Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Premiered on television sometime in 1966
Directed by Larry Buchanan
Written by Hillman Taylor and Larry Buchanan
Cast: John Agar, Susan Bjurman, Anthony Houston, Patricia De Laney, Neil Fletcher, Jeff Alexander, Warren Hammack, Colleen Carr, Bill Thurman, Carol Gilley
Strangely enough, I was first introduced to the abomination that is Zontar, The Thing from Venus by watching an episode of SCTV Network back in 1981, where John Candy played the part of Zontar, a bald humanoid alien who infiltrated the SCTV station and attempted to take over, using cabbages to brainwash his victims. Why? Because his home world was in desperate need of television entertainment, after a civil war had left his planet without TV personalities; now, he wanted the SCTV cast and crew for himself. Which, incredibly, was more backstory than you ever got out of the actual movie being spoofed.
And being the bad cinema aficionado that I am (along with Lindsey over at The Motion Pictures, who is also reviewing this film), it somehow took me years to realize it was an actual movie being spoofed; I just thought the name and plot were an invention of the SCTV writing team. However, this review isn’t about that hilarious skit from my all-time favorite comedy series, but instead concerns a mind-numbing sci-fi bomb from self-proclaimed schlockmeister Larry Buchanan, who along with his stock company of no-names and has-beens was back for more filmmaking ineptitude, one year after he’d written and directed the alien invasion epic The Eye Creatures in 1965.
These two films were the first of eight made-for-television clunkers filmed by Buchanan for American International Pictures in the mid- to late-1960s, and to say that these productions put Buchanan on the map would be an honest statement…but a map to where remains the big question. Armed with budgets of just $30,000 per film, Buchanan set out to remake—per AIP’s specific instructions—several of Roger Corman’s already-cheesy horror and science fiction films of the 1950s; in this instance, the target was It Conquered the World, a B-movie monster classic in its own right.
The plot for Zontar is about as basic as it gets: a laser satellite is sent into orbit, disappears off radar, makes an unscheduled side trip to Venus, and returns carrying Zontar, a gargoyle-like being intent on taking over the world. Hiding out in a sulfur cavern not far from the launch site (where apparently the satellite…landed?), Zontar communicates via shortwave radio with a cooperative rocket scientist, who believes the three-eyed Venusian’s purpose is to help the people of Earth ‘save themselves from themselves’, but of course that’s far from the case. Zontar is soon using flying, lobster-like creatures called ‘inject-a-pods’ to assume control of the inhabitants of a nearby community, and it’s up to our hero, a skeptical NASA engineer, to stop him.
And that hero is John Agar, friend of John Wayne and one-time husband of Shirley Temple, who’s acting career went into a tailspin after his divorce, and propelled him into such low-end fare as The Brain from Planet Arous, Women of the Prehistoric Planet, and a trio of Buchanan’s horror/sci-fi emetics. Here Agar seems to be going through the motions, content just to survive three weeks of filming; I was much more impressed with the work of Patricia De Laney, playing the part of the traitorous scientist’s fed-up wife, who stole the show with her emotional outbursts, and later, some fairly caustic threats and sarcasm directed at both her husband and Zontar.
Another surprise was Jeff Alexander, who appeared as one of the three technicians in ‘Zone 6’ of the United States Orbital Rocket Control and Tracking Station (where apparently acronyms were forbidden from daily use); not only did he deliver his lines with a dour tone and expression, befitting the atmosphere of his surroundings, but I thought he did it quite well, under the circumstances. What was more important, however, was that I recognized him from somewhere, and it took me half the film to figure out where from: he was the grumpy, guinea-pig-hating janitor in one of my favorite best-worst movies of all time, Twisted Brain.
But it was Buchanan’s directing skills—or lack thereof—that sent this film into the proverbial tank, and made everything else resemble prime filmmaking in comparison. If you thought the acting was wooden, take a gander at the camerawork; you could say that Buchanan, like Agar, was also just going through the motions, but then that would imply motion, which his camera earnestly avoided. Hell, the film’s various stock shots offered more interesting direction! I will, believe it or not, give him credit for one scene, where Agar comes home to his newly-brainwashed spouse; in a truly effective moment, he catches her in a lie, then she suddenly flings a pod-bug at him and casually walks away, leaving him to fight for his life.
In summation, this was Z-grade all the way, with uninspired direction and acting, an infuriating lack of camera movement, and storytelling that comically lacked common sense and scientific accuracy. In short, it was good for a few laughs, and nothing more. And besides that, it was deathly slow, even at 80 minutes; the aforementioned SCTV parody offered more excitement, and nearly as many chills. For me, what this film desperately needed was Francine York, the hot babe from another Buchanan monstrosity, Curse of the Swamp Creature; unfortunately, she was busy kick-starting her extensive television career elsewhere. No thanks to Buchanan, I’m sure. (1/10)