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Thursday, July 14, 2022

‘The Return of Captain Invincible’ – Philippe Mora Revisits His Cult Superhero Movie Starring Christopher Lee [Interview]

Given the current popularity of traditional comic book films in cinemas and on television and streaming, it’s perhaps no surprise that there have been several recent, subversive offerings in those mediums which take their core tropes to task, doling out stories which present the normally infallible superhero types as being all too human, with the many expected foibles and frailties that come with that condition. This writer is thinking of films like M. Night Shyamalan’s recent Unbreakable sequel Glass or Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy, or such shows as HBO’s Watchmen or Amazon Prime’s The Boys or Invincible. The bedrock for these revisionist takes on superhero storytelling can be primarily traced back to a pair of DC Comics graphic novels released in the mid-80s: Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, both of which took their bows in 1986.

However, one underseen feature film which deals with the same anarchic approach to four-color funnybook champions was released three years earlier in 1983. With its tale of washed-up, alcoholic ex-superhero Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) called back into duty to fight Nazi menace Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee) years after being betrayed by his own country, The Return of Captain Invincible blazed a trail which many continue to follow to this day. Oh, and it’s also a musical! Penned by Steven E. de Souza (48 Hours, Die Hard) and Andrew Gaty, and directed by Philippe Mora (Howling II, Communion), The Return of Captain Invincible is an underloved cult gem that’s ripe for rediscovery, having just received a loving restoration and special edition Blu-ray set from Severin Films which features Mora’s director’s cut alongside a wealth of bonus features.

To celebrate the film’s recent physical media re-release, Mr. Mora was kind enough to join Bloody Disgusting for a chat about its origins, its continuing influence, and Christopher Lee’s wild early days as a Nazi hunter.

Bloody Disgusting: For the uninitiated out there, how would you describe The Return of Captain Invincible?

Philippe Mora: I would describe it as cinematic minestrone. [laughs] Everything’s in it! I did that deliberately. I remember saying to Peter Smalley, who was the last writer to come on, who was with us in Australia, I said “See if you can put a laugh in every page of the script.” So technically, that’d be a laugh a minute.

Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) takes flight with Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick)

I don’t know how that turned out. I never checked it out, but the idea was to mix it all up, you know? It’s obviously satirical. It’s really about movies. Maybe I’m a little strange, but I think it’s very funny. I think Alan Arkin is tremendous and Christopher Lee, of course, he’s super.

BD: What were this project’s origins? How did your involvement with it come about?

PM: It was given to me by my agent, Robert Littman, who’s not with us anymore, and Andrew Gaty, the producer. For want of a better word, the script was straight. The de Souza script. What I really liked about it – it was excellent, by the way – was the fact that it started with the McCarthy hearings. I’m a history buff. Sounds a bit lame, but I do know my history, and I thought that was just a great premise, to have a blacklisted superhero.

Early days for Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin)

Interestingly enough, that’s what attracted Alan Arkin to the project. He told me his father had been a school teacher who had been blacklisted. So Alan was totally attracted to it, and Christopher was attracted to it because he wanted to sing, and no one had ever asked him to sing in a movie. So he was just delighted to have the opportunity to sing.

You know, he was an opera singer. He could sing Wagner. In fact, they said the worst thing that could happen to you would be to be stuck in first class with Christopher Lee from LA to London when he started singing Wagner, because that’s all you’d hear for the whole trip.

Christopher Lee as Mr. Midnight in one of the film’s many song-and-dance numbers

So look, yeah. I got involved in it. It was quirky, and we were able to make it. I mean, it’s not your conventional movie and we were able to make it because there was a tax thing happening in Australia where they really … um, this sounds a bit odd, but it’s not really, they didn’t care what you made as long as long as you made a movie. You could get a 150% tax deduction. So all kinds of crap was made, but also all kinds of really interesting movies were made.

That kind of fueled the Australian Renaissance in movies, because there was total freedom. There was no censorship in any form. I mean, imagine trying to pitch Captain Invincible to a studio. They wouldn’t understand it. In fact, some studio executives, even now when I describe it to them [as being about] an alcoholic superhero, they go cross-eyed.

BD: The film tells a deconstructionist superhero tale that predates graphic novels such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, or films like Unbreakable or Hancock. Even the superhero musical comedy aspect reminded me of 2008’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Do you see The Return of Captain Invincible as being a bit ahead of its time in this regard? Do you see it as an influence on later stories of the same type?

PM: Yeah, look, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it influenced those movies. I’m also a painter, and sometimes we say we paint a picture which is a breeder. The painting is a breeder. It influences other people. And I think Captain Invincible was a breeder for a whole lot of other movies, because it’s not conventional. God knows Hollywood is still very, very conservative in stories, you know. Just very formulaic, and Captain Invincible is anything but formulaic. Just the idea of an alcoholic superhero would be virtually impossible to get off the ground.

Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin), the film’s alcoholic superhero

But we had total freedom because of that financial structure. But yes, did it influence other films? For sure, because it’s weird. It’s weird in a good way, to me. It’s weird because it doesn’t follow what you normally see in movies, let alone heroes. So I loved doing it. I knew that it was adventurous.

BD: Christopher Lee is wonderful in the film as Mr. Midnight, Captain Invincible’s Nazi archenemy. I’d be remiss in my duties as a horror website interviewer if I didn’t ask about your collaborations with Mr. Lee – both this film, and your first Howling sequel. What was it like working with horror royalty?

PM: Fantastic. We got on immediately, because we are both historians in our own way of World War II. I mean, he participated in it, but I’d made movies studying Nazi Germany. So Christopher really liked all that. We had a lot of conversations about it. It was just a pleasure. He was an incredibly literate, cultured guy, and we were behind the Iron Curtain together. In fact, I’m making a movie about that. It’s called Dracula: Nazi Hunter, and it’s about the stories Christopher told me about tracking down Nazis.

He was the assistant hangman at Nuremberg. The official hangman was a guy called Albert Pierrepont, who was a chum, a mate, a buddy of Christopher Lee. And [Christopher] said he got all the firsthand stories. Christopher hated Nazis with a vengeance. I mean, you know, everyone hates Nazis, but he really fought them and he tracked them down after the war. He put the noose around a few. He said with relish, “I put the noose around a few of those bastards.” He was personally was involved in the arrest of [Ernst] Kaltenbrunner, who was the Gestapo head. But look, I could go on way too long about Christopher and all of that. But I am making a film about it. Dracula: Nazi Hunter.

Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee) in The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

BD: When can fans expect to see Dracula: Nazi Hunter? Will it be a documentary, or a narrative biopic?

PM: It’s gonna be at least six months … there’ll be recreated scenes, and there will be documentary footage that we’ve found, and photos which are quite extraordinary. So it’ll be both. Let’s call it a hybrid. You’ve seen Captain Invincible, you know I can make hybrids.

Now, it’s been really difficult to cast him. I’ve met a few actors who can imitate him, but it turns into people imitating Christopher Lee. It turns into Saturday Night Live. But yes, we will have someone playing Christopher. Look, it’s a hell of a story. Who knew Dracula tracked down Nazis, you know? What more do you need? It’s gonna be a picture made with love.

BD: Superheroes, werewolves, aliens, dinosaurs, gumshoe detectives, spaceship sci-fi. What is it that draws you back time and again to genre material as a filmmaker, and generally with a sense of fun and humor?

PM: I’m drawn to it from childhood, you know. I think childhood is terribly influential for everybody. There’s nothing special about me, but I loved movies. We lived in the city in Melbourne, right in the heart of the city. So all the movie theaters were around, I saw every movie that came out.

And then I loved comics. I still do. I collect them. My mother was a fine artist. She was a very good artist. She died fairly recently, and they had a state funeral for her. One of the few women artists who ever had a state funeral in Australia.

I’m getting a little bit off track here, but I loved comics, I loved pulp, and that translated into my early career as a pop artist. Because this is really pop art. I see films as pop art, and that’s what attracted me even now.

I like bad movies, actually. Because they’re not pretentious. Pretentious Hollywood movies are just absolutely terrible. I’d much rather see a pulp Hollywood movie. So that’s where I’m coming from, the pop art angle. I like movies that aren’t pretentious, and I find pop art is unpretentious.

BD: What’s gone into Severin’s new release of The Return of Captain Invincible? The Image looks incredible.

PM: Well, look, my involvement is really in the interviews that I participate in. I got Steve de Souza involved, because he’d never spoken about it, and he’s very important because he came up with the original idea. The artwork I was not directly involved with. There were different campaigns that unfortunately never saw the light of day, but I like what Severin’s done – they put quite a few of the campaigns into this disc set.

My involvement was as a cheerleader, and finding materials. I had the director’s cut, my personal copy of the director’s cut. That’s the 2:35 anamorphic version in stereo, and all those things are weren’t in the theatrical release, such as it was.

BD: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the difference between the theatrical version and the director’s cut for those who might only know that initial version of the movie?

PM: Well, look, it’s a sore point to ask a director what he thinks of the version that he didn’t approve. I mean, I don’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.

Let me put it to you this way. The director Arthur Hiller told me this story. I said to him, “What do you do if they cut your film up? I mean, do you fight?”

He said, “Yeah, you fight the bastards.” You know, he’s a distinguished director, and he had this story. He said, “Look, there’s a story about a producer and a director in the desert, and they’re really thirsty. They’re dying of thirst, and they finally see a couple of palm trees up ahead, and a little oasis. They run with their remaining energy to the oasis. And the producer pulls down his pants and starts urinating in the oasis, into what little water is there.

“And the director says, ‘What are you doing, man?!’ And the producer says, ‘Oh, I’m fixing it.’”

Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) in The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

BD: What final words do you want to leave our readers with concerning The Return of Captain Invincible?

PM: Well, obviously I’d love them to see it, and I’d love them to focus on my version. I’d like them to appreciate that. I’d like them to appreciate that it’s really about movies. There are a lot of different movies in that movie, and I’d like them to appreciate that we were way ahead of everyone else.

BD: Thank you for your time, sir.

PM: Thank you. And don’t get thirsty in the desert with a producer.

Special Thanks to Philippe Mora for his time and insights.

Severin’s Blu-ray release of The Return of Captain Invincible

The post ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’ – Philippe Mora Revisits His Cult Superhero Movie Starring Christopher Lee [Interview] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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