Manga Bio-Booster Armor Guyver injected a wild science fiction twist to the superhero subgenre. It introduced a biomechanical suit of armor that enhanced its host’s abilities that came in handy during the onslaught of alien battles. Yoshiki Takaya’s manga series’s enduring popularity, which began publication in 1985, naturally inspired multiple anime series adaptations. However, when it came to producing a live-action take on the comics, Japanese company Shochiku Films wanted a more Hollywood-style adaptation. They teamed up with producer Brian Yuzna (Society) and special makeup effects-heavy hitters Screaming Mad George and Steven Wang (Predator, The Monster Squad) as co-directors.
It’s no surprise then that the result, released on March 18, 1991, is a practical effects showcase.
The Guyver opens with a text crawl that explains the aliens once came to Earth to create the ultimate organic weapon. They created humankind, then experimented with their DNA, planting a gene that would allow humans to transform into monstrous soldiers- Zoanoids. Then, a scientist steals a device, the Guyver, from Chronos corporation. Henchmen slaughter the scientist before he gets too far, but they’re unable to locate where he hid the device. His daughter, Mizuki (Vivian Wu), becomes the next target, but she’s protected by Detective Max Reed (Mark Hamill) and boyfriend Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong). Sean finds and unwittingly triggers the Guyver, which comes in handy when the Chronos president, Fulton Balcus (David Gale), sends a horde of creatures after them.
With Yuzna, Screaming Mad George, and Wang steering this ship, perhaps the most surprising part about The Guyver is its campier, more lighthearted approach to the material. Instead of a gory, R-rated creature feature more in line with the darker source material, it’s a PG-13 cartoon turned live-action. That alone divided audiences, fans of the original series, and fans familiar with Yuzna’s brand of gory mayhem. What’s not so surprising, at least in hindsight, is how this live-action adaptation followed hot on the heels of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ massive success. It, too, was a niche comic-book adaptation that offered a more kid-friendly approach to an otherwise very gritty and adult comic book series. Taking a relatively obscure- for its time- property and making it more widely accessible makes sense, as does the attempt to capture Ninja Turtles viewers, even if it doesn’t always work.
While tone and humor can distract, The Guyver succeeds as a practical creature-driven spectacle. Having a minimal budget would hinder many from tackling such a special effects-heavy production, but Screaming Mad George and Steven Wang had already built an impressive career as special makeup effects artists before taking on their directorial feature debut. Both were well versed in creative problem solving and had a keen eye for knowing how to utilize the creature effects effectively. Zoanoids using martial arts in their battles added a layer of difficulty to an already ambitious effort- think stunt people maneuvering in heavy rubber suits. Two directors well-versed in creature effects meant a divide and conquer approach; Wang handled most of the fights while Mad George tackled the more complex effects sequences.
The final showdown, a boss fight between the Guyver and a transformed Zoaloard Balcus, might offer the biggest battle in terms of scale. But the crowning achievement in creature work arguably belongs to the gruesome metamorphosis of Max Reed into an insect-like Zoanoid. After being freed from a chamber far too soon, Reed painfully turns as his body rejects the mutation. It’s an intricate scene that meant creating and operating multiple stages of the transformation, from prosthetics to a fully articulated mechanized puppet. The slimy bug overtaking Reed’s once human body has all the hallmarks of Mad George’s usual brand of slimy, gross-out effects that made films like Society and the cockroach scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master so memorable.
Thirty years later, The Guyver is a time capsule movie. Only in the early ’90s would a monster henchman, Jimmie Walker’s Striker, taunt his opponent with a rap. Even the mugging scene that triggers Sean’s connection with the Guyver induces giggle-fits thanks to its corny staging. With a cast that also includes Michael Berryman and Jeffrey Combs, creating a Re-Animator reunion with Gale, The Guyver demonstrates what happens when you put many horror stalwarts in charge of a PG-13 superhero origin story. It’s silly fun that’s very of its time, but the insane creature effects have aged remarkably well.
Wang returned to helm the sequel, which embraced the R-rating and became more regarded critically as a result. Still, The Guyver offers a dream team-up between two special makeup effects titans, and it delivers on the monster mayhem that could still serve as fun gateway horror today.