Sunday Stupid: In Praise of the Pumaman!
There were many unintentional comedic gems to be had in the 10-year run of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In that splendiferous decade, the small-town puppet show of record ran hundreds of dreadful films through the ringer, from educational shorts to old serials to monster movies to ’70s biker flicks to cobbled-together TV shows — and everything in between. In was a never-ending cornucopia of celluloid banality, only made bearable by Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo and their biting, wry running commentary.
Interesting for our bent, some of the movies mocked on that show even had comic books in their day — in Gorgo’s case, a whole Charlton series of them. And the last movie ever riffed by the Satellite of Love crew was Danger: Diabolik, based on the Italian comic character of the same name. But only one of these films had a unique comic book twist. Only one had a costumed hero with a cape and real genuine superpowers, who’d fit right in with the garishly dressed members of the Justice League — if he wasn’t such a complete doofus. And that cinematic masterpiece was The Puma Man. Or The Puma-Man. Or The Pumaman. Or L’uomo puma. You know what, who cares.
An Italian film released in 1980, The Pumaman contained no star wattage outside of the ever-bald Donald Pleasence, who played the movie’s Lex Luthorish criminal mastermind bent on world domination, Dr. Kobras. The plot revolves around him gaining control of an ancient Aztec mask that had been left on Earth by aliens for reasons unknown (just go with it), and using said golden mask to hypnotize people, including world leaders, in the most goofy way imaginable. (Kobras would have to duck behind the large mask, point it at the person he intended to hypnotize, and bark out commands. Which would somehow form a paper-mache head that contained the soul of the thrallee. Or maybe the heads were just for decorative purposes. Whatever.) A hulking Aztec priest named Vadinho is out to stop him, though, and part of his plan calls for the rebirth of the great champion of his people. Enter the Pumaman.
Who’s a wispy American paleontologist named Tony Farms, who lives in London. Because of course.
Turns out Mr. Farms (played by Walter George Alton — more on him in a moment) is the last of a long line of men with the blood of the mask-bestowing aliens (this religion’s dubious gods) in their veins. As such he has some amplified abilities already: enhanced night-vision (Terminator-view without the computer displays), agility, and a sixth-sense imminent-danger alarm — yes, Puma-Sense. And when he puts on a magic belt given to him by Vadinho, he gains the more appealing powers of superherodom: super-strength, flight and teleportation. (Unfortunately, the belt also gives him a costume that’s half slacks and half cape, which looks like what would happen if Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name tried his hand at being a matador.) Think of the Pumaman — and the line of Pumamen — as sort of a South American version of the Ghost Who Walks, the Phantom. But really, really dopey.
None of this does the terribleness on display justice. The flying “special effects” (never have ironic quotes been more appropriate) are singularly abominable, even for their time, with rear projection cityscapes and the Pumaman flitting about with his rear end poking up in the air. The highlight of these scenes comes when our hero captures one of Kobras’s henchmen and drags him up into the sky, where he threatens to let him fall unless he coughs up the location of the bad guy hideout. He drops him once just to show that he’s serious — and the guy falls sideways. Literally. The MST3K bunch had a good deal of fun with that.
It’s amazing how much of it all is unabashedly displayed in the trailer: the awkward flying, the bouncy, fiendishly catchy Casio keyboard hero theme, Tony’s embarrassing canary yellow workout gear, Kobras and Co.’s Hefty garbage bag outfits:
The drubbing that Mike, Tom and Crow gave this bomb ranks as one of my favorite MST3K episodes of all-time, and definitely stands as one of the finer entries of the show’s Sci-Fi Channel era. Their delight at what a terribly unconvincing hero this guy is/was never ceases to amuse. (In the big fights, Vadinho handles most of the heavy fisticuffs while the Pumaman does trampoline gymnastics in the background.) As they call him — Constantlyoutofhisleagueman.
Despite all efforts to milk the success of Superman and Star Wars (the alien spaceship in the movie isn’t as direct a Death Star ripoff as the one in the Italian poster at the top of this post), the film fell flat. Or maybe because of those efforts it did. And it would have faded into B-movie obscurity if not for the mocking glare of a Minnesota puppet program. And its putative star, Walter George Alton? He moved on from his brief dabbles in the acting world, and further pursued his legal career as a medical malpractice attorney — good for him. But the siren song of the entertainment world proved irresistible, and eagle-eyed viewers might have been surprised to see him turn up in an unrelated 2005 Daily Show segment, where you could see he had a sense of humor about things even through his lawyerly deadpan. Which makes sense, because anyone who could have dangled from wires while wearing the garb of the Pumaman would have to have the ability to not take themselves too seriously. (Just a footnote: an enterprising YouTuber even unearthed an old Sure antiperspirant ad starring Alton. The scent of the Pumaman!)
The MST3K version of Pumaman is available on DVD and instant download on Amazon, and both the mocked and unmocked versions can be found online for the more piratically inclined among you. Track it down if you get the chance — you won’t regret it. Well, you will, but in a good way.