Zontar, the Thing from Venus / Zontar, Invader from Venus (1966) -**
By the middle of the 1960ís, American International Pictures was really moving up in the world. The studio might have started so small as to be virtually microscopic, and it might have devoted its first few years primarily to making very nearly the cheapest monster movies imaginable, but those days hadnít lasted long thanks to the penny-pinching genius and extraordinary marketing savvy of both its founders and its house producer/directors. With Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson making the deals and the likes of Roger Corman, Herman Cohen, and Edward Cahn making the movies, it had taken a scant five years for AIP to become the most prominent independent production and distribution company in Hollywood. The next five years brought even greater success. Herman Cohen relocated to Great Britain, initiating a series of overseas productions and international partnerships that would spread to Italy, Germany, Denmark, and eventually even the Philippines. AIP took a hint from Joseph A. Levine, and started importing relatively big-budget foreign spectacles as a way to get major-studio production value for pennies on the dollar. Subsidiary companies like Filmgroup and Trans-American spun off to concentrate on niche markets. Most conspicuously, a series of prestige productions beginning with Roger Cormanís The Fall of the House of Usher (aided immeasurably by the deceptively thrifty production design of art director Daniel Haller) elevated the studioís reputation and secured ongoing relationships with well known (if hardly top-drawer) performers like Vincent Price and Ray Milland. Eventually, it got to the point that some in the industry began speaking of American International Pictures as ďthe ninth major.Ē There were, however, two places where longtime fans could still turn in the 1960ís for a taste of the old AIP. First, although the companyís in-house productions had moved well beyond the level of Swamp Women or Night of the Blood Beast, AIP were far from squeamish about distributing freelance trash in a similar vein. And secondly, there was AIP-TV. Created to serve the voracious appetite of syndication television for low-cost content, AIP-TV made movies that might have embarrassed the parent company even in the mid-1950ís. And as Iíve mentioned previously in other reviews, among the blackest of those mangy, black sheep were the works of Larry Buchanan, who began his engagement with AIP-TV by remaking in East Texas five rubber-suit monster flicks from American Internationalís formative years, for roughly half the cost of the original versions.
Zontar, the Thing from Venus is Buchananís take on It Conquered the World, and its plot is literally exactly the same as the Corman pictureís. Rocket scientist Curt Taylor (John Agar, from Women of the Prehistoric Planet and Revenge of the Creature) is overseeing the launch of his labís new laser communications satellite when he receives an unexpected visit from a friend and colleague, Dr. Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston, of Mars Needs Women and The Eye Creatures). Ritchie has a reputation as a crackpot genius, for despite his vast engineering prowess, he is loath to see any of his projects get off the ground; he believes the inhabitants of the other planets have instituted a quarantine of the Earth, and can be counted upon to destroy any man-made object that reaches beyond the atmosphere. Apparently this laser satellite is something extra-special, too, for Ritchie contends that its successful launch will leave the extraterrestrial coalition no choice but to invade and, potentially, to destroy us. Nobody listens, though, and the launch proceeds as scheduled.
Three months later, Ritchie interrupts a dinner party over at his house to inform Taylor that he is now in contact with one of those aliens he warned the other scientist about. The creatureís name is Zontar, it lives on the planet Venus, and it has been in communication with Ritchie since shortly after the satellite launch over what looks like the swankest home stereo rig that money could buy in 1966. Ritchieís wife, Martha (Susan Bjurman), is mortified, and Taylor doesnít believe a word his friend says, but a more serious concern quickly develops courtesy of a phone call from Taylorís lab. His assistants (Warren Hammack, of The Hellcats, and Jeff Alexander, from Horror High and Curse of the Swamp Creature) have lost control of the laser satellite, which has wrested itself from orbit and assumed a descending course which should have it making landfall not too far from Jackson, Texasó which is pretty convenient, all things considered, since thatís about where the laboratory is, too. Now you and I both know that the trouble with the satellite has been caused by Ritchieís pal, Zontar, but thatís the last thing anybody in the movie is prepared to consider.
Just like his nameless alter-ego did ten years earlier, Zontar begins his Earth-conquering efforts by halting the flow of energy to everything in the Jackson area that is not owned and operated by Dr. Ritchie. Then he generates eight ďinjectopods,Ē small, flying creatures that look rather like lobsters with wings where their claws should be, each of which carries a parasitic bioelectric device that, when implanted in a humanís spinal cord, will place that human under the alienís control. Ritchie identifies Curt Taylor, Anne Taylor (Pat Delaney, from Creature of Destruction and The Bat People), Sheriff Brad Crenshaw (Bill Thurman, of Mountaintop Motel Massacre and ďItĎs Alive!Ē), laboratory military liaison General Matt Young (Neil Fletcher, from Beyond the Time Barrier and In the Year 2889), the mayor of Jackson, and the wives of the latter three men as the key people to control in the town, and the injectopods fly off to do their work. Meanwhile, chaos descends upon Jackson in the wake of the inexplicable power outage, and the more he sees, the closer Taylor comes to believing that Ritchie knows what heís ranting about. Eventually, Curt confronts Keith on the subject of Zontar, and learns that his friend sees the alien as a messiah figure, bringing a new era of peace and rationality to a species that has demonstrated all too little affinity for either. Taylor, however, considers Ritchieís aid to the alien to be nothing less than treason, and he vows to halt the invasion. Martha, too, has invasion-halting on her mind, and thanks to her proximity to Keith, she knows something that Taylor does notó she knows where Zontarís hideout is.
Look, Zontar, the Thing from Venus is a dreadful movie, okay? And truth be told, It Conquered the World isnít much better. But the funny thing about Zontar is that, alone among the Buchanan retreads that Iíve seen (Creature of Destruction still eludes me), it has just enough of the right things going for it not only to make one pay very close attention to it, but to make one inclined to reexamine and reevaluate its model as well. In marked contrast to the stunningly and comprehensively wretched The Eye Creatures, Zontar improves on its source in several significant ways, even as it also botches just about everything that had worked in the earlier film. To begin with the superficial, the creature in It Conquered the World could scarcely have been sillier; Zontar, on the other hand, is easily Buchananís best monster suit ever, and the horrible, authentically alien injectopods are a comparable step up from their predecessors. Dr. Taylorís laboratory is much better equipped than that of Dr. Paul Nelson (as the character was called in Cormanís telling), the stock footage of the launch site and monitoring installation (which would resurface to similar effect in Mars Needs Women) is very well chosen, and Dr. Ritchieís Venus hotline rig, rather than repeating the failed futurism of its counterpart from ten years before, looks exactly like something that a deranged genius would build out of off-the-shelf audio electronics (probably because it really was built out of off-the-shelf audio electronics). Then again, Corman had much better stock footage for his rocket launch, and when Buchanan shows us the satellite in orbit and coming in for its landing outside of Jackson, itís that same modified yo-yo he used for the flying saucer in The Eye Creatures. Agarís performance, although inferior on the whole to that of Peter Graves in It Conquered the World, draws some much-needed attention to the strain that Ritchieís bizarre obsessions have placed on the friendship between him and Taylor, even before it comes out that Keith has been conspiring against his species. Graves makes Nelson seem indulgently avuncular at first, perfectly happy to humor Dr. Andersonís eccentricities, but with Agar in the part, we can see at once the emotional exhaustion that comes of maintaining a friendship with someone he regards as a just-barely-functional lunatic. As for Ritchie/Anderson, this is one point on which the balance tilts much more sharply in the Corman versionís favor. Tony Huston is a sad substitute for Lee Van Cleef. Huston is acting at the top of his game when he manages to reach ďdesultory,Ē and he is convincing in exactly one instance; when Ritchie mentions all the people whoíve laughed at him over the years, Hustonís typically stumbling delivery briefly falls perfectly into step with the childish petulance that lurks behind the ostensibly high-minded aims of Ritchieís collaboration with the alien. Van Cleef seemed far more deserving of the costly redemption his character received in the end, too, but again Buchanan manages to score a point or two off of Cormanó that blowtorch Anderson used when he went after the alien? Weak. Ritchieís weapon of choice is the laser emitter powering his interplanetary communication system, a laser even more formidable than the one aboard Taylorís satellite. The only area in which a comparison between It Conquered the World and Zontar, the Thing from Venus is the expected total shut-out for Buchanan concerns the wife of the misguided scientist. Wide though the gulf between Lee Van Cleef and Tony Huston may be, itís nothing beside that which separates Beverly Garland from Susan Bjurman. Garland was one of the very few 1950ís B-movie actresses who always brought more to the table than a huge, blonde coif and gargantuan, conical bosoms (although she was certainly no slouch in either one of those departments). Bjurman, however, is a waste of perfectly good oxygen.
Now letís talk for just a little while about subtext. It Conquered the Worldís is transparent, even by 50ís standards. Thereís communism all over the placeó nobody can move an inch in that film without tripping over a Five Year Plan or a New Soviet Man. The preferred Cold War bogeyman is present in Zontar, too, naturally (it would be impossible to recycle the original script so completely without having the waxed curls of Stalinís moustache poking out beyond the corners here and there), but thereís another element at work here that I find all the more interesting for the fact that it canít possibly have been intentional. Consider for a moment the power that Zontar displays. He hijacks a satellite all the way from Venus, uses it as a vehicle to convey him to Earth, and makes the whole trip in only an hour. When he shuts down the power in Jackson, it isnít just the electrical plant that is affected, nor even all the stuff that might have been taken out by an electromagnetic pulse. Even simple kinetic energy devices donít work (which kind of makes you wonder about Taylorís bicycle, but this is a Larry Buchanan movie weíre talking about), and yet Zontar is able to rescind this total energy lockdown selectively for the benefit of his agents. Forget extraterrestrialsó this is power on a supernatural, even divine, scale. And now chew on this for a bit: Zontar, we are told, doesnít just control his victims the way a certain carrot-shaped compatriot of his had done. No, Zontar suffuses them with his spiritual essence after they accept a part of his body into themselves, ensuring that they shall henceforth act always in accordance with his will. Meanwhile, he promises that for humans to submit themselves to such spiritual indwelling will eventually lead to a new world of perfect justice and harmony on Earth. Yeah, weíve heard this spiel someplace before, havenít we, right down to the part about accepting the world-perfecting super-dude as both personal friend and personal savior. I seem to recall that guy having one of his disciples turn on him at the crucial moment, too, now that I think about it. As I said, itís impossible to imagine Buchanan deliberately painting the villain in a mid-60ís TV monster flick as a 20th-century Space Jesus, but the parallels are there for all to see. It casts the strident humanism of Taylorís closing speech, with its explicit denial that such perfection as mankind may ever attain can come from anywhere but the speciesís own intellectual resources, in a subversive light that makes its grating combination of leadenness and mawkishness almost tolerable.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabalís salute to American International Pictures, the studio that redefined the B-movie and set the standard for schlock cinema through two and a half decades. Click the banner below for the other Cabalistsí contributions.