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Monday, 23 March 2009

Zotz! (1962)

Director: William Castle
Star: Tom Poston

'Zotz!' says William Castle to the Columbia lady who holds her torch aloft as always before we begin. 'What's Zotz?' she replies. Well, unlike many of his gimmick movies, Mr Castle doesn't tell us and we have to find out for ourselves. There's no Vincent Price to be seen, so we have to settle for Tom Poston instead. He's a typical absent-minded professor, Prof Jonathan Jones by name, and we meet him at home in Saracen Valley, CA, doing his morning exercises, drinking his straight sauerkraut juice and picking up his etymological journal from the mailman. He's a character, for sure.

His niece Cynthia gets a letter in the same delivery, from her boyfriend Eddie Prentiss, who is on an archaeological dig in Ukrenistan or some similarly pronounced imaginary country. His party has apparently found the ruins they were looking for and he's sent her a present from the site: a charm bracelet, and the charm is an ancient coin that was attached to the right hand of a giant stone idol. It has an inscription and of course we wouldn't have a story if Prof Jones wasn't one of the ten men in the world who can recognise the ancient dead language it's written in. He can translate it too, which he soon does and as I'm sure you'll be stunned to discover, this triggers our plot.

It isn't very big and there aren't too many symbols on it but they must be in some sort of five thousand year old shorthand because they translate to a whole slew of instructions. They talk of the dreaded threefold power that will be granted to whoever reads the inscription. It also gives details of the three strands of the power: the power of the pointing finger which instils the sudden pain, the power of retarded movement invoked by merely uttering the name of the god Zotz, and finally the mixing of the two which invokes a silent death. It even provides the caveats: the powers are only retained when the coin is physically present, and they transfer for a brief time to whoever takes possession of the coin.

Naturally comedic mayhem ensues, especially when his niece goes out on a date with the son of his rival for promotion at the university and takes the coin with her. Luckily he has an accomplice to help him, the gorgeous new professor of modern languages, Prof Virginia Fenster, who he met under bizarre circumstances as he acquired the power of Zotz. Uttering the name of that god while translating the coin caused a sudden storm, and as she was passing his house was struck by lightning, which stripped her naked and left her knocking on his door for help. This would appear to me to be a completely new power which would be even better to have than the other three, but apparently it's just coincidence.

This gorgeous young lady was completely new to me. She's Julia Meade and I'm stunned that she only made four films, three from 1959 to 1962 and another in 1990, with this the highest credited role she had on screen. She's an utter feast for the eyes when naked in the rain, not that we actually see anything untoward because this is 1962, but is later unfortunately encumbered by a some terrible sixties hairdos, presumably wigs stuck on top of her own far more appropriate and becoming short hair. She acquits herself very elegantly otherwise in talented company, even though these later scenes only hint at her initial and much younger looking presence.

Tom Poston is the lead, who reminds a lot of Ray Milland, which is a compliment even though he's not in the same class. I've seen him before but didn't recognise him; my better half knew him well though as the neighbour from Mork and Mindy. I've seen Jim Backus many times but somehow never seem to remember him. Best known probably as the voice of Mr Magoo, he was a versatile and prolific actor, who here plays Jones's competition for promotion, Prof Horatio Kellgore. He's agreeably disagreeable. Most recognisable to my eyes are the dean and his wife. Dean Updike is Cecil Kellaway and his wife is Margaret Dumont, more than a couple of decades after playing foil to Groucho Marx.

This was a change of pace for William Castle after a string of horror pictures, one of which is included here as a drive in movie. That's Homicidal, made a year earlier, which fits well with House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts and Mr Sardonicus but less well with this one. That said, this works better for me as a kooky American fantasy comedy than much better known films like The AbsentMinded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. It's hardly the most intelligent fantasy out there but it didn't seem dumbed down for kids the way those did. Maybe I'm more tuned into William Castle's (or screenwriter Ray Russell's) twisted sense of humour than the more conventional humour of the others. Maybe it's that there are no kids here, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran being an able pair but one that inevitably lowers the intellectual level of the film. It's fun and that's what William Castle always provided.

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