japan against any and all enemies.





Friday, August 25, 2017

DOCTOR JEKYLL AND THE WOLFMAN (1971)



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


The sixth film in the "Waldermar Daninsky" series proves to be one of the most listless.

Like most of the other films, JEKYLL starts from square one. Englishwoman Justine and her rich husband travel to Central Europe to visit his parents' graves. However, car thieves attack the couple and kill Justine's husband. They are only prevented by the intrusion of a local nobleman, Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), who beats up the bandits and kills one of them, He then takes Justine back to his castle, where he lives alone with his mother. For reasons undisclosed, Waldemar is cursed to change into a werewolf, which has caused the local village to regard the castle's inhabitants with dread, and to believe (falsely) that Waldemar's mother is a witch. However, one of the thieves resents the killing of his accomplice (and brother), so he rouses the locals against the castle. The bandit even kills Waldemar's innocent mother, but though Waldemar manages to kill him in return, he realizes that he must flee the country, and so he and Justine depart for England.

I've dwelled on this amount of detail about the film's first third for one purpose: to show how much time the script wastes on things that the audience doesn't really care about. Naschy, who scripted a lot of his own "Hombre Lobo" films, may have thought that he needed a de rigeur "old castle" scene, and that this could be used as an excuse to propel Justine into the wolfman's world. Still, even knowing that the innocent young thing is destined to fall hard for hairy-chested Waldemar, as they usually do in Naschy's wolf-films, the script really doesn't portray any romantic tension between Justine and Waldemar. Of course, during her initial stay in the castle, Justine is mourning her murdered husband, but even these scenes are handled in dismissive fashion.

Therefore Justine and Waldemar aren't lovers when they reach England, though she's decided to do everything she can to help him conquer his lupine curse. She just happens to know Henry Jekyll, grandson of the famous scientist of Victorian times, and she appeals to Jekyll for help. Conveniently, Jekyll decides that he may be able to destroy the curse by injecting Waldemar with both the original "Mister Hyde" serum and its antidote. I guess the two serums are supposed to act like a vaccine, driving out one evil with another, though the explanation leaves something to be desired.

The only good thing to come out of this melange is that when Naschy responds to the serum and takes on a "Mister Hyde" persona, he really looks pretty good in the role. He hardly has any time to do anything nefarious, though, because Jekyll's trying to get him ready for the next step in the experiment. Unfortunately, Jekyll nurses an unrequited love for Justine, and his lab assistant Sandra carries her own torch for the doctor, while being insanely jealous of Justine. She kills Jekyll and sabotages the experiment, and probably anyone who's seen even two of Naschy's wolf-films knows that things can only end with the old "silver bullet to end his suffering" routine. JEKYLL may not be the worst Naschy film, or even his worst wolf-film, but it doesn't have much to make one want to watch it again. Even the lead female, who's usually played by some gorgeous model-type, is essayed by a singularly underwhelming actress, one Shirley Corrigan.



Thursday, August 24, 2017

ENTER THE DEVIL (1974), STIGMATA (1999)



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


The shadow of THE EXORCIST looms large over both of these otherwise unrelated "possession" flicks.

The 1974 film used many names, ranging from the sleazy (THE SEXORCIST) to the derivative (THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), but ENTER THE DEVIL is probably the most accurate, since, like the earlier film, it's all about what happens when the Devil is allowed to enter into one's life-- not to mention one's body.

The first half of ENTER is fairly intriguing. Young art-student Danila observes the restoration of an ancient wooden statue, carved with incredible fidelity to look like Christ in torment. The status fascinates her, in contradistinction to her depressing home-life. Her upper-class parents Mario and Luisa give a lot of loud parties, and Luisa has a young lover, of which Mario is blandly aware. Danila even looks in on one of her mother's trysts, wherein she satisfies masochistic tendencies by letting her male lover whip her with a bouquet of thorn-bearing roses.

Though Danila doesn't do anything wrong, the sins of her parents apparently opens her up to corruption. Later she visits the place where the wooden statue is kept, and, to her dismay, the statue comes to life and rapes her. It then disappears, with the general implication that it was either Satan or some lesser demon, though there's no attempt to explain why this devil chose to assume the form of a statue. Since the experts assert that the statue was carved whole from an olive tree, a pagan explanation, like the statue being inhabited by a lascivious wood-sprite, would make a lot more sense than any Judeo-Christian scenario.

Whatever the statue's provenance, it passes on its demonic nature to Danila, who starts becoming erratic and seductive. Given that one of her attempted conquests is her own father Mario-- who refuses her advances-- it's not hard to see the Freudian "rescue fantasy," in which a daughter seeks to "save" her father from the influence of a corrupt mother. However, the film quickly drops any potential mother-animus, for Luisa responds to her daughter's travails by dumping her lover. He gives her some static and promptly disappears from the story. The loose implication is that the marriage of Marco and Luisa has been "saved" once they bond over their daughter's situation, which I guess would go toward inverting the movie's suggestion of an Electra complex.

In contrast to THE EXORCIST, ENTER has a fair first act while the second and third go down the tubes. Danila runs around, spitting green goo and attacking her exorcist with a chain. Aside from the actress's nudity, the exorcism itself is a bore, and it seems likely that the creators were just phoning things in at this point. ENTER does exemplify the Italian culture's fascination with the disruptive potential of sex, but that's about all it has to offer.




STIGMATA was filmed long after the EXORCIST craze, and it's more ambivalent about what power causes a young American woman, Frankie (Patricia Arquette) to manifest the stigmata phenomenon, in which the victim bleeds from the same parts of the body where Christ was wounded.

Long before encountering Frankie, Father Andrew Kiernan is working for the Catholic Church, seeking to use both tools of science and religion to examine purported miracles. His latest case takes place in Brazil, where, following the death of a beloved priest who experienced the stigmata, a votive statue of the Virgin Mary weeps blood-tears at the priest's funeral. Unbeknownst to Kiernan, a rosary possessed by the dead priest is sold to an American tourist in Brazil, who sends it to Frankie in America. Kiernan is also sent to America to investigate Frankie's stigmata, and makes the connection: that the rosary has somehow "passed on" the priest's nature to the American woman, who is, incidentally, an atheist.

Though Kiernan's superiors strongly suggest that his real job is only to deny, never to confirm, the existence of non-canonical miracles, the priest soon learns that the dead priest had access to a new Christian gospel, roughly cognate with the Gospel of Thomas. Though Frankie does a lot of EXORCIST-like things, such as speaking in a male voice and tossing Kiernan around, the film seems to imply that the unwanted influence is more akin to a ghost than to a demon, though the script never quite states this outright. Indeed, Frankie's experience-- as seen in the screencap above-- puts her through the ordeal of an "imitatio Christi," as when she's seen "crucified" inside a subway-car.
However, the script, taken from an original story by Tom Ramage, doesn't seem to know how to make its ideas cohere, least of all what the viewer is supposed to feel toward the Catholic Church. Are they sentinels who stand against the horrors of possession, or just a bunch of guys trying to protect their own interests? Further, though there's some suggestion of an attraction between the male and female lead, the script also doesn't allow this potential to develop in any interesting directions.

STIGMATA is a well-mounted spectacle in the subgenre of "religious horror," but it doesn't know how to deliver a pay-off on the very issues it raises. The contrast of the two movies makes me wonder: what's worse, to make intellectual pretensions and fail to justify them, or to go "down and dirty" and mess up what ought to be fairly simple?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT (1989)



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

In my review of THOSE DEAR DEPARTED I mentioned that the film had probably semi-swiped the title of this Bo Derek film. This was sort of like stealing pennies from a blind man. for John Derek's last film with his then-wife Bo, who continued with his surname after Derek's death in 1998, was ineluctably his worst, and possibly among the worst films of all time.

The film introduced the viewer to the May-December couple of Kate (Bo) and Scott (Anthony Quinn). Scott fears an imminent death by heart attack, and so decides to take his own life because he can no longer make love to his beauteous, younger-by-forty-years wife. To his surprise, after having put his widow through all of this heartache, he learns that he can manifest as a ghost and that only Kate can see him. After a little dialogue with a quirky angel (Julie Newmar), Scott gets the idea that he might still enjoy connubial bliss with Kate. All Scott and Kate need to do-- since Scott can't affect anything in the real world-- is to have Kate kill some young stud, so that Scott's spirit can enter his dead body.

Usually, when professional filmmakers start out with an obnoxious premise, such as the main characters committing murder for their own benefit, the comedy proceeds out of having everything go wrong for the characters. Not in GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT, though. Even though Scott is usually presented as an arrogant, rather sexist SOB, Kate is tempted to do his bidding and kill some young dude so that she can be reunited with her beloved. Her temptation increases when she meets a twenty-something guy who relentlessly pursues her. His name is Fausto, and in most productions, I'd assume that the scripter (Derek again) was referencing the idea of a "Faustian bargain." But I doubt that's the case with GHOSTS, because the whole idea of such a bargain is that-- once again-- it has to go wrong somehow. And Derek, for whatever reason, doesn't want more than extremely minor impediments to Scott's reincarnation.

Derek's sole purpose seems to be just to find borderline sleazy ways to put Bo on display, usually with no more sense of tension than one would get from a video-montage. Even when Kate is threatened by a gunman while she's swimming naked in a pool, there's no sense that this might impede Kate's plans. She dithers a little about the morality of killing a man, and she gets a little absolution from the script in that when Fausto's life is placed in peril, she makes a belated attempt to save him. I've more or less given away the film's conclusion, but I can't really picture anyone caring.

The nicest thing I can say about the film is that Bo tries to put a lot of passion into her stupid dialogue, which is more than one gets from Anthony Quinn or from the cameo of our current President. She does get naked a little, but anyone who tries to watch for those scenes is likely to sleep through them.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES... (1964)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Friday, August 11, 2017

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959)



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


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

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

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

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

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


MURDER AT DAWN (1932)



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


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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THOSE DEAR DEPARTED (1987)



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)



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


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

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

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

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



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

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

HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941)



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


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

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

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

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



Monday, August 7, 2017

DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

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



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


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

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

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

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

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




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

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




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

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

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

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