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Monday, May 19, 2008


Poster from the original theatrical release.

"What's that screaming? A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming..."

The death of
John Phillip Law last week, as well as ominous reports of a remake being in the works, got me to thinking about BARBARELLA for the first time in quite a while, and those thoughts were very pleasant indeed.

Back in the days when VCRs were not common to just about every household and DVD didn’t even exist, it wasn’t so easy to see certain cult films unless you were lucky enough to have a movie theater near you that ran such fare on a regular basis, and luckily for me I lived a town over from Norwalk, Connecticut’s legendary Sono Cinema (“Sono” being short for “South Norwalk”). Many a night of my high school and college years were spent in the dark there, experiencing classic and not-so-classic motion pictures on a dinky screen in a smallish setting that brought to mind the intimacy of a homemade, basement screening room, each celluloid treasure accented with often hilarious commentary from the audience and the inevitable contact high achieved from the simple act of breathing the theater's atmosphere. More often than not, the films were run as double or triple features, usually in genre groupings of horror films, rockumentaries — there was a particularly amusing evening featuring THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME that’s great fodder for a post of its own —, and sci-fi flicks, and the oft-run sci-fi sets were guaranteed to feature at least one of the following films: THE ROAD WARRIOR, A BOY AND HIS DOG, DEATH RACE 2000, and BARBARELLA, each with a loyal following that guaranteed a sizable crowd. Being a regular attendee of these shows I saw all of those films several times, but these days the only one I keep going back to when I need a “feel good” movie is BARBARELLA.

Barbarella, as seen in the 1962 source comics. Unfortunately, her romp with Diktor the robot doesn't make the transition to the movie.

One of the weirdest variations on Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey template and based on a 1962 French comic book by Jean-Claude Forest, the 1968 adaptation of BARBARELLA is very much a product of its time, being a campy and lysergic live-action cartoon, a WIZARD OF OZ-style quest story for grownups that revels in the “free love” ethos of the late 1960’s.

Jane Fonda as Barbarella: ready and waiting for her next close encounter.

A thirty-year-old and painfully hot Jane Fonda stars as Barbarella, a more-or-less space-cop of the year 40,000, on assignment to locate missing scientist Durand Durand (pronounced “Duran Duran,” and yes, it’s where the ‘80’s pop group got their name) on the mysterious and balls-out bizarre planet Lythion. But after crash-landing her cheesy-looking birdhouse/party balloon spaceship on the strange world, our heroine finds herself bounced from one crazy and perilous situation to another, running afoul of homicidal children, hollow soldiers made from leather, and a lesbian/dominatrix queen of a city that makes Mos Eisley seem wholesome in comparison.
Barbarella lost in Sogo, one of the sleaziest cities in sci-fi history.

Along the way she also discovers the joys of flesh-to-flesh sexual encounters, a form of contact lost centuries ago in favor of palm-to-palm transference/psychic melding with the aid of pills, and Barbarella takes to Osh-Osh like a duck to water, eagerly jumping at every chance to get her hump on with various available males.

Barbarella makes a new friend.

It’s the sex angle that really earned BARBARELLA its place in film history and in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere, but don’t think for a second that it’s pornographic or prurient in any way; Barbarella herself is a capable woman who happens to be an innocent whose elation upon her sexual awakening is a joyous thing that she’s happy to share as often as possible, and there’s something charmingly sweet about that. She’s definitely a male fantasy of a kindly and beautiful sex goddess, pure of soul and utterly unashamed of her frequent states of nudity and partial undress, rounded with a goofily cartoonish, wide-eyed quality that’s positively endearing, and I honestly can’t think of anyone other than Jane Fonda who could have made her work. People tend to make note of Fonda’s more serious work, but when she’s given a solid comedic role she always makes to most of it — even in the horrendous MONSTER-IN-LAW — and she’s seldom been funnier than in her played-totally-straight turn as Barbarella. But while there’s skin on display, there are no “pickle and donut” shots, making for one of the most sexuality-friendly films ever made. One never feels there’s “dirty” intent in the film — even though some overly-sensitive and PC souls might find the film a bit exploitative — but the fact that it’s Jane Fonda in the part, and clearly in on the joke, elevates the material above its Euro-nudie brethren. Sexy? Hell, yeah! Dirty? I've seen dirtier episodes of TWO AND A HALF MEN, and that show follows nearly forty years after BARBARELLA.

A disappointed Barbarella, just after burning out a torture device designed to kill its victims via orgasms. No, seriously.

The film’s attitude is tongue-in-cheek from the first frame to the last, with not a trace of seriousness in its head, coming off as a slightly risqué parody of the Buster Crabbe FLASH GORDON serials, and its sweet-faced, fun-filled vibe brings a smile to my face every time I see it. I enjoy all of the characters, and the movie is chock-a-block with memorable sequences featuring wild costumes and strange sets, kind of like the insane, knockabout LOST IN SPACE television series if it had somewhat of a budget and weren’t geared toward the kiddies, but had been crafted specifically for hippie stoners instead of merely being enjoyed by them. I mean, check out these images from Barbarella's dreamy-eyed zero-G striptease as the animated opening credits join her in her floating undulations (click on the images to enlarge):

BARBARELLA could almost be described as an underground comic book brought to life, only thankfully minus the off-putting misogynistic rape and violence found in many such works, and director Roger Vadim should be congratulated for making what could easily have been a complete mess work as well as it does, with the contributions of Fonda — whom he married during shooting — being impossible to overestimate. It’s by no means a “great” film, but it’s definitely worth checking out at least once and as anyone who’s seen it can tell you, it has a way of ensnaring you again and again if it turns up on cable. It’s a film that radiates positive feelings, and I’ll take as much of that as I can get.
Poster from the post-STAR WARS re-release, painted by famed fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo. Question: why is Pygar the angel, the guy in the diaper with a gun, depicted without his wings?

The film was even re-released during the sci-fi craze brought on by STAR WARS (1977), with the stupid poster and promo title of BARBARELLA: QUEEN OF THE GALAXY (which is sadly how it's been known ever since), and re-rated from an R to a PG despite no trimming of its blessed nudity, and I wonder what it would get if reissued today; PG-13 movies have allowed for a certain amount of gore and violence, but that rating is rather stingy when it comes to skin, once more bolstering the idiotic theory that it's okay for the youth of this country to see scads of carnage and harm, but not tasteful depictions of sexuality. I say it's all a matter of context; I wouldn't want my kids to see porno because, with rare exceptions, it's not about a loving, sharing experience between individuals and focuses on closeups of genitalia that John Waters famously likened to "footage of open-heart surgery," but I wouldn't have a problem with them seeing BARBARELLA, especially provided that I was there to responsibly answer any questions they may have (I'd say it's most suitable for anyone ten and up, but that's just my opinion). And as for the announced remake, I'm very curious to see how a story like Barbarella's will be retooled to be acceptable in contemporary America's hypocritically sex-negative climate, especially when she'll most likely be played by one of those nauseating, under-nourished, factory-issued "starlets" with zero talent that currently infest the screen. Mark my words, even with the reported involvement of Robert (PLANET TERROR) Rodriguez at the helm, I have no faith in it. We're sadly past the peace-and-love sentiment of the sixties, much of it killed by post-Viet Nam-era cynicism and the rise of AIDS, so I don't see how a BARBARELLA remake can possibly work work now. Thank Zoad that the original's still out there.

Oh, and here's a bonus for you fellow Barbarella die-hards out there:

From the 1977 graphic novel BARBARELLA AND THE MOON CHILD, Barb and her son, Little Foxy. Hey, with all the "sharing" Barbarella got up to, a kid was inevitable.

And two designs by Jean-Claude Forest from the proposed 1980's Nelvana animated series that never got off the ground:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


In recent years the Japanese film industry has rebooted many of the classic manga properties as live action features, especially now that special effects technology has caught up with the wild imaginings of the comics' creators. Unfortunately the majority of the reboots are turgid, uninvolving bores that amount to nothing more than something that could be used as a studio's FX resume reel, and that's a major disappointment when one considers just how awesome projects like DEVILMAN and TETSUJIN #28 (better known to us western barbarians as GIGANTOR) could have been if they had scripts that lived up to the visuals; DEVILMAN was especially trying since the studio opted to attract a larger audience by making Go Nagai's famously gory and ultra-violent story more teen-friendly, consequently cutting the balls off of a genre classic. In fact, if you ask me the only genuinely good and thoroughly entertaining classic manga reboot was the charmingly goofy CUTIE HONEY from 2004, based on another Go Nagai classic and also cleaned up for a larger audience. Or should I say it was the only good manga reboot until now?

Considering that it's a product of a culture with one of the world's richest myth-bases, it was only a matter of time until the venerable GE GE GE NO KITARO (loose translation: "Kitaro of Ge Ge Ge Forest") got the live action treatment. For a decent overview of this manga and anime landmark, check in over at the Wikipedia, but the short version is that creator Shigeru Mizuki's stories revolve around Kitaro, a spirit — or yokai — boy who lives in creepy Ge Ge Ge forest with his equally supernatural family and friends, a wild assortment of creatures culled from Japanese myths and legends. Kitaro is something of a nexus between the human and yokai realms, coming to the aid of humans who fall afoul of the more sinister of his brethren, and much humor and magical mayhem ensues.

Kitaro and friends, as seen in the manga.

Kitaro and friends have been animated several times, both for television and the movies, and I love them without reservation. There have been countless international takes on the whole supernatural co-existing alongside our mundane existence thing — BEWITCHED and Harry Potter being the two examples that spring immediately to mind — but none have the charm and sheer fun found in Mizuki's works, and I'm very happy to say that none of it is lost in the translation to live action.

German-American/Japanese pop star Eiji Wentz as Kitaro.

As "progress" causes the forests of Japan to dwindle, the indigenous spirits are being driven from their ancestral homes and they're none too happy about it. A bunch of Kitsune, powerfully magical and ancient fox creatures, seek to drive out the inhabitants of the housing developments going up over what used to be their forest by any means necessary, and hire the disreputable Rat Man (Yo Oizumi) and his gang of monsters-for-hire to get the job done. Tired of being (harmlessly) terrorized by the unruly yokai, a little boy who dwells in the development sends a letter — via the supernatural mailbox located deep in a nearby forest — to good guy yokai Kitaro in hope that the spirit can get the other monsters to knock off their nightly harassment, and Kitaro soon puts things right. But that's just the first ten minutes of the film, which leaves plenty of time for world-class asshole Rat Man, the yokai answer to Eric Cartman, to get up to more self-serving mischief, namely stealing a magical gem of incredible power from the Kitsune so he can hock it at a human gem dealer's shop. (NOTE: humans know that monsters exist, so this isn't that big of a deal, although some humans still need a bit of convincing.)

Yo Oizumi as the amusingly offensive Rat Man: if ever there was a towering douchebag who just doesn't give a fuck, it's this guy. And, God help me, I love him.

This theft sets all manner of mishegoss into motion and it's up to Kitaro and his bizarro group of friends to save the day, lest an angry Kitsune lord destroy the human world and rebuild things under his own rule.

GE GE GE NO KITARO is a hell of a lot of fun and a visual feast featuring a who's who of mythological critters, seamless CGI and makeup effects, a yokai nightclub that you'll want to hang out at, and the latest rendition of the famous and infectious Kitaro theme tune, a song familiar to native anime fans since the 1960's and heard in every filming of the series since. I can hear it even now: "Ge...Ge...Ge Ge Ge no Ge..." (And you can too if you click here for a link to three of the animated series openings, ranging from the B&W sixties intro through the current TV version.) Plus there's a doomed romance between immortal Kitaro and a human girl thrown in for good measure; Kitaro's dad warns him against getting involved with a mortal female because humans can die, something of which he is only too painfully and personally aware. And while the movie is based on a children's comic, what may fly as suitable entertainment for kids in Japan doesn't necessarily work over here insomuch as the look of the monsters and some of the effects could be perceived as scary by the very little ones in the audience, so know your tyke's limitations before throwing this one into the DVD player. I'd say this is safe for the six-and-olders, but I'm going to give a shot to sitting my four-year-old niece Cleo through this (the subtitles may pose a bit of a problem, but I'll fill her in on what's going on).

Bottom line: if you're unfamiliar with the monsters of Japanese myths and legends, creatures as well-known over there as Dracula, Frankenstein, Jason, and Freddy are to us, TRUST YER BUNCHE and immediately rent GE GE GE NO KITARO. It's out on DVD in the States under the title KITARO, and for more yokai fun I also recommend — though not as strongly — YOKAI MONSTERS: 100 MONSTERS (1968), YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (1968, the best of this series), YOKAI MONSTERS: ALONG WITH GHOSTS (1969), and THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (2005). And keep your eyes open for the upcoming sequel, GE GE GE NO KITARO: SONG OF THE THOUSAND-YEAR CURSE, which is allegedly aimed at an older audience, so expect some effed-up scares as only the Japanese can bring them!