(1975) Directed by Hua Shan; Written by: Ni Kuang; Starring: Danny Lee, Wang Hsia, Terry Liu; Available on DVD.
“Shaw Bros, at the time wanted to film a Kamen Rider type of film for the Hong Kong children. …Although I had watched a few episodes of Kamen Rider on TV and was aware of its popularity, I never expected them to ask me to direct Infra-man.” – Hua Shan (excerpted from interview by Linn Haynes)
When approached by the organizers of The Great VillainBlogathon 2015* to write about a favorite movie foe, my brain shuffled through 100 plus years of cinematic history. With such an enormous sandbox to play in, I was overwhelmed by the countless choices. At the end of the day, one individual stood triumphant: Princess Dragon Mom (aka: Elzebub). Who? Well, dear reader, allow me to elucidate on one of the most dastardly (and admittedly ridiculous) foes to appear on film.
* A hearty thanks to the organizers of this spectacular five-day blogging event, Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows & Satin.
At first glance, viewers might write off Infra-Man (aka: Super Inframan, or Zhong Guo Chao Ren) as a thinly disguised rip-off of Japanese TV shows such as Ultraman and Kamen Rider. The similarities were in fact a deliberate effort on the part of prolific Hong Kong-based filmmakers the Shaw Brothers to reproduce the same type of action show for Hong Kong audiences. While the film certainly owes much to those programs, director Hua Shan and team really make Infra-Man their own, transforming the DNA of its predecessors into an amazing mutant creation.
One of the refreshing things about Infra-Man is how quickly it throws the audience into the action, without wasting a lot of time on the titular’s character’s origins. There’s no time for brooding superheroes, or a Christopher Nolan-style deconstructionist meditation on the nature of revenge, examining how violence begets violence. Nope, the Shaw Brothers don’t have time for that jazz. The world of Infra-Man is divided into good and evil, with nothing in between.
The movie opens with a series of natural disasters, all which can be traced back to Mount Devil (a dragon-shaped mountain that looks suspiciously like Vaal from the old Star Trek episode, “The Apple”) and its nefarious inhabitants. The ringleader for these evildoings is none other than our villain of the hour, the 10-million-year-old demon Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu),* who’s consumed by thoughts of conquering the human world. There’s no mistaking her for some lesser villain, with her distinctive appearance. One hand is a dragon’s claw, while the other is a dragon’s head (what else?).** She struts about her lair, which wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Sid and Marty Krofft shows, cracking a dominatrix whip and ordering her skull-faced henchmen to do her bidding. For the heavy-duty skullduggery, however, she unleashes a horde of special creatures, including a plant monster, spider monster and other nasties.
* Technically, only the English dub refers to her as Princess Dragon Mom. In the original version, her name’s Elzebub, although I must admit I’m partial to her adopted English name.
** Of course, her distinctive appendages beg the question, how does she take care of (ahem) daily functions? (On second thought, the less time devoted to this subject, the better.)
But humanity, being a resilient lot, is not about to take this onslaught lying down. An enigmatic professor (Wang Hsia) and his crackerjack strike team are willing to go mano a mano with the bad guys, and they have an ace up their collective sleeve in the form of a top secret project. Our hero Rayma (Danny Lee) probably takes three seconds to ponder the painful, potentially life-threatening treatments he must endure to become Infra-Man. Through the miracle of cybernetic implants and vaguely explained science, he’s transformed into an ultimate fighting machine, endowed with super-strength and impervious to most weapons. It probably goes without saying he doesn’t stop to grapple with his newly acquired super powers, or endure a long-winded speech about “great power” going with “great responsibility.” Instead, he emerges from his transformation, fully realized, and ready to kick some monster butt.
Infra-Man isn’t the sort of movie that you nitpick. The filmmakers recycle Rayma’s transformation sequence multiple times. The effects, even by 1975 standards, are decidedly low-fi, mostly consisting of people in monster suits duking it out. It’s a simple, but winning formula that’s familiar, yet fresh. Some movies exist to entertain, and this flick does it in spades. Unlike many modern superhero movies that fumble for profundity, Infra-Man isn’t afraid to embrace its goofy side. Infra-Man doesn’t elevate the genre, it celebrates it. I was fortunate enough to watch this a few years back with the ideal audience, a theater packed with families, at one of the Kids Club Saturday matinees at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. You don’t need to watch it with kids to have a good time, though. Just kick back with some good friends, shut your brain off, and soak in the nutty action sequences and sheer lunacy. Princess Dragon Mom aside, the fact this film never spawned a series of Infra-Man adventures is the only real evil.