Made Overseas: The Super Inframan (1975)

Who are the Shaw Brothers? If you didn’t grow up a child of the 70’s and 80’s, then they’re probably best known as the guys who provided the entire sound clip library for the Wu-Tang Clan. Seriously, where would Ghostface Killah and Method Man be without weirdly Bostonian sounding dubs of Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin? Probably still taking the hip hop world by storm. But the Shaw Brothers and the Wu-Tang… could be dangerous!

So, yes, the Shaw Brothers and their cool shield logo produced 1,000 films and became synonymous with kung fu movies. One day, though, someone — let’s say producer Runme Shaw or director Hua Shan — got a glimpse of Japan’s twist on superheroes known as tokusatsu. Maybe it was the eternally gormless expression of Ultraman. Maybe it was the pleasant insectlike features of Kamen Rider. Maybe it was both. And thus, with the help of Japanese professionals who had worked on some Toei productions, the first ever Hong Kong based superhero was born.

He had the power of shooting missiles stored from below his ribs and firing a stream of light from his wrists. He can attach shiny gloves that can rocket punch his enemies. He can grow to giant size to fight kaiju level monstrosities. And he can do backflips. So many backflips. Like, I’m sure that’s what Danny Lee majored in at the TVB Acting School.

He is The Super Inframan.

Inframan is secretly Rayma… or honestly not so secretly, everyone seems to know Rayma and Inframan are one and the same. He’s quite capable even without the Inframan costume, fighting by hand with lightning speed. When he needs that extra pep, though, he crosses his arms, the background turns into a blue drop curtain, and a psychedelic light show indicates his cosmic transformation. This same transformation will be repeated multiple times in the movie. Padding or thematic reinforcement? It’s hard to tell.

A dragon crash lands, cracking a road and putting a school bus full of children in peril. This perplexes Professor Liu Ying-de, head of the science headquarters. He and the other people in his organization are soon contacted by the dragon, who takes the form of a woman with a fetching horned helmet.  It seems he’s been trapped in the Earth, but now, after 10 million years, SHE’S FREE!

Now, I understand why many people would prefer that characters be referred to that of the original language. Our antagonist was originally called “Demon Princess Elzebub,” which is a fairly adequate title. However, I will argue that sometimes the English dub is more melodic. English dubs inspired the Wu-Tang Clan. And it could be argued that a similar Japanese villainess named “Witch Bandora” snared a far better moniker with “Rita Repulsa”. And thus I have decided that I will now and forever alway refer to Elzebub by her far more evocative English name: Princess Dragon Mom.

Princess Dragon Mom commands an impressive and diverse crew.  Her second-in-command is She Demon, who has eyes on her hands. (Her original moniker was “Witch-Eye.”) She seems to tech person, handling the computers and manning the laser artillery. Princess Dragon Mom is also flanked by a colorful legion of monsters that handle the large scale damage. To behold their creative and diverse designs is to know joy. Fire Dragon looks like a mustachioed statue come to life. (In fact… he looks like a human and not a dragon. I don’t know what’s up with that name.) Mutant Drill looks like the Musinex booger with drills for hands. I haven’t found much information on the English dub online, but he sounds like he was voiced by Judd Hamilton, the robot Elle from Starcrash!

And rounding out this crew are a bunch of identically costumed henchmen called the Skeleton Ghosts.  They’re Princess Dragon Mom’s putties.  The redshirts that Inframan can dispose of en masse.  And their skeleton-themed outfits should look incredibly familiar to those of you who’ve watched the new season of MST3K.  (The Skeleton Crew are not the only reference to The Super Inframan.  Kinga Forrester herself is partially based on Princess Dragon Mom.)

The effects are primitive.  When mad science is done to Rayma so that he can transform into Inframan, we see the Professor equipping him with a Wolverine-like technoskeleton.  (“The Man Beyond Bionics!” exclaimed the American advertising campaign in an effort to capture that Six Million Dollar Man crowd.) How do we see such equipment buried under Rayma’s skin?  Basically, a simple cartoon overlay that show all his circuit boards.  It a very simple and obvious effect, but it adds to the handmade charm of the entire film.

My favorite is a sequence where the science headquarters is attacked by a plant monster. The creature busts out of the floor and shoots tendrils that the kung-fu trained scientists have to chop off. But wait! Each attack has no effect, as a new tendril emerges from the freshly cut wound. In addition, the plant monster begins squirting fluid at the attackers. (Yes, it’s very suggestive. Clean thoughts, chum.) It’s a highly imaginative sequence where you’re constantly guessing what new powers the monster will be exhibiting next, and how exactly is Inframan going to defeat it.

Plus… all these practical effects just look dangerous. There’s a scene where one of the monsters shoots out some fluid, which explodes when it hits the ground. In my mind, the fluid was kerosene. (Most likely it was plain old water.) I couldn’t help but think: what if things had gone wrong? Could that explosion have burned the poor stuntperson working the bulky rubber suit?

Princess Dragon Mom’s ultimate goal is world domination (naturally), and she’s got powers beyond delegation. She is, after all, a dragon. In a final showdown with Inframan, she reveals her most formidable power of all: infinitely regenerating heads! I got a hearty chuckle when about seven heads were piled up around Princess Dragon Mom’s feet.

So yeah, this is basically a bunch of goofy nonsense that was clearly made for kids. One can imagine a kid Quentin Tarantino or a little Old Dirty Bastard (Young Dirty Bastard?) chewing on some cereal and watching this movie way too early on a Saturday morning, tuning into one of the five television stations that existed at the time. Does it hold up as an adult, though?

The movie does start off slowly, and in the three times I watched it recently I can’t really tell you what happened in the first fifteen minutes or so. It doesn’t pick up until the first monster attacks. None of the characters exhibit any depth… especially Inframan, who this movie is named after! There’s nothing that sets him apart from his fellow silver-suited officers. They all are about the same height. They all sport the same haircut. And they all ride the same motorcycles.  They’re all nearly identical, like Princess Dragon Mom’s skeletal henchmen.  (Curiously, it’s the monster squad that have most of the movie’s personality.)

At one point in the story, one of the science guys gets kidnapped and brainwashed… and I’d thought that was Rayma. Inframan is now one of the villains! Oh no! Well… now you can accuse me for being a guy to whom all Asians look alike.  It turns out that it was another guy, who, like Rayma, was given zero character development.

Incidentally, Princess Dragon Mom kidnaps the Professor and orders him to create her an Evil Inframan. Oh, man, this is going to be great. Inframan versus Evil Inframan? That’s going to be the climactic showdown! Well… don’t hold your breath. The movie is a real tease sometimes.

And yet… there’s that charm. I vaguely remember watching Ultraman back when I was a kid. And I suppose that younger readers had the same experience, albeit with the Power Rangers. Everything you love about those shows are here in The Super Inframan, only amped up. Even as a somewhat jaded older viewer, there’s so much charm and craftsmanship that you can’t help but be transported back to being an excitable little kid again.  The gaudy, shiny costumes with the plastic-y and rubber textures give you sense of watching a bunch of toys come to life and smash into each other.

And before you think we’ve grown beyond such childish things… did you realize that this year’s blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, features an immortal megalomaniac who commands a squad of colorful monsters and a vast army of samey looking hench-creatures that go to battle against a group of colorfully costumed heroes (one of which wears a red power armor)? And let me tell you… Inframan would definitely have gone for the head!

In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert once said, “When they stop making movies like Infra-Man, a little light will go out of the world.” (Also: “The best movie of its kind since Invasion of the Bee Girls!”) The whole review is well worth reading, as even Ebert returns to a state of pure childhood glee. It’s also one of the few movies he want back and re-did the rating for. On initial release, he’d rated the movie 2-1/2 stars, but after years of thinking about it he upgraded it to a solid 3.

And while the light of this world has dimmed a little, the spirit of this movie has lived on through cheeky references on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and new Chinese theatrical releases like League of Gods. As long as there is wonder in the world, as long as there are tales where good triumphs over evil, there will be an Inframan.

The Super Inframan is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

NEXT: Choo choo!  All aboard, because we’re taking a Train to Busan!