The increased output of films from the Marvel and DC universes and the ongoing debates about their merits definitely indicates that now more than ever moviegoers are seeking escape through the exploits of characters with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. So during this Christmas season, as we await the arrival of that scarlet-clad super guy who rewards us being being good all year, our Grindhouse Tuesday show on December 12th is devoted to two wonderful action tales of unique heroes, where the effects work may not be state-of-the-art, but the enthusiasm and sincerity are definitely state-of-the-heart. And each of them can claim some spiritual kinship to recent films by one of the Bev’s favorite filmmakers and helpful boosters, Guillermo del Toro.
In an unnamed Spanish village, rumors of a mysterous “Sea Devil” frequently spook the fishermen working for the brutish Don Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov). Olsen (Vladlen Davydov), a downtrodden journalist, discovers that the creature is in fact gentle-minded Ichthyander (Vladimir Korenev), whose innovative but misanthropic scientist father Dr. Salvatore (Nikolai Simonov) gave him his sea-breathing capability. Ichthyander saves the life of Gutiere (Anastasiya Vertinskaya), the daughter of boat captain Balthazar (Georgi Tusuzov), who has betrothed her to Zurita to pay off his debts to him. Smitten with her, Ichtyander leaves his isolated life to walk among the people and seek her out, potentially endangering his adaptability between land and sea. As the conflicted Gutiere and the opportunistic Zurita learn of the Sea Devil’s true identity, all of these characters will be faced with hard truths about selfishness, selflessness, and what it means to be human, in the 1962 Soviet fantasy The Amphibian Man.
Author Alexander Belyaev, often called a Russian equivalent to Jules Verne, published his debut Professor Dowell’s Head in 1925; American fantasist Theodore Sturgeon arranged to have it published in English in 1980. Amphibian Man would be Belyaev’s fourth novel. Primary director Vladimir Chebotaryov had been a WWII veteran and escaped multiple prison camps before studying film at Moscow’s VGIK. His credited co-director Gennadiy Kazanskiy would later make an adaptation of The Snow Queen in 1967 which Paramount released in America in 1975 as part of their “Family Matinee” series.
The production was particularly ambitious, beginning with the director, cinematographer, and two romantic leads spending months in scuba training, so that difficult underwater shots could be obtained and performed without stunt doubles. Jacques Cousteau was approached to provide his expertise, but the extra budget to pay him could not be secured. The city of Baku, Azerbaijan, and the Black Sea doubled for the unnamed Latin American region of the story. It would go on to become the highest performing film released in the Soviet Union in 1962, drawing 65.5 million viewers, and is ranked as the 11th most popular film in the 1940-1989 history of the USSR. While not initially receiving U.S. theatrical play, a dubbed version was released into TV syndication in 1964 and circulated for years afterward.
Naturally, some parallels can be drawn between this classic and Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed new film The Shape of Water, not just in the unusual romance between a woman and a sea creature, but also the issues of class, prejudice, scientific ethics, and the divide between the ideals of a happy ending and the realities of a harsh world. While most articles on his film have focused on its spin on the beloved Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon, del Toro’s placing of the story in 1962, the year of The Amphibian Man’s release, is definitely pleasant happenstance if it’s not quite direct tribute.
However, there’s no time for love when ancient demon Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu Wai-Yue) awakens from her 10 million year slumber on Devil Mountain, and immediately sends her army of foul monsters with foul mouths to forment apocalyptic disasters upon the earth. Science Professor Liu (Wang Hsieh) to perform an experimental transformation upon his trusted officer Lei Ma (Danny Lee Sau-yin) that will harness a combination of nuclear and solar power to make him Infra-Man, able to become gigantic and fight the destructive horde with an array of astounding weaponry. Battle by battle, Infra-Man works his way through the marauders until he and the demon princess meet for an ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny, in this 1975 action-packed Shaw Brothers production!
After taking the world by storm with their elegantly staged and choreographed martial arts films, Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers noticed the popularity of “tokusatsu” (special-effects heavy) TV shows and movies from Japan in the region, and decided to enter into that realm of fantasy as well. Cribbing elements from “kaiju” giant beast tales and “mecha” robot-driven sci-fi adventures, house writer Ni Kuang, who created the One-Armed Swordsman, Prodigal Boxer, and Flying Guillotine franchises, invented what was called in Hong Kong The Super Inframan. This would be the second directorial outing for cinematographer Hua Shan, who had previously shot The Hammer of God (Chinese Boxer) and Thunderkick.
Danny Lee, playing the titular hero, had initially been groomed as a capable martial arts actor, debuting in 1972’s The Water Margin, which Roger Corman released in America as Seven Blows of the Dragon. He would later start two production companies, and achieve dual success as an actor in City on Fire and The Killer and as a producer on The Untold Story and Dr. Lamb. Amusingly, as Danny had once played Bruce Lee in Bruce Lee and I, co-star Huang Jian Long, playing Sgt. Lu, would find worldwide fame as a pretender to Lee’s throne after changing his stage name to Bruce Le. Terry Liu, as the villainess originally named Demon Princess Elzebub, and Dana Tsen Shu-Yi, as her acolyte Witch-Eye, both debuted in the 1973 women-in-prison drama The Bamboo House of Dolls, which also featured co-star Wang Hsieh.
Infra-Man would go on to become a cult favorite in America, thanks to a cheerfully bizarre English-language dub track created by Peter Fernandez, who had translated and supervised the American version of “Speed Racer” (playing Speed and brother Racer X), a splashy ad campaign created by exploitation maverick Joseph Brenner, and constant shout-outs from Chicago Sun-Times critic and Pulitzer prize-winning writer Roger Ebert. In his original 1975 review, Ebert declared, “The movie’s totally, almost joyfully absurd…[and] contains terrific moments,” and 22 years later in 1999, remarked, “[A] fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that film.”
Again, initial research does not reveal whether del Toro had intended any specific tribute to Infra-Man when he embarked on his 2013 epic Pacific Rim. But when he talked of that film’s origins in a child’s inclination to pick up a toy dinosaur and a toy robot and make them fight, as you watch the silvery mechanized Infra-Man attack one lovingly ugly giant rubber monster after another, it’s hard not to imagine this film’s screenwriter Kuang engaging in the same thoughts of happy boyish abandon.
Enjoy a night of unrivaled heroics and unabashed idealism at the New Beverly. It will rescue you from whatever holiday doldrums you may have.