11 July 2011

ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS/1966/LARRY BUCHANAN

Zontar, the Thing from Venus is a near no budget made for televison remake of the Roger Corman AIP sci-fi classic It Conquered the World. It is a reasonable question to ask if the world really needed an even lower budgeted remake of It Conquered the World and why on earth one was ever made. When It Conquered the World was initially made, AIP was a struggling independent motion picture company led by the business savvy producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson. The company churned out low-budget but profitable films one after the other primarily aimed at a youthful audience. On the labors of talented directors like Roger Corman, Edward L. Cahn and Herman Cohen AIP had, by the mid-sixties, become perhaps the most successful and powerful of the independent film companies in Hollywood. A logical step it seemed was to move into the now lucrative syndicated television market and so AIP-TV was formed. One of the projects AIP-TV took on was to remake a handful of its earlier film and release them in color to a new generation of movie viewers. To rewrite and direct some of these films they got legendary z-movie shlock meister Larry Buchanan who was used to working with little money and talent on his films and yet still managed to at least break even if not turn a small profit. He produced altogether eight films for AIP-TV–which also included The Eye Creatures, a remake of the Edward L. Cahn film Invasion of the Saucermen and Mars Needs Women- with his Azalea Pictures company based out of Dallas Texas. Zontar is considered by many to be the best of his Azalea remakes and even has B-movie icon John Agar in the role originally played by Peter Graves in the original film. Of course one can hardly say that the best Larry Buchanan film is anything that is going to excite the masses. They are films for the cognoscenti of camp and cheese only and rise to the quality of an Al Adamson movie at best.

The more than slightly delusional scientist Keith Ritchie (Tony Houston) assists an alien being named Zontar to come to Earth in an unmanned space probe in order to help mankind rise above its own evil nature. His old friend and colleague Curt Taylor (Agar) tries to reason with him but Ritchie is a true believer who will not be swayed by arguments.  But Zontar has intentions other than assisting mankind in its struggles. Soon the entire world is brought to a stand still by Zontar from his secret headquarters in a cave. The military is helpess and the leaders of Jackson Texas come under the mental control of Zontar via bat like creatures that implant control devices into the base of their necks. It seems all that stands between Zontar and it’s plans for world conquest are Taylor and Ricthie’s devoted wife Dora (Susan Bjurman). How can Zontar be stopped? Who is under his control and who can be trusted?




If you’re familiar with It Conquered the World then you recognize the above synopsis. In fact Zontar strays very little from the original story by Charles B. Griffith. The cold war analogy is still thinly veiled and the conflicts between the two friends and their opposing ideologies remain about the same. What does change noticeably is the quality of the film itself. Corman’s b/w film is considered a cheese classic but it is not really a bad film at all. I do not hate remakes in any way simply because they’re remakes but I prefer that a remake simply not be the original film told over exactly scene by scene. A remake should try to make use of advances in film technology as well as vary the story enough so that people familiar with the original will nod at the deliberate hat’s off styled similarities and be surprised as well by a few twists and surprises in the new story. There are no twists or turns in Zontar. The same people die in the same manners and the same people live at the end. The dialog is practically the same scene by scene with the most minuscule of variation. The ‘step-up’ from b/w to color is a let down as well. The original film looked fine in b/w while Zontar looked bland and washed out in it’s flat 60’s type color that you see in so many of the Something Weird releases. I usually have a hard time distinguishing day-for-night shots from just day shots in old films but in this film it really was exceptionally difficult. The Azalea films were mostly shot on 16mm and with little or no professional lighting. In some instances the film was manually slowed down to about 12 frames per second rather the usual 24 to allow for the poor lighting of the sets. The actors actually had to move slower when this was done or they would appear to move in fast motion when the film was played back at the regular frame rate.

The laboratory sets are cheap looking and Keith Ritchie’s living room looks like the model of garish, trying to be hip 60’s bad taste. A couple other things worth noting. First is the weird looking NASA space probe at the beginning which I mistook for an alien flying saucer at first. It is the same space used in  Buchana’s The Eye Creatures I think and it just looks amazingly hokey. Even a jaded b-movie fan such as myself felt my jaw falling in disbelief that this was supposed to be a space probe built by the United States. The other thing, which is actually a bit of an improvement on the first film, is Ritchie’s choice of weapons to kill Zontar in the showdown at the end. Tom Anderson used a blow torch of all things. It was an interesting scene but what kind of superior creature brings the world to a screeching standstill but gets killed itself by a blowtorch in its eye? To Buchanan’s credit he mulls this issue over and has Ritchie develop a super laser that is the only thing able of destroying Zontar amid a display of psychedelic film effects.

While the original seems pretty heavy on the talking side of things that is true of many horror and sci-fi films of the period. One way to stretch out a film that is low on budget and special effects to have people pad up the frames with lots of talking until something happens. It is the quality and delivery by the actors of the dialog that makes the difference. In ‘It’ the dialog and monologues appear thought out a bit by Corman, Lou Rosoff and the uncredited Charles B. Griffith. And while some of it may seem preachy or heavy handed at time I believe the lines were written and delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. You get the sense the actors are having fun with the script and scenes. The lines in ‘It’ are often delivered with poker faced zest by Peter Graves, Beverly Garland and Lee Van. In particular Beverly Garland delivered her lines in such a way that some passages have become a little classic over the decades. In Zontar the actors simply cannot act and the dialog written by Buchanan and Hillman Taylor, whose only two writing credits are Azaela remakes, is simply warmed over samples from the original film. In Zontar Susan Bjurman–Garland’s counterpart- just cannot act but overact she does. And it is not the sort of bad acting that is fun to watch and replay. It the type that is grating and annoying most of the time. As far as the alien creature’s Eartly allay goes Lee Van Cleef’s shoes are big ones to fill as Tom Anderson in ‘It’ and the emotionless Tony Houston as Ritchie does not even try it seems. In fact everyone is wooden and lifeless except for John Agar, doing the Peter graves role, who always tried to honestly earn his pay check no matter how horrible his roles became by the mid-sixties. At times it is hard to tell if the gauntness of his facial expressions are his interpretation of his character or Agar unconsciously displaying his disbelief he is actually in this movie. There are a couple goofy soldiers who seem to be Buchanan’s attempt at the comic relief supplied by the always reliable Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze in It Conquered the World but they just seem nervously goofy at best.

Finally we cannot conclude this article without addressing Zontar himself. The original Beluah –the name given to the Corman film creature by cast and crew- was created by the master of low budget makeup effects Paul Blaisdell and is simply iconic in appearance. That cannot be argued I feel. I am sure most every one has seen the great publicity shot of Beverly Garland screaming as Beluah peers menacingly into the window at her. But to be honest the three eyed, bat-winged Zontar is not too shabby really, or at least not for a Larry Buchanan production. It is more bat like in appearance than Beluah which has been referred to an alien celery stalk. Really in this case I do not feel one looks any better than the other and want to give Buchanan some credit for coming up with something a little original here. Historically Beluah will be remembered as few fans of b-cinema have not seen the image even if they have never seen the film. Zontar is much more obscure due to the very nature of the film itself but he is not a bad looking monster for the time period. Zontar’s motives are the same as It’s and he wastes little time on backing out of the promises he made to scientist Ritchie. Zontar has no intention of assisting mankind and seems rather intent on initiating some sort of preemptive strike against the human race. Again though it is strange that a creature with such power chooses to hang out in a cave on the edge of a small town. I do feel the cave in Zontar is a step up from the one in It Conquered the World though. It is more of a cavern than cave and is the lurid lighting takes advantage of the fact the film is shot in color. Like It Zontar chooses only to gain control of the local town leaders rather the leaders of the Pentagon or White House. And in the end, like also It  he is basically killed off in simple hand to hand combat though in a more inventive manner perhaps.

There is a legend, maybe true or maybe not, that Larry Buchanan sometimes edited his films with duct tape. Even if it is just another b-movie myth it says something of the man’s reputation as a film maker that such a story even exists. I have only seen two other of his Azalea films for AIP TV and certainly Zontar, the Thing from Venus is the best of the three. But that is not really saying too much and I am trying hard to be fair with this film since I am a fan of low quality classic cinema. Fans of grade Z style movies by film makers like Ted V. Mikels and Al Adamson will find it worth a watch, if for no other reason than to compare it to the original. Most others will find little of value here.



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