Monday, July 24, 2017

JUDEX (1963)



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


I've read any number of commentaries on the 1916 silent serial JUDEX, directed by Louis Feuillade, that compare the serial's hero with Batman and Superman. This 1963 quasi-remake by George Franju furthers this conceit, with a prelude that deems the original Judex as the putative ancestor of both characters. The only nice thing I can say about this is that I presume it was written before the Batman teleseries, so that Franju is perhaps innocent of pandering.

I may be alone in this opnion, but I found Feuillade's original JUDEX serial tedious and unimaginative. Franju's shortened version of the rambling serial-episodes is an immense improvement, and the crisp black-and-white cinematography gives the rather simple proceedings a vibrant look.

But-- Judex, a superhero? It's like no one thinks superheroes are defined by anything but the idea of having a funny name and a double identity.

Judex is an obsessed fellow, somewhat after the fashion of the Count of Monte Cristo, who holds a grudge against Favraux, a corrupt businessman who ruined the fellow's father. At the movie's beginning Favraux begins receiving letters sent to a mysterious "Judex,"threatening the man's ill-gotten security. Favraux tries to retaliate against the supposed blackmailer, who hides in a secret sanctum-- his "Batcave," I guess-- and wears a slouch hat, which I guess is supposed to be just as awe-imposing as the costumes of Shadow or Zorro. Eventually Judex poisons Favraux at a costume party. It's a fine scene, made surreal by the fact that Judex and many of the guests wear weird bird-masks.

But it's not a superhero scene. It's a "obsessed avenger" scene; an "exotic crime story" scene. Judex displays a few magician's tricks, which alone are enough to give the film an uncanny vibe. But there's no larger-than-life combat between Judex and his enemies, so even if Judex had bothered to wear a mask or a cape, I would not have deemed him a true superhero. (I should mention that there is a mildly interesting catfight in the film's climax.).

Franju succeeded in making an homage to the subtle aesthetics of black-and-white silent films, though one online source asserts that the director would rather have remade Feuillade's FANTOMAS.
But in terms of narrative, neither version of JUDEX has anything to do with the myth of the superhero, and only a lazy mind would make the connection.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2016)



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

I see that I was incorrect when I made the following statement in my review of last year's CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: 

The newest iteration of Spider-Man—“on loan” to Marvel Studios from Sony—is more of a mixed bag. The costume and the webbing look good, and after the last two movie-versions, it’s pleasant to see a wall-crawler who continually cracks wise. However, the rest of the hero’s characterization is extremely shallow—which is understandable, in that Marvel Studios have no motive to do anything more with the character than was strictly necessary for their movie’s plot.

Wikipedia reports that "n February 2015, Marvel Studios and Sony reached a deal to share the character rights of Spider-Man, integrating the character into the established MCU." This means not only that, for the foreseeable future, Spider-Man is part of the MCU, but that his depiction is entirely in line with Marvel Studios' long-term plans for the character. And those long-term plans appear to be-- to make him into "Iron Man Writ Small."

I've seen it bruited about that HOMECOMING's concept of Spider-Man is partly indebted to the 2000-2009 series ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. I read only one collection of these comics, and so I can't speak as to whether HOMECOMING borrowed any specific tropes or ideas, though the comic-series' simplistic rewriting of the Lee-Ditko character seems to resonate at about the same level of mythicity as HOMECOMING. But in a strange bit of hubris, the producers behind the MCU seem to have thought that the proper way to pay respect to the character most associated with the Marvel Brand was to tie him to the mythos of the cinematic Iron Man-- which, of course, is the bedrock on which the MCU stands.

Happily, since two of the three Sam Raimi spider-flicks gave viewers a more than exemplary adaptation of the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, there's nothing wrong with the MCU doing their "Ultimate S-M crossed with Iron Man" concept of the character. HOMECOMING is a fairly entertaining film, filled to the brim with the trademark Marvel Studios humor, and with loads of eye-popping FX, including a technological upgrade for "The Vulture," an Old Favorite among the ranks of the Lee-and-Ditko rogues' gallery. So it's not a bad film, like AGE OF ULTRON, it's just a little under-ambitious.

Tom Holland is the new Peter Parker, and happily, there is no attempt to retell the iconic origin-story of How He Got Spider-Powers. Though he's aged 21, Holland plays a believable 15-year-old high-schooler, which plays into the central idea of this Spidey as a kid who's Got a Lot to Learn. The events of CIVIL WAR appeared to bring this Parker into Tony Stark's orbit purely to make the wall-crawler into another weapon against Captain America's forces. However, HOMECOMING informs viewers that Stark now sees his relationship to Parker as one of mentor to student, possibly even as father to son (Stark's storied difficulties with his old man are front-and-center here). To cement this new bond, Stark doesn't just give Parker a suit that can do "whatever a spider can:" he gives him a suit that can do almost everything that Iron Man can-- which, for my money, results in making the Spidey-mythos unnecessarily dependent on the Iron-mythos. In addition, if there was any area where the film's humor was more overabundant, it was with respect to jokes about Spidey's difficulties with the suit's capabilities. (The schtick involving an "enhanced interrogation" function was probably the low point.)

Parker's old cast of characters has of course been updated, many with the idea of emphasizing "diversity." However, few of the updates have any substance. The revision of the Vulture is the one exception. Originally just a thief who used artificial wings to commit robberies, this Vulture (Michael Keaton) is a discontented middle-class guy who gets ahold of alien tech and begins using it to sell illegal weapons to career criminals. (The script dances away from any implication that he might also sell to terrorists: apparently this Vulture restricts his clientele to American crooks.) Alien tech makes the Vulture a much more powerful menace than he ever was in the comics, and Keaton delivers an intense performance that counterpoints Holland's softer, more tentative character.

Most of the thrill-ride doesn't have much symbolic significance, but I did find one interesting trope. The first few Spider-Man stories by Lee and Ditko give the hero both a "good father" (saintly Uncle Ben, killed by Parker's act of omission) and a "bad father" (J. Jonah Jameson, who wields economic power over Parker and constantly kvetches about the activities of Spider-Man). HOMECOMING does not bring in Jameson at all, while poor Uncle Ben is only briefly mentioned. Yet, in a fitting turnabout, the web-slinger is still haunted by dueling fathers. True, middle-aged "Bad Dad" Vulture wants to kill Spidey rather than just berate him, but in a nice turn, the villain is also implicated in the life of Parker's support-cast. Tony Stark is more or less the Good Dad, for all that he's not there for Parker a lot of the time. I suspect that this mirroring, though, was mostly dumb luck rather than good planning.





DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE (1980)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

I confess that my only interest in reviewing DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE-- the only film produced by writer-director Robert Hammer-- lay in deciding whether or not it was an uncanny horror-film, given that it focuses on a serial killer preying on women in Los Angeles. My verdict is that it is not a horror film at all, but a thriller with horrific elements, more or less in the vein of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.

PHONE became a minor cult-film thanks to the vibrant performance of Nicholas Worth as the killer, Vietnam vet and pornographic photographer Kirk Smith. The "phone" angle implied by the title actually involves little of the story. When Smith begins his crime spree, strangling women while roaming the streets of L.A., he begins calling a talk-show hosted by a female psychologist, Doctor Gale. Even by 1980 I would say this motif-- that of the psycho who announces his crimes to a talk-show host-- was pretty common, as was the trope that the host is usually female, and is ultimately the psycho's ultimate target. It's as if the madman has to work himself up through the ranks of "common women" before he aspires to slay an upper-class female, who also happens to be his "mother confessor." Hammer's script doesn't really do much with the cat-and-mouse relationship of Smith and Gale, though. The writer-director's main concern seems to be with detailing the seamy world in which Smith dwells, which Hammer managed to capture via "guerilla filmmaking"-- i.e., filming sites in L.A. without express permission.

The character of Smith is probably influenced by that of Travis Bickle in Scorcese's 1976 TAXI DRIVER. Both Hammer and Scorcese seek to give the viewer an anatomy of a disaffected loner, though Hammer is usually content to do no more than allude to the culture that made Smith, as opposed to analyzing its sociological content. Nor does Hammer draw upon the "slasher-film" conventions that were being formulated in this period. Smith wears a stocking-mask during a couple of his murders, but there's nothing uncanny about the killer or his methods.  There's a lot of violence and hard language during the slayings, and the psycho dies in a bloody fashion, but it's all very six-o'-clock-news.

There's one odd moment in the film, when the cops pursuing the stalker have to interview a psychic who claims he can help find the psycho. The psychic does seem to know things that he should not know, but he only exists for comedy relief, in that the cops arrest him on suspicion. There's no firm evidence that the psychic has faked his feats, but given that this possibility is left open by the script, this part of the film conforms to the naturalistic trope of "phantasmal figurations," The character's a little like "the robe of Christ" as it's presented in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, which addresses the question "does the robe have special powers" with more of a "probably not" than was the case in THE ROBE.

TERROR IN THE JUNGLE (1968), THE OVAL PORTRAIT (1972)



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


These two films happened to be on the same disc of a DVD collection called PURE TERROR, and their only connection, besides being both of a marvelous phenomenality, is that they seem to be vying with one another for "worst movie in the collection."

TERROR is a mess, made by three directors of minimal experience and (reputedly) a producer who thought the whole thing was gold. It also used largely non-professional actors, though the cast does include exotic dancer Fawn Silver, best known for Ed Wood's ORGY OF THE DEAD. Most of the story's characters, however, perish when their plane crashes in Peru in the film's first thirty minutes. This leaves one little boy, name of Henry, to struggle through the Peruvian jungle, with only his stuffed toy tiger for companionship. By chance he's taken in by a tribe of Jivaro Indians, because one of their number has a vision of Henry with a golden halo over his head. The guy who sees this claims that the white boy has been sent to the tribe by the sun-god Inti, but other parties in the tribe resent the kid's presence. Meanwhile the boy's father mounts an expedition to find Henry, though the film shows far less of the expedition's progress than it does loads of stock footage, particularly of fabulous parades in one of the country's tourist traps.

There's just one sociological motif that makes this turkey slightly memorable. There have been dozens of flicks in which tribes of various colors became immediately fascinated with white people simply because of their skin-color. Here, however, the only reason the tribe saves Henry is because he's believed to have some supernatural power-- and the payoff to this trope, probably inspired by the producer watching an old TWILIGHT ZONE, is that Henry really does have such power. At the climax, he's attacked by one of the Jivaro naysayers, and Henry turns his stuffed tiger into a real beast that savages the would-be assassin.  Then he's rescued. The end.



TERROR's pretty terrible, but at least it doesn't purport to be anything but a low-grade jungle-adventure. The other flick lies outright in claiming to be based on one of Poe's lesser-- and lesser-known-- short stories, but this Mexican-made film has nothing in common with the Poe story except that they both feature "oval portraits" of beautiful women.

PORTRAIT also gets the nod for being far more incoherent than TERROR. It shouldn't be all that hard for a film with just a handful of characters to convey, in the first ten minutes, who they are and what motivates them. Instead, an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter (former B-actress Wanda Hendrix) appear at an old mansion, where they meet the housekeeper and somehow manage to say almost nothing about who they are or why they're there. (Eventually there's a mention of a "reading of the will" that's supposed to take place there.( The mansion seems to be haunted by the ghost of a woman in an oval portrait, and daughter Lisa begins to identify with the history of Rebecca, the recently deceased woman in the portrait. Is Lisa really being possessed by a ghost, or is she simply identifying with an imaginary spectre? Don't ask me. The film didn't even make clear in the opening scenes that it's supposed to be taking place shortly after the end of the American Civil War, which turns out to be a very important part of the story-- such as it is. There's also a crazy young man hanging around, who happens to be connected to both the late Rebecca and the mansion's housekeeper, but the film is so haphazard in its continuity that I found it impossible to invest any emotion in the story. For what it's worth, Rebecca's ghost is real, though I have no idea if she was really trying to possess anyone.

It's definitely a career low-point for both Wanda Hendrix-- whom I liked in Roger Corman's HIGHWAY DRAGNET-- and director Rogelio Gonzalez, whose best-known work today is probably the 1960 SF-comedy SHIP OF MONSTERS.


MOANA (2016)



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

Though Polynesian mythology offers the animator a wealth of mythological motifs mostly untapped by American cinema, MOANA fails to take advantage of this potential and merely delivers a routine fantasy-adventure glossed by homilies like "be yourself" and "have the courage of your convictions."

The title character is a young Polynesian girl who lives with her tribe on the isolated island of Motunui. The tribe worships the creator-goddess Te Fiti, but years ago the capricious demigod Maui sought to steal the goddess's mystic heart. A lava demon, Te Ka, pursued Maui, and while the demigod escaped, both his prize and his principal weapon, a giant magical fishhook, are lost in the ocean.

Moana grows up amidst people who tend to stay close to their island-home, and her father Tui in particular does not want Moana venturing out past the island's barrier reefs, since Tui lost his wife to the ocean. However, a blight, spiritual in nature, strikes the crops of Motunui and the fishing-grounds in the waters near the island. Moana comes to the conclusion that the blight is caused by the separation of Te Fiti from her sacred heart, and that the only way to end the malady is to search out the enigmatic Maui and get him to find the heart again.

Though there have been some recent Disney films in which the "girlpower" heroine was essentially the main character, MOANA offers an "odd-couple" ensemble composed of Moana and Maui. Moana is only able to compel Maui to help her because she possesses a hereditary power over the ocean-waves, but Maui can't perform any great feats until he regains his special fishhook. The two of them are also a non-romantic couple, whose quarrels and reluctant moments of respect form the backbone of the story, far more than the adventurous quest-theme. In this MOANA is much like 2000's THE EMPERIOR'S NEW GROOVE. MOANA is not nearly as funny. though the movie gets points for not encumbering the heroine with a cute pet or sprite. Instead, Moana is accompanied by a chicken who has no more anthropomorphic qualities than it has a single brain in its skull. The dumb fowl is used for comedy-relief sparingly, but he's still more amusing than any of the head-butting between the heroine and her reluctant ally.

The designs look good, but the musical numbers are negligible, and the central menace-- which involves returning the heart to the goddess-- lacks much dramatic weight. The goddess's lava demon more or less fulfills the role of the "villain," but it's really just a monster with no character, so he doesn't offer anything but some climactic opposition. Yet in order to keep most of the focus upon Moana, Maui is still not able to raise any major magic against the creature even after the demigod regains his sacred fishhook. Thus, although the actions of Moana and Maui in resolving the crisis are courageous enough, the lack of a strong battle may leave some viewers wanting more.

The film was financially successful,  though I predict that it'll never take on the cultural cachet of a FROZEN or LION KING.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (1940)



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


There's often an adversarial relationship between works of prose and works of the cinema. Prose is of course the older medium, and it's far more the case that films are adapted from prose works than the other way around. But films often change the works they adapt, sometimes to meet the nature of cinematic storytelling, sometimes just because some filmmaker wants to tell his own story while tying it into a "presold property." Multi-chapter serials were particularly notable for this, as witness 1941's JUNGLE GIRL, which derived nothing but a title from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which it was supposedly based.

DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, directed by William Witney and John English, uses the title of the 1939 Sax Rohmer novel. However, the serial's basic plot-- in which the Asian villain seeks to gain control of diverse Asian tribes by finding a rare artifact-- derives from both Rohmer's 1932 THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, as well as a (very loose) film-adaptation with the same title and in the same year.

Perhaps because Fu Manchu had not appeared in a live-action film since 1932, the serial-makers felt it necessary to remind audiences of his literary provenance with a prologue that reads, in part: "From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time-- Fu Manchu! Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient, he is as modern as tomorrow!" Rohmer's character in fact kept his feet planted in both worlds. The Oriental mastermind's main modus operandi consisted of committing thefts and assassinations with skillful assassins or with the use of artful devices involving poisonous creatures, all very "low-tech." Yet at times Rohmer's Fu also dabbles in science-fiction weapons like reanimated dead men and a handheld disintegrator ray. The six scriptwriters assigned to DRUMS wisely chose to dispense with overt SF-weapons, so that all of this Fu's weapons are of the "uncanny" phenomenality, though a couple of them-- which I'll discuss in closing remarks-- strain the definition.

As in Rohmer's MASK novel, Fu's mission is "the conquest of Asia," and here the master plotter must do so by unearthing the Scepter of Genghis Khan, concealed in the (still unknown as of this date) tomb of the Mongolian leader. Fu finds out that various Western archaeologists have pieced together clues as to the tomb's location, and he seeks to find the tomb, implicitly somewhere in Mongolia, so that he can gain control of the resentful tribes-- which, given the boogieman status of the Mongol hordes, is apparently covalent with gaining control of all Asia. Aside from one major firearms-battle in the final chapter, Fu almost always seeks to conquer Asia using archaic weapons like knives, strangling-cords, and poisonous creatures, all wielded by the villain's vicious, slavish dacoits. Though Witney and English, like Sax Rohmer, generally support the rightness of British colonialism, Fu can't help but seem admirable for taking on the superior forces of Caucasian Europe with primitive weaponry. One chapter of the serial even directly adapts Rohmer's device of the "Seven Gates," a series of wooden gates that bring starving rats closer and closer to Fu's intended torture-victim.

DRUMS provides audiences with the closest cinematic match to Rohmer's villain. Fu Manchu is easily the intellectual superior of all of his antagonists, a master of chemistry and a skilled surgeon (he makes his dacoits subject to his will via an operation that sounds somewhat like a lobotomy, except that it leaves them with fang-like teeth.) He's also a master of hypnotism and the arts of disguise, and he receives feminine assistance from his cunning daughter Fah Lo Suee-- though she's perhaps a little more servile than she is in the books. As essayed by the masterful Henry Brandon, Fu has a sardonic sense of humor absent from most other cinematic productions, as well as his own code of honor, despite his penchant for murder and torture. One scene even allows him to display grief when his daughter is gravely wounded. displaying a level of emotion not seen in other adaptations of the character.

The other players acquit themselves well. William Royle makes for an unusually heavyset version of Nayland Smith, agent of the British Empire and Fu's eternal enemy. Most of the hand-to-hand fights are handled by a younger character, Allan Parker, who much resembles some of the "stalwart young heroes" of Rohmer's books, though actor Robert Kellard gives Parker a greater vim and vigor than the average square-jawed hero. The character of Doctor Petrie, who functions in the books to narrate Nayland Smith's exploits, obviously doesn't have a lot of relevance to this project, but it's pleasant to see him included for a few chapters, and there's even an eccentric collector of artifacts who's probably patterned after Rohmer's "Lionel Barton" character. The two female characters, Fah Lo Suee and Mary Randolph, aren't given much to do overall, but the serial gains some gravitas from short-term participation by actors like Dwight Frye and Philip Ahn.

In terms of the serial's greatest asset-- the action-- I'd say that DRUMS is the FURY ROAD of its day. Many serials just coast on repetitive fight-scenes broken up by talking-heads of the heroes discussing their next plans. But although DRUMS has its share of talking-head scenes, Witney and English manage to make even these compelling, possibly because the plot has a sense of sustained progress from one point to another, a sense of progress many serials lack. Dominantly, the heroes and villains are seen doing exciting things: fighting, running, jumping, riding horses, scaling telephone poles. DRUMS also benefits from cliffhangers with some logical payoff, as when Fu Manchu trap-doors Allan Parker into a tank with a predatory octopus!

Witney and English also structure the story to resemble Rohmer's stories in mixing elements of both mysteries and horror-tales, making greater use of shadowy or exotic locales than most serials are wont to do. One particular exotic locale, an isolated temple in Mongolia is the source of one of those "verges-on-the-marvelous" phenomena. The temple falls under Fu's aegis, and it just happens to possess a unique method of executing infidels: a great crystal that can focus the sun's rays so as to incinerate anyone placed in the path of the rays. It's almost needless to say that there's no real crystal that can perform this laser-like function. And yet, since the crystal isn't presented as being an artifact from some super-scientific civilization, like a similar item in LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE, I have to regard it as an "outre device" that operates the way it does just because the story says that's how it works/ It's just an arbitrary rule of the game, sort of like Fu using hypnosis to instantly enthrall people into subjection.

But the outstanding "outre skill" used by Fu Manchu here is like nothing seen in the novels. In many episodes Fu Manchu's approach is heralded by drumbeats, and for most of the serial, the audience would probably assume that some of his minions are nearby, beating drums for their master. Indeed, there are comparable scenes in one or two Rohmer books. But only in Chapter 10 does it become evident that-- Fu Manchu himself makes the drum-sounds! He's only seen doing so once: Parker and Smith are in a cavern whose stalactites are poised to fall at any loud sound, and Fu, off to one side, begins emitting drumbeat-sounds from his very skull, so that the stalactites fall and nearly kill the heroes! It is, in my educated opinion, the single most delirious episode in the history of American serials. There's no explanation as to how Fu can make such a sound, and though I've played with the idea that he's somehow amplifying his own heartbeats, the truth is that it happens just it looks awesome. It's a scene that makes the audience feel as if, for a moment, they're trapped inside the skull of that supreme enemy of all things Western: the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE TERROR (1963)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

"That [development] came about... because I was thinking this picture is a really kind of dull. I was wondering what kind of twist we could put into it to make it more interesting"-- Roger Corman, quoted in ROGER CORMAN: INTERVIEWS (2011)

THE TERROR, credited to two screenwriters and (on IMDB) seven directors, is a great mood piece, but a mess in terms of a coherent narrative. According to Corman's reminiscences, Leo Gordon, with whom Corman had worked on THE WASP WOMAN and TOWER OF LONDON, was the initial source of the story. So it would seem that the "twist" Corman introduced is responsible for  a lot of the narrative incoherence.

Many reviews have already covered the behind-the-scenes history of Corman's TERROR, but it would appear that the core of Gordon's original story goes like this. A young French officer, Duvalier (Jack Nicholson), becomes separated from his regiment in an unidentified European territory. He meets a beautiful young woman, Helene, who almost kills Duvalier by luring him into the ocean. He's rescued by an old woman, Katrina, and her male servant, Gustaf. Katrina denies that the woman exists-- in fact, she uses the name "Helene" for her pet falcon-- but Gustaf takes Duvalier aside and says that the soldier can find Helene at the castle of the local aristocrat, Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff). Duvalier shows up at the castle and more or less imposes himself on the Baron's hospitality. He spies Helene again, and is given the impression by Gustaf that she is "possessed" by an evil spirit, which may be the ghost of the murdered Baroness Von Leppe, killed twenty years previous by the Baron for an act of infidelity. Duvalier is too rational to believe this, but the truth proves even more extraordinary. Katrina is proven to be a witch who has conjured up the spirit of Ilsa Von Leppe, because she Katrina is the mother of Ilsa's lover, whom the Baron also slew. For two years previous to Duvalier's arrival, the ghost has tried to convince Von Leppe to commit suicide, which Katrina believes will automatically condemn the Baron's soul to hell. Duvalier, far from preventing any of this, possibly aggravates Von Leppe's murder-guilt and helps the ghost seduce the old man to commit suicide by drowning (a mirror image of the death Helene almost brings upon Duvalier at the beginning). After pretty much everyone is dead, Duvalier rescues Helene, but she deteriorates into a rotted corpse, apparently having been not a possessed woman, but a reanimated corpse.



TERROR's pre-twist plot might be considered a standard Gothic scenario, fraught with an Oedipal theme. Usually, when a young man penetrates the lair of an older one and steals away a beautiful woman, the woman is the older man's daughter. Here, the woman's youth is an illusion brought about by a old witch, and in terms of the generation into which the fictional Ilsa is born, she's closer to being a "mother-figure" to Duvalier than being a "daughter-figure" to Von Leppe. Technically, though Ilsa is sort of both, since in life she's explicitly said to be the Baron's second wife. (I would guess that this detail came about because the actor playing Von Leppe was over seventy years old.) The original script is built upon the notion that Von Leppe was responsible for the deaths of his wife and her lover, though it's still rather confusing as to why Katrina, who appears to be a quite powerful witch, would wait eighteen years after her son's death and THEN finally conjure up the ghost of Ilsa to take vengeance upon the Baron. It's also pretty fuzzy logic as to why it takes Ilsa a full two years to break down the Baron, who isn't exactly having a lot of laughs during his golden years.

Corman's last-minute twist is that Eric, the former lover of Ilsa, was not killed in the struggle that took Ilsa's life. Instead Eric took Von Leppe's life and was so traumatized by the deed that he convinced himself that he was Von Leppe. Symbolically, the twist does have the effect of making Eric and Duvalier virtual doubles, since both are young men trying to steal an older man's wife. But in terms of narrative, Corman's addition makes the script insanely over-complicated. If the original Von Leppe was killed twenty years ago, and Eric has assumed his role with the unexplained compliance of Von Leppe's only servant (Jonathan Haze), what sequence of events led Katrina to believe that her son Eric was dead in the first place? And how does Eric pull off his imposture for twenty years, even with just one servant in his castle? AND if Von Leppe is really Eric, why doesn't Ilsa recognize him as Eric in the final confrontation scene between the two?

Corman clearly didn't care about plot coherence; he just wanted a gimmick that would theoretically pull audiences into the movie-houses. I tend to doubt that anyone who liked THE TERROR back during its original release was blown away by the "Big Reveal," though. The movie is at its best when it simply focuses on nearly surrealistic scenes of supernatural violence. I've mentioned the film's best scene, in which Helene walks into the ocean and thus obliges Duvalier to try rescuing her. Not only does she disappear while he's being battered by the surf, the falcon Helene shows up and tries to claw the officer's eyes out. The female Helene is sometimes, but not always, identified with the falcon, but they are once seen to be separate beings, which may just mean that they're both the occult pawns of Katrina. The other major scene, in which the falcon does manage to rip out Gustaf's eyes, is still compelling, even though it's never clear as to what motivates Gustaf to give aid to either Duvalier or to Helene, whom he must know is not really a living woman, despite his "possession" claim.

Still, THE TERROR may not make much narrative sense, it boasts some stunning scenes, and stands as one of Boris Karloff's more substantial parts in his last decade, with the exception of his voice-work for animation projects like MAD MONSTER PARTY and HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946)



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


Strangely, though I've liked the majority of Abbott and Costello comedies, I haven't found most of them laugh-out-loud funny, with the exception of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Like a lot of TV sitcoms, A & C offer the viewer "comfort comedy," whose whole appeal lies in putting one or more fairly simple characters through assorted minor travails. For me at least, even when Bud & Lou were placed in situations that involved life and death, there never seems any real possibility of a bad outcome.

One of the biggest comforts A&C offer is their amiable "straight man / goofus" chemistry. For that reason, THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, in which the two performers barely interact, measures up as one of the duo's least impressive efforts, even though TIME boasts excellent production values-- including the most expensive FX of any A&C film-- and some fine support-work from the cast, particularly from Gale Sondergaard playing a dotty psychic.

The story goes that Abbott and Costello had a falling out in 1945, and thus they did not play a "duo" in their films that year, LITTLE GIANT and TIME OF THEIR LIVES. Instead, Costello's character, Revolutionary-era tinker Horatio Prim, is teamed with am aristocratic female of the same era, Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds). Horatio and Melody, are barely acquainted with one another at the outset of the picture. An anti-Revolutionary conspiracy forces inadvertently causes the deaths of both the tinker and the lady, and for good measure, their spirits are cursed to haunt the grounds of the estate where their bodies were slain, thanks to one of the pro-Revolutionaries cursing them as traitors to the cause. The spirits of Horatio and Melody can only be released to their heavenly reward if someone uncovers the truth, that both of them were loyal Americans. Thus the ghosts hang around the abandoned house until the 1940s. Then the current owner of the property renovates the estate, furnishing it with much of the original fixtures-- which gives the ghosts hope that they can find a vital letter attesting to their innocence.

Even from this brief description, it should be apparent that this is a rather limp plot. To make viewers invested in the only conflict-- will Horatio and Melody be freed from their curse, and be allowed to enter heaven-- they would have to be fairly involving characters. But Horatio is just a routine Costello goofus, and Melody is no better than she has to be. Had the two ghosts fallen in love during their long exile from paradise, the movie might have offered some sense of character change. But the script deliberately short-circuits this potential in the opening scenes, establishing that both main characters are loyal to their respective aniours from the 1780s. Or mostly loyal, for there's a pre-1940s scene in which Melody tries to get a little affection out of Horatio, if only to break the monotony, and he, being a dunce, doesn't even understand what she intimates. I suspect that the scripters were instructed to keep the two characters romantically unattached to one another, in large part because they were not married to one another. (For that matter, they also don't get to marry the fiancees that they knew in life, so their marriage prospects were pretty well cut off by untimely demise.) The overall result of this curious team-up is that the two ghosts don't even forge a friendship, much less a romance. Melody is the sensible one, who tells Horatio the best ways to interact with the 20th-century Americans, and Horatio is the goofus who, even as a ghost, keeps falling over things a lot. Reynolds gives her role her all, but she's simply got no comic chemistry with Costello.

As for Bud Abbott, he gets to play two characters. One is a 1780s romantic rival to Horatio, and that character's schemes indirectly bring about the tragic misunderstanding. Abbott also plays a 20th-century psychiatrist, as well as a descendant of the earlier fellow, and Character #2 has no idea why the ghost of Horatio seems to be particularly peeved at him. Sadly, the scenes in which the chubby Costello-ghost gets to torment the confused modern-day Abbott-character are probably the highlight of this strange, generally unfunny misfire.

FWIW, Costello did succeed in sustaining a comic romantic duo in his last film, THE 30-FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK, in which he and Dorothy Provine displayed the chemistry this film so badly needed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A MAN CALLED DAGGER (1968)



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

The explosion of the superspy genre gave rise to dozens of transitory flicks seeking to coast on the meteoric success of the James Bond franchise.  Most of them are resoundingly mediocre, but if I catch even the cheaper Eurospy films when I'm in the right mood, they have a modest charm, as seen in these two quirky products. However, had I desired to find the decade's most charmless spy-flick, it's probably the American-made A MAN CALLED DAGGER.

Directed leadenly by Richard (STUNT MAN) Rush, DAGGER feels like it was the product of writers who were trying to duplicate the major appeals of the Bond films but had never actually seen one of the pictures. Agent Dick Dagger (Paul Mantee) tries to project an insouciant air, and he comes armed with a few gadgets (an infrequently-used laser beam in his wristwatch supplies the film's only marvelous content). Three or four gorgeous ladies swarm around him, anxious to give evidence as to the superspy's enormous animal magnetism. There's an evil mastermind with some sort of vague world-conquering plan, and he's even served by a hulking henchman, played by Richard Kiel, who would later take on the original superspy in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. But the attitude of the director and the scripters project an utter lack of interest in their material. They were just going through the motions, and didn't care who knew it.

Though Mantee makes a drab secret agent, the film's biggest problem is unquestionably the casting of Jan Murray-- a comedian whom I personally never found funny even in outright humorous works-- as the mastermind Koffman, who was a former Nazi officer but somehow can't put across a decent German accent. I've forgotten Koffman's master plan, though it involved turning human beings into packaged meats. Koffman spends most of the film in a wheelchair until the end, where he suddenly gets out of the chair in order to fight Dagger. Just as he can't come up with a decent master plan, he can't contrive a believable reason as to why he stayed in a wheelchair most of the picture. Murray plays the role in a hammy fashion, perhaps under the impression he was doing some sort of "camp."

I can't think of any good reason to watch A MAN CALLED DAGGER unless one happens to be interested in seeing a particular actor or actress.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)



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


The last Chris Lee "Dracula" film from Hammer-- a fairly direct sequel to the studio's first modern-day opus with the Count, DRACULA A.D. 1972-- is far from perfect, but it's not the worst way to wind up the series. I give thanks to the late Mr. Lee for having refused the offer to portray the vampire-lord in LEGEND OF SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, for his non-appearance allows me to pigeonhole that film as outside the bounds of the series proper, despite the presence of "a" Dracula and Peter Cushing once more portraying Van Helsing.

Just as LEGEND would attempt to meld vampire-thrills with kung fu action, SATANIC seeks to fuse vampires and spy-drama-- but fortunately, the espionage stuff is fairly low-key, more in line with John Buchan than Ian Fleming. Alan Gibson, also the director on A.D. 1972, uses a couple of characters from the earlier film, notably Cushing's modern-day vampire-hunter, but one need not have seen A.D. 1972 to follow what happens here. Gibson's direction is fluid and efficient, allowing for a modicum of suspense even though the viewer should be able to figure out the true master of the Satanic cult threatening not only English society, but the fate of the entire world.

Scripter Don Houghton, given the only credit on A.D. 1972, shares billing with Roy Skeggs for SATANIC. It's possible to see the team utilizing some of the religious imagery found in that film, and expanding on it so that Dracula is not just a perversion of the Christian religion but a would-be Antichrist, trying to bring about a secular version of the "end of days." In short, Dracula has decided to wipe out humanity rather than seeking to rule over it, and does so by having an enthralled scientist develop a strain of bubonic plague capable of doing the job.

I enjoyed some of the more mundane shootout scenes, and found that the writers created better secondary villains in comparison to the previous outing, with Barbara Yu Ling a standout amidst Drac's menacing minions. However, I still found that the spy-stuff tended to undermine the film's potential for horror, even though Gibson and Co. are careful to interject enough fang-scenes that no viewer is likely to forget that this is a vampire film.

Lee's screen-time in all the Hammer Draculas is of limited duration, possibly for reasons related to his asking-price. Thus the script's solution to this difficulty-- keeping Dracula off screen most of the time until the end-- was probably unavoidable. The greatest consequence of this, though, is that the script cannot explore in depth the villain's reason for embracing Armageddon. A few possible motivations are tossed out by Van Helsing, but Lee doesn't have enough time on-screen to put across the film's most interesting idea: why would the Lord of the Undead finally choose to embrace Death? In fact, a movie focusing on such a Dracula, from start to finish, would probably have been much more memorable than this simple espionage plot-line.

That said, though the climactic confrontation of Dracula and Van Helsing falls far short of the first Cushing-Lee battle in HORROR OF DRACULA, it's at least a lively encounter. Though the familiar stake comes into play once again, I give the writers points for trying to give the Count a new nemesis: the thorns of the hawthorn tree, of which Christ's crown was supposedly composed. It's a minor addition to the Hammer vampire mythology, but at least it "keeps faith" with Hammer's principal conception of Dracula as a blasphemous reversal of all things Christian.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

JUDGMENT DAY (1999)




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


This flick is a bit more ambitious than your average DTV movie, in that it attempts to meld two types of action-scenarios: that of the "mismatched partners performing rescue-mission" with that of "save Earth from a cosmic disaster." DAY won't make anyone forget big-budget thrillers like ARMAGEDDON, but it's an OK time-killer if one doesn't think too hard about it.

A gigantic meteor is heading toward Earth, and though the current administration has a high-tech defense, it's not an effective one. Somehow Brother Thomas Payne (Mario Van Peebles), the leader of a Christian charismatic group, knows that an alternate method of defense, devised by one Doctor Corbett, is the only thing that can stop the big rock. Since Payne believes the big rock is the instrument of God, sent to obliterate sinning humanity, Payne and his well-armed cultists kidnap Corbett, so that he can't give the U.S. government any aid when their first line of defense fails.

I said one shouldn't think too hard about the film. However, given that one of the big-brass generals remarks on the fact that Payne takes Corbett alive, the viewer can't help but wonder: why doesn't the cult-leader simply shoot Corbett from the get-go? Why does the religious fanatic take the prof captive and hold him prisoner in Payne's secret compound? He's not trying to do anything with or to Corbett  -- to convert him, or brainwash him-- and if his only purpose is to make sure the meteor gets through and does its dirty work, killing the physicist would seem to be the most logical option.

The extra-diegetical reason is, of course, that with Corbett dead, the story's mismatched partners have no one to rescue, and no way to save the planet. By-the-book FBI agent Tyrell (Suzy Amis) obtains the release of hard-time convict Reese (Ice-T), who had once been associated with Payne and now bears the cult-leader a major grudge.

The majority of the scenes are indistinguishable from any other action-flick, and thus this is a rare example of a film in which both the heroes and villains are thoroughly naturalistic in their phenomenality, and the only marvelous entity is an inanimate object from outer space, though one might also count Corbett's defense-system as a science-fiction device. To date, only the western MACKENNA'S GOLD presents a set-up in which the only metaphenomenality inheres in the environment.

Van Peebles makes a fairly charming nutbar, but Amis makes a bland heroine, and Ice-T doesn't give one of his better performances. Payne's opening speech emphasizes the maltreatment of Afro-Americans as his motivation for wanting to see the whole planet blow up, but not surprisingly, these sociological touches are given a ham-handed treatment.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

From time to time I've debated, like many others on the web, the question as to whether or not all works in the tradition of the "alternate history" fall into the domain of what many call"fantasy and science fiction"-- or, as I term said domain "the metaphenomenal." I plan to write another essay for my theory-blog soon about the reasons why INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is an example of a purely isophenomenal "alternate history" film, so I'll dispense with any detailed theoretical justifications in this review. However, like some of the naturalistic films I've reviewed here, BASTERDS is relevant in that it uses many of the same tropes one would find in an "uncanny" version of an alternate-world narrative, such as (to cite a quick example) Philip Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.

BASTERDS is also a work of superior mythicity, and as such, it contains too many levels to explore in a single blog-post. In contrast to the vast majority of war-films set in the Second World War, Tarantino only follows recorded history up to a point, and then "rewrites" it by showing Hitler and his high command suffer violent deaths in a movie theater. In 2009 a number of small-minded reviewers became indignant about this rewriting, claiming that playing games with the facts was tantamount to wishing away the Holocaust. These critics obviously paid no attention to the fact that Tarantino, by executing the Nazi high command in such a place, was in effect saying, "Yes, of course this is a fantasy: not only is it a movie about Hitler being killed prematurely--  by Jewish executioners, no less-- but the slaughter takes place within the confines of a French movie theater." No professional critic could have missed the dozens of arcane cinematic references crammed into BASTERDS-- with particular attention to the formidable history of German cinema-- but some critics chose to use this fact as ammunition against Tarantino for his supposed escapism, rather than as the underlying context of the entire film.

The complex cinematic references supply much of the film's mythic structure, but they're not the very heart of the story. BASTERDS anticipates many of the moral and symbolic strategies that I analyzed in Tarantino's 2012 DJANGO UNCHAINED here. In both BASTERDS and DJANGO, the writer-director begins with an aspect of history that tends to be portrayed in cinema in polarizing good-vs.-evil terms-- the Holocaust in 2009, American slavery in 2012. At no point does Tarantino redeem either the politics of Nazism or of slavery, but in contrast to more unimaginative filmmakers, he makes it abundantly clear that the people who devote themselves to these political movements do not perforce lose their humanity. For instance, one of the major plotlines of BASTERDS follows the arc of French Jewess Shoshanna, who flees Nazi persecution and becomes the mistress of the aforementioned theater. Only one factor makes it possible for her to have the chance to destroy the Nazi high command: the fact that Frederick, a young Nazi soldier, becomes besotted with her and moves heaven and earth to help her improve her fortunes.

Had Frederick appeared in a morale-building film within the sphere of the actual war, Hollywood would have made him the lovelorn Nazi a preening fop or a violent asshole. At best he might have been an honorable but still patrician type, like Conrad Veidt's character in the 1939 SPY IN BLACK.
But Frederick, rather like Calvin Candle in DJANGO, appears to be a generally pleasant young fellow who just doesn't have any awareness that he's doing anything wrong. Indeed, whereas Candle is less sympathetic in that he ignores the sufferings of his slaves, Frederick is simply oriented on defending his own people against invaders. Indeed, if anyone within the arc acts like the stereotypical Nazi, it's Shosanna, during a scene where she and her aide Marcel use violence to force a Parisian citizen to help them in their plot against the Nazis.

The film's main source of ultraviolence, however, are the "Basterds" of the title: a Special Service commando force operating in Nazi-held territories. Possibly because the group's leader Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) boasts some Apache blood, the Basterds specialize in scalping many of their victims, the better to spread waves of superstitious terror. By a series of very involved plot-devices, Raines and his people end up participating in Shoshanna's assault. Although the Basterds are technically the "good guys," they too are seen doling out as much, if not more, brutal violence than the Nazi soldiers -- though once again, it should be obvious to any viewer that they are on the right side of history.

I should mention that the killing of the high command is also only made possible through the collaboration of Nazi defector Hans Landa (Christoph Walz). Despite being something of a villain to both sides-- he persecutes Shoshanna, but turns on his own people when it suits his needs-- Landa is also the source of much of the film's humor, partly because he's sort of a Nazi "Sherlock Holmes" in terms of his perspicuity.

Rather than making a historically accurate film that would merely tell viewers facts they could find out from history books or Internet sites, Tarantino has made one in which history and fiction play off one another, in a manner analogous to their interaction in real life. It's more than just "metafiction"-- a lazy critical term for any sort of narrative that suggests self-consciousness about its own status-- but is rather an unblinking look at the way good and evil intermingle in human nature.

Like most war-films, this partakes of the nature of the drama more than any other mythos. In terms of the naturalistic trope the film uses, the "exotic lands and peoples" trope comes closest to describing BASTERDS' historical rewriting-- but this time, it's not the natural inhabitants of the land who seem exotic, but rather the "Jewish Indian" invaders of that land-- though the exoticism of the "Basterds" pales before a similar "tribe" of characters found in the uncanny film RED DAWN.