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Thursday, 6 May 2010

Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966)

Director: Larry Buchanan
Stars: John Agar and Susan Bjurman
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Any dabbler into Cinematic Hell knows that the modern trend of remaking bad films into even worse films is hardly a new one. Back in the sixties Larry Buchanan built something of a name for himself by doing precisely that when American International Pictures decided to sell material to fledgeling television companies eager to pad out their late night scheduling. The company still owned the scripts to a number of old black and white Roger Corman movies they'd released, so they hired Buchanan to remake them for a television audience. Unfortunately Buchanan had only a third of the budget Corman had to work with, which was hardly substantial to begin with, and he had to shoot in colour too. No wonder these films are awful. He churned out eight TV movies for AIP, half of which were Corman remakes and half of which I've seen. This remake of Corman's It Conquered the World is by far the worst thus far.

Now It Conquered the World is hardly a good movie, but it is at least a guilty pleasure. After all, it has a disgruntled Lee Van Cleef calling down an alien and his bat minions to take over the world, only to have to deal with his friend Peter Graves and his wife Beverly Garland. It was written by Sam Arkoff's brother-in-law Lou Rusoff and Corman regular Charles B Griffith and it was directed by the ever inventive Roger Corman himself. How can you go wrong with schlock like that? Well you can go horrifically wrong by remaking it with even less money and even less imagination. The Buchanan adaptation, co-written with Hillman Taylor, an actor from the first of these adaptations, 1965's The Eye Creatures, has John Agar and, well, it has John Agar, who doesn't seem remotely happy to be there. The Van Cleef role goes to Tony Huston, who is disgruntled to the point of wackjob conspiracy nut. Supposedly a genius, he comes across as a downright kook.

In fact he's so looney tunes that we can't help but wonder what's wrong with our hero, Dr Curt Taylor, who insists on doing absolutely nothing about it. We first meet Taylor in Zone 6, a US Orbital Rocket Control and Tracking Station, with three minutes to go before he launches a laser satellite that cost $50m. Oh, and that's supposed to sound expensive. So in flounces Keith Ritchie using the keywords of 'utmost urgency' to get at the doc and complain yet again about how he's advised against the launch from moment one. 'The world is full of facts,' he says, for no apparent reason, and proceeds to explain how Taylor's test satellite was exploded in its own orbit as a warning from the other planets to keep the Earth in its place. 'Alien intelligence watches us constantly,' he tells him. 'They don't feel we're ready to join in the great brotherhood of the countless galaxies.' He even starts pouting. 'They'll do something!' he threatens.

And yet Ritchie is a friend, so Taylor can just look past all this crazy talk and let the man be. He doesn't call security and he doesn't have him locked up in a padded cell for his own safety. He takes his wife to the Ritchies for dinner instead to argue some more. There seems to be nothing these two do except argue about things that could not possibly end in any sort of agreement. One is a scientist, the other a complete flake. One launches laser satellites into outer space, the other demonstrates a mysterious radio set that allows him to talk to a creature on the planet Venus. It's like having James Randi and Uri Geller be the best of buddies and hang out together to argue about the reality of spoon bending. Perhaps it's the fact that when we first meet Ritchie he's wearing the sort of suit that you could imagine Tom Cruise in, so maybe Dr Taylor is merely humouring an agent of Xenu so the Scientologists don't come to get him.

Certainly Ritchie and his alien buddy are really close, so much so that this dinner party is three months after the laser satellite launch yet turns out to be precisely the day they've picked to demonstrate their power. So Ritchie persuades Taylor into his den so he can demonstrate his amazing radio set. Taylor thinks he's listening to progressive jazz but Ritchie explains that it's 'a form of hyperspace hypnotism'. He's been in constant contact with Venus for two months and this weird noise is really language that he can miraculously understand, spoken by a creature he has come to befriend. 'Although his name is untranslatable into any known Earth language,' he points out, 'it would sound something like Zontar.' Taylor laughs it off, talking about Ritchie's 'little friend on Venus' with the sort of sarcasm you might expect from Adam West. He's already pointed out that 'everyone thinks you're off your rocker,' but still he lets him be.

In fact everyone lets him be. This is 1966, only four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the entire script is based around an invasion of the United States by an alien creature set on domination (for 'alien creature' read 'commie bastards') and yet the clearly unhinged lunatic at the heart of all this who rants about the fact that they're coming and they'll do something is left entirely to his own devices. Even his wife Martha lets him be, because she loves him, but I can't help but wonder how nobody triggered to lines like, 'The days when people made fun of me are over!' In short every line that comes out of Keith Ritchie's mouth screams that he's a terrorist aiding a foreign power to take over the country, or even the world, because he was bullied as a child or something. But no, he's just a friend, a husband and a genius, maybe a little too much for his own good, so they hang out for dinner and argue about things.

It's while Ritchie is talking about his buddy Zontar that Zone 6 rings Dr Taylor and tells him that his laser satellite has mysteriously vanished. Ritchie explains that Zontar just hijacked it to transport himself to Earth orbit, but who's going to believe him? Yet sure enough, a mere hour later, it's back where it was working just fine, so of course they order one of the assistants to ring it back down for them to give it the once over. Nothing difficult about that, of course, because bringing a malfunctioning satellite back from orbit is, you know, as easy as pulling down a jam jar from the top shelf of the pantry. These scientists don't have much of a clue about anything. 'Are you people positive you know what you're doing?' asks Gen Matt Young, who runs Zone 6. They merely wander around in their white coats spouting gibberish like, 'Raise the barrier on the C band link!' or just proclaiming, 'I don't understand it!'

Gen Young is even worse, attempting to describe the entire movie in one line of dialogue: 'Understand it? Of course not. No-one understands it but it's the scientific achievement of the century!' The sheer ineptitude of these scientists is a little unfortunate, because given that the entire picture could easily be read as a metaphor for a Communist invasion, they don't exactly inspire much confidence in the good old US of A. While they flounce around not understanding anything, Ritchie is happily putting the New Order into place without anyone even dreaming of opposing him. 'The world has been headed downhill for a long time,' he exclaims, 'wars, larger bombs, but now it will be over. All our dream for perfection will now be realised. Zontar will see to that!' He's a man with a plan and he's about to put it into action, regardless of how batshit insane it all is. When you're the only one able to do anything, whatever you do matters.
And Zontar ensures that. He lands the laser satellite in a cave six miles out of town, right above a hot spring that helps mirror the Venusian climate. He stops all power in the vicinity because he saw how effective that was in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but while Klaatu was merely making a point and thus chose to exclude hospitals and planes in flight from his demonstration, Zontar stops it for everyone and everything except his buddy boy Keith Ritchie. Everything else stops, from cars to phones to some guy's iron lung. Everything in Zone 6 stops working, right down to the hand crank backup on the auxiliary power. 'It's not fantasy, it's what I've been predicting for years!' he told his wife, while he resisted her attempts to get him into bed so he could hang around and wait for Zontar to land instead. No, it's pure fantasy. 'Yes it's true, I am your only friend.' he tells Zontar, so in return he gets the only working tape deck and garden hose in town.

And of course everyone suddenly wants to listen to kooky Keith, that and run like crazy through the streets like it's Pamplona and the bulls have been let loose. They chase around in every direction at once even though there's nothing actually chasing them, in footage shot from a bizarre angle as if the camera was on a tripod and one of the legs broke. As this is the best special effect in the entire movie I won't complain too loudly though. It's certainly better than the injector pods, which are like big wasps or flying lobsters or really ugly fairies but flutter around mostly out of sight of the camera so we don't see how dumb they look. Zontar sends these out to jab his key targets in the back of the neck so that he can control them. Who are the key targets? Well, there are only eight of them because Zontar can take over this planet eight people at a time. There's the mayor and the sheriff, Gen Young and Dr Taylor. And there are their respective wives.

I point this out because this is one of the most sexist films I've ever seen in my life and this is the only point at which women are given any importance whatsoever: as equal opportunity victims. They're generally on screen to be ignored and when they have something to do it's just to clear the table or cook dinner or ask for something to cure a headache. In one of the most amazing scenes of the film, Dr Taylor discovers that his wife has been zombiefied by one of Zontar's injector pods so he promptly shoots her. Let me repeat that: he promptly shoots her. He doesn't think about just knocking her out so he can try to return her to her former self later, important scientist that he is. He just shoots her dead on the spot. At least Ritchie's wife Martha has a little sexiness to her as a sort of sixties version of Cybill Shepherd but she doesn't get listened to either and she doesn't sound anything like someone called Susan Bjerman ought to sound. Maybe if she'd sounded Scandinavian her husband wouldn't prefer Zontar.

This whole film seems to have been tailor made as a gift for the MST3K guys. It's slow but consistently paced, leaving them plenty of opportunity to tear it to shreds without interrupting the dialogue. There isn't too much dialogue, thus providing them with more space but almost every line is worthy of parody. There's nonsense like, 'It's a little like radio but biological too.' There's overblown melodrama like, 'It means Kurt must die. He's too much of a menace to live.' There's inane attempts at humour, like the pair of idiot soldiers who attempt really bad jokes. 'This whole area has been placed under martial law,' the general tells them. 'Gee!' is all they can muster in return. There are unfortunate double entendres: 'Well, there's blankets and canned goods in the closet there. We'll make out. Not comfortably, but we'll do it.' There's so much material here that they could have spoofed it once a season and still had room for more.

Of course Ritchie gets all the best lines, because John Agar is only there to look stalwart and stoic but not embarrassed. The greatest acting achievement of this entire film is the fact that against all odds Agar manages to not look embarrassed. For someone who found a place in Hollywood by marrying Shirley Temple and who debuted on screen in 1948 in John Ford's Fort Apache, Agar's career quickly went south. He followed up with more John Wayne movies like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Sands of Iwo Jima, but he was soon firmly demoted to the B movie world. From decent films in 1955 like Tarantula and Revenge of the Creature, they got worse every year: The Mole People in 1956, The Brain from Planet Arous in 1957, Attack of the Puppet People in 1958, Invisible Invaders in 1959. By 1966 he was stuck doing TV movies like Zontar: The Thing from Venus and Curse of the Swamp Creature for Larry Buchanan and AIP.

Of course he's still by far the best actor in this picture because the women are far from capable, not that they were given anything to do, and Tony Huston is frankly horrendous as Keith Ritchie. He appeared in four of these Buchanan TV movies and wrote one of them. He made quite a few films as an actor or writer, even directing on occasion: assisting on The Hellcats, which he wrote, and helming Outlaw Riders solo. Yet nothing he touched seems to have been anything but inept. Regardless his insane ravings, like those of a comedian trying to play it straight, are the most fun you'll find in this picture. Why? 'Because this superior intelligence, this Zontar, is working with me.' Yeah, take that, world! Taylor only gets to fight one of the bat wasp lobster critters with a poker in his front room. Ritchie gets to wield a beam gun with a plutonium ruby crystal that he made earlier just in case.

There's nothing like seeing the light and handily conjuring up a quick way out of the mess you've made 72 minutes into an 80 minute movie. While blind to reality throughout the entire story, he finally wises up when his wife gets pissed and decides to head over to Zontar's cave to kick his ass. Her only mistake was to dress up like the red shirted crew member in Star Trek to do it and you know what that means. It's here that we find out just how bad this Venusian critter looks. 'So that's what you look like!' cries Martha with a gun. 'Zontar, you're slimy! Horrible! Go on, try to control me! Use your intellect on me! You think you're going to destroy the world! I'll see you in Hell first!' You go, girl! Unfortunately Zontar has big wings and three eyes and a molten face so looks like nothing less than a zombie demon and bullets don't do much to it. Now it's all up to Keith Ritchie and his plutonium ruby crystal beam gun.

It's hard to know what to think about this movie. It's a Cold War era scifi yarn that suggests that at least the invaders are more imaginative than the current guys in charge. It's a science fiction picture that happily dismisses science as something that can't be understood. It's a picture where the hero doesn't really do anything except look stoic while some disposable chick at least has the balls to take on the monster, though admittedly without any success whatsoever. It seems to tell us that genius will bring us all destruction but at least genius can do something about it too. Perhaps that's the real key to the overblown monologue that sums up the film at its finalé, one that tells us that 'Man is the greatest creature in the Universe' while including the inherent caveat that this doesn't mean the particular men who made this picture. This is proof that remaking a bad movie with less money, less talent and less everything is never a good idea.

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