Friday, June 2, 2017

Zontar, the Thing from Venus

Zontar, the Thing from Venus
Larry Buchanan

A missing NASA satellite is the first sign that something is not right. NASA engineer, Dr. Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston) reveals to his best friend, Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar) that he has been in communication with a being called Zontar who, as chance would have it, is a thing from Venus. Zontar is on his way to Earth. Is he here to help us or enslave us? The answer becomes pretty clear when all electronics stop working, and mind-controlling devil-bats start flying over the town.

In the 1960s, American International Pictures tasked Larry Buchanan with remaking several of their older films in color and creating a few original titles, all for the TV-movie market. The result was eight films that were all terrible, but eerily watchable in a ‘slogging through a brown nightmare’ kind of way. Zontar, the Thing from Venus isn’t even close to being the worst of the lot, but it is still tough going for many movie viewers.

"Sorry fellas, my area is restricted."
Zontar is a virtually moment-by-moment recreation of Roger Corman’s, It Conquered the World (1956). In this case swapping out Peter Graves for John Agar and the smooth evil of Lee Van Cleef for Tony Huston... so right there Zontar is at a big disadvantage. However, it is interesting to note that Buchanan isn’t blindly remaking Corman’s film. His script makes some small tweaks to the original’s story that aren’t exactly improvements, (Zontar can create mind-controlling injectapods every few hours as opposed to days thereby upping the threat, and the final confrontation utilizes a laser rather than a close-range blow torch), but they do pull the story together ever so slightly tighter.

One place where Zontar does manage to improve is in its monster. The mutant traffic cone that makes a bid for the Earth has always been the downfall of It Conquered the World, even though there is an attempt to give reason for its goofy looking body, it is still ridiculous enough completely undermine all the dramatic build-up that has happened prior. Zontar, on the other hand, is a greasy looking green bat monster with multiple eyes. Far less imaginative than his forebearer, but coupled with the muddy brown visuals of the rest of the movie, it works.

Zontar was notoriously drunk on set.
What doesn’t work is the rest of the movie. Every scene is shot in the flattest, least interesting way possible. The lighting, the colors, the costume choices, the entire look of the movie is dull and murky. John Agar is the best actor in the production, but there isn’t much competition. The whole production feels like it was made exclusively to fill-up 90 minutes of television so that the station could show some commercials… which is precisely what it was meant to be.

Despite all of its flaws, I occasionally come back to this movie. The combination of cheap sets, flat acting, and the overall grubby look of it, accurately recreates the feeling of being home with a high fever, laying on couch and half comprehending what is happening on the TV.

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