Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Secret Of The Telegian (1960)

Haunted house attractions are taken way more seriously now than when I was a kid.  There are houses open all year round (there were even back in the day, but they were much rarer), and some have a level of effects work that could rival anything the film industry ever put out.  There are groups who spend the entire year just getting things ready for the Halloween season, so they can scare the pants off people for a nominal fee (and the love of it, I have no doubt).  Locally, we had the annual Jaycees’ (aka the local chapter of the United States Junior Chamber, if my memory is correct, but you never know) haunted house.  They would take over an empty building or a gymnasium and set up a little “maze” for scared shitless kids to navigate.  And all it took was a little grease paint, some rubber masks, and some offbeat lighting schemes.  Honestly, I didn’t go very many times to the Jaycees’ events, but when I did, it was always a good time.  I’m not trying to equate the two, nor am I making a judgment that one is better than the other.  I guess I’m just impressed that you can scare somebody with a pair of plastic fangs that cost fifty cents as readily as you can with an elaborate animatronic creature that cost a few hundred or even thousands of dollars.  And I’m glad there are folks out there doing it to this day on either end of that spectrum.

At the local Cave of Horrors, a man named Sukimoto (Shin Otomo) is stabbed to death in front of a crowd of spectators, yet none of them can properly identify the perpetrator.  The only clue is a military identification tag, but even that seems to lead nowhere.  Enter ace reporter and all-around snoop Kirioka (Koji Tsuruta) who just knows there’s more going on here.  Teaming up with Detective Kobayashi (Akihiko Hirata), Kirioka’s investigation leads back to a small group of ex-soldiers, a couple of men believed dead, and The Secret Of The Telegian (which I don’t remember ever being referred to as such in the film proper) tying them all together.

Jun Fukuda’s film is one in a long list of pieces which combines elements of Crime with Science Fiction and/or Horror.  Movies like 4D Man, The Amazing Transparent Man, and even Toho’s own The Human Vapor and The H-Man all take the idea of a criminal or a victim of criminals who is given a power and then uses that power to take revenge and/or advance their criminal career.  All five of the films mentioned above were produced within about a three year range from 1958 to 1960, and this suggests why these mash-ups were attempted in the first place.  By the end of the Fifties, both the Film Noir as well as the Atomic Horror movements were coming to a close.  It only makes sense to meld the two together, though the results are often mixed.  Such is the case here.  You have a plot essentially straight out of a Richard Stark novel, you have some fantastical elements that lend themselves to interesting visuals, and you have a mystery aspect that should maintain interest throughout.  But the film somehow comes off as simply flat.  The Crime bits feel like they were hatched at a table in the back corner of the local VFW.  The whodunit angle is answered almost as soon as it is brought up, and the more intriguing facets of that aren’t explained at all by film’s end.  The characters are all cardboard in the worst possible way, none of them distinguishable as anything other than the purpose they serve in the plot.  The film doesn’t swing for the fences.  It barely ekes out singles.  It’s all the more frustrating because this should all work, and The Secret Of The Telegian should be a classic in Toho’s stable.  Sadly, it just isn’t.

An author (I want to say it was Harlan Ellison, but I don’t recall exactly) once  said that one of the defining traits of a Science Fiction story is that the thing which makes it Science Fiction is essential to the story being told.  For example, without the teleportation angle, neither The Fly, nor any of its remakes and/or sequels, works.  By contrast, without the teleportation angle, this film could still be sustained as a straight up revenge tale.  Having said that, the Science Fiction features of this film are compelling by themselves.  The idea of a three-dimensional transmission committing crimes is, I think, brilliant.  Television had come to prominence, like the other genre-related bits in this film, in the Fifties, and it was always predicted that it would be the death of film.  Herein, then, television is a killer, literally, and on film no less.  Since television had become a new member of most homes, had made so many people instantly famous, the Telegian also speaks to the desire of people to want to live their lives on television, to gain fame and form their personalities by how they are perceived through the cathode ray tubes, truly putting paid to Marshall McLuhan’s statement about the indivisibility of the message with its medium (which, of course, would be coined four years in the future).

It is in this way that Sudo (Tadao Nakamura) is dehumanized in his pursuit of revenge.  Like Gaston Leroux’s Phantom, Sudo is a wronged man, and we sympathize with why he does what he does.  Naturally, this transformation from honest soldier into inhuman monster comes with a certain amount of physical disfigurement, and this is further indication that he has been removed from the human race.  We do derive some degree of catharsis from watching this tragic creature pick off his tormentors, but we also draw the line when innocent people are put in his line of fire as well.  Even justifiable vengeance has to be tempered by societal justice.  Sudo’s indiscriminate violence puts him at odds with modern civilization, so he must be punished.  And like so many of the best of the Kaiju films Toho churned out around this time and after, even Nature itself recognizes that someone like Sudo simply cannot be allowed to exist.  Because the secret of the Telegian must ultimately remain just that.  A secret.

MVT:  The basic idea is solid.  But like a bland casserole, it has the ingredients, it just doesn’t quite know how to use them and in what measurements.

Make Or Break:  The opening scene does a very nice job of creating a hook for the story.  It’s enigmatic and entertaining, and it’s visually engaging.  That the film flatlines quickly thereafter is a disappointment.

Score:  6/10            

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