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Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966)
By the mid-1960s, American-International Pictures, once a struggling outfit that churned out low-budget but profitable movies for drive-in movie theaters, had 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 AIP's earlier film and release them in color to a new generation of movie viewers. They hired legendary Z-movie shlockmeister Larry Buchanan, who made movies with a bare minimum of money and talent, yet still managed to at least break even if not turn a small profit. Buchanan produced eight films for AIP-TV with his Azalea Pictures company based out of Dallas, Texas. Zontar: The Thing from Venus, a remake of Roger Corman's It Conquered the World, is considered by many to be the best of his AIP-TV productions and even has B-movie icon John Agar in the role 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 Ritchie, but Ritchie is a true believer who will not be swayed by arguments. As it turns out, though, 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 helpless 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 its plans for world conquest are Taylor and Ritchie'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 black and white film is considered a cheese classic, but it is not really a bad film at all. 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 similarities and be surprised by 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 black and white to color is a let down as well. The original film looks fine in monochrome while Zontar looks bland and washed out in its flat 1960s type color that you see in so many of Something Weird's releases. I usually have a hard time distinguishing day-for-night shots from just day shots in old films but in Zontar it wasn't 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.
Buchanan's tiny budget becomes very apparent when we see the NASA space probe at the beginning of the film. It appears to be the same flying saucer used in Buchanan's The Eye Creatures 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.
One improvement that Buchanan makes over the original is Ritchie's choice of weapons to kill Zontar in the showdown at the end. In It Conquered the World, Tom Anderson uses 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.
The original seems pretty heavy on the talking side of things, but that's 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 is 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 Conquered the World, the dialog and monologues appear thought out a bit by Corman, Lou Rusoff 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 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 warmed over samples from the original film. 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's the type that's grating and annoying most of the time. As far as the alien creature's Earthly ally goes, Lee Van Cleef's shoes are big ones to fill, and the emotionless Tony Houston as Ritchie does not even try it seems. In fact everyone in the cast is wooden and lifeless except for John Agar, in the Peter Graves role. Agar 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 replicating the comic relief supplied by the always reliable Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze in It Conquered the World, but here 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. 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. In this case I do not feel one looks any better than the other and I want to give Buchanan some credit for coming up with something a little original. Historically Beluah will be remembered as few fans of B-cinema have seen the image even if they have never seen the film. Zontar is much more obscure, but he is not a bad looking monster for the time period.
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 filmmaker that such a story even exists. I have only seen two of his other Azalea films for AIP-TV and certainly Zontar: The Thing from Venus is the best of the three. That is not really saying too much and I am trying hard to be fair to 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.
Thanks to Bill Dan Courtney for this great guest post. You can read more from Bill at his blog, The Uranium Cafe.