Amphibian Man Review
The old adage says you should never judge a book by its cover, and it's equally true that you should never judge a film by its title, poster or indeed opening scene. Amphibian Man kicks off with what looks like such a blatant rip-off of Creature From The Black Lagoon that it's tempting to laugh out loud, especially as the creature's costume is even less convincing than it was in that much-loved Jack Arnold classic. Add to that a shark attack featuring some hilariously dodgy matte work, and it looks very much as though we're in line for campy nonsense at best and a complete waste of time at worse.
But stick with it, as Amphibian Man turns out to be something of a minor gem - not to mention a far more subtle and multi-layered piece of work than I was anywhere close to expecting. If it ultimately doesn't quite measure up to the sheer emotional impact of Edward Scissorhands, the Western film that I thought it most closely resembled (there's nothing here that matches the heart-clutching final sequence of Tim Burton's masterpiece), it's still an intelligent and engrossing experience that works as a touching love story, a sci-fi thriller, a light comedy and a philosophical treatise, boasting some stunning underwater sequences into the bargain.
As I said, the opening sequence is straight out of a 1950s horror cheapie - a group of pearl fisherman are attempting to ply their trade off the coast of Mexico, but are petrified by reports of a 'sea devil'. True, no-one has actually fallen victim to this monster, but rumours spread like wildfire and, rather more seriously, hit the local pearly king Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov) right in the wallet. Even more seriously, the love of his life, Gutiere (Anastasia Vertinskaya) has gone missing, possibly eaten by a shark or indeed the mysterious sea devil. Fortunately, though, he rescues her from certain death and wins her hand in marriage... but did he really earn it?
In actual fact, Pedro did nothing at all except go into an uncontrollable panic, and Gutiere was in fact saved by the sea devil himself. Soon afterwards, we discover that he is in fact a human being by the name of Ichthyander, the son and unwitting creation of a well-meaning Frankenstein by the name of Dr Salvatore, whose dream is to establish a Utopian society beneath the ocean, populated by amphibious humans who can breathe underwater.
But for all his miraculous aquatic abilities, Ichthyander turns out to be hopelessly naïve on terra firma, lacking even the most basic understanding of social and economic conventions - he falls in love with Gutiere, but hasn't the faintest idea how to woo her effectively, he wins over a crowd by giving them fresh fish, but can't undersand why the local fishermen are so pissed off. And while this wide-eyed innocence is amusing and touching at first, its dangers become all too apparent, especially when he gets on the wrong side of Don Pedro...
Set, somewhat incongruously for a Soviet film, in what looks like a Mexican fishing village, the production values are commendably high, especially for an early 1960s film. Some of the special effects haven't worn too well (though the same is true of contemporary Western equivalents), but that adds to the charm - and doesn't in any way detract from the film's main virtues: a strong story, winning performances and a surprisingly intricate philosophical bedrock. Mind you, I shouldn't have been too taken aback in retrospect, since I'd already seen Professor Dowell's Testament, which was also based on a novel by the much-respected sci-fi writer Alexander Belyaev (Russia's Jules Verne, by all accounts), and shares its blend of trashy surface hiding multi-layered, unexpectedly complex depths.
Ultimately, it's not quite the genre classic that it frequently promised to be - the ending should be genuinely heartbreaking, but is something of a washout both literally and metaphorically, and Professor Dowell's Testament did a rather better job of building up to a satisfyingly end-tying climax. But it's certainly one of the most pleasant discoveries in the Ruscico catalogue, and will be a real eye-opener to those whose sole experience of Russian sci-fi has been via Andrei Tarkovsky's films. This is very different - much faster-paced, much more obviously crowd-pleasing, but still suffused with the intensely melancholic introspection that seems to be characteristic of most Russian culture, and it's a rather winning combination.
For a film that's more than four decades old, Amphibian Man is in pretty good condition, even if it's not quite up to the standard set by its almost exact contemporary Ballad of a Soldier, the best source print I've seen from Ruscico to date.
For the most part, the print is in excellent shape - a typical scene will only feature the occasional outbreak of spots and scratches, and the colour shifts are something I've grown used to with the notoriously poor Soviet colour film stock. There are a few sequences that betray worse damage, but never anything especially serious, and this is more than counterbalanced by the overall quality being way ahead of expectations.
The transfer, too, gives little to gripe about - it's admirably sharp and well-defined, with occasional soft and grainy moments almost certainly down to the original materials. It's also, gratifyingly, less prone to the artefacting niggles that I've spotted on other Ruscico discs - my only quibbles were that very very occasionally there'd be moments of frame duplication, resulting in a momentary freeze lasting fractions of a second. Also, there's a rather ugly layer change that should have come at the end of the scene in question, where a fade to black offered a golden opportunity for being unobtrusive. But these are very small nit-picks - all in all, this is an excellent effort, and I could see no sign that the 4:3 aspect ratio is anything other than the original one.
The soundtrack has, as usual, been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 from a mono original - though, commendably, Ruscico have avoided the temptation to go too far: for the most part, only the front soundstage is used, with the music benefiting most, and I only sensed the rears very occasionally (in Dr Salvatore's home, with its caged birds, for instance). The subwoofer is used even more sparsely - in fact, I only detected it once, during a scene set in a traffic-crowded street.
Technically, there's little wrong with the recording provided its age is taken into account - the dynamic range is comfortably up to the standards of the time, and the sound is a fair bit less tinny than that heard on other films from the era. My only major problem is that the music tracks have occasional sound dropouts, suggesting that the master tapes were in less than pristine shape, but, as with the picture criticisms, this is such a minor issue that most people simply won't notice. There are just twelve chapter stops, but it's a relatively short film.
In terms of extras, this is one of the finest Ruscico discs to date, covering all the usual bases and a fair bit more besides - in fact, apart from a commentary, there's little they've left out. When it comes to 40-year-old films, just digging up one contemporary behind-the-scenes documentary can often be an impressive feat of archive-trawling, but Ruscico have managed to find three!
Lets start with the usual suspects, though: there's the generic Ruscico trailer, the original theatrical trailer for Amphibian Man, plus additional trailers for The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Aladdin's Magic Lamp, The Princess and the Pea and Professor Dowell's Testament - the latter given its own separate showcase, fittingly, given its shared literary roots.
The stills gallery is the usual thumbnail arrangement, offering ten scenes from the film plus the original poster, and the filmographies cover directors Gennady Kazansky and Vladimir Chebotaryov, cameraman Edward Rozovsky, composer Andrey Petrov, and actors Nikolay Simonov, Vladimir Korenev, Anastasia Vertinskaya (whose filmography contains a further trailer, for Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet) and Mikhail Kozakov. Oh, and the trilingual (Russian/English/French) animated menus, as usual for this label, look absolutely stunning, even if the navigation is - how shall I put this tactfully? ? somewhat idiosyncratic. (I've already gone on record as having a sneaking liking for Ruscico's bizarre and unpredictable labelling, but I do concede that it can be a bit tricky trying to find something specific!) I particularly liked the chapter menu, which features full motion video clips shown through portholes.
So far so standard - virtually all Ruscico discs offer this stuff as a minimum - but I've only just scratched the surface of this disc. An additional gallery offers five set and costume sketches (as with the stills gallery, these are selectable via thumbnails), a section cryptically titled 'Soundtrack' features one of the jazzy, upbeat songs, accompanied by a still of the woman who sang it (though, sadly, no titles, translations or identification of the performer).
The real meat comes with the three documentaries. 'In Search of Ichthyander' is an eleven-minute documentary (in Russian with optional English or French subtitles) about the making of the film, paying particular attention to the logistics of shooting underwater. There's some fascinating footage of costume and prop tests shot in a Leningrad swimming pool, and equally eye-catching shots of underwater location scouting and set dressing: most of the colourful plants were designed specifically for the film.
The two remaining documentaries are much briefer (just under two minutes apiece - they presumably originated as part of much longer newsreels), in black and white and only offer English subtitles to accompany the original Russian. The first is part of what looks like a regular magazine item called 'Sport and Arts', and looks at the contributions made by Soviet athletes to the film - not just in front of the camera (beneath the surface, Ichthyander was played by Leningrad underwater swimming champion Anatoly Ivanov) but also behind it: most of the camera and lighting crew boasting a similar swimming pedigree. And the second item looks at the staging and shooting of the scene right at the beginning of the film where Ichthyander discovers the unconscious Gutiere lying on the bottom of the sea and rescues her.
As with Professor Dowell's Testament, though, I was very disappointed that there was nothing about the source novel or its creator - Ruscico clearly rates Alexander Belyaev's work, as his name headlines two of the company's DVDs, but they don't offer any more than the sketchiest biography, printed on the back of the box. Compared with the attention lavished on Gogol (Viy), Pushkin (Ruslan and Ludmila) and even Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), they've missed a trick here, which makes the Amphibian Man DVD not quite as comprehensive as it could be.
This is carping, though, as for the most part this is a triumph - the film has worn very well, the transfer is pretty much as good as it's ever likely to get, and the extras prove that this was a real labour of love. At the moment, nineteen discs into my two-year Ruscico marathon, this would be my joint first choice with Viy for people wanting to dip a toe in the still all too murky waters of commercial Russian cinema ? and Amphibian Man is likely to be rather more appealing to many. Despite its reputation (the biggest Soviet box-office hit of 1962 and a longstanding popular favourite in its native country), it doesn't seem to have had much (if indeed any) international exposure - so this DVD is doubly welcome.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:01:38