Sleeve Guyver Biological Reinforcement Armor injected a wild sci-fi spin on the superhero subgenre. It introduced biomechanical armor that enhanced its host’s abilities and proved useful during the onslaught of alien battles. The enduring popularity of Yoshiki Takaya’s manga series, which began publication in 1985, naturally inspired multiple anime series adaptations. However, when it came to producing a live version of the comics, the Japanese company Shochiku Films wanted a more Hollywood-style adaptation. They partnered with the producer Brian Yuzna (Society) and special makeup effects: heavy hitters Crazy george screaming other Steven Wang (Predator, The monster squad) as co-directors.
It is not surprising then that the result, published on March 18, 1991, is a showcase of practical effects.
The Guyver opens with text explaining that aliens once came to Earth to create the ultimate organic weapon. They created humanity, then experimented with its DNA, planting a gene that would allow humans to transform into monstrous soldiers: Zoanoids. Later, a scientist steals a device, the Guyver, from the Chronos corporation. The henchmen kill the scientist before he gets too far, but cannot locate where he hid the device. His daughter, Mizuki (Vivian Wu), becomes the next target, but is protected by Detective Max Reed (Mark Hamill) and her boyfriend Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong). Sean finds and unknowingly activates the Guyver, which comes in handy when Chronos president Fulton Balcus (David gale), send a horde of creatures after them.
With Yuzna, Screaming Mad George, and Wang running this ship, perhaps the most surprising part of The Guyver it’s his more camper and light-hearted approach to the material. Rather than an R-rated gory creature feature more in line with darker source material, it’s a PG-13 cartoon turned into live action. That alone divided audiences, fans of the original series, and fans familiar with Yuzna’s brand of bloody mayhem. What’s not so surprising, at least in hindsight, is how this live-action adaptation followed in the footsteps of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ massive success. It was also a niche comic book adaptation that offered a more kid-friendly approach to an otherwise gritty adult comic series. Taking a relatively obscure property for its time and making it more accessible makes sense, as does attempting to capture Ninja Turtles viewers, even if it doesn’t always work.
While tone and humor can be distracting, The Guyver succeeds as a creature-driven hands-on show. Having a minimal budget would prevent many from tackling such a heavy special effects production, but Screaming Mad George and Steven Wang had already built impressive careers as makeup special effects artists before making their directorial debut. They were both well versed in creative problem solving and had a keen eye for knowing how to use creature effects effectively. Zoanoids who used martial arts in their battles added a layer of difficulty to an already ambitious endeavor – think of stuntmen maneuvering in heavy rubber suits. Two directors well versed in creature effects meant a divide and conquer approach; Wang handled the majority of the fights, while Mad George tackled the more complex effects sequences.
The final showdown, a boss fight between Guyver and a transformed Zoaloard Balcus, might offer the biggest battle in terms of scale. But the crowning achievement in working with creatures possibly belongs to Max Reed’s gruesome metamorphosis into an insect-like zoanoid. After being released from a chamber 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 that takes over Reed’s human body has all the hallmarks of the usual Mad George brand of slimy, gross effects that movies like Society and the cockroach scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Master of Dreams so memorable.
Thirty years later The Guyver it’s a time capsule movie. Only in the early ’90s, a monstrous henchman, Jimmie Walker’s Striker, taunted his opponent with a punch. Even the heist scene that triggers Sean’s connection to the Guyver elicits giggles thanks to its cheesy staging. With a cast that also includes Michael Berryman other Jeffrey Combs, creating a Re-animator reunion with Gale, The Guyver demonstrates what happens when you put many hardcore horror fans in charge of a PG-13 superhero origin story. It’s silly fun that’s very much of its time, but the wacky creature effects have aged remarkably well.
Wang returned to direct the sequel, which adopted the R rating and was considered more critically as a result. Quiet, The Guyver delivers a dream team between two makeup special effects titans, and meets the monstrous mayhem that could still serve as a fun horror gateway today.