New to Blu: The Guyver (1991) - Reviewed

In the early-1990s superhero movies and comic book adaptations were nowhere close to being the money-making powerhouses they are today. Far from being the stuff of mega-budget blockbusters, comic book movies were seen as more niche items for the cult film market. That is, at least until the massive success of Tim Burton's Batman, which started to change the game. Batman showed studios not only that superhero movies could be successful, but also that they weren't just kids' stuff: Burton's moody, gothic vision proved that there was an appetite for darker and more adult-oriented superhero-style fare. This revelation led to a small but distinctive wave of early-'90s comic book movies for older audiences, like The Crow and Darkman, which took that dark style even further, into R-rated territory. One of the filmmakers who jumped on this trend was cult-horror producer Brian Yuzna (Re-Animator, Society, The Return of the Living Dead 3), who saw at opportunity to blend this darker take on the superhero genre with the sorts of bloody monster-movie thrills that he specialized in. He secured the rights to an anime and manga series which had recently become a cult hit in the U.S. - Yoshiki Takaya's Bio-Booster Armour Guyver – and began to assemble a live-action adaptation. At the heart of the film would be some excellent creature effects by Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George (the two of whom also directed), and an impressive ensemble of cult horror and sci-fi actors including Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), David Gale (Re-Animator), Linnea Quigley (The Return of the Living Dead), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator also), and Mark Hamill. All the pieces looked like they were falling into place for an awesome R-rated monster battle... but then something happened. Specifically, 1990's live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie happened, and the creative team behind the film started to wonder if an adult-oriented, horror-tinged approach was the wrong choice, and if they should make it more kid-friendly instead. 

So they injected goofy slapstick humor, and moved away from the horror to focus on TMNT or Power Rangers-style martial-arts action, in an attempt to make it a hit with (older) kids. Yet they kept some of the gore, and the cast of actors known for R-rated cult films, leaving no doubt as to the original intention of what the movie was supposed to be. The result is a weirdly dissonant exercise in trying to have your cake and eat it too; a film which isn't sure if it wants to be the next Ninja Turtles or the next Re-Animator. It makes the wildly misjudged decision to try and be both, and in doing so lands itself in an awkward netherworld between target audiences. It never gels into a remotely cohesive tone... but ultimately, that weird dissonance is one of its most endearing qualities. The Guyver may not exactly work, but it is a very fun and entertaining movie in its own bizarre way; it certainly is unique in its subgenre, for good and for bad. Its odd blend of awesome creature effects and camp silliness has earned it a passionate cult following over the years, and now that cult following has lead to its region-free blu-ray debut, courtesy of Arrow Video, available this week from the UK.

"What do you think of my full-body vaping rig?"

The Guyver tells the story of a college student who accidentally finds and activates a mysterious living suit of alien armor, which throws him into the middle of an underground conflict between humanity and a shadow organization of shape-shifting monsters, called the Chronos Corporation. The story began in the mid-1980s as a manga (comic) series in Japan, and was adapted shortly thereafter into a two-season, twelve-episode anime. In both mediums, the series was excellent: outwardly it may appear to work with plenty of well-worn anime tropes (high school kids, mecha armor, monster battles, etc), but the story is so well-written, with such a unique and well-developed mythology, that it feels totally fresh. I think it's safe to say that The Guyver was among the very best anime or manga series of the late-1980s, thanks especially to that deep and fascinating mythos behind Chronos, their shape-changing Zoanoids, and the Guyver unit. It's no surprise that it became a cult favorite here in the U.S. during the early days of the proliferation of anime in this country, and it is equally little surprise that it was licensed for an American movie to capitalize on that popularity. Unfortunately it is just as unsurprising that Brian Yuzna and company weren't able to do justice to the original series mythos. The story is all still here, and when it delves briefly into the anime's mythology you can clearly see the much better movie that this could have been, but the bizarre tonal inconsistencies undercut these stronger elements. I must emphasize that I am not saying this as a fan of the anime and comic complaining about the adaptation being tonally different from the source material; the flaws of this movie are entirely its own. The silly and serious sides of the script feel like two different movies, and the shifts between these modes can be extremely jarring. It feels very obvious that this was originally intended to be a much darker and less comical film, and it had humor forcibly injected into it during some late-in-the-game rewrite, like the cautionary tale that Suicide Squad should have payed attention to.

But with all that said, this patchwork style gives it an unexpected power to entertain: The Guyver has – probably unintentionally – a frenzied, overcaffeinated, off-the-wall style with which you never know quite what the movie will do next. There could be a brutal, crazy fight between its extremely well-designed monsters, or one of those monsters could break into a cheesy rap. That unpredictability is in itself a whole lot of fun – at least, if you have the ability to watch it with a sense of humor and a certain amount of irony. This is a true guilty-pleasure movie: one that definitely isn't objectively good, but is awesome all the same, in its own cheesy way. It is camp of the most purely early-'90s variety, and in that regard it has only gotten more entertaining as its distinct '90s-ness has become more and more obvious with time.

"Somebody called for a GWAR cover band?"
Of course, there are some things that the film genuinely does really well. It is quite well-shot, with stylized blue lighting that evokes the story's comic-book roots. It also boasts a strong musical score, with a great, very memorable main theme. But by far the strongest aspect of the film is Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George's creature effects work. The rubber suits – and the animatronics used to bring their very expressive faces to life – are great. This is especially true of the Guyver himself, Michael Berryman's villainous Lisker, and the seriously awesome third-act big bad, all of whom could give the creatures from most other genre flicks of the early-'90s a serious run for their money. The film also boasts some first-rate transformation sequences every bit as well-done as those from most werewolf movies. On the strength of these things alone The Guyver is a must-see for fans of this style of practical effects. Granted, some of the minor monsters who pop up briefly are pretty cheesy (it's a rule – every aspect of this film has to be at least a little uneven), but the star creatures easily carry the show.

The cast is likewise a mixed bag. As our out-of-his-depth college kid turned superhero, Jack Armstrong (Student Bodies) is good, though occasionally wooden. Vivian Wu, on the other hand, is extremely wooden as his girlfriend (the one character from the comics who wasn't whitewashed for this adaptation), and her weak performance does nothing to improve a character who is already written as little more than an unfortunate damsel-in-distress stereotype. It is no surprise that among our ensemble of heroes the best performance by far comes from Mark Hamill, as a hard-boiled CIA agent with his own bone to pick with Chronos. Hamill has a lot of fun delivering his tough-cop lines, and broodingly smoking cigarettes in alleys like a sci-fi Robert Mitchum. He clearly knows that he is in a cheesy movie, but rather than phoning it in, he amps up his acting with just enough camp to steal his scenes while still coming off as the strongest actor of the bunch. Injecting some more outright comedy into the film are two slightly-postmodern cameos by '80s cult-horror icons Jeffrey Combs and Linnea Quigley, both of whom clearly have a good time spoofing their star images. Combs is great in every movie he's in, and has saved more than a few weak films with memorable performances; he's a lot of fun here, and one wishes that his role was expanded to more than just a glorified inside-joke. At least it's a good joke, though... and it's cool to see him opposite David Gale once again, in something at least slightly better than Bride of Re-Animator.

The staff of the Chronos Corporation is like an
Expendables of '80s horror movie villains.
As the two main villains, David Gale and Michael Berryman are both as entertaining as always, chewing the scenery through maniacal grins. Gale's Dr. Balcus is more or less a PG-13 variation on his Dr. Hill from Re-Animator: a crazy-eyed evil scientist with a penchant for yelling pseudo-philosophical monologues in a moutache-twirling bad-guy voice, and for terrorizing his co-worker's daughters. Berryman gets to do something different from his iconic Hills Have Eyes psycho... though it's not always the good kind of different. His character is handled in a really odd way: sometimes he is portrayed as a sadistic heavy (which he does really well), and sometimes as a comedic bumbling henchman stooge (which makes him seem very miscast). Again, it seems that he was a victim of those late-stage comedy rewrites interfering with what his character was supposed to be. The really cringe-inducing acting – and the really ill-advised comedy – comes from the trio of idiot monster henchman who work for Berryman. All three are very unfunny in their one-note characterizations: The Dominatrix MMA Fighter, The Angry Russian Slob, The Hip-Hop-Loving Comedic Black Man – the latter of which is a cringe-inducingly racist characterization, in a deeply awkward way. Jimmy (“dyno-mite!”) Walker from Good Times plays said rapping monster, and is not only very irritating, but also gives us one of the most uncomfortably stereotypical portrayals of a black man in modern genre cinema, right alongside Jar Jar and those robots from Transformers 2. Why did he agree to basically play a minstrel-show character? Did Spike Lee watch this when he was writing his scathing indictment of Hollywood racism, Bamboozled? Because this is literally exactly what he was talking about. Why did anyone think this was a good idea? For that matter, why did anyone think making The Guyver into a slapstick comedy was a good idea? We may never know the answers, since Arrow's blu-ray doesn't include any interviews with Jimmy Walker or the other actors to put it into context. Maybe someday a company like Scream Factory will do their own release, and get more of the cast to answer the questions about just what the hell happened on this production.

Fifteen years after its release, opinions are still fiercely divided over whether The Guyver is first and foremost an entertainingly off-kilter guilty-pleasure or a frustrating wasted opportunity to make an actually good Guyver movie. I land firmly in the guilty-pleasure camp, but the truth is that it's both; though fortunately the wasted-opportunity aspect was mitigated when, just three years later, the series got another chance. This first film became a big enough cult hit on cable and home video that New Line ordered a straight-to-video sequel, and Steve Wang was brought back to co-write, direct, and helm the special effects – this time without Brian Yuzna or Screaming Mad George. It seems that he shared many fans' frustrations with the original film, because his follow-up 100-percent corrects its predecessor's missteps. Rather than making a true sequel, Wang went the soft-reboot route (think the Edward Norton Incredible Hulk), recasting all the roles and making a much darker and more serious film with a story that delves deep into the mythology of the comics. Ditching the humor, ramping up the horror elements, staying much more tonally faithful to the source material, and earning an R-rating, Guyver 2: Dark Hero is exactly the movie that The Guyver should have been before its production went off course. Now that Arrow Video has brought the original film to blu-ray, hopefully this superior sequel will follow close behind (a full review of Guyver 2 will certainly follow close behind this one). But even if the first film isn't as good as its successor, it remains a very entertaining slice of early-'90s B-movie history, and it is great to at least have one of the Guyver films on a North-America-friendly blu-ray at last.

...and co-starring Mark Hamill as Tom Selleck.
This Arrow blu-ray will contain a new transfer of The Guyver's director's cut... but let's take a minute to go over what that means, because there's a lot of confusion. When the American DVD of The Guyver came out several years ago, the box claimed that it was the director's cut, but while it did have extra little bits of dialogue here and there that weren't in the VHS version, fans were disappointed when they noticed that much of the movie's gore had been removed or toned down. This lead to a myth that the director's cut is an inferior version of the film that is less violent. It's time to bust that myth: it's not true, because the American DVD is incorrectly labeled, and isn't actually the director's cut. It is slightly extended in relation to the VHS cut, yes, but actually it is just the American theatrical version, which had the gore trimmed by the MPAA to get a PG-13 rating. The VHS release, which is how most of us remember the film, is actually the unrated cable TV cut, falsely labeled as PG-13, which reinstated all the gore that was snipped from the theatrical release, but trimmed little bits of inconsequential dialogue here and there (mostly comedic banter between the members of the Zoanoid gang) to tighten up the pacing and keep the movie at 90 minutes. So if you ever wondered how The Guyver was able to get away with those limb removals and throat-slashes under a PG-13 rating, the answer is that it didn't; the version we all grew up watching was unrated, and the PG-13 on the back of the box was a lie. The true director's cut contains everything from both versions: all the dialogue and all the gore. It has never been released in America, but came out on VHS and laserdisc in Japan, and on a Region B German blu-ray. While I have not been able to watch the soon-to-be-released Arrow disc to confirm that it is the true director's cut, it is a pretty safe assumption that it will indeed be this truly uncut version, and won't repeat the same mistake that the lazy American DVD did. This will mark the first ever release of the true director's cut on a region-free disc that can be viewed in America. Which is very cool, of course, but don't expect too much of a difference from the VHS cut that we grew up with: the changes really do consist just of minor dialogue additions, and no significant new material featuring the monsters. But it will be a major upgrade over the toned-down DVD, meaning that we no longer need to watch the movie on our old VHS tapes to see it the way we remember. Of course, this is the sort of quintessentially-90s film that I think I'll always prefer to watch on its native VHS format, if only for the nostalgia factor, but it absolutely deserves a good HD presentation all the same. If you're a fan of this film, or an appreciator of awesomely cheesy '90s genre fare in general, this is definitely one to check out.


- Christopher S. Jordan