Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Zontar: The Thing from Venus (Azalea/American International, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Zontar: The Thing from Venus (“the planet Venus?”), a dreadful 1966 remake of a pretty bad 1956 American-International movie called It Conquered the World which was itself a combined ripoff of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We weren’t watching a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of it but the film would certainly have fit their format (it’s not on the complete list of shows on the MST3K digital archive but they did do It Conquered the World in their third season): it’s boring, tedious, badly acted and so cheap that even though it’s supposed to be a horror film the only real monsters are a race of flying whatsits that are usually described as bats but looked more like Rocky the Flying Squirrel to me and Zontar him/her/itself, a Venusian creature that looks like a very badly burned human body and isn’t seen until the final minutes (not that I particularly minded that, especially since the monster was just too repulsive-looking to be genuinely scary). The plot features a scientist named Keith Ritchie (Anthony Huston, an oddly nerdy presence for a character played by Lee Van Cleef, of all people, in the original!) who has built himself a closet full of high-powered radio equipment and is warning his colleagues at the local NASA base, including Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar, doing his usual weirdly inappropriate John Wayne impression in the role — Agar and Wayne were friends and Wayne got Agar roles in some of his films, and Agar’s performance here recalls the proverb, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” — in the middle of a cast full of totally talent-less non-actors, Agar actually looks rather good by comparison), not to launch the new laser-powered satellite because mysterious forces from elsewhere in the solar system have decreed that earth shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the rest of the planets until we stop having wars and otherwise showing that we’re too primitive to be trusted.

Then we see him working his closet radio and getting, through the interplanetary static, a signal that sounds suspiciously like a theremin, which he later explains to us, his wife Martha (Pat Delaney), Curt and Curt’s wife Anne (Susan Bjurman), is actually the voice of Zontar, putting him under what Keith calls “interplanetary hypnotism” so the two can communicate even though Zontar doesn’t speak English and Keith doesn’t speak Venusian. Keith thinks that Zontar is involving him/her/itself in human affairs to help him make the world a better place, but of course what Zontar is really up to is conquest, which he hopes to achieve by turning off all sources of energy — not just electricity but motor vehicles, fire and even water — to demonstrate its power, and also sending “injectabots,” tiny little probes that look like twist-ties and are injected into the back of the neck of the human victims Zontar wants to put under its control. He takes over the general in charge of the base and also Anne Taylor — forcing John Agar to strangle his own wife and then explain to Keith that she wasn’t his wife anymore but a Venusian injectabot victim — and eventually Keith has a crisis of conscience after his own wife is killed by Zontar and he destroys the monster with a laser probe of his own invention that he has to stick into it like a harpoon. Lou Rusoff’s original script for It Conquered the World was adapted by Larry Buchanan, who also directed (sloppily) and Hillman Taylor, and they blessedly removed a lot of the Right-wing Libertarian anti-Communist propaganda from the original. In It Conquered the World the big final speech read:

He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature... and because of it, the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. And when men seek such perfection … they find only death … fire … loss … disillusionment … the end of everything that’s gone forward. Men have always sought an end to the toil and misery, but it can’t be given, it has to be achieved. There is hope, but it has to come from inside, from Man himself.

In Zontar: The Thing from Venus the big speech reads:

Keith Ritchie came to realize, at the cost of his own life, that Man is the greatest creature in the Universe. He learned that a measure of perfection can only be slowly attained, from within ourselves. He sought a different path, and found death … fire … disillusionment … loss. War, misery and strife have always been with us, and we shall always strive to overcome them. But the answer is to be found from within, not from without. It must come from learning; it must come from the very heart of Man himself.

The difference is subtle but it does make Zontar seem a little more Gandhian and a lot less Randian than It Conquered the World. Also to the benefit of Zontar is the monster: it may be too disgusting to be scary but it’s at least a slight improvement over the risible upended half-cucumber of the earlier film (to which they had to add an artificial head because it was supposed to scare Beverly Garland witless and yet when they shot the first scene between them, she towered over it). But aside from that it’s a totally useless movie that doesn’t even have the dorky charm of the earlier one, shot in color (which seemed to be the point of the remake: so American International could include it in a TV package at a time when TV was starting to turn its back on black-and-white movies) but in a very dull, cheap process — not too surprising for a movie that almost never got out of one suburban room!