Sometime around 1990, my friends and I were hanging out, doing precisely the nothing with our post-teenage lives that had become standard procedure, when the TV did something strange. Late in the evening, there was a broadcast of something called “Superargo,” a particularly terrible Italian super hero film from the ‘60s. It was still common in those days for local stations to kill time with some wretched old B-movie after midnight or on Saturdays when the ballgame got rained out. And since cable television was something only responsible adults could afford, my loser friends and I caught a lot of these crappy local broadcasts while huddled around crummy little portable sets, sequestered in attic bedrooms where Mom couldn’t smell the smoke. Sometimes we’d catch an unscheduled Three Stooges short or, if we were lucky, something with Harryhausen monsters in it. Most of the time it was “Sorry, Wrong Number” with Barbara Stanwyck. We got to know that one by heart.
But even though we were used to low-grade movies about haunted boats and Godzilla’s cousins, we were pretty enthralled with the bottom rung wretchedness of “Superargo.” This looked like a film someone had found at an Indonesian flea market and broadcast on Channel Five in an effort to get someone fired. The film we saw that night, as I later discovered, is actually called “Superargo and the Faceless Giants,” despite the fact that it features a pack of robot men who are rather small and clearly have faces. You can be certain the Faceless Giants have faces, in fact, because the movie is shot almost entirely in close-up. There was a shortage of usable sets, obviously, so a huge chunk of the film was shot in a bland wooded area – the sort of location a 14-year-old filmmaker would choose for his Super-8 epics (I should know). Plus it utilized the audio styling that distinguishes all the best garbage cinema: post-dubbing. The actors all appear to be lip-syncing to voices recorded in a diving bell.
Superargo is my favorite sort of super hero, one without a secret identity. Superargo remains in his red tights whether he’s pummeling bad guys or sitting around making phone calls. He’s a wrestler-turned-supercop who fights crime with his “companion,” an Indian mystic called Kamir. They engage in a couple of car chases, and wrestle the Faceless Giants every ten minutes or so, but there’s little evidence of the special telekinetic powers that Superargo and his special friend are supposed to have. The theme music is pretty catchy, which is fortunate because you get to hear it about 78 times throughout the picture. The broadcast we saw had the reels out of order, showing our hero wrapping up the case of the Faceless Giants (tossing the unarmed scientist who created them into quicksand and then watching him die), then being imperiled by them again. This only enhanced our enjoyment.
This steaming pile of footage might’ve been instantly forgotten had it not turned out to be The Movie That Everyone Saw. While making my rounds the day after its broadcast, stopping in to see which of my shiftless pals might be feeling generous with their beers and baggies, it became apparent that all of them had caught last night’s showing of this classic Italian turd. “Did you watch ‘Superargo’ last night?” one acquaintance would ask, as if it had been an episode of long-running TV show. “Hey, we saw the weirdest movie,” another would say. Days and weeks went by and I was still running into people who brought up “Superargo.” It started to feel a little creepy, as if it had been some secret transmission that my select circle of misfits had been preordained to receive. Regardless of their social agendas, everyone happened to be planted in front of the television at that particular time.*
And what makes our shared experience of that broadcast seem all the more unique is that, when I mention “Superargo” to others today, no one seems to know what I’m talking about. As film super heroes go, Superargo is not on the geek radar like El Santo or Diabolik. And that’s too bad because it turns out that “Superargo and the Faceless Giants” is actually a sequel, and I need to find a bootleg connection to get the original film - the missing pieces of this metaphysical puzzle.
Or perhaps, if I wait long enough, it will simply be transmitted to me when the time is right.
*The ubiquitous experience of “Superargo” is only rivaled by a late ‘70s Saturday afternoon showing of the infamous “Trilogy of Terror,” featuring Karen Black being chased around her apartment by a deranged (and completely hilarious) aboriginal Zuni doll. In that pre-video era, everyone I knew seemed familiar with that movie from that single local broadcast. And if you’ve seen the film, then you understand why it would stick in everyone’s memory.