Thursday, July 17, 2014

Oddball Film Report/Video Cheese: THE PUMAMAN (1980)

NOTE: This piece, originally written for, has been published here through the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.
WARNING: extremely misleading poster art

THE PUMAMAN (1980 - color)

    "Donald Pleasence tries to take over the world again. This week he's stopped by Aztec superhero Pumaman"

   Life's a rich tapestrey, isn't it? One night, you're sitting down to enjoy a classic like HELLFIGHTERS, the next night you run something like THE PUMAMAN. What a world, huh?

   THE PUMAMAN was one of seemingly hundreds of lame superhero movies made to cash in on the spectacular box office success of the SUPERMAN movie and its sequel. Oddly, I haven't seen a large number of these films. I know Pumaman isn't the lamest of these super-types, but he sure makes a strong try for the crown.

   For starters, what a weird concept. Martians arrive on earth 3,000 years ago calling themselves "gods" and depositing a huge golden mask on our planet. The head god/alien appoints his son the custodian of the mask, and the care of the mask will pass from son to son through the generations. 

   The people who live with the mask in the Andes mountains have super power and intuition, and worship the alien gods, even being granted miracles such as the healing of physical wounds. The mask itself contains circuitry like a modern computer board, yet has supernatural powers, among them controlling men's minds by creating a plaster duplicate of their heads (?). So it's a science fiction set-up, but one using language of the supernatural. In the right hands, that could work, but here it's just confusing.

   Our current Pumaman is the Robby Douglas-y (but not quite that macho) Tony Farms, an American professor of palaeontology at the London Museum of Natural History. (Got that? Italian movie, British setting, American hero.) 

   One day, a Ted Cassidy-like Aztec, Vadinjho, shows up to let Tony know that he's The Pumaman, and insists that he wear a goofy-looking belt that will reveal his powers. Tony already has a power or two, like being immune to beatings, seeing in the dark, and getting dizzy or nauseous whenever he senses danger (this is a superpower?).

   Tony has just met the girl of his dreams, the slinky Jane Dobson who lives at the Dutch embassy in London (Jane is played by model, Playmate, and occasional actress Sydne Rome). But Jane is really the mind-controlled slave of Kobras. Kobras has the mask and plans to rule the world, but must first kill the Pumaman that poses his only threat. And really, that's all we ever learn about the guy. He's played by Donald Pleasence and he's evil, no further backstory needed, right?

   Well, needless to say, Vadinjho eventually forces Tony to don his Puma-belt and we're off and running. (Pumaman's superhero costume, by the way, consists of tan slacks, a dark sweater with a cartoon of the mask on his chest, the belt worn over the lower part of his sweater, and a drab poncho that opens up into his red-lined cape-let. He looks cheap even by the standards of a Saturday morning superhero show made by a tiny UHF station in the early 70's. And what does any of this stuff have to do with Pumas, anyway?) Vadinjho teaches Tony the ways of the Pumaman (which is generational, just like The Phantom), and the Pumaman sets out to prevent Kobras from using the Aztec mask to take over the world.

   There are plenty of faults on hand, but two gigantic flaws really loom over this film's production.

   One is the laughably bad rear-screen projection used to portray Tony in flight. His actions never seem to match the bobbing and weaving of the background plate, which itself fails to match the photography of the rest of the movie, often appearing more than extra grainy. These scenes never fail to provoke uncontrolled laughter, and make one notice just how expertly this kind of thing was done back when George Reeves played Superman. (Or for that matter, how skilfully this kind of thing was done on Shazam!) How such awful effects are possible in 1980 remains another mystery right up there with Judge Crater and Amelia Earhardt!

   The other item, no less laughable, is the music. While a superhero film of this vintage avoiding a score made to sound like John Williams' music for SUPERMAN is a noble and rare event, the music used hardly suggests action packed excitement. All the music used here sounds like it was recorded for a Public Service Announcement in 1984. (In fact, it sounds almost identical to the music playing in the gag Legal Will Kit commercial in an episode of Corner Gas!)

   You'll be rubbing the tears from your eyes when you see the many action scenes set to the Pumaman's main theme, which sounds like the sort of cheap but aggressively cheerful music you'd hear in a pitch for time-shares in sunny south Florida!

   The rest of the effects are a mixed lot. There's a model helicopter in the climax that looks like it was lifted from a Japanese monster movie (and the odds are good that it was, in fact, lifted from another movie entirely).

  The effects of the mask being used are portrayed by the economical, yet effective effect of filming the action in a mirror being shook or poked from behind (and the effect is headache-triggering, so it really sells the whole mind control bit). 

   Tony rips a car apart at one point, which looks okay, if not perfect. Vadinjho holds a speeding car in place in a scene, and that effect is handled pretty well.

   Pumaman can travel across dimensional space too, and he does this by walking through walls, an effect about as listless as you can imagine with Tony simply walking outside the matte plate. In the void, everything is solarized, like a negative on a color picture, and Pumaman is superimposed over this footage with about the same level of skill used to show him fly over anything else. 

   When not using process shots, Pumaman flies via the traditional hold-the-actor-out-on-a-platform-in-front-of-the-camera-and-don't-show-his-legs trick, which remains more effective here than the effects shots.

   Tony's ability to see in the dark is portrayed by shooting everything through a red filter. On the other hand, the establishing shots for this power, with the camera zooming in on Tony's eyes (while wearing green contacts and the illusion filled in with sound effects) are nicely effective.

  The alien spacecraft, a giant sphere with sections of alternate color that rotate in opposite directions, is pretty good (too good for this movie actually).

   In the end, its Donald Pleasence that stands out, by not standing out. This has to be his least effective role, as he is instructed to yet again to just do his Blofeld routine. Usually a magnetic performer, here he just comes across as bored, probably just happy to have a paycheck he can cash. He tries to inject some energy into the moments when Kobras is squaring off with Pumaman, but he remains largely flat throughout. Not that he's bad or anything, he's Donald Pleasence, after all. No doubt much of the trouble is how he was directed. Still, THE GREAT ESCAPE seems such a long time ago. I'm happy that enjoyed playing Dr. Loomis in the HALLOWEEN series, because there were plenty of those sequels for him to make after this.

   I'm sure some readers will remember THE PUMAMAN being a subject on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In this case, the movie is just as funny without the robots. Being nearly 100 minutes long, though, the guys at Best Brains had to do a bit of trimming. This is mostly small stuff.

   The scene where Vadinjho tries to make Tony don the Puma-belt went on a bit longer, with Vadinjho holding Tony's car down so he couldn't leave for Jane's party, then jumping into the car with him. Tony then parks the car against a wall so Vadinjho can't follow him in. Jane notes the dirt on Tony's tuxedo jacket and she helps him dust it off before introducing him to her father, which is where the MST episode picks up again. 

   Other trims include Vadinjho spying on Kobras as he talks to a dignitary, and later the same guy being beaten by Kobras' henchmen for turning him down. Tony's fight with the henchmen in the Dutch embassy also goes on quite a bit longer. Things like that.

   The cut element that stands out most involves Kobras keeping control over his slaves. When the subject starts to resist, the plaster heads start to crack. Kobras increases his mental hold on them by increasing their pain, this accomplished with a robotic arm that looks like a huge metal insect leg. A spike on the end buries itself deep in the top of the plaster heads, causing great pain. The subjects then submit just to relieve the pain. (Not a bad detail, really.)

   In the end, a fairly forgettable superhero movie. I'd be curious to know if The Pumaman were the subject of some obscure comic strip or just made up for the movie. One can only assume a comic strip would have been much more exciting....
Even more misleading poster art!

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