Flaming Torture

The FLASH GORDON episode recaps are turning into word soup. “Doomed shark city” sounds like som kind of garage band, while “forced to feed radium to the mighty atom furnaces” supplies information that I don’t think was even present in the previous episode. That’s radium he’s shovelling? I’m afraid Thun is screwed.

And the rapey King Vultan is, we are to understand, merely “boisterous”? Although we admit his boister “terrorizes” Dale, as well it might. Possibly the title-writer is attempting to seed in a rehabilitation for the alarming man-fowl, since he’s got to perform a volte-face later on. Or possibly it’s an example of the cautiousness with words Nic Roeg detected in the newspaper strip. “You could have Princess Aura whipping Dale Arden but the caption would just say something like ‘Oh! That hurts me a lot!'” Roeg was attracted by the idea of smuggling sex and kink into a kids’ film, and when he departed the 1980 project, Mike Hodges inherited that ambition…

Two-part recap! The fall of Barin’s stricken rocketship is mysteriously arrested mid-plummet — is this the birth of George Lucas’ tractor beam? — then we flashback in order to allow the stripey bear to appear again, by popular demand and so the production can get their money’s worth. The bear leaves (again) and Vultan starts advancing indecently (again).

By a surprising temporal leap, the indecent advance is interrupted by the arrival of Barin, Aura, Zarkov and Flash, all chained at spearpoint. I suppose Vultan could have continued advancing, but decency prevails: not in front of the prisoners.

Meanwhile — what’s Ming up to? Sitting at an instrument panel, receiving news from the armour-plated minion with the adorable kidney-bean shaped torso of the kind so beloved of Robert Crumb. Except that said minion is a dude, a disqualifying attribute to becoming a companion to Honeybunch Kaminsky or Angelfood McSpade.

The episode is halfway over and nothing has happened but talk! A touch of mid-serial droop is detected. It’s like an Eric Rohmer movie in space. Better hurry up and get to the FLAMING TORTURE.

Flash and Barin, stripped to their trunks, are sent to join Thun, whose beard and fangs should’ve fallen out by now, shovelling radium into the furnaces. I’m unclear whether setting light to your scoops of radium is the best way to get the value out of them. I’m no physicist but…

Is this the flaming torture? The flames look uncomfortable, but I would imagine that it’s the radioactivity that really makes for unsafe working conditions.

Zarkov, meanwhile, is excused shovelling, and it put to work in yet another electrical Strickfaden workshop, where he sets about making the novelty contraptions flash on and off in a stimulating fashion.

Aura now gets to work on Dale, trying to make her renounce Flash — good MEAN GIRLS psych-out stuff. Judging from this serial, when girls want to attack other girls, they work on their emotions. When guys want to attack other guys, they use a DESTROYING RAY or else hit them with a spear. Men are from Mars, women are from Mongo.

You’ll notice the visual quality of my viewing copy is even better now, so we can all appreciate Aura’s exotic eyebrows (inherited from her father, no doubt).

SUDDEN WEIRD PRODUCTION NUMBER! Undoubtedly stock footage. The chorines bouncing in their boob tubes are notably wingless. Plus, it looks expensive. I’m not sure if it’s from JUST IMAGINE, but I think it’s likely. I’m not sure I ever made it through that movie… it has El Brendel in it.

JUST IMAGINE is on YouTube! You can see that Zarkov’s lovely rocketship model has also been ported over to FG. But I don’t see the stock shot above. Anyone who knows which obscure early thirties musical it’s culled from, let me know.

The stock shot doesn’t last long, and soon Vultan is eating roast chicken — a clear case of semi-cannibalism. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII is just three years old, and Jack “Tiny” Lipson clearly seems to have been influenced by Charles Laughton’s performance. But Jack “Tiny” Lipson, sir, is no Charles Laughton. This being a movie serial and not a Korda film, the banquet is cut-rate too — “Tiny” must content himself with a small piece of chicken, a goblet of something, and two loaves. Then we pull back and there’s a big plate of some kind of meat and a fruit bowl. Better.

Cutting back to the dupey stock shot makes it clear that this gay performance is meant to be happening right in front of Vultan’s dinner table, an illusion which crumbles before it’s even formed. I don’t care what Mr. Kuleshov says, that banquet and that dance number are not happening in the same sky palace.

Still, as a kid I was always fascinated by those shots, so much more elaborate than anything involving our main cast.

A really miserable looking winged chef brings Vultan a fresh platter of turkey legs. More cannibalism ensues. Dale, coached by Aura, tells Vultan how attractive she finds him. He gets amorous again, so the serial cuts to Flash & co being whipped in the furnace room — a kinky case of erotic displacement. The perversity of the 1980 FG is all fully-present in this version.

REBELLION! Since a shovel is a deadlier weapon than a bullwhip, the slaves can easily overpower their overseers, especially since the big turkeys don’t consider taking flight, and are weighed down by their huge rigid wings. But now some guards enter, armed with futuristic pop guns. “If anyone moves, you’ll all be destroyed!” Good luck keeping the “city in the sky” airborne without a slave force, bozo. Flash and the gang could have taken over simply by going on strike.

Marvelous emoting from “Larry “Buster” Crabbe in response to the threat. Flash, big dummy that he is, responds to “don’t move” with an exaggerated brandishing of his shovel, despite the fact that his foes are way out of range.

And so the mutiny is quelled, I believe the word is. Vultan comes along to gloat from a catwalk, bringing his bitches along to enjoy the view. Dale forgets to act indifferent, overcome as she is with compassion for the sight of the sweat-sheened Flash getting lacerated. She screams and faints. “She did not eat enough dinner,” diagnoses Vultan, whatever medical acumen he has distorted by his fat-guy sensibility.

Vultan resolves to punish the unruly Flash. “Take him to the Static Room!” I envision a room where everybody is sedentary. It sounds like a perfect encapsulation of this episode.

Aura berates Dale in what passes here for an opulent boudoir. It’s quite attractive, actual: Grecian deco. “What happens to him now will make those whip lashes seem like love pats!” spits the princess. My favourite line in the whole photoplay to date, the perfect combination of sado-eroticism and awkwardness. The dramatic equivalent of snagging a nipple clamp on your partner’s earring.

The Static Room turns out to be an elaborate Kenneth Strickfaden torture chamber, the impressive set-piece needlessly elaborated upon by stock shots from God-knows-where — FRANKENSTEIN? No. MASK OF FU MANCHU? I wonder. Director Stephani’s signature move is the pull back from a close to a wide, or the opposite, and he does a nice expressive rush towards Dale’s reaction, standing in a palatial doorway ported over from some bigger and more dignified production. Why the torture chamber NEEDS a door that size is beyond the scope of this dissertation.

Flash passes out from the non-specific torment — it’s not exactly FLAMING TORTURE but it’ll do — I guess we could admit that the episode has featured both flaming and torture — and a lightning bolt wipe introduces the TO BE CONTINUED title —

OK, it was a talkie episode, but it made up in sheer perversion what it lacked in punch-ups. I look forward to the Shattering Doom with undimmed enthusiasm.

5 Responses to “Flaming Torture”

  1. OFF-TOPIC (sort of. As our latest Mass shooting shows in America We Are Our Own Ming The Merciless. Cue Sondheim

  2. As Patton Oswalt observed, we are not that far from hearing that a mass shooting has broken out in the middle of another mass shooting.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    In “The Great Comic Book Heroes” Jules Feiffer wrote of how two-bit comic book artists leaned heavily on Flash Gordon and other big time strips. Discerning young readers (like Feiffer, “the boy Poirot”) became adept at recognizing swiped faces and poses, whatever the attempted disguise. The comic book hero “Hawkman” was a pretty obvious swipe, despite the addition of a beaked mask.

    He also got there first with savvy observations about the Superman / Clark Kent thing (unlike other heroes, the super identity was real and Clark was a space alien’s derisive impression of an earthman) and entertaining insights about the psychology of superheroes and their readers.

    Only marginally relevant, but it’s an enjoyable one-sitting read. The original printing was a coffee table book with then-rare vintage comic stories; later Feiffer’s text was reprinted as a stand-alone paperback.

  4. I must read that – love Feiffer anyway! Tantrum is one of the greatest things ever, and I just read the Mike Nichols biography in which he’s a prominent character: a screening of Carnal Knowledge is indicated.

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