Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Humanoid (1979)

Italian exploitation cinema's ability to jump on bandwagons and refashion emerging genres into something distinctively Italian, is legendary.  Which is why it might seem surprising that it never really got a handle on the whole Star Wars phenomenon.  Sure, there were a number of cheapjack space movies released in the late seventies and early eighties, none especially notable, but there were only two real attempts to cash in on Star Wars directly:  The Humanoid (1979) and Starcrash (1978).  Both were given major marketing pushes in English language markets and did well financially, but they didn't start a trend.  Perhaps it was because the Italian exploitation film industry was running out of steam by the late seventies, or maybe it was because the source material simply didn't lend itself to the typical Italian schlock experience, either way, we didn't get a cycle of spaghetti space operas to match the spagehetti western boom, the peplum cycle, the giallos, cannibals and zombies or the war movies which had all, at various times sustained the industry.  Of the two movies, it is The Humanoid which tries hardest to overtly mimic its model, not so much in terms of plotting or characterisation, but certainly in terms of its visuals.

From the outset The Humanoid goes all out to create an air of familiarity for audiences fresh from Star Wars and eager for more of the same.  Not only does text bringing us up to date with the plot scroll down the screen as in Star Wars, but the villain's space ship, which bears an uncanny resemblance to an Imperial Star Destroyer, makes its first appearance as it glides into shot, from the top of the screen, its underside gliding over the camera as it closes in on a smaller craft.  The film later replicates the sequence where Luke Skywalker fights off a Tie fighter attack on the 'Millenium Falcon' with laser cannon, although this time around the hero doesn't have the benefit of 'The force' to steady his aim.  A large part of the action takes place in a desert landscape, shot to look as much like Star Wars' Tatooine as possible - not only are the buildings similar in design to those in the George Lucas film, but the heroine drives a hover car which looks remarkably similar to Luke Skywalker's Land Speeder.  There are even a couple of mysterious characters with cloth covered faces who look a bit like Sand People.  While there might not be a tall golden robot, there is a small robot dog which is clearly intended to be an R2D2 substitute.  The film even has its own equivalent to 'The Force', albeit not being wielded by some aged mystic, but rather a young boy - Tom Tom - of mysterious origin, who is possessed of various psychic powers, including premonition and mind control.  To cap it all off, the main villain, played by Italian schlock regular Ivan Rassimov, swans around in a Darth Vader-style costume, the exact function of which is never explained.

But if The Humanoid replicates much of the 'look' of Star Wars, it makes no attempt to replicate its plot.  Rather than presenting its audience with a epic contest between good and evil in the form of a plucky resistance facing off against an all powerful empire, it instead opts for a simpler tale of sibling rivalry, greed and revenge, pitting the peaceful utopia of Metropolis (formerly Earth) against an evil rebel megalomaniac and his associates.  While Star Wars looked back to the Hollywood cinema serials of the thirties and forties for plot inspiration, The Humanoid looks to inter war European pop culture for its plot - its mix of mad scientists, elixirs of life, hulking monsters and revenge could easily have come from a Dr Mabuse film or an Edgar Wallace thriller.  Indeed, these main plot elements could also be found in the average sixties 'Eurospy' movie turned out by Italian studios.  But such mundane plot mechanisms don't sit well with the overarching conceit of an interstellar adventure, constraining the action.  Consequently, the film never really takes off in the way Star Wars did - its central conflict seems parochial, never giving the impression that is part of some wider scheme, or that there is some kind of greater mystery behind it all.

The is, nonetheless, highly entertaining, although not necessarily for the reasons its makers intended.  The plot, for what it is worth, involves Graal, evil brother of Metropolis' leader, The Great Brother, escaping from a prison satellite, hijacking a warship and enlisting the support of a disgruntled mad scientist, Dr Kraspin, to overthrow his brother.  Kraspin assures Graal that he can create an army of 'Humanoids' for him - humans transformed into obedient, super strong and invulnerable fighting machines by the application of a substance known as Kapitron.  Kraspin had developed the substance while working at the Grovan Institute, located in a desert area of Metropolis, before being reported to the authorities by fellow scientist Barbara Gibson, and jailed for his unethical experiments.  Freed from prison by Lady Agatha, ruler of the planet Noxon, where Graal has his base, Kraspin stipulates that Graal must kill Gibson when his men raid the Groven Institute in order to steal the only stockpiles of Kapitron known to exist.  In the meantime, Kraspin is busy maintaining Lady Agatha's youth and beauty by draining the life force from young women and turning it into a serum.  While Graal's attack on the Institute secures the Kapitron, his men fail to kill Gibson, who has been telepathically summoned away by her ward, Tom Tom.  A disappointed Kraspin nonetheless agrees to demonstrate the power of Kapitron, transforming space pilot Golob - an amiable giant who, with his robot dog, has had the misfortune to crash land on Noxon - into a violent Humanoid.

The Humanoid is despatched to Metropolis to assassinate the Great Brother and goes on a violent rampage in his pursuit of the Metropolis leader, apparently unstoppable.  His mission goes awry when Kraspin, still thirsting for revenge, diverts him to kill Gibson.  The Humanoid, however, encounters Tom Tom, who uses his powers to pacify the giant and to start to restore his memory of who he truly is.  Gibson, nonetheless, is captured by Graal's men and taken back to Noxon, where Kraspin plans to drain her life essence to provide another dose of serum for Lady Agatha, when he isn't busy preparing a missile with a Kapitron warhead that Graal plans to fire at Metropolis, transforming its citizens into an army of Humanoids.  Naturally, the newly pacified Golob, Tom Tom and heroic Metropolis space soldier Nick are in hot pursuit.  Aided by Golob's previously abandoned robot dog, they penetrate Graal's base, rescuing Gibson, killing Graal and Krespin and destroying the missile.  Lady Agatha ends up a pile of bones while Golob apparently heroically sacrifices himself destroying the warhead, until it is revealed that the blast has transformed him back to his human self.  In a final bizarre twist, the two mystery archers with cloth face masks turn up in a flying crystal boat and are joined by Tom Tom, who announces that he is returning to his home in ancient Tibet, before sailing off.

As you can tell from this synopsis, the film becomes ever more bizarre as it proceeds and, toward the end, gives the distinct impression that they are making it up as they go along.  The climax, in particular, piles left field development upon left field development.  If it isn't the two masked archers (who are revealed as Tom Tom's guardians) popping up out of nowhere to rescue the child every time he comes under threat, then it is Graal demonstrating hitherto unmentioned mystic powers, (he shoots blue rays from his hands), during his final confrontation with Nick.  There is also some question as to just who the film was aimed at: the presence of Tom Tom and the antics of the robot dog indicate a primarily juvenile target audience, but the film also includes some nudity when Kraspin is draining a girl's lifeforce early in the film, not to mention quite a high level of violence.  But the most entertaining aspect of the film by far lies with some of the performances.  In fact, The Humanoid musters a pretty credible looking cast. But while schlock veteran Rassimov maintains a straight face (what can be seen of it, that is, behind his Vader-lite mask), and Barbara Bach as Lady Agatha and Corinne Clery as Barbara Gibson, (both former Bond girls who had recently been sexually harassed by Roger Moore's 007), maintain a degree of professional dignity, Arthur Kennedy as Kraspin pulls out all the stops in a fantastical piece of ham acting.

Kennedy, a much admired and lauded Hollywood character actor spent his declining years in Italian exploitation films giving ever more over the top performances, culminating with The Humanoid.  Behaving and sounding more like a low rent New York gangster than a scientist, he steals every scene he appears in.  Richard Kiel, another Bond veteran, in the title role cuts an imposing figure, but is a terrible actor.  You can tell when he's turned evil as he loses his beard, snarls and bares his teeth a lot.  When he is transformed back into Golob, his beard magically returns, he smiles and speaks softly.  And that's the extent of his characterisation.  The half decent cast is accompanied by half decent production values.  The special effects are surprisingly not bad for this sort of film, (particularly as, according to the director, the footage delivered by the original effects supervisor were unusable and had to be reshot at the last minute by a new effects team).  Overall, the film is pretty well directed, which shouldn't be surprising as it had Aldo Lado (billed as 'George B Lewis'), who had directed some very decent Giallos including Who Saw Her Die? and Short Night of Glass Dolls, in the director's chair.  (Although he later claimed that he let his assistant supervise many sequences, such was his disinterest in the project).  The main disappointment is Ennio Morricone's uncharateristically bland and lacklustre musical score.  In the final analysis, while a highly entertaining piece of opportunism, The Humanoid never quite manages to co-opt and subvert its subject matter to a wholly Italian perspective, in the way that, say, Spaghetti Westerns managed to.   It tries to hard to simply replicate the formula of its model, with some elements of the original material it feels obliged to include, like the half hearted mysticism of Tom Tom, sitting uneasily with the other plot elements and feeling arbitrarily tacked on.  That said, it is still enjoyable and well worth a look.



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