Trauma-scene:: Superman III’s Psycho Cyborg

Some of the most interesting Kindertraumas come from the most unlikely of places. We’re all somewhat prepared for freaky happenings in horror films but few would expect mental turmoil from a comic book sequel centered on the most wholesome flying alien to ever wear tights. To be fair, SUPERMAN III does consciously dabble in darkness when Superman (Christopher Reeve) becomes a rude, drunken version of himself after he’s exposed to impure kryptonite but, as pointed out within the film, our heroes’ bad side leans more toward faulty human than actual evil entity. Instead, SUPERMAN III’s most notoriously frightening transformation occurs to perhaps the least likely character. Make no mistake, the scene in question is not one that unnerved a select few high-strung individuals, this is a capital “K” Kindertrauma that shook many a child. Rarely can you mention the movie SUPERMAN III without someone with the shell-shocked face of a war veteran whispering about, “That robot lady…”

I’ll spare you the convoluted details that make up the plot of this comedic PG-rated adventure. Suffice to say that once again Superman is facing a troika of amoral individuals up to no good. In this case the trio (megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), his henchwoman sibling Vera (Annie Ross) and his not so bubble-headed main squeeze Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson)) have solicited the aid of one Gus Goreman (Richard Pryor) who happens to be a wiz when it comes to computers. There’s the usual tug of war between the superhero and his enemies and eventually everything culminates in a climax in an underground lair around a giant super computer that we’re told can do anything and has seemingly become sentient. At one point Vera attempts to escape the mechanical beast only to be drug backwards by a laser beam and to be assimilated inside it. With her face visibly anguished, poor Vera has metallic pieces grafted upon her face as sparks fly and her eyeballs turn to silver balls. Suddenly she’s an unwilling robotic zombie clamoring forward with a shocking ragdoll hairdo and lasers shooting out of her face.

On a visual level alone it’s a disturbing display as this once relatively normal person is piece by piece transformed into some kind of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (’89) by way of STAR TREK’s “The Borg”, half human/half robot hybrid. Adding to the intensity is the clear physical discomfort Vera endures as she is unwillingly overtaken. The resulting creature that emerges walks that freakish uncanny tightrope line between utterly ridiculous and incomprehensibly nightmarish. It’s a bizarre sight to behold that screams of wrongness on a cosmic level. Of course, any reasonable adult would shrug off the entire sequence as high camp nonsense but any kid worth his salt recognizes an unholy abomination when they see one. Ironically SUPERMAN III inadvertently accomplishes what so many techno-thrillers tried and failed at, it actually makes technology legitimately frightening for a spell.

My personal favorite component of this iconic trauma-scene is the fact that it just so happens to involve the late great Annie Ross who I believe is the main reason the cinematic atrocity works so well and is so unshakable. Ross, besides being a legendary accomplished jazz singer who delivered stellar performances in PUMP UP THE VOLUME (’90) and Robert Altman’s SHORT CUTS (’93), should be considered a great friend to the horror genre for her appearances in WITCHERY (’88) and most notably BASKET CASES 2 and 3 (’90 &’91). In Frank Hennenlotter’s brilliant sequels to his cult classic BASKET CASE (’82), Ross portrays Granny Ruth a highly lovable advocate for non-normies everywhere who on occasion breaks into inspirational song. If that weren’t enough horror clout, Annie even provided the speaking voice for Britt Eckland in the masterpiece THE WICKER MAN (‘73). The woman is a legend and it’s all so very fitting that one of the many jewels in her impressive crown would be one of the most memorable and often mentioned kindertraumas ever. A quick cut conveys that after the ultimate computer is destroyed that Vera Webster returns back to her former self (most likely to face consequences) but for many folks who caught this flick at a young age, she’ll be shooting off sparks and blasting off laser beams forever. Some traumas ya just can’t unplug.

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Matt Sunshine
Matt Sunshine
8 months ago

I saw this in theaters back when it was first released and that scene scared the hell outta me. Everyone thought I was such a wimp for being afraid of it. I just laugh now when Kindertrauma and youtube are filled with other folks remembering how they too were also traumatized by this one, just as I was.

Chuckles72
Chuckles72
8 months ago

True Fact – this is what happens when you partake of too much social media.

SmallDarkCloud
SmallDarkCloud
7 months ago

Annie Ross didn’t just provide Britt Eckland’s voice in The Wicker Man. She also provided the voice of Ursa in Superman II. Or at least some of it – there are claims that Ursa’s voice is actually a studio-constructed blend of Ross’ and Sarah Douglas’ voices.

I agree with everything you’ve written here, Unkle Lancifer. That scene did scare me half to death as a kid. Rewatching it as an adult, I still find it very unnerving. My only quibble is that Ross’ post-transformation hair looks a little bit like a cheap fright wig. Otherwise, the scene remains very intense, and it’s tellingly not played for humor, in a movie where many of the scenes are basically comedic (though not all of them).

For all of the criticism that Superman III has received over the years, justifiably, the movie does have some strong points. Annette O’Toole is terrific, and all of her scenes with Christopher Reeve are very good. She did the impossible and replaced Margot Kidder. The Clark/evil Superman scenes are terrific. I even like the opening scene with the Rube Goldberg slapstick – it’s a nice change from the cosmic opening scenes of the first two films (Clark changing in the photo booth and meeting the kid outside is a riot).

Last edited 7 months ago by SmallDarkCloud