You’ve got to sell it in a sentence: Lethal Weapon with Chicks (The Heat); Die Hard in the White House (Olympus Has Fallen); Die Hard, except Really Tired and Shit (A Good Day to Die Hard).
Thirty years ago, things were very different. Those were the days when bonkers director Alberto De Martino told studio heads: “There’s a cat-flavoured superhero with the powers of an ancient Aztec god, and Donald Pleasance trying to control world leaders’ minds – while dressed in a bin bag.” And it got made.
Exploding Helicopter has seen some loopily strange films before, but when it comes to downright weird, The Pumaman (1980) takes the biscotti.
The film’s hero is Tony, an archaeologist who wiles away his days peacefully dusting off artefacts in a museum. But the mild-mannered chamois-botherer soon has to put down the Mr Sheen down when he’s visited by Valdinho, a mysterious shaman.
The lofty ancient informs Tony that he’s no ordinary cleaner of ancient pottery. Oh, no. He is in fact, the Pumaman: descendant of an Aztec god and inheritor of special powers.
After enjoying a quick saucer of milk – only kidding! – our feline trouper throws off the shackles of bookish academia. Why? Because the world is being threatened by a nefarious criminal mastermind named Kobras. (Donald Pleasance, clearly signalling his evil intent by the fat-man-in-fetishwear ensemble he racily sports.)
|Donald Pleasance: Never trust a man in bondage gear
Luckily, Tony has an impressive array of Puma-like powers at his disposal. He can fall from a great height, like a puma. See in the dark, like a puma. Use his hands as powerful claws, like a puma. Fly, like a, erm, puma. Teleport, like a…oh, never mind.
It’s rare to see a film this honestly bad. Walter George Alton's attempts at emoting will have viewers everywhere coughing up a fur-ball, and Miguel Angel Fuentes's monotone turn as the semi-naked muscle man makes one yearn for Big Arnie’s superior range.
But it’s all good fun. Exploding Helicopter often gripes about ‘ironically’ bad films, which tip a postmodern wink at the audience about their own shitness and presume that makes everything okay. (Note to film-makers: it doesn’t.) The Pumaman, however, is one of that rare breed: so bad it’s genuinely good.
|The Pumaman: doing his 'special powers' pose
The Pumaman ‘flies’ after him (with his costume clearly indicating where the wires are attached) and an aerial duel breaks out, which is every bit as shoddy as the other action sequences in the film.
There’s much unconvincing ‘blue screen’ work as a clearly superimposed Tony evades Pleasance’s attempts to shoot him down. Finally, the Pumaman gets close enough to open the chopper door and climb in. At this point, Donald – despite his pensionable age and restrictive kitchen accessory clothing – gamely starts wrestling with him.
Without anyone at the controls, the helicopter plunges towards the ground. Realising the vehicle is out of control, Tony bails out and leaves Kobras to his fate. The copter smashes into the ground and explodes, leaving Donald’s charred body handily already wrapped up in plastic wrap for disposal.
Risible. In keeping with the z-grade special effects used elsewhere, the helicopter that crashes into the ground couldn’t look more like a toy model if Fisher Price were printed on the side. In fact, if you look closely, it might well be.
Exploding helicopter innovation
This is the only known destruction of a helicopter by a man with superpowers of a puma, a distinction this film is likely to hold for all eternity.
Interestingly, it’s very nearly the first known superhero-related exploding helicopter. However, Superman II – which came out in the same year – features a chopper that’s destroyed by General Zod and his henchman. So, an honourable tie for both films.
The mentor is a familiar trope of the superhero film. Such flicks generally feature a grey-haired, avuncular type who dispenses profound-sounding pseudo-bollocks to help young charges understand their new gifts and responsibilities. (Think Uncle Ben in Spiderman, or Pa Kent in Superman.)
In many respects, Vadinho the shaman plays just this role. But of course, director Alberto De Martino isn’t a one to play things too safe. So instead of stay-press slacks and a woolly jumper, this movie’s mentor opts for the less conventional naked-bodybuilder-with-a-mullet look. He is perhaps the first superhero father-figure to look like a bouncer at a Tijuana whorehouse.
The soundtrack is an abomination. Dogging Tony, and the viewer, throughout the entire film is the Pumaman ‘theme’, an insufferably jaunty synth-melody. It crops up, welcome as a fart in an airplane, seemingly every five minutes. If they’d played this through loudspeakers at Guantanamo, the whole interrogation enterprise would have been done n a week.
Still, even worse horrors are in store. For reasons known only to the (admittedly bonkers) director, most action sequences are scored with the kind of saccharine euro-disco last heard accompanying a Ceefax page. Just awful.
“I’ve never seen anyone make love in the air.”
“But that’s how you make little pumamen.”
Donald Pleasance once cited this as the worst film he’s ever made. That certainly seems to be the august view of users of IMDB, who have ranked this the 19th worst film in cinematic history.
If you're still not convinced that The Pumaman is a 'so good it's bad classic' then have a listen to Exploding Helicopter talk about the film on Flight, Tights, And Movie Nights podcast.
Review by: Jafo