A few months ago, the Crypt of Curiosities dipped its first toe into the wild world of Shaw Brothers films. Perhaps one of the most prolific and accomplished studios in the history of exploitation cinema, Shaw Brothers put out hundreds of movies in their ’70s heyday, encompassing everything from their signature kung fu and wuxia films to goopy horror to romantic melodramas. But with a filmography so wide and with so many to choose from, a couple in particular stand out: two odd, violent spins on Japanese superheroes, complete with rubbery suits and gratuitous violence. So of course, still riding the high from the Devilman OVAs, I decided it’d be proper to check out what Shaw Brothers had to offer. I was not prepared.
The first, and perhaps most notable of the two Shaw Brothers superhero films was The Super Inframan (1975), director Hua Shan’s stab at capturing the magic of Japanese tokusatsu. Riffing off classic’70s Japanese media like Kamen Rider (1972), Ultraman (1966), and even Mazinger Z (1973), Super Inframan presents a world where Hong Kong is under siege by the wicked demoness Princess Dragonmon (Terry Lau Wai-Yue), a transforming dragon with an army of assorted goofy, rubber-suited monsters at her disposal. With monsters and demon-made disasters ravaging the country at every opportunity. Now, more than ever, Earth needs a hero.
Enter Inframan, the Man Beyond Bionics. At first, he was the humble Rayma (The Killer’s Danny Lee Sau-Yin), a hardworking and heroic scientist/anti-monster crime fighter working in the high-tech Science Headquarters (Real creative naming, I know). But with earth going to hell in a hand basket, he volunteers to let the genius Professor (Wang Hsieh) experiment on him, turning Rayma into the part-man, part-machine superhero Inframan.
Inframan is not a complicated character. He is as good as good guys come. He doesn’t struggle with what’s right, he doesn’t descend into villainy—hell, he takes on a Christ-like pose when being fused with the Professor’s bionics. But that’s not a flaw. Inframan is a simplistic hero, because Super Inframan is a simplistic story that’s all in service of one goal: give action, and as much of it as possible.
Really, Super Inframan is basically just one big action scene of a film, with a structure that less resembles a traditional film narrative, and instead feels more akin to the myth of Hercules and his 12 trials. Princess Dragonmon sends some skeleton-faced goons and a special monster at Inframan, Inframan fights and inevitably clobbers them, and we rinse and repeat until it’s time for the final showdown.
While a lesser film would take this episodic premise and make something formulaic or even dull, Super Inframan manages to stay fresh by making sure that every battle is its own eye-popping, high-flying martial arts showdown, with even fights against basic, interchangeable foot soldiers featuring slick choreography and steady camerawork that looks great while still displaying the performers’ dance of costumed death. If that isn’t enough, each scenario gets to show off its own weird monsters and abilities. Take, for example, a duel that comes around halfway through Inframan’s shockingly breezy runtime. Inframan is locked in combat with a multi-armed, humanoid beetle, and is quickly gaining the upper hand. So, just to mix things up, the beetle grows into a Godzilla-sized beast, stomping around model cities and crushing people under his feet.
So, what does Inframan do? Why, he grows to skyscraper size himself, turning the film into a proper kaiju throwdown, if only for one scene. Inframan is constantly just getting new powers and pulling them out of nowhere to be used in fights once or twice and never touched again. While some might (reasonably) state that the amount of absurd deus ex machinas being used is way too high, I can’t help but dig them—less time spent explaining Inframan’s inconsistent powers means more time is spent showing them in action.
Falling right in line with Inframan’s spirit of freewheeling fun is, well, just about every aspect of the production design. Beyond Inframan’s decidedly Kamen Rider-esque costume and the silly rubbery monsters, there’s an incredible amount of detail packed into every facet of Super Inframan’s world. From the goofy lamps in the Science Headquarters to the massive kaiju boneyard that guards Dragonmon’s lair, every little bit of Super Inframan feels deliberately campy and ridiculous, with the aforementioned lair’s interior feeling like something out of a ’60s Batman episode from hell. It’s incredible.
Honestly, the entirety of Super Inframan is just incredible. It’s one of those rare films that’s genuinely constantly fun, a devilish treat that’s packed with a number of mind-melting moments and battles that most long-running action franchises can’t achieve. It’s silly, sure, but when it comes to clever and fun action filmmaking, Super Inframan is as far from stupid as you can get.
But while Super Inframan was weird, it’s always possible to get weirder. The last time we visited the Shaw Brothers filmography, we focused on a particular director, Ho Meng-Hua, the mad genius behind the overwhelmingly strange Black Magic duology. They were incredibly gross, weird films, so it only makes sense that when it’d come time for him to step behind the camera for the Shaw Brothers’ other big superhero production, he’d make something just as ludicrous. Something like The Oily Maniac.
The Oily Maniac is the story of Sheng Yung (once again played by Danny Lee), a lawyer who lost the use of his legs to childhood polio. Unfortunately for Sheng, when he goes to visit his uncle Lin Ah Bah (Ku Feng) at his coconut oil grove, he finds corrupt loan sharks are shaking the man down, and Uncle Ah Bah is forced to kill one in self-defense. With the death penalty ahead of him and his daughter (Cheng Ping) being pressured into giving up the oil grove, Uncle Ah Bah turns to Sheng Yung for one last hope. An ancient spell is tattooed on the old man’s back, and with it, Sheng Yung can transform from a mere human to the monstrous "Oily Maniac," a humanoid oil slick with enhanced strength, repaired legs, and most importantly, an urge to defend the innocent with his oily fists—if he doesn’t become a villain first.
This relatively simple, albeit undeniably offbeat premise could easily make for a very straightforward, goopy horror/hero film in the vein of the later Darkman, or even something a bit darker, like the previously discussed Devilman OVAs. The Oily Maniac doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do that at all. Instead, it has a plot and series of tonal shifts that can only be described as baffling, with monster throwdowns juxtaposed with some of the seediest subject matter the film could think of, all played up for the maximum possible sleaze.
For example, mere moments after the first bits showing the Oily Maniac, the film decides to throw in its first of unfortunately many rape scenes, which is clearly meant to excite the audience more than actually disturb them. It is then immediately followed by The Oily Maniac—in all of his goofy, rubber-suit glory—beating the crap out of the rapists. This is a movie that—I kid you not—spends around one-eighth of its runtime in a courtroom dealing with a hearing in a rape trial. This sequence lasts longer than the film’s final fight. It is handled with all the tact and subtlety one would expect.
The maniac himself doesn’t do the tone any favors, either. Yung’s character is taken 100% seriously for the entire film, with Danny Lee’s characteristically strong performance selling every bit of his character’s depressing journey from idealistic avenger to embittered, outright evil, oily monster. So, it’s a bit weird that when we actually see the "horrific" oily maniac in action, he looks… kind of cute? Sure, he’s an incredibly violent half-man, half-oil monstrosity, but the rubbery costume just cuts his fierceness down. The very silly transformation lapses and oil slick effects don’t do him any favors, either.
Granted, I suppose how the monster looks basically means jack compared to what he does. Action sequences in The Oily Maniac are nothing short of delightful, with heavy wirework and just damn good choreography allowing the titular fighter to just obliterate everyone that comes in his path. While none of the fights are as zany or graceful as those in Super Inframan, they’re still good old-fashioned Shaw Brothers fun, complete with slow-mo, snap zooms, and lots of sound stages being torn apart by flying bodies.
It's in this delightful mayhem that The Oily Maniac shines, just dropping any pretensions of it being a serious superhero drama and letting the rubbery fiend crack skulls. Basically every other scene is punctuated with a bloody dust-up of some sort, and the total tone-deafness of the plotting only adds to the madcap delirium. By the time the third act rolls around, there’s been so many "out there" tonal shifts, violent fistfights, and shocking character progressions that the plotting of the movie feels genuinely unsafe, and soon I began to wonder what sleazy, gross monstrosity would be awaiting me behind every scene transition.
Much like Ho Meng-Hua’s Black Magic films, I don’t think I can really call The Oily Maniac "good," because it is very clearly not. It’s actually kind of a mess on every thematic and narrative level I can think of, but it’s an absurdly fun mess that left me confused, frustrated, and kind of shocked that a movie like this was even meant for any sort of audience. It’s no Super Inframan—and really, few films are—but as far as a B-feature in what might be the craziest double feature ’70s superheroism has to offer, it’s a total success and one hell of a good midnight viewing.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Kaneto Shindo’s ONIBABA (1964) and KURONEKO (1968)