Movie of the Week: Superbeast (1972)
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
I know virtually nothing about Superbeast, other than United Artists released it in New York City on November 1, 1972, as the bottom part of a double bill with Daughters of Satan. Trivia complete; let’s continue now to something I can tell you about: what I thought of it. I kind of liked it. It’s an intriguing combination of The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game, by way of Eddie Romero (although the prolific Filipino filmmaker had nothing to do with it.)
Warning: spoilers ahead!
The movie starts at a brisk pace (that it will certainly not maintain) as a man, later identified as Ray Cleaver (John Garwood), comes down a mountain and races in a frenzied state from Manila General Hospital to Manila International Airport to Guam. If it’s a little hard to tell exactly what’s happening, the events will later be summarized when he’s killed coming off his plane in Guam. He’s an ex-Navy man arrested in Pangan for smuggling hash who subsequently stole a pickup and an airline ticket.
Pathologist Dr. Alix Pardee (Antoinette Bower) dons her jeans and high heels to investigate the strange events following an autopsy that we don’t see, but results in the coroner saying, “Wow.” She meets Dr. Paul Rojas (Manny Ojeda) and they begin a journey to the location where Cleaver was found. To go all the way, though, there are no roads and they must travel by canoe. Unfortunately, they encounter some rapids and tumble over a waterfall. When Pardee awakens, pieces of the puzzle start falling into place.
The handsome Dr. Bill Fleming (Craig Littler) greets her and later explains his benevolent experiments. He’s an authority on sedatives, hallucinogens and “other drugs,” that was shunned in the United States. Setting up shop in an old plantation, he believes he can rehabilitate the most hardened criminal and has an arrangement with constable, Mondo Diaz (Vic Diaz), to use local criminals as test subjects. (Now there’s a solution to prison overcrowding.)
It turns out Cleaver was one such subject that escaped. Fleming’s serum causes people “to go through a physical sociological metamorphoses” and take “an evolutionary step backwards.” However, their minds stay intact and they are able to think like the men they once were. He’s isolated the part of the serum that causes the regression, but is so far unable to keep his experiments stable for more than ten days. Ah, maybe the visiting pathologist can help him.
This is all well and good; however, the movie may be only halfway to its conclusion. Layered on top of this Island of Dr. Moreau concept is that fact that Fleming had run out of money and approached Stewart Victor (Harry Lauter) for funding. Victor agreed upon one condition: let him deal with Fleming’s “mistakes.” Here’s the Most Dangerous Game angle. Victor hunts these mistakes for sport. This is the part that appalls Pardee and causes her to take action.
Her escape plan is a little drastic and ill considered, if you ask me. It seems out of character for someone so concerned with the humanity of it all, to secretly feed Fleming his own serum. She does it because, when regressed, the patients are highly suggestible and she thinks she can convince him to release her from her jungle prison. This leads to a climax where Victor finds it “ironic” that he’s now hunting Fleming, the “superbeast.” Whew, that’s a lot of plot! I like it though.
Superbeast is a low budget movie that doesn’t necessary feel low budget because the concept matches its scale. For example, it appears to be filmed entirely on location, making it look authentic. There are no manufactured locations and the movie doesn’t employ stock footage. So, on the crowded streets of Guam or deep in the jungle, you’d expect to find some grit and grime. Luckily, were in the 1970’s, so real life and the filmmaking quality go hand-in-hand.
So do the dialogue and the vernacular. For example, Pardee “digs” what Fleming is trying to do (but can’t condone the end result.) Earlier, when a man says about Cleaver, “He was pretty freaky, huh?” Pardee responds, “Quite freaky, yes.” I didn’t hear the word, “groovy,” but it wouldn’t be out of place in Superbeast. Nor would the non-verbal cues. When one of Fleming’s experiments gives Pardee a small gift, she thanks him by flashing a peace sign.
While barely seen, the makeup effects are pretty good, especially when Fleming transforms. The way he scrunches his nose evokes Planet of the Apes, so I’m not surprised to read that John Chambers was employed as “special makeup artist.” The primary “makeup artist,” Fred C. Blau Jr., later contributed to Tim Burton’s 2001 version of Planet of the Apes, and has a list of other impressive credits. Adding to the effect is a lot of handheld camerawork that doesn’t allow our gaze to linger.
Superbeast is a lot of plot-heavy fun, but not necessarily action-packed. Writer/director George Schenck squanders an opportunity to have a thrill-packed climax by focusing only on Victor as he stalks Fleming in the jungle. By not providing alternative shots that show the location or actions of Fleming, there’s no suspense. And it’s ultimately disappointing if you expect a big focus on the monster.
Written by George Schenck Directed by George Schenck Starring Antoinette Bower, Craig Littler, Harry Lauter, Vic Diaz Released November 1, 1972 (New York City) RT 93 min. Home Video Shout! Factory (Blu-ray)