The Pumaman (1980) (part 1 of 10)
The Cast of Characters:
In my very humble opinion, Superman: The Movie is not just the best superhero movie ever made, but one of the best movies ever made, period. Its box office performance would seem to bear this out, because it was the number one movie in the country for twelve straight weeks.
In a time where even successful films lose 60% of their audience in the second week, and most movies are lucky to even stay in first-run theaters for more than a few weeks, it’s difficult to imagine a time when a movie could be on top for three straight months. It may not have set box office records, but it was a blockbuster, no doubt about it.
Which makes it odd that there weren’t dozens of cheap, schlocky rip-offs rushed into production. Judging from the few movies that did try to rip-off Superman, it’s easy to see why. Unlike imitating, say, Jaws or Alien, you just can’t do a Superman clone on a zero budget. The special effects are too huge and elaborate, and once you take away those special effects, you’ve lost a large chunk of what made Superman so popular.
Besides our current subject, the only Superman copy I know of is Supersonic Man, and it’s hard to know exactly which of these two films is the most unintentionally laughable. Given the choice, I’d have to go with The Pumaman, just because it has at least one Embarrassed Actor in the form of Donald Pleasence. (Sure, Supersonic Man has Cameron Mitchell of Easy Kill fame, but do you really think he was capable of feeling embarrassment after being in Viva Knievel?)
Yes, the villain in this movie is the same Donald Pleasence of Halloween fame. The same Donald Pleasence who played Blofield in You Only Live Twice, thus setting the stage for a career of playing evil maniacs with calm dispositions.
Now, Donald’s made his fair share of crap, just like any actor with two hundred roles on his résumé. But none of them even come close to The Pumaman. Yes, Donald was also in the movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (wearing a hideous leisure suit, no less) and he did do a few Halloween sequels, but I’d like to believe no one involved with those actually knew they were making horrible movies.
On the other hand, it’s hard to believe anyone involved in The Pumaman didn’t know they were making an absurd piece of crap. I’m sure all it took was seeing the first sequence of Pumaman “flying” to eliminate all traces of doubt in anyone’s mind. This is a cheap, callow, cynical cash-in on a popular movie, and I’m sure that’s exactly how it was intended.
Like a lot of other cynical cash-ins, The Pumaman is mostly an Italian production (its original title is L’Uomo Puma). The Italians have ripped off pretty much every American genre there ever was, which sometimes gave us great movies (the work of Sergio Leone being the obvious example), but mostly gave us forgettable junk (seen Thor and the Amazon Women lately?).
And, hey, Supersonic Man was an Italian production too, so I think Donald knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed onto an Italian Superman rip-off. He had to have known The Pumaman was the worst role of his career, because he hardly acts in it. Well, it wasn’t for nothing, Donald, because your embarrassment is our amusement.
The movie starts, and guess what? It looks like we’ve got ourselves another useless opening crawl. Just like Night of Horror, Anaconda, Myra Breckinridge, and the soon-to-be-recapped Barb Wire. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this movie wants me to hate it. This crawl is set against a blue and black misty painting of a star field, while a cheesy synth-string chord is held in the background.
And then, out of the sky descends an unidentified flying object that can only be called the Great Christmas Tree Ornament. Basically, it’s a giant globe with flashing lights, and alternating light and dark bands, and the bands rotate independently. Well, sort of. They don’t seem to really rotate much at all, to tell you the truth, but it’s the idea that counts.
The Great Christmas Tree Ornament then descends upon a Styrofoam model of Stonehenge [!], which shall henceforth be known as Foamhenge. We zoom in on what looks like a stone eye as a deep voice declares, “I speak to all humanity!”
We zoom in on the eye, and inside, it looks like there’s some kind of stone room in there, and in the center of this room is a golden mask. Sorry, but that’s about the best I can explain what I’m seeing. So, copying sets and props from Zardoz, huh? I’m very impressed. The booming voice declares, “With this mask, I will always be with you!” Hmm. He says that like it’s a good thing.
The camera zooms in on the mask as a golden light flashes on and off. The mask, at least to my eyes, looks like what you’d see if someone punched Karl Malden repeatedly in the face until his nose turned inside out.
Cut to the Ornament floating away. The booming voice says, “My son will be its custodian!” Oh, sure, make your son the janitor. Nepotism rears its ugly head, even in the sanitation industry. The Ornament says, “As will be the sons of his sons!” Oh, great, a whole family of janitors. “Through the ages, he will have the powers of a man-god! The powers… of a Poomaman!”
And then the voice repeats, “The Poomaman… The Pooomaman… The Pooooomaman….” I’m going out on a limb and saying “The Pumaman” is the title of this movie. The Ornament floats off as the credits roll over the Karl Malden Mask and the light continues to flash. There’s cheesy synth “secret wonders of the universe” music, and soon we’re saddened to learn that Donald Pleasence has been forced to share top billing with the nobody who plays Pumaman.
But even sadder, they misspelled his damn name. There it is, as clear as day in the opening credits: “Donald Pleasance” [sic, and sick]. I mean, as far as opening credit cock-ups go, it may not be as bad and obvious as The Attack of the the Eye Creatures, but good Lord. This is way, way down there.
By the way, love the music in the background. It makes me feel inspired. Like, Yanni inspired. No! John Tesh inspired! I feel like playing some NBA basketball on NBC! As expected, the credits are full of English and Italian names intermingled. When the credits end, there’s a shot of the glowing Christmas Tree Ornament floating across the moon. Ah hah! I knew the landing was a hoax!
Cut to a magnifying glass examining the Karl Malden Mask, and the mask turns out to be about four times the size of a normal face. We pull back and see the magnifying glass belongs to a knockout blonde named Jane Dobson, who’s wearing a leather outfit, complete with pointy shoulder pads.
An unseen guy with a British accent asks if she can “decipher” it. Jane says, “It’s an Aztec inscription about a man with the blood of a god in his veins, who comes from outer space!” She then derisively laughs, “A puma man!” Ouch. Even the characters know how inane this movie’s concept is.
She picks up her magnifying glass again and sees something ominous. We know it’s ominous because of the heavy ominous synth chord in the background. She declares, “It’s a curse!” Is it the F-word or See You Next Tuesday?
We pull back even more, and find two men watching over her. Namely, Donald Pleasance [sic] and a tall skinny white dude with a beard. To my dismay, they’re both wearing their own leather bodysuits with pointy shoulders. They appear to be in a large study, and the mask is sitting on a desk.
Jane reads the curse. “Whoever desecrates the Puma God image will in turn be destroyed by the living Pumaman!” Oh, come on, that’s just the fine print. Who reads that stuff anyway? I bet it even says “No purchase necessary” if you look hard enough.
Skinny Bearded Guy scoffs at this curse. He says, “That’s ridiculous! It’s just a legend!” That’s ridiculous? You’re wearing pointy leather shoulder pads, dude.
But Donald Pleasance notes that there is “more truth in legend… than in history.” Jane warns that the curse could strike Donald. I think it already has, considering his appearance in this movie. But Mr. Pleasance, undaunted, goes on to establish how evil he is by saying that he likes “to strike first.” If you ask me, he should have gone on strike instead of taking this role.
Jane lies the mask down on the desk and finds a kind of cylindrical section at the base. As soon as she touches it, it spins open, revealing what looks like a motherboard inside. Jane gasps. “Incredible! A 3000 year old find! It conceals unthinkable technology!” Well, “unthinkable” is one way to describe it. Certainly, very little thought seems to have been put into it.
Bearded Guy quickly closes the compartment. You didn’t see that, you didn’t see that… He’s too late though, because she realizes they have “proof of an outer space presence in our history!” She immediately wants to reveal this to “the press”, but Pleasance shoots this idea down. Rejected, Jane gathers up her books and starts to leave.
But before she can exit, Pleasance props the mask up and puts his face behind it. What, does he want to play peekaboo? “Your mind,” Pleasance says, “And your will…. belong to me… forever!” Well, now, don’t get greedy. Take her mind and her will for a couple days, see if you like them first.
This leads to our first exposure to the “special effect” that will represent the Karl Malden Mask “warping” someone’s mind. Get used to this effect, because we’ll be seeing it more times than I care to count.
It consists of the camera photographing Jane through a mirror, but it’s one of those flexible, funhouse-type mirrors that shakes, wobbles, and can be pulled and pinched. We see both the Malden Mask and Jane in this funhouse mirror, while “wobbly saw” sound effects are dubbed in. Or, perhaps that’s really the sound funhouse mirrors actually make.
Finally, Jane gets woozy and drops her books. I think she just wants to see if a dorky freshman will rush in and offer to pick them up. Pleasance, still behind the mask, tells her to “Go now… and… obey!” Well now, that’s gonna be hard to do without her books, wouldn’t you say?
I’m not sure why Pleasance needed to take over Jane’s mind here. I presume she’s already working for him—I mean, why else would she be wearing the exact same leather outfit?—but it’s never really clarified. Let’s just say “exposition” is not really one of this movie’s strong suits. Along with character development, dialogue, and special effects. But hey, I’m sure it had great catering.
Jane leaves and Bearded Dude picks up the gold mask, then he and Pleasance turn and look at… well, something off to the right. Cut to a shelf somewhere, and suddenly Jane’s disembodied head materializes on the shelf [!?].
To spare us all a lot of confusion, I’ll just go ahead and explain that this is how the movie signifies Pleasance getting control over someone’s mind. That is, the person’s head materializes on his bookshelf. Not the person’s actual head, mind you, but some sort of replica or facsimile. I assume. Now really, if that’s not a winner of an idea, I don’t know what is. Effects don’t get much more self-explanatory than this, do they?
Pleasance smirks at Jane’s head. Bearded Dude says, “We’ll make slaves of men with this mask! We’ll dominate the world!” Yes, you shall dominate them with your excellent fashion sense. Bearded Dude asks, “Who can stop us?”
Pleasance says, “The Pumaman!” Uh, dude, I think that was a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, poor Donald pronounces “Pumaman” throughout this entire movie as “Pyewmaman”. I mean, I know he’s British and everything, but really, they should have all decided on one pronunciation and ran with it. I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie where everyone pronounced the titular character’s name differently? Did Gene Hackman ever refer to Christopher Reeve as “Syewperman”?
Pleasance walks over to a spot where, for “dramatic” effect, the light only hits him across the eyes. He declares, “We must find him… and kill him!” Oh, Donald. Don’t get my hopes up like that.