Color, 1983, 101 mins. 13 secs. / 90 mins. 59 secs.
Directed by Philippe Mora
Starring Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Kate Fitzpatrick, Bill Hunter, Michael Pate, Graham Kennedy
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Elite Entertainment (DVD) (US 0 NTSC), Umbrella (DVD) (Australia R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Promoted in international genre magazines like Famous Monsters but barely seen in theaters, the ambitious Australian production The Return of Captain Invincible may not have been the first superhero musical comedy (that honor probably goes to It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman), but it's definitely the weirdest. Made at the height of the so-called Aussiesploitation period, it followed the trend of importing a couple of big stars while retaining that oddball, strangely paced vibe that was so common at the time. Fresh off his squishy Hollywood debut with 1982's The Beast Within, Australia-based director Philippe Mora shifted gears in a big way here with an attempt to capture the same midnight movie audience packing houses for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, notwithstanding the recent box office debacle of its semi-sequel, Shock Treatment. That extended to recruiting Rocky's two song co-writers, Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley, who turned in three very worthy numbers for this film (along with several unrelated contributions by others that don't come anywhere close). The real ace up the film's sleeve was recruiting the great Christopher Lee, who got to finally show off his bass-baritone singing voice (which could be heard in more muted form earlier in The Wicker Man); in fact, Lee would go on to tackle "The Time Warp" the following decade with a recording of Rocky Horror. Laced with random, very Aussie comedy a la The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and stuck with a confusing title that made it sound like a sequel, The Return of Captain Invincible was cursed by bad luck including the collapse of its U.S. distributor, Jensen Farley Pictures, right when it was due for release. However, its fusing of multiple genres and unorthodox approach to the superhero movie in its early days have given it plenty of cult currency in the ensuing decades.
Taking a cue from the previous year's The Road Warrior, our story begins with a lengthy black-and-white, Academy ratio intro showing the trajectory of all-American superhero Captain Invincible (Arkin) starting in the 1930s. A beacon of integrity, he becomes tarred during the Commie scare of the '50s and becomes an alcoholic recluse in Australia. His archenemy, the conniving Nazi Captain Midnight (Lee), takes advantage of the situation by absconding with a hypno-ray that will target minorities in major cities and bring about his dreams of white supremacy. Spurred on by Aussie police officer Patty Patria (Fitzpatrick) and a burly coach (Strictly Ballroom's Hunter), Captain Invincible has to get back in fighting shape (in between musical numbers) as the U.S. government freaks out about the impending attack.
The kind of film that you stumble across on TV and wonder if you're hallucinating, The Return of Captain Invincible has so many random elements there's no way any two people will react exactly the same way. You get an attack by vacuum cleaners, slapstick comedy involving sped-up motion and crossed eyeballs, giggly '80s-style jiggle comedy thanks to our hero's malfunctioning magnetic powers, a monster henchman rubber suit, and glitzy dancers aplenty. Arkin manages to get the sad sack, boozing hero thing down quite well, though unfortunately he's a very limited singer and gets stuck with the worst songs in the film (one of which in particular feels like it's an hour long). That leaves the door open for Lee to pretty much walk off with the entire film, clearly having a ball and really tearing into his two musical numbers especially the clever and wildly infectious "Name Your Poison" (which is up there with any of O'Brien-Hartley's best work). Ozploitation fans will recognize a slew of familiar character actors on hand here including Michael Pate, Graham Kennedy, and so on, and it all looks and feels very much like an Aussie drive-in film despite the two leads.
Initially released as a badly pan and scanned VHS in the U.S. by Magnum, The Return of Captain Invincible was cut by a little over ten minutes but presented in its full director's cut for its DVD debut (with a letterboxed VHS reissue) from Elite Entertainment in 2003. Since then the longer version has been the default one, though other editions have been very sparse including a 2009 DVD from Umbrella in Australia. The 2022 three-disc edition from Severin Films ups the ante considerably, featuring two Blu-rays and the first soundtrack release anywhere (not counting a 45 single in Germany with Lee's two songs), featuring ten tracks including all of the songs and a 9-minute orchestral suite. The first Blu-ray features what may be the first widescreen release ever of the theatrical cut, and while the packaging doesn't specify the source, it looks fantastic with excellent detail and very rich colors. Audio options include Dolby Atmos and DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 English options with English SDH subtitles; the surround activity on the first two options is okay with some amusing audio spread for the music and whooshing sound effects, though to these ears the 2.0 is the strongest since it represents the original balance between the vocals and music. Try all three and see which one you prefer. Interestingly, being able to compare the version shows that the theatrical version doesn't simply hack material out of the director's cut; it's a fairly elaborate reedit of the film including several alternate angles and takes. Most of the omitted material seems geared to make the film less bizarre and more family friendly including fewer magnetic clothing mishaps and no doggie doo gags, for starters.
"The Invincible Producer" (20m38s) is a choppy but informative Zoom interview with producer Andrew Gaty covering his start in the industry with a story about Fred Schepisi and an attempt at a project with Blake Edwards before going into this project that remains very close to his heart. Along the way he also touches on legal tangling with the Australian government and the involvement of screenwriter Steven E. de Souza, who had just done 48 Hrs. and would go on to Die Hard and Commando (not to mention directing the troubled Street Fighter). Then "An Eye for Ozploitation" (8m59s) features cinematographer Mike Molloy explaining some of the challenges he faced on the film, particularly the flying scenes both real and intentionally simulated. In "Side Saddle Superhero Sidekick" (8m36s), Fitzpatrick shares tales from the set involving cocaine eyedrops, the shooting of the vacuum cleaner scene, and her rapport with Mora, whose work she admired before she started. In "A Brit Playing A Frenchman In Australia" (6m2s), actor Chris Haywood chats about having to speak in sorta-French nonsense talk, the state of Australian filmmaking at the time, and his career at the time. "Christopher Lee Performs 'Name Your Poison' On German TV" (10m) is actually way more substantial than it sounds, with Lee being interviewed in German (with English subtitles) about his role in The Man with the Golden Gun, his two German-language Edgar Wallace Krimi classics, and his Dracula days before launching into a performance of the song. Finally the disc wraps up with an alternate main title sequence as Legend in Leotards and a nice HD scan of the American theatrical trailer.
The second Blu-ray features the familiar director's cut, here in a nice upgrade over the old DVD but obviously taken from a lower generation source (a solid quality print based on the occasional cigarette burns that pop up). This version only has a DTS-HD MA 2.0 English stereo track, but it sounds just fine with good separation throughout. Frame grabs seen in the body of this review are from the theatrical version, while director's cut ones versus the DVD can be seen below. Not Quite Hollywood filmmaker Mark Hartley joins Mora for a new audio commentary that really dives deeply into the making of the film and the way it approached the script, from the opening newsreel montage (a big factor in the director taking it on) through the casting process, the decision to turn it into a musical, the stunt work, the Sydney locations, the intimidation of working with Lee (with whom he collaborated again for the most respected and subdued horror sequel of all time, Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf), the coming out of one key actor, and plenty more. In "Creating Captain Invincible" (23m44s), Mora and de Souza reunite for a fun conversation about the origins of the story (involving Lauren Shuler Donner among others) and how it ended up making a circuitous route to the finished product(s) we have with us today. Finally "The Return of The Return of Captain Invincible" (41m39s) has Mora offering a cheerful account of his life and career with Beat The Geeks' Marc Edward Heuck including background about his family, his documentary work including Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and Swastika, the influence of American culture, an early endorsement from Josef von Sternberg, and his very colorful, often astonishing run of narrative feature films.
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (Director's Cut)
Elite Entertainment (DVD)
Reviewed on June 27, 2022