The Pumaman (1980)

After Superman, the Italian film industry did what it always does best: figure out how to make their own versions of a film. However, the danger of making superhero movies is that. the special effects — particularly after Star Wars and Superman, which was sold on the idea of believing that a man can fly — had to be perfect.

Alberto De Martino knew that Italian trend quite well. When sword and sandal movies were big, he directed The Triumph of Hercules. He made Ringo and Django clones in the spaghetti western craze. And when James Bond got hot, he made several Special Agent 077 movies. Giallo? De Martino turned out the New Mexico-shot The Man with the Icy Eyes, the Telly Savalas-starring The Killer Is On the Phone and the Dirty Harry meets Italian psychosexual horror in Canada romp Strange Shadows In an Empty Room. As The Exorcist and The Omen got hot, the director answered with The Antichrist and Holocaust 2000.

But superheroes? Superheroes nearly broke the man.

In Roberto Curti’s book Diabolika: Supercriminals, Superheroes and the Comic Book Universe in Italian Cinema, De Martino was quite candid about the failure of this movie. The Pumaman “was a production based on the trend of the moment. I had always done it that way and always done well. But regarding this genre of film, there was the audience’s diffidence toward Italian movies featuring special effects. They knew we were not up to the task, and didn’t take us seriously.”

He’d go on to say that it was “the only pic I did wrong in my whole career. When I saw it was a flop, I started asking myself questions. I had made a film I shouldn’t have. However it did well abroad and managed to get the guaranteed minimum back, otherwise I’d have had to sell my house. It did not even gross half a billion lire in Italy.”

Pumaman was played by Walter George Alton, his only film role before he became a medical malpractice attorney in New York City. He’s the ancestor of ancient aliens that gave birth to the Aztecs and entrusted a guardian armed with a golden mask. Ah — superheroes, Erich Von Daniken and Italian cinema? Bellisimo!

The mask is discovered by archaeologist — and the daughter of a Dutch ambassador — named Jane Dobson (Sydne Rome, who grew up near Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio before heading out to Italy to make movies like Man Called Amen and Sergio Martino’s Sex With a Smile). She learns that it can control minds, which pleases her boss Dr. Kobras (Donald Pleasence!) who takes over her brains instantly and then decides to start a Herrod-like campaign to kill Pumaman before the reincarnated hero becomes a threat.

Pumaman ends up being American paleontologist Tony Farms, who learns of his powers after the Native American named Vadinho throws him out a window and he survives the experience. How many people did Vandinho toss before he met the real Pumaman?

Of course, Tony and Jane are destined to fall in love and make the Pumababy, as foretold when the aliens visit Stonehenge and take the golden mask back. Of course.

You can watch this on Amazon Prime and Tubi with riffing from Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’re going to need it, because the man who never said no to a role, Donald Pleasence, stated that this was the worst movie he did in his entire career. Just imagine the depths of that statement.

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