- - B E W A R E O F I N J E C T O P O D S - -
"And nobody ever trusted a John Agar movie again."
-- Michael J. Nelson on The Mole People
Way back in the 1960's, television networks were every bit as anxious for cheap filler as they are today. The notion of what constituted "cheap filler", though, was somewhat different. These were the days before the rise of so-called "reality television", when all producers needed to do was point a camera at a bunch of volunteers and wait for them to make fools of themselves. This was an era when everyone was content merely to surmise the worst about the human condition, rather than wanting to see it proven on an hourly basis (Damn it; there I go again with my editorials. Let me start over).
In the mid-1960's, American International Productions approached Texas director Larry Buchanan to make eight cheap films for television. AIP had chosen him based on his success making profitable no-budget exploitation fare, films with lurid titles like Under Age and Free, White and 21. AIP had wanted their television films to be shot in black and white; Buchanan, however, insisted that the films be shot in color. In the early sixties, inexpensive color stock was becoming available for the first time, while in 1964, color television started its steady ascent to market dominance. Buchanan realized rather shrewdly that a new black and white film would have little resale value in the long term.
AIP offered Buchanan about $30,000 per picture for the deal -- more than many of Buchanan's previous budgets, but still a pretty meagre sum. They also wanted the films delivered on an impossibly tight schedule. Buchanan suggested that to save time and money, they should let him base some of the new films on scripts from AIP's extensive library of older films. Many of these old black and white movies had performed well at the box offices and drive-ins on their initial release, but were now looking more than a little out-of-date and old fashioned.
Thus, four of Buchanan's resulting films were based on AIP's older movies, and four were entirely original productions. Of the four original films, one (a war film) is now apparently lost. The others were Earth Needs Sleep -- er, sorry, Mars Needs Women (1967; one of the most famous titles in film history, even if nobody actually saw the film); Curse of the Swamp Creature (1967); and It's Alive (1968, no relation to the killer baby epic directed by a totally different Larry).
The four remakes started with The Eye Creatures (1965; based on Invasion of the Saucermen), and included Creature of Destruction (1966; based on The She-Creature) and In the Year 2889 (1969; based on The Day the World Ended).
But for me, the name "Larry Buchanan" will always suggest one film in particular: Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966), Buchanan's take on Roger Corman's It Conquered the World from 1957.
Zontar was the first Buchanan film I ever saw, back when I was about eight years old. It was listed in TV Guide for a Saturday afternoon, and once I read the title, I knew I needed to see it. I'd never even heard of it before (and naturally, I'd never heard the name "Larry Buchanan", either... it would be years before I understood what a "director" was). It sounded great, though: ZONTAR! the THING! from VENUS!! Wow! I couldn't wait to find out what the monster looked like.
That was the crucial thing for many of us kids back then: finding out what the monster looked like. We lived for the big reveal. We weren't picky; we welcomed the first appearance of the Giant Claw in the same sense of breathless anticipation with which we greeted Ghidorah's emergence from a mighty fireball. The Beast with a Million Eyes was a little disappointing, though, since it really only had two. But overall, we were very tolerant of zipper-backed suits and ping pong ball eyes.
Zontar's appearance did not disappoint me. It's true that most of Buchanan's monster suits are just plain ridiculous, but Zontar is an exception. He's big and scary and scaly, and he has three yucky eyes and enormous bat wings. He was everything a kid could ask for in an alien menace. But before I got to the first appearance of the Big Z, I had to watch about half an hour of movie... and that simple task was more difficult than I had ever thought possible.
I found myself very confused by Zontar. Somehow I was certain I had seen this movie before. Oh, I was used to horror movies being essentially pretty similar, but this was a familiarity that went much deeper. I knew I had never seen a movie called Zontar before -- that was certainly a name I would not have forgotten -- but somehow, the idea that I was watching the literal remake of another movie never occurred to me.
Hey -- I was eight.
(Let me qualify that a little: I knew what a "remake" was. Take The Phantom of the Opera, for instance... I know I'd seen at least three different versions of that movie by the time I was eight. But the remakes I knew were all different interpretations of a basic idea. They weren't word-for-word duplicates made with different actors. Also, my family had a black-and-white TV, so the immediate difference between Buchanan's color film and the original would not have been apparent to me.)
As the movie wore on, I began to get even more confused. Yes, I knew I had seen this exact same movie somewhere before... but I hadn't remembered it being this... this... boring. In addition to being ignorant of literal remakes, I hadn't yet figured out that there was such a thing as a "bad movie". If something was on TV, I accepted it uncritically. Sure, there were movies I didn't like, but I never stopped to think that the problem might be with the movie itself. I just thought I didn't like it.
OK; I was also pretty stupid.
But Zontar helped open my eyes. Midway through the movie, I began to understand what must have happened: somebody'd ripped off the script of an old movie to make a new movie. And guess what? Except for the monster suit, they did it really badly! I had discovered a basis for comparison! I now knew that not everything I saw on television was any good.
Of all the things I learned in my childhood -- like not playing with matches, or not mixing grape and grain -- this was probably the single most important lesson. My next profound shock came about two years later, when I saw Plan 9 for the first time, and realized exactly how not good a movie could be. The final, devastating confirmation I got about the existence of Truly Terrible Films came in the form of Jerry Warren's Curse of the Stone Hand, an experience so traumatizing I can only compare it to puberty.
If my first encounter with Zontar was an eye-opener, my re-acquaintance with it as an adult was something of an eye-opener, too. In the meantime, I had seen a good number of Buchanan's other films. For example: when I was about sixteen, I first ran into The Loch Ness Horror on TV. By this time, Buchanan's name and work were all too familiar to me. Still, movies about the Loch Ness Monster are few, so I thought I'd give it a chance. I turned it on, and this is what I remember: I saw a silly-looking pseudo-Scotsman, who was looking out a window with a telescope or something. Next, we got a POV shot seen through the telescope, or binoculars, or whatnot: the Scotsman was watching a World War II bomber fly by. Except it wasn't flying by: evidently the Scotsman's house was moving at the same speed as the bomber. I also saw the aircraft from above, which indicates that the Scotsman's house was cruising at an altitude of several thousand feet. I immediately gave up on the movie and read a book instead.
So my opinion of Buchanan has been very, very low.
I probably wouldn't have given Zontar another thought if that wretched video company Simitar hadn't gone bankrupt. For those who never had the mixed blessing of buying a Simitar product, I should explain that Quality Control was not their strong point. On the one hand, they released widescreen tapes and DVDs of classic Godzilla movies, which were really very good. On the other hand, they released a version of Dario Argento's early giallo Cat o' Nine Tails with every drop of blood cut out. Though these edits shortened the film by about 20 minutes, they still released the video with the full running time listed on the box. Sigh... I really don't miss Simitar.
When Simitar went out of business, a number of their products made it to the clearance bins of major video stores. On one of my bargain hunts, I found a copy of Simitar's release of Zontar. Now, I know Simitar did put out a "normal" version of the tape... that is, recorded in the highest quality "SP mode" on one, regular-length VHS tape. However, the version I found was not the "normal" version. Instead, this was a two-tape set. Once I got the video home, I discovered that not only had the 80-odd minute movie been split over two tapes, it had been recorded in EP mode on tapes that would hold perhaps 15 minutes if they had been recorded in SP. It's the most ludicrous presentation I've ever seen in a commercial video. If there's one way to make a Larry Buchanan film seem even worse that it is, all you need to do is obtain a washed-out print that's faded nearly to sepia, duplicate it in fuzzy EP mode, and make it so the poor viewer has to get up and change tapes literally halfway through the film.
But on my most recent viewings, my opinion of Zontar has changed subtly. I still think it's technically inept. I'm also far less forgiving of the monster suit than I was when I was a child, even though it's not Buchanan's worst effort by a long, long way. But now I've done a careful comparison between Zontar and its source, It Conquered the World (ICW for short). I wanted to know how much credit Buchanan deserved for the handful of good things I found in Zontar, and how much blame he should receive for the many, many things in the movie that just don't work. Now, having watched both movies more times than I care to remember (to the point where I never want to see either of them again) I've come to the conclusion that Larry Buchanan is quite a bit smarter than I ever thought he was.
Not more talented -- just smarter.
(Here I should probably add a word of apology to my fellow B-Master Dr. Freex, who has already written a fine back-to-back review of Zontar and ICW. In my own defense, I'd just like to point out that you really can't talk meaningfully about Zontar without bringing up ICW; in fact, they are essentially the same movie.)
Both Zontar and ICW begin at the control center of a mission to send a new satellite into space. in Zontar, it's a special "laser satellite"; lasers had only recently been invented, so their mention here is topical. Buchanan's set is much more convincing than Corman's impoverished Army-surplus decor. However, Buchanan ruins his advantage by dividing the control room into two parts: a main room containing banks of odd-looking computer equipment, and a second room which is barely visible through a small pane of glass. Buchanan introduces the hero of the film while he is standing behind this tiny window. Corman placed the Good Guy squarely in the middle of the action; Buchanan chose to have his protagonist join the action by disappearing from the window, walking all the way around the set in real-time, and finally appearing on screen. This makes very little sense. Sure, it pads the running time, but it immediately distances us from the guy we're supposed to be rooting for.
(John Agar replaces Corman's Peter Graves as our hero, the aptly-named Curt. Agar gives a one-note performance as Dr. Curt Taylor, and that note is peeved. By comparison, Graves [as "Dr. Paul Nelson" in the original] had started out relatively easy-going, and got progressively crankier as the movie progressed.)
No sooner have we been introduced to Curt, when he is called back behind the window! We get to watch him walk out of the room, then disappear behind the wall in real-time as he goes to meet his visitor... who is the second major character to be introduced as a tiny head at the window.
Curt's urgent visitor is his colleague and friend, Dr. Keith Ritchie (Anthony Huston, billed here as "Houston", trying in vain to fill the shoes of Lee van Cleef as "Tom Anderson"). Keith tries to convince Curt to call off the launch... before it's too late. He claims that the earth is being watched from space, by alien intelligences that do not want mankind fooling around up there. He also claims that the previous, unsuccessful test missions were sabotaged by these same watchers from beyond.
Now, in Corman's film, the confrontation takes place between Tom and assorted powers-that-be in Washington, while Paul and his fellow scientists go about their business elsewhere. Corman's Army personnel also go out of their way to insinuate that the brilliant but unstable Anderson has been euphemistically "retired" -- read "fired" -- for his wacky theories. Buchanan recasts the argument, using much the same dialogue, as a quarrel between the two leads. Not only does this relieve the budget by removing some extraneous characters, it also gets us immediately into the heart of the story -- the confrontation between the two scientists and their opposing views, not only as colleagues but as friends. Buchanan also hints that at this stage, Keith is still a vital member of the satellite project, which is a telling difference.
Once again, though, Buchanan takes a potential advantage and screws it up. I have written elsewhere about the importance of the 180-degree rule, a rule which basically states that you shouldn't change your camera position past an imaginary line running perpendicular to your initial setup. If you shift your camera to the opposite side of this axis, your viewers are likely to become confused. In this instance, we see Keith waiting for Curt behind the window, as Curt comes walking in to meet him. Keith is on the right, and Curt enters from the left. We then cut abruptly to a new setup inside this second room. The camera is now facing the opposite direction, looking back through the window to the control room. Curt is now on the right, while Keith is on the left. The effect is so jarring that it made me jump.
Then, apparently having set up his camera the way he wanted it, Buchanan does very little else with it. He just keeps filming, while the two scientists stand there glaring at each other. To Buchanan's credit, he does add lots of background noise, as though to suggest that the actual staff of the project is larger than Curt and three assistants. This extra noise makes the foreground conversation harder to hear, but it's not really too much of a distraction; it gives a touch of realism to a film that needs it badly. Still, for overall effect, Buchanan loses out to Corman: though ICW lessened the impact of Tom Anderson's first scene by placing it so far from the main action, it does manage to convey Anderson's growing sense of urgency through careful camera placements -- plural. At one point, Lee van Cleef's angular face fills the screen as he tries to get the "fat heads" to listen to him.
In both versions, the anxious scientist is told his "problem has just become an academic question"; the satellite has been launched as planned. Corman has Tom simply stalk out of the room; Buchanan, stalling for time, adds a line that still has me scratching my head: "For your generation," says Keith... "yes." This is a peculiar thing for Keith to say, since the two men are roughly the same age.
The satellite is launched. Corman triumphs here, since he uses actual footage shot from a rocket being launched into orbit, looking back on the dwindling Earth. Buchanan switches from his shot of a model rocket being launched, to a shot of a truly unconvincing "satellite" orbiting a planet that bears little resemblance to our own.
Suddenly it's three months later, and Curt and his wife Ann (Joan in ICW) are having dinner at the house of Keith and his wife, Martha (née Claire. There's an odd change here: when his wife asks him if he'd like another cup of coffee, Corman's Tom responds, "Only half a gallon"; Buchanan's Keith simply says, "Only half a cup.") Curt is acting all smug (in a peeved sort of way) because the satellite has been performing beautifully for the last three months; however, he's a bit, um, peeved to see that Keith is actually out-smugging him about something. In their discussion, the two men reveal some details about the satellite: Corman put his satellite at 80 feet across, while Buchanan makes his a modest (and more convincing) 20 feet.
In ICW, Paul says Tom looks like "a man who's just inherited Texas", which would have been an appropriate remark for the then Dallas-based Buchanan to leave intact. Instead, Buchanan has Curt compare Keith to a man who's inherited the earth, for reasons I think will be made clear later.
Much to his wife's distress, Keith decides to tell Curt what's on his mind. He takes his friend out to his living room, and unveils something that looks like an enormous stereo system. In ICW, Corman immediately cuts from the unveiling back to the dining room, where Joan is busily clearing the plates... and Claire sits staring miserably into the living room. It's a poorly judged cut, but you can follow Corman's logic at least a little bit: he wants to emphasize Claire's distress over Tom's obsession. Buchanan not only keeps this questionable cut, he completely misunderstands its purpose. Buchanan actually repeats the cut a few moments later, as though the action in the dining room was as important as the crucial plot developments in the living room.
Keith's apparatus is no stereo. He tells a skeptical Curt that this machine allows him to communicate directly with Venus -- without any newfangled laser satellites. Keith turns on his equipment, producing static and a strange sort of whine, and asks Curt to guess what he's listening to. Curt asks if it's progressive jazz (a slightly better rejoinder than Paul's "London Philharmonic"). Keith impatiently tells him to listen to what he says is a voice -- a voice from Venus.
Buchanan once again improves over Corman in several respects. First of all, Keith makes it clear that he is not making grammatical sense out of the mush that's coming over the airwaves. He calls it "some sort of hyperspace hypnotism", which is really a lame explanation... but it's a step better than suggesting that the scientist can understand Venusian static simply by listening to it.
Next, Buchanan makes sure to give his alien a name. Corman's invader was an "it", and this made sense: there were plenty of "its" coming from outer space, or beneath the sea, or conquering the world during the 50's, in tune with the widespread fear of Communism and the loss of individual identity. The creature in ICW is one of nine identical, nameless monsters; but Buchanan's creature is Zontar: an individual, the last of his kind. (I'm still not sure how bzhwooooozh could translate to "Zontar"... or how a Venusian name could even be pronounceable by a human tongue... or, come to think of it, how a creature from Venus, where the years are longer than the days, the clouds are made of sulphuric acid, and the atmospheric pressure is 90 times that of earth, could even begin to communicate with Earthlings, let alone take over their minds completely [as Zontar does later] 1. But this is quibbling.)
Also, Buchanan extends the conversation between the two men, which is cut off abruptly in ICW by the arrival of an urgent message. In Buchanan's version, Curt makes fun of Keith pretty mercilessly, ridiculing the idea of his "little friend on Venus", and even asking if it isn't a she. Keith responds by making a definite prediction, which is missing from ICW: "He knows exactly what he wants, and he's about to make a move to get it!"
And then the phone rings.
In both versions, the call means the same thing: Curt/Paul is notified that his precious satellite has just disappeared from the tracking screen, without any explanation. Buchanan takes the opportunity to violate the 180-degree rule once again as Curt and Ann depart. Keith is left to rhapsodize about the coming of his new friend. All along he had been worried that alien intelligence would be hostile to mankind, but now (he says) he knows better. Zontar, with his advanced mind, is coming to save the Earth.
Back at the control center, the base's Commanding General has arrived to take charge. Neither Corman nor Buchanan seem to have a very good grasp of the way military facilities -- particularly secure ones like this ought to be -- actually function. Both versions have the General giving low-level orders directly to his non-commissioned personnel (whom I might add he addresses by their first names). I will point out, though, that the actor playing the General in Buchanan's version is considerably more convincing than the guy in ICW.
As for the soldiers, they are the long-dreaded Odious Comic Relief (OCR). It's a toss-up as to which version is more Odious: Corman's OCR has the added detriment of being fake-ethnic2. For an example of how poorly Buchanan adapts Corman's jokes, compare the lines which follow the General's arrival. To the supposedly-comic observation, "The General ain't so happy tonight", Buchanan adds the incomprehensible "I guess none of 'em are." Later, when the General announces martial law has been declared, Buchanan changes the pseudo-Hispanic private's exclamation "Golly!" to an equally-inappropriate "MmmmMMMmmmm!"
The General is slightly better written in ICW. In the Corman film, his response to the scientists' confession that they don't understand what's going on is: "It's the scientific achievement of the century! You've got to find it!" Buchanan has him reply: "Nobody understands it, but it's the scientific achievement of the century!"... which is a very odd thing for him to say. Even odder, though, is the remark he makes about the satellite later on, in both versions: "What am I worried about?" he apostrophizes; "I'm not paying for it." Not only is this something a real General is highly unlikely to say, it's also inaccurate: as a Government project, the satellite is undoubtedly funded by taxpayer money... just like the General's salary.
Back at Keith's house, Martha watches her husband as he stands over his stereo -- the real stereo this time. She stands behind an ornamental shelf, with her arms draped over it; when Keith catches sight of her, he crosses to her and takes her hands in his. With the music in the background, I thought for a moment he was going to try to start dancing with her, in which case he would have taken the furniture along with him. Beverly Garland as Claire in the original did a far better job portraying a woman convinced her husband was having a psychotic episode. Her stage business and her growing sense of exasperation were more believable. Susan Bjurman as Martha plays the part as an indulgent and adoring wife in the early part of the film, rather than as a concerned and frightened woman working on her last nerve.
We return to the space center, where we find out the missing satellite has reappeared. In the morning, the bemused scientists attempt to bring it back to Earth, but the satellite has other ideas. In ICW, the descent is too slow, whereas in Zontar, the satellite comes down too fast, as though its mass had somehow changed (in Zontar, we see the satellite descending onto a planet that again looks very little like the Earth). Keith has an explanation: he says that Zontar has commandeered the spacecraft and used it to come to Earth, all in the space of a single hour.
Frankly, if an alien being is somehow able to communicate directly with one targeted person on Earth, using its mind... and is also able to drag a satellite out of Earth orbit, bring it all the way to Venus, land it safely, board it, and come all the way back to Earth in one hour... and then is able to adapt perfectly well to Earth's atmosphere and environment... then I really don't see why he needs to conquer the world. If he can do all those things, he's not just superhuman: he's supernatural. He's more like a flipping god. Still, maybe planetbusting is his hobby; who is to say?
After the satellite makes its erratic descent, Keith is overjoyed. He claims Zontar has finally come to Earth, to save mankind. Martha decides to leave him to his delusions and go into town, while in the meantime, Curt and Ann are driving not far away. Then, just a little after three o'clock in the afternoon, all the power on the planet goes off.
Both films illustrate the loss of power with a montage. In ICW, we see an assortment of machines and tasks come to a halt, while the music also sputters and dies out. Buchanan's attempt to convey the outage is much less successful. We see many of the same images -- a train, some telephones, construction workers, a welder, a substation -- but we see most of them after they've stopped. We never get the feeling of deceleration, so it takes us a while to figure out what message these pictures are trying to convey.
On a country road not far from Keith's house, Curt and Ann's car stalls and dies. So, Ann notices, does her watch. At this point in ICW, the stranded pair watched in horror as a plane fell out of the sky; this shot was evidently too expensive to include in Zontar.
And now comes one of those moments which are all too rare in cinema... one of those perfect, radiant moments that make these movies so worthwhile. We've established that all the power sources in the world have been stopped by the invader. Curt and Ann are involved in an earnest discussion about the sudden failure of their car. And just then, blissfully unaware of the world-wide catastrophe, two cars drive by in the background.
(I'm sure there's someone out there who will refer to this moment as "a post-modern acknowledgement of the bankruptcy of Western art", or "a wry comment on the artificiality of the cinema-space". Bullshit.)
The power outage causes chaos in town and at the space center (I notice, though, that the lab remains curiously well-lit). In town, the editor of the local newspaper waylays Martha as she tries to make her way home from shopping. Her husband predicted this, he says (no doubt he's thinking of all the cranky letters-to-the-editor Keith must have written in all these years); when is it going to stop? Meanwhile, the panic begins, as people pour out of their houses into the streets in confusion. ICW put Claire on the spot for many of the vignettes we're shown to illustrate the consequences of the blackout: townspeople trampling each other, a woman seeking help for her husband in an iron lung... Zontar chooses to keep Martha out of these sequences. This gives us a slightly different perspective on the action, and reminds us that other people are affected by these events besides our main characters. On the other hand, ICW used these scenes to show us Claire's dawning realization that her husband may have been telling the truth all along. We also see her starting to realize what Tom's "savior" has in mind for the Earth people. This helps us understand both her acceptance of her husband's story, and her determination to fight the invader. By contrast, Martha's conversion in Zontar is slightly less effective.
Also in ICW, when Tom makes his appearance in town looking for Claire, he is attacked by a townsman who remembers his prophecies. I think it was a mistake for Buchanan to drop this confrontation from the script of Zontar, not least because it gave us our only real interaction between the Idealistic but Misguided Scientist and the mass of humanity he claims to be helping to save.
Keith finds his wife, and explains to her that theirs is now the only working car on the planet. Zontar has "stopped the power at its source", with the exception of anything belonging to Keith. By "power", Keith means almost all sources of power, including steam and water. I find this impossible to understand. How could Zontar prevent either steam or water power, or even the manual cranks on generators, from working? Furthermore, how is it that Zontar can stop the power at the substation, yet enable the power at Keith's house? What's actually generating the power that Keith alone is receiving?
There is a credible explanation for this -- of a sort -- and it is to be found only in Zontar. I'm saving my theory of what all this really means for the moment when we get our first look at Zontar, in a few minutes.
Back at home, Keith starts naming names for the House Unearthly Activities Commission. Among the people he sells out to Zontar are Curt and Ann; the others include the space center's Commanding General, the town Mayor, and the Chief of Police. And, of course, their wives, because, heh, even a seemingly-sexless Venusian knows who holds real power on Earth. Zontar intends to control these people using "injectopods", bioelectric devices which implant some sort of transmitter in people's necks. Zontar can only produce eight of them at a time, though you really have to wonder why he chooses to start his invasion on such a small scale... with local government rather than with someone more broadly influential.
Then again, Zontar's powers may not be as great as he says they are. We never find out what's going on beyond the town limits. It could be that Zontar (and his counterpart in ICW) can only keep control over a small area, and is only bluffing when he says he's done the same for the whole planet.
Zontar improves on ICW again by speeding up the gestation period of the alien's injectopods. In ICW, it took the invader 12 days to grow 8 more pods, as opposed to 12 hours in Zontar. In ICW, it seemed a little ludicrous that the alien could only take over so few people at a time, though this was balanced somewhat by our knowledge that there were 8 more of them back on Venus, waiting to come and help. Still, if this is the sort of survival strategy evolution has given the Venusians, it's no wonder there are so few of them left. Think about it: they survive and prosper by taking over other life forms and forcing them to do their bidding. Think of the school board meetings on Venus. Think of the advertising.
By now we've had our first look at Zontar himself. This is the moment that proved to me, back when I was a kid, that I really was watching a different movie from the one I remembered. Corman's monster, nicknamed "Beulah" by its underwhelmed co-stars, is one of the silliest looking critters he ever came up with -- that's pretty amazing when you consider his early movie Creature from the Haunted Sea featured a monster suit that even Buchanan would have spurned. Zontar is a huge improvement over Beulah. He's green, with leathery skin. He has three unblinking eyes mounted on his football-shaped head. Enormous dragon wings extend from his shoulders, and his body resembles a skeletal human mummy.
In fact, he looks a little familiar...
I've mentioned earlier how the alien's powers seem not only incredible, but also arbitrary. He can travel across space effortlessly, communicate between planets with his mind, and remove power from every place on Earth except a single home. There seems to be no convincing explanation about how any creature could do such a thing. And even if one such creature could, it's hardly clear why he would use such an awkward plan, starting with a few people in an out-of-the-way location, to take over a planet he probably has little use for anyway.
But then, we actually see Zontar, and suddenly a lot of things make sense: all the monster needs is a pitchfork, and he'd be a dead ringer for the traditional Christian devil.
If Zontar's abilities seem incredible for an alien species, even an advanced one, they seem just right for the Devil. Buchanan makes no explicit references to religious themes in the movie, but his choice of a monster design and his very careful rewordings of certain lines in the original script make such an interpretation not only possible, but plausible. Curt's earlier remark about Keith inheriting the Earth becomes a reference to the famous verse in Matthew: "For what does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Remember, too, that there's only one Zontar. He's not one of nine, and on consideration it seems unlikely that there ever could have been more than one of him. Buchanan makes the connection even clearer in one of Curt's confrontations with Keith: while Paul in ICW calls Tom "the greatest traitor of all time" for selling out his entire species, Curt calls Keith "the most diabolical traitor of all time". The change is revealing.
Buchanan seems to have understood that the story he is telling has deeper implications than fear of Communism. Reduced to its essentials, it resembles a medieval Morality Play, in which a central character, representing some aspect of human frailty, would be tempted or tried by allegorical characters representing (for example) the Devil, or Death, or the Seven Deadly Sins. This central character would then eventually win his way to redemption with the help of other allegorical figures representing virtues, angels or saints. In Zontar, naturally, the allegory isn't so blatantly obvious. Still, the movie shows how a powerful, evil force gains control over a man who is basically good. Zontar, whispering in a voice which only Keith can hear, corrupts the scientist by exploiting his vanity and his wounded pride. He takes Keith's greatest strengths -- his intelligence and his desire to help people -- and inverts them, by convincing him to use them for his own ends rather than for the greater good. Zontar is also able to take control of the hearts and minds of powerful men, and make them do his bidding... like a true Prince of this World.
As Curt and Ann trudge toward Keith's house, they catch sight of one of Zontar's injectopods flying off to find its victim. Ann calls it "obscene looking", which it is: it's a sort of one-eyed lobster-bat. The injectopod does not turn around and attack the couple, though their names are on "the list"; presumably this is because there is only one 'pod, and the attack would leave one victim aware of what was going on. Or something.
Shortly thereafter, there's a strange cut to a still photo of a girl in a bikini. There's a beat before we find out this is a Point-of-View shot from one of the OCR soldiers, who is looking at a pinup photo through some sort of Viewmaster thingy. A scientist comes out of the base, and they talk over the strange situation. If you want an illustration of the reasons why Corman's picture is held in higher esteem than Buchanan's, though Buchanan's makes more sense in many ways, this scene provides a good example. Buchanan first of all introduces the scene badly, with that unnerving cut to the pinup (though he has enough sense of structure to close the scene with the same cut). Then, he has his actors just go through the scene by rote. In Corman's version, the actor playing the scientist has some better stage business: as he talks to the soldiers, he starts reading the pseudo-ethnic corporal's comic book over his shoulder, even reaching over and turning the page on him in mid-sentence. It doesn't really matter what these characters are saying: the scene is a sort of punctuation mark, where the movie takes a breath before continuing. Buchanan's version doesn't pause... it grinds to a halt. The throwaway dialogue is presented in the same deadpan manner as the body of the film. The pacing of Zontar suffers as a consequence.
While Keith is trying to explain the situation to Curt (who is typically skeptical and... er... peeved), Zontar's injectopod reaches its target: the General, who's walking alone through the woods to get to town. The OCR non-comms crack wise about how incongruous it is for a general to be walking... and they're right. It IS incongruous that such a high-ranking officer should be going off into the woods alone to run an errand. Did they not have any idea how much fuss accompanies the visit of a general... anywhere? Maybe things were different then, but these days, when a general comes on a US military base, not only is he given an escort (to deal, among other things, with the people who aren't of sufficient stature to speak to the general directly...), but they also run up a flag outside the building to tell all and sundry a.) that they've got a general there, and b.) how many stars he's got. It's a Very Big Deal, even when it's done fairly regularly.
Buchanan here changes the order of the victims: in the original, the alien first controlled the local policeman, and then attacked the General. Buchanan waits until significantly later to have the Sheriff controlled. Either way it's silly, since the invasion goes ahead full-steam after only two people have been taken over. In fact, it's unlikely that any two people, even a Sheriff and a General, could establish so much authority in such a short time, even under these extraordinary circumstances. Still, Corman's is the slightly more sensible version: in ICW, the panic and mass exodus of the town are shown to have been orchestrated by the Sheriff (literally: the townspeople flee clutching saxophones and violin cases). Since Buchanan shows us scenes of the evacuation before the Sheriff has been controlled, it seems as though the panic is going on outside of Zontar's control. That's OK, but it hints that Zontar has a better understanding of human nature than he shows later.
Back at the Ritchie's house, the exasperated Curt gives up trying to reason with Keith. Accepting Keith's premise for the sake of argument, Curt asks him straight out: "Why aren't you fighting it?" Keith, starry-eyed as ever, tries to persuade Curt that Zontar's earthly regime change is a good thing; Curt, stealing what was the other man's line in ICW, says, "You talk as if this thing were a personal friend of yours!" "Oh, yes," adds Martha bitterly. "They're real chums."
"The days when people made fun of me are over!" says Keith, giving us a clear idea of what's really motivating his Zontar crusade. Actually, in the Corman version, Tom addresses Claire directly when he says this, while in the Buchanan version, Keith still seems to be in his Zontar-induced reverie. It's not clear that Keith has even heard Martha's remark. As a result, Keith seems a little slow on the uptake.
Keith attempts one more time to convince Curt, and this time his argument reveals still more of his real motivation. What happened, he asks Curt, to the revolutionary theory of "Free Magnetic Gravitation" ("Contained Gravitation" in ICW) that Curt had been working on? Curt grumbles that he could never find adequate funding to pursue it (and for good reason: it wouldn't work! But that's a different issue). Aha! says Keith. Under Zontar's benevolent reign, ideas will be evaluated on their merits, not on their expedience or political viability. Zontar will bring an end to injustice! Well, injustice to Keith, anyway... we're starting to get the idea that Keith's apparent altruism covers some petty personal agendas.
In any case, Curt still isn't buying it. Even if he did believe in Zontar, he wouldn't be convinced to cooperate with the alien until he knew more... a great deal more. Keith is unwilling to provide any more information. "It would be premature for his plans," he says; "Premature." But, he adds, Curt will soon come over to their way of thinking. "I don't think so," says Curt; "I don't think so." (Having your actors repeat phrases for dramatic effect is a good way to pad out your running time; a good way to pad out your running time).
Curt asks Keith for a ride out to the space center, but Keith just tells him the trip would be in vain. Curt grits his teeth and asks for a ride home; Keith agrees. As the Taylors go out to Keith's car to wait, Keith observes that Curt took things rather well, all things considered. Martha turns on him, furiously in ICW, indignantly in Zontar, and points out to him that he didn't panic because he thinks Keith is loopy. This finally breaks through Keith's patience, and he berates Martha for refusing to stand by him. But she will stand by him, Martha protests... "not just because I'm your wife, but because I love you."
Keith responds to Martha's touching declaration by going over to his transmitter and ratting out his best friend to Zontar.
My god, I'm not even halfway through the movie. This is much more time and energy than I'd ever thought I'd expend on a Larry Buchanan film. I have to take a break for a moment... so here's a word from our sponsor:
Back at the space center, the General has returned -- driving a Jeep. He gives instructions (once again, directly to the non-comms) that the men should undertake a forced march out to the country, to, umm, go look for stuff. This seems to be part of Zontar's plan, though in the event it turns out the General has sent the men right into the area of the big Z's hiding place. When the soldiers protest that they have no way of telling what time it is, and therefore don't know when to comply with the orders, the General hands them his watch, which has started working again.
Inside the control center, the General tells the scientists that there's been a Communist uprising. The scientists, quit reasonably, are skeptical that "the Communists" could shut down every source of power, including crank generators and wristwatches. The General shrugs off their questions, though, and orders them placed in "protective custody" while the "uprising" is going on. The scientists take this with good grace: "There's blankets and canned goods in the closet," says one; "We'll make out."
I've never seen the MST3K version of ICW, but I can imagine Tom Servo's reaction to that line.
Curt and Ann arrive home, only to discover that the power and utilities really are out. Curt is still unwilling to believe that Keith may be right: after all, he rationalizes, Keith has had so many wacky theories that it's no surprise that one of them might appear to be coming true. He might be just a little less skeptical if he knew that at that moment, the soldiers from the Army base have caught sight of "a funny looking boid" -- one of the same "obscene" looking creatures Curt and Ann caught sight of near Keith's house. This is the injectopod intended for the town Sheriff.
Curt gets out an old bicycle and decides to see what's happening in town. It's curious how Zontar can stop manual generators and even steam power, but he can't prevent a bicycle from working. Hmmm. Anyway, Curt bikes into town just in time to see the possessed Sheriff gun down the editor of the local newspaper. Curt rides straight up to the pistol-packing lawman and asks him to tell him again about the rabbits. No, no, no; he asks him why he just murdered the man in cold blood... but really: these days we're much more likely to see somebody shot dead on a city street, but even now we're hardly likely to be either so callous or so stupid as to walk up to the killer and start a conversation. Yet here, in both versions of the film, we have an ordinary man witness a brutal murder, and he just doesn't know what the form is. Naturally, the confrontation doesn't go very well, and soon Curt is on the ground, staring into the barrel of a gun. Just at the last moment, the Sheriff stands down. "You're to be one of us," he tells Curt. "You're free to go."
About this time Curt begins to think there may be something wrong here.
Poor Martha, who is growing increasingly distraught, attempts to get through to her husband once again. She gets him to describe the injectopods; he tells her they replace people's minds with Zontar's "electro-biological essence". Martha is horrified, even more so when Keith tries to convince her that after injection "all the human waste is gone" (suggesting that all Zontar really want is to give mankind an enema...). What about the emotions? she asks. What about love? "Emotions are the souls of people!" she cries.
Curt attempts to get into the base, but is stopped (amicably) by the General. The General offers Curt a ride back to town, which the footsore Curt gratefully accepts -- not realizing the implications of the offer at first. As the General starts up the Jeep, Curt finally gets suspicious. He asks the General how t's possible he has a working Jeep. Buchanan here omits the General's joke about experimental rubber-band technology, but does improve upon the original in a few small ways. In ICW, Paul distracts the General and then smashes him over the head; in Zontar, Curt actually catches a glimpse of the injectopod's control device stuck in the General's neck. When he distracts the General, Curt brings his fist down onto the device itself, disrupting the communication back to Zontar and rendering the General temporarily helpless. Curt then grabs the General's gun, pushes the General out of the Jeep and heads back to Keith's house.
Curt now knows that Keith has been telling the truth, and that the situation is far worse than he could have anticipated. Curt calls Keith an "accessory to murder", while Keith once again tries to convince his livid friend that everything that's happening will result in a greater good. During their argument, Buchanan makes frequent, unsubtle cuts back to Keith's communicator; obviously Zontar is listening. "You're a traitor, Keith," shouts Curt, exiting, "the most diabolical traitor of all time!"
As Curt storms out, Keith -- still unable to put the pieces together -- stops to reflect on the demise of their friendship. Martha can't believe that's all Keith can think about, especially since (as she puts it) "Curt was your friend today like he never was before." (She saw the gun Curt had jammed in his pants.) "You've just had an undeserved stay of execution!"
This confrontation was a very effective scene in ICW, if only because Lee van Cleef and Beverly Garland had sufficient acting chops to carry it off. Anthony Houston and Susan Bjurman are nowhere near as convincing, and as a result, we're stuck with another endless dialogue scene rather than a crucial character moment (also, when Bjurman gets agitated, her Texas accent slips through). At any rate, Martha's words seem to have had an effect on Keith, who confesses into the transmitter that he is "troubled". He's so troubled that he misses his cue turning the machine on and off between "transmit" and "receive"; but then, if you accept the Morality Play explanation of the subtext, Zontar's voice has never really been outside Keith's head.
Curt is on his way home when the Jeep stops. Since Zontar was listening to Curt's argument with Keith, and since his connection to the General was presumably cut off quite a while ago, you'd think he'd be a little quicker on the uptake. Curt heads for home on his bicycle, arriving in the early evening. In ICW, Paul fails to notice that the lights are on in his house -- and I was accusing Zontar of being slow!! I'm not really sure about the lights in Zontar, since the whole movie is lit about the same, even in the lab during the power failure... Curt, for his part, fails to notice that his wife is being even more blandly pleasant than she's been in the rest of the film. She's just stepping out of the shower; Curt wonders how she got the water to work. Ann explains that she just emptied the water heater into a bucket and let gravity do the rest. Zontar evidently isn't able to stop gravity at its source. If he had been, I think Curt (with his theory of "Free Magnetic Gravitation") might have been a little more enthusiastic about the Venusian visitor.
Ann, like Joan before her, is an example of the colorless "good wife" stereotype that was satirized so memorably in The Stepford Wives almost a decade after Zontar. Since she is so... well... uninteresting, we can almost forgive Curt's inability to tell that she's been taken over. Ann announces that she has a present for him, then produces an injectopod and hurls it at him. Then, in the great tradition of movie villains, she announces that she's going for a walk while the injectopod does its work. Of course, in the great tradition of movie heroes, Curt is able to destroy his injectopod. Immediately thereafter, the phone rings. On the other end is -- who else? -- Keith; Zontar has already told him that Curt's injectopod has failed. Keith claims to have recovered some of his senses. He asks Curt to come and talk to him (oh, yes, more talk: exactly what this movie needs). He promises that Curt will be safe from further attempts to control his mind, at least for the present... Zontar is unable to produce a new control device for another 12 hours.
In fact, Keith has been given orders to kill his old friend. Zontar has determined that Curt is too dangerous, and that he knows too much about what's really going on.
Curt agrees to see Keith, but tells him he has something important to attend to first. That something is Ann, who returns shortly after Curt hangs up. Now, here's what I don't understand: Ann is connected directly to Zontar's mind through the control device. Zontar knows that Curt has destroyed his injectopod. Keith knows this, too, because Zontar has told him over the communicator. But Ann doesn't know. Ann, who is Zontar's puppet, doesn't know what her master has already told Keith. You'd think it would be a higher priority for Zontar to tell his operative, who is going back to Curt's house, for crying out loud, than it would be for him to tell Keith.
But in any case, Ann comes back, oblivious. Curt asks her if they will be like this always; Ann says yes. So Curt shoots her dead.
Admittedly, this shocking act makes the whole Morality Play theory a little less tenable. After all, Ann's punishment for something that's really not her fault is a little excessive, if you're thinking of Zontar as a sort of religious allegory. On the other hand, the idea of Curt's needing to make such a painful sacrifice, not only to save the rest of the world but also, in a sense, to "save" Ann, isn't too difficult to reconcile.
Martha finds Keith listening to some music and loading his gun. He's actually preparing to murder his best friend. Realizing this is her last chance to get through to him before he does something that puts him beyond salvation, she attempts to goad him into a human response -- "We could dance, if there wasn't so much blood around!" Keith is actually beginning to feel the strain between the course of action he's committed himself to and what he knows, on some level, to be right. But he's not yet ready to admit he's been wrong. Martha gets him to open up a little bit and tell her some things about Zontar. She's horrified to learn that Joan has been taken over, realizing what that implies about her own future. But Keith also tells Martha where Zontar is hiding.
When I tell you that Martha is dressed very much like a red-shirted ensign from the original Star Trek, you'll understand what this implies (it's a little disturbing, considering that the original Star Trek didn't debut until September of 1966, to see how much Martha resembles the stereotypical alien cannon-fodder... what is it about red shirts with black collars and a design over the left breast that marks a person for death?).
By now, it's apparently late at night, possibly close to dawn (it's hard to tell; in both films, there seems to be an unexplained lapse of eight to ten hours...). At the space center, the lone female scientist wakes up to find the lab equipment is all back on again. Not noticing the distant expressions on the faces of her two colleagues, she goes to make coffee -- only to find the remains of two injectopods. As one scientist continues with his work, utterly undisturbed, the second scientist strangles the woman (though she manages to keep screaming even as the breath is being choked out of her!).
While Keith waits for Curt, Martha decides to take matters into her own hands. Marching up to the communicator, she announces to Zontar that she's coming to get him. "Listen good," she says, her Texas coming to the fore once again. "Ah hate yore living guts!" Here Martha proves that she's every bit as dim as the menfolk and alienfolk in this movie: she's actually announcing to her enemy what she's going to do, and when she's going to do it.
Curt pulls in the driveway in Ann's car, which has apparently been left operational by Zontar so that he can hurry off to his death at Keith's hands. As Curt enters the house, Martha slips out the garage door. Finding a gun in her own car, she speeds off to find the invader.
Inside, Curt tells Keith about Ann. Keith is finally forced to confront the results of his actions. Keith falls apart to a greater extent than Tom in ICW, since his motivations are more blatantly selfish than Tom's. "He understood me", whines Keith; "He praised my work!" Curt asks Keith if it's still necessary for him to kill him; Keith admits ruefully that he was supposed to kill Curt. However, while all this has been going on, Martha has arrived at the nearby caverns where Zontar is hiding. Unsurprisingly, the big Z turns out to be immune to bullets. What is surprising is that Martha's defiant last words are transmitted to Keith's communicator. How does this happen? I thought these were supposed to be "hyperspace hypnotism" messages beamed directly from Zontar's brain. Is he wearing a microphone? Why would he keep it on while he killed his agent's wife?
Whatever the illogic here, Keith hears his wife's death over the communicator, and that's the last straw for him. Curt, ever the naïf, immediately offers "the most diabolical traitor of all time" his gun, but Keith has a better idea. Pulling what looks like a caulk gun out of the communicator, Keith tells Curt that it is actually a "plutonium ruby crystal". Uhh, yeah. Ruby lasers have been used to refine and contain plutonium, but I've never heard of a plutonium-powered laser. I can tell you this, though: Keith obviously stole more than just pens and office supplies from the space center!
Where was I?
Oh, yeah: Keith plans to use the "plutonium ruby crystal" (which I will refer to, appropriately, as the "PRC") to dispose of Zontar. It may sound wacky, but it's a damn site better than Tom's plan in ICW, which was to kill Beulah by sticking a blowtorch in its eye3. Curt goes to the space center, where he kills the two possessed scientists and the General. In yet another slight (and I do mean "slight") improvement over ICW, where the General survived a few minutes for a pointless chase scene, in Zontar the General falls into a nearby piece of Strickfaden equipment and dies a suitably spectacular death (the high-voltage equipment was pointed up rather obviously at the beginning of the film, so equally obviously, somebody had to die on it before the flick was over). Keith runs into the Sheriff on his way to Zontar's cave, and zaps him with the raygun... causing the picture to get all moiréd and solarized.
Meanwhile the OCR, having seen Martha's car and heard her subsequent screams, has brought the soldiers to the entrance of Zontar's cave (OK; actually it seems to be a culvert, but who is to say that this is any less ridiculous than ICW's Bronson Canyon?). Keith arrives on the scene in time to see the OCR get killed by his scaly green buddy. In spite of this gesture of goodwill towards humanity, Keith jams the PRC into Zontar; the screen gets all solarized again, and man and monster disintegrate...
Before we get to the infamous Closing Lesson, let's consider the situation our hero Curt (like his predecessor, Paul) is left in. Almost everybody who had any first-hand knowledge of what's been going on is now dead. Furthermore, our hero has undeniably shot his wife, two scientists and a General. True, some of the Army guys caught a glimpse of the monster, but no one is in any position to provide an unbiased perspective on what's been happening. I certainly wouldn't want to be in either Curt's or Paul's shoes, having to explain to the skeptical authorities the mess and the trail of bodies he's left in his wake.
But all that's in the future. For now, Curt/Paul gets to provide Keith/Tom's eulogy, and the Final Closing Benediction for the movie(s). I'll put them side-by-side, for the sake of comparison:
Both speeches have some significant grammatical problems, but hey -- these guys have had a long day. What I find interesting is that Buchanan's speech tones down the almost strident humanism of Corman's version. In keeping with the idea of Zontar being, at heart, a Morality Play, Buchanan rewords the eulogy, so that while it still emphasizes the need for humankind to take responsibility for its own condition, it is not inconsistent with the Christian idea of grace.
Surprisingly, though, Buchanan's message ends up being less anti-intellectual than Corman's. I have a great deal of difficulty accepting the notion that our emotions make us the greatest creatures in the Universe, as ICW states unambiguously. Other mammals on this planet besides us have rich emotional lives; ask any dog or cat owner. Better still, ask any dog or cat. And even though I'm still hearing the message shouted from every kind of pulpit, I find it very difficult to accept that we need less intelligence and more emotion to better the human condition. Nope; I don't buy it. I think we need quite the opposite, in fact. That's why I like Buchanan's stress that the answers are to be found in learning. Now, I know that Keith's advanced degrees did nothing to prevent his corruption, but that's where the other half of Buchanan's message comes in. Self-knowledge is as important as knowledge of the world around us, and both are necessary.
So yes: from a purely conceptual standpoint, I think that Larry Buchanan (and his credited co-writer, Hillman Taylor) actually improved on his source in a number of ways. I'm not trying to suggest that Zontar is improved because of the religious overtones I seem to find in it; I'm far less interested in its message per se than I am in the fact that this crummy movie even has a message. Perhaps I should say that in Zontar, the theme has been broadened to include interpretations that were deliberately ruled out of the original.
ICW's script is not without its merits; for a detailed look at that film's strengths, read the review at And You Call Yourself a Scientist. I've been emphasizing the Corman film's weaknesses because I've wanted to demonstrate that a lot of the stuff for which Zontar is criticized has been lifted verbatim from ICW. On the other hand, many of Buchanan's changes make a great deal of sense. In fact, when I watch the two movies back to back (as I have done many times to prepare for this review), I find that in many respects, I prefer Zontar.
But then there's the execution of the films... and that's another matter entirely.
Every good decision Buchanan made on the conceptual side of the creative process, he ruined on the practical side. Zontar is clumsily edited, badly lit, and blocked like a particularly unimaginative high school play. The situation isn't helped by Buchanan's choice of actors, none of whom (even John Agar) seem to have the ability to bring their roles to life convincingly. Roger Corman is a great showman: even his worst efforts have a certain vitality about them which makes them entertaining in spite of their shortcomings. Buchanan is more of a businessman: he knows how to sell himself and his films, and he seems to have a pretty good idea how to bring in a product -- of some sort, anyway -- on time and under budget. Unfortunately, Buchanan's more prosaic approach reveals his limitations in almost every frame. A comparison of Corman's and Buchanan's finished products reveals a perfect illustration of the difference between "inexpensive" and "cheap".
By now I'm sure you're all questioning my sanity. I've actually had some good things to say about a Larry Buchanan film! Plus I, the confirmed agnostic, have gone out of my way to find Christian messages in the movie, and found them praiseworthy to boot. No, I haven't lost my mind. I also want to stress that under no circumstances have I been taken over by any alien intelligence. In fact, forget I even mentioned the possibility. I guess it just goes to show what interesting things you can find in the least likely places, as long as you approach them with enough respect and attention.
And thinking of paying attention, never mind that thing I just kicked under the computer desk. Really; it's nothing. Just ... er... something I picked up. Somewhere. For dinner; yes, that's what it is. Perhaps you'd like to join me? We're having one-eyed lobster-bat.
Bad Movie Report
1. In fairness to both Corman and Buchanan, I should point out that the true nature of Venus' climate wasn't revealed until the 1970's, when the Soviet Venera probes sent back word about the planet's hellish atmosphere and surface. Before the truth was discovered, it was widely believed that Venus, with its placid-looking cloudy skies, might be very much like Earth, though perhaps hotter because it was closer to the sun.
2. Though the replacement character in Zontar speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Does this count as "ethnic humor", if it counts as "humor" at all?
3. Knowing what we know today about the surface conditions on Venus, we might surmise that "blowtorch" is Venusian for "air conditioning".