The Pumaman/L’Uomo Puma (1980) -***
On average, I wind up reviewing about 90% of the movies I watch these days— up from closer to 75% back when I first started, at which point my vision for what this site would be about was noticeably narrower. That’s an enormous amount of work, and I’ve found it necessary to impose certain rules on myself in order to prevent that percentage from creeping up any closer to the 100 mark. Most of these rules consist of arbitrary bans on certain categories of films that, although obviously appropriate as subjects for review here, are of only marginal interest to me. Take, for example, my “no superheroes” rule. I know how my brain works, you see. Tempting though it might be to review, say, The Dark Knight, I know perfectly well that I couldn’t just leave it at that. For one thing, I’d feel compelled to do Batman Begins first, so as to start with at least the proximate beginning. And sooner or later, my completist instinct would kick in, leading me to the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series from the early 90’s— and then it would be that stupid-ass Adam West Batman movie from 1966. Madness would swiftly follow, and the next thing I knew, I’d be slogging my way through decades’ worth of tights-and-fights movies that I have no actual desire to see, simply to provide a proper historical context for what I’d already written! I’m not about to do that to myself, so you’ll simply have to accept the prospect of being permanently without my thoughts on Albert Pyun’s Captain America and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Of course, having just said that, I’m about to risk breaking that very rule, or at the very least, bending it severely enough to induce metal fatigue. The Pumaman is a special case, though, sufficiently divorced from the tedious mainstream of the superhero genre and sufficiently entrenched within the tradition of craptacular Italian rip-offs of foreign “event” movies (a subject on which I have spilled literal quarts of ink since 1999) that I feel confident of this one-time exception remaining a one-time exception.
Eleventy thousand years ago, aliens landed at Stonehenge in the Andes Mountains aboard Telstar 1, and produced the progenitor of a lineage of superhuman Pumamen by mating with the native Aztecs. The movie hasn’t even started yet, and already its dumbth beggars the imagination. Let’s also be clear up front that when we speak of “Pumamen” here, we’re not talking about some sort of puma-based lycanthropy (which might actually be kind of cool), but rather about outwardly normal superheroes with the powers of a puma. Just like the mighty Felis concolor, each generation’s Pumaman (and there is just one per generation, making The Pumaman a bit of a riff on The Phantom) can see in the dark, leap great distances, tear sturdy things to pieces with his bare hands, detect potential threats via preternaturally acute senses, fly, teleport to any familiar loca— wait a minute… Pumas don’t… This can’t be right. Look— I realize that pumas aren’t native to anyplace writer/director Alberto de Martino is likely to have been, but surely one doesn’t have to meet a puma in person to understand that cats can’t fly, let alone traverse hyperspace at will! And while I also get that the real point of this movie was to piggyback onto the success of Superman a couple years back (and of Superman II earlier in 1980), what’s the point of asserting a puma-themed power set if the hero is really just going to be Arbitrary Abilities Man? Regardless, a dynasty of people with un-puma-like puma-powers wasn’t all the aliens left behind when they climbed back into Telstar 1 and flew off to plant big stone heads on Easter Island or whatever. They also gave the Celto-Incan Aztecs a communication device in the form of a clunky gold mask, so that they need never be without the capacity to contact their extraterrestrial gods— which rather leads one to wonder what excuse the aliens gave when they received the distress call about Hernan Cortez.
Then again, sensible planning of any sort was clearly not the aliens’ strong suit, for they inexplicably saw fit as well to design their transmitter with a secondary mind-control function, making the mask a perfect holiday gift for the megalomaniac who has it all. And wouldn’t you know it, the device has just fallen into the hands of Kobras (Donald Pleasence, from Prince of Darkness and Raw Meat), who is exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to have that name in a shitty faux-comic book movie. If you’re looking for a recognizable goal or motivation for Kobras, my advice is to give up now, and save the five bucks you’d be spending on aspirin later. You can see at once from those black leather jumpsuits he and his sidekicks, Rankin (Benito Stefanelli, of War Goddess and Castle of Blood) and Jane (Sydne Rome, from Sex with a Smile and The Killer Must Kill Again), are wearing that they’re meant to be the bad guys around here, and de Martino evidently figured that was good enough for his purposes. An odd thing, though— despite already being garbed as a dimestore version of Superman II’s Ursa, Jane isn’t technically on Team Evil just yet. Rather, she’s merely the anthropologist daughter of the Dutch ambassador to the UK (Silvano Tranquili, of Star Odyssey and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock), whom Kobras has apparently hired to help him confirm that the mask is legit. Once she has performed that function, however, Kobras turns its brain-sucking power on her, handily filling the hitherto-vacant femme fatale slot in his operation. Then he starts going on about how vitally necessary it is to find and destroy the Pumaman, who alone can prevent him from accomplishing whatever the hell malfeasance he has in mind.
Thus begins a veritable epidemic of fatal defenestrations among American visitors to London. Evidently Kobras and his agents know that there is a Pumaman, and that he’s an American staying in town, but they don’t know specifically who he is— and they’re content to toss every Yank they see out the nearest window until they get the right one! That’s when expatriate paleontologist Professor Tony Farms (Walter George Alton) notices that somebody is following him around the campus of his university in a most suspicious manner. Tony’s stalker is a big, intimidating Hispanic man, apparently of more or less pure Indio blood (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, from The Bermuda Triangle and Santo in The Border of Terror), who finally initiates confrontation by swiping a fossil bone right off of the lab table where Farms is working, and running away with it. The fossil thief leads Farms on a merry chase though the building, but eventually ambushes him, grabs him, and— that’s right— tosses him out the nearest window. Tony doesn’t die, though, when hits the ground three or four tall, pre-air-conditioning stories below. In fact, he doesn’t even twist an ankle when he lands, cat-like, on his feet. Suddenly, our whole understanding of the preceding scene is stood on its head, as Tony’s stalker comes down to introduce himself as Vadinho, and launches into a long and confusing spiel about destiny and Aztecs and alien gods. (For that matter, our understanding of the defenestration plague is at the very least called into question— in retrospect, it could just as well have been Vadinho chucking random Americans out of windows to see whether they land on their feet, and The Pumaman never quite gets around to assuring us that it wasn’t.) Also, Vadinho tries to give Farms an old leather belt, which is supposedly the professor’s birthright or something. Tony isn’t buying it, and he continues not to buy it no matter how often Vadinho turns up to harass him in the days to come.
Farms is much more welcoming of the harassment he receives from Jane, whom Kobras has sent to cozy up to him in the hope of leading him into a trap at the Dutch embassy. Naturally, this means that Tony does indeed fall into the villain’s snare, and it’s just lucky for him that Vadinho is, as always, just a step or two behind him. Farms fights and evades his way past Rankin and his squad of Kobras goons until he reaches the roof of the embassy, at which point Vadinho steps out of the shadows in the garden, and tosses that stupid belt up to him. This time, Tony heeds Vadinho’s urging that he put it on, and when he does, Farms finds himself transformed into the Pumaman— which is to say that he looks like he bought the generic superhero costume from the Halloween store at the mall. With a little coaching from Vadinho, Tony uses his newly discovered puma-powers (fucking… ack! Pumas don’t fly!!!!) to turn the tables on his enemies, after which the Indio sits him down for another attempt at getting the back-story to sink in. Eventually, Vadinho does succeed in convincing Tony that he’s a human-extraterrestrial hybrid of great and unique power, and that it is his solemn duty to recapture the golden mask from Kobras. What he can’t do, though, is make Farms anything more than almost completely hopeless at the heroing business— that’s right, it’s another Italian movie where the nominal sidekick does all the heavy lifting, while the guy with his name listed first in the credits spends most of his time as sorely in need of rescue as any traditional distressed damsel!
It’s difficult to overstate what a totally non-super, un-heroic superhero Tony Farms is, to the extent that it’s sometimes tempting to wonder if maybe The Pumaman isn’t actually an extremely deadpan parody. It makes perfect sense that Farms would start out having little control over his powers, since the whole point of this story is that he doesn’t know he’s in any way unusual until Vadinho shows up with his screwy story and his magic belt. Tony never gets any better, though. Take his flying, for instance; the first time he goes airborne, he’s clumsier in the sky than a Barling triplane night-bomber, and he stays that way until the closing credits. I don’t think we can blame it all on the lousy flying effects, either (you can tell from his wobbling dangle that there’s just a great big hook snagging the back of Walter George Alton’s waistband), since much of the impression of ineptitude conveyed by the flying sequences has to do with how the camera shooting the matted-in aerial backdrops moves. It dips and swoops and dives and rises without apparent purpose, and so we’ve no choice but to conclude that Tony is doing the same. “Pumaman! He flies like a moron!” indeed. But in the long view, Pumaman’s credibility as a hero is called into question less by the klutziness of his supering than by his tendency to get his ass kicked at every turn, so that Vadinho has to bail him out and/or do his job for him. Pumaman spends nearly as much time in positions of bondage and helplessness as Golden Age Wonder Woman, and he doesn’t even have the excuse of being a dumping ground for his creators’ sexual fetishes. Let’s just say it’s no shock that The Pumaman didn’t launch a franchise.
In its defense, however— or in the defense of its entertainment value, at any rate— The Pumaman exemplifies a species of delirious badness that simply no longer exists. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a movie that so uncritically accepted every cockamamie idea Erich Von Danniken ever had, yet which simultaneously couldn’t be bothered to keep straight which aliens were supposed to have inspired which cultures to build what? A movie that sends its ostensible hero on a vision quest that inadvertently implies that his spirit animal is urban blight? A film involving non-mechanized human flight where the flying effects were so quarter-assed that people would occasionally be shown literally walking in mid-air? A modern-day action film with background music played on a harpsichord? That’s the sort of movie The Pumaman is. Its star justly decided not much later that acting wasn’t his calling after all, and became a medical malpractice attorney instead. Its heroine leaves no lasting impression save a lingering disquiet over the Joker-like smile that never reaches her eyes, and exposes what looks like two or three times the normal human allotment of teeth. Donald Pleasence— who was in both Warrior of the Lost World and Warrior Queen— once singled out The Pumaman as the very worst movie he’d ever made, and I for one am disinclined to argue with him. In other words, if you’re the sort of person who would be reading this review in the first place, you really do need to make an excuse to see it one of these days.