A frequent debate among artists within the designer toy movement concerns where the line between work of art and collectible toy lies. That is to say, at what point does the artist’s voice become secondary to whatever part of popular culture is being referenced in a piece. And while no simple algorithm could ever be devised to determine a theoretically correct answer to this query, it seems like one that could be solved by anyone willing to ponder a piece properly. Take, for instance, the newest work by Retroband (Aaron Moreno), The Oily Maniac, a figurative sculpture executed in soft vinyl by Unbox Industries and derived from the 1976 Shaw Brothers‘ film production of the same name.

The Shaw Brothers’ The Oily Maniac film

While it can be said that Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio produced some of the most popular and significant Chinese-language films since their official founding in 1958, including works that helped popularize the kung-fu cinema, their approximately one-thousand film catalog also contained motion pictures like 1976’s campy, cult classic The Oily Maniac (子鬼油). Presumably based on the Malay ghost story of the orang minyak, which literally translates as “oily man”, this Ho Meng-Hua directed version focused on Sheng Yung (played by Danny Lee Sau-Yin), a crippled man who is magically blessed (or cursed) with the ability to transform into a superhumanly strong, slime-covered creature. Needing to douse himself with oil to change forms, such as diving into a barrel of the black ooze, Yung uses this power to avenge those who have been wronged.
As for how this muck monster protagonist received a designer toy rendition over forty years after the film was issued, Dan Willett, the Company Director & Project Manager of the nearly decade-old Unbox Industries, admits to being “a big fan of cult genre cinema”, having made it “a personal mission to try to work with licenses that are sometimes long forgotten”. Working in collaboration with Hong Kong’s Play Toy, who have acquired several official merchandising rights since being founded in 2014, “I proposed tapping into The Shaw Bros horror movie back catalog”, states Willett, “as it has never been exploited for licensing”. This proposal, according to Willett, “evolved into an agreement that lets us access nearly the entire Shaw Bros catalog”, including The Oily Maniac.

Interpreting The Oily Maniac Sculpturally

When considering how to proceed with translating The Oily Maniac into designer toy form, Willett thought that “Retroband‘s previous dalliances with his horror movie homages [would] make him a perfect fit” for the project. Moreno’s designer toy career under the Retroband alias began in 2013, when he started sculpting, casting in resin, and hand-painting limited edition action figures based on cult movie classics, particularly horror films. Eventually deciding to focus more on completely original concepts, Moreno partnered with Unbox Industries to produce the 2015 released MEATS design (see review here). And even though he “had never seen” The Oily Maniac film, Moreno immediately thought that “this was right up my alley” when Willett approached him concerning it. “All things gross and slimy have always been a favorite of mine”, proclaims Moreno, adding that he is “a HUGE fan of the ‘guy in suit’ monsters”, making this The Oily Maniac project seemingly ideal for him. “All parties involved knew Aaron was going to nail the design first time”, professes Willett, “and he did”.
“It started with a sketch”, remembers Moreno, who spent around “a month’s time” carefully crafting the sculpture after the design was approved. “I wanted to capture all the fluid textures”, emphasizes the artist, “especially in his facial expression”. And while the soft vinyl edition of the form would be roughly one-foot tall (30cm), Moreno’s initial sculpture was created at a much smaller size with the understanding it would be digitally scanned and enlarged. “Aaron is more comfortable sculpting at a smaller scale at the moment”, explains Willett, “and, after using the same process for MEATS, we knew that the details translate beautifully”.

The Oily Maniac Soft Vinyl Sculpture

Expertly executed in the vinyl medium by Unbox Industries, the cascading waves of ooze adorning Retroband‘s sculpt fascinate with their complexity. But there were also many subtle aspects that were carefully considered by Moreno during this piece’s creation, including the creature’s stance. “I tried to capture a few aesthetics based on the film, and one was its iconic movie poster posture”, the artist admits. “By having his hands at that particular angle, it compliments a more aggressive posture”, he elaborates, one reminiscent of “how the poster shows Oily Maniac lurking over its victims”. Given an otherworldly air through elements like the haunting eyes with their illusion of glowing and the shimmering exposed heart, accented by a wonderfully rendered single drip atop embellishment, Moreno also wanted to remain true to “the guy in the suit” aspect. Featuring slight bulges at the wrists and ankles, these elements make an ingeniously meta nod to the rubber-suited actor aspect.
But this knowledge leaves us with a strange question: Does The Oily Maniac soft vinyl edition depict the movie’s protagonist, the oil drum accessory included as it has just been used to douse himself in the black crude, or is it a rendition of the actor in his costume, reproducing a moment from the production’s filming? And the answer seems to be that it is both simultaneously, an accurate interpretation of and a self-referential tribute to the original source. Likewise, returning to the question that opened this article, The Oily Maniac exudes the thoughtful conceptualization of a work of art and the appealing allure of a collectible toy, treading that thin line between the two.

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