The Bad Movie Report


the Thing from Venus


It Conquered the World


I was tired, very tired. After watching all three of the Evil Dead movies in a row, I was courting genre burnout. I knew that whatever I was going to watch next, it had to be totally different from the Raimi/Campbell trilogy. I needed something without zombies or demons. I needed something without special effects drubbing me over the head. And ideally, I needed something that was completely humorless.

Let's face it: I needed Larry Buchanan.

You see, Larry Buchanan, in the 60's, contracted with AIP to remake some of its already impoverished films as part of a TV Larry!package. Along with a few Japanese imports and Corman cut-and-paste jobs (Goodbye, Sampo; Hello, The Day the Earth Froze!), these would constitute a ready-made late-night movie program. Insert one hammy host with an assortment of bad puns, and you had your late Saturday slot taken care of (right after All-Star Wrestling, featuring Wahoo MacDaniel and The Spoiler. You young punks only think you invented wrestling).

So what we're talking about here is movies like The Day the World Ended and The Astounding She-Monster being made at a fraction of their already miniscule costs... not since El Paso fertilizer magnate Hal Warren decided to make Manos, the Hey!  That's the flying saucer from THE EYE CREATURES!Hands of Fate has a Texan had a hand in such an outrageous disservice to the movie-watching public. Still, Buchanan persevered (and persevered mightily), and he delivered unto us his version of It Conquered the World, retitled, for a hipper 60's audience, Zontar, the Thing from Venus.

Our festivities begin at Mission Control, where scientists anxiously oversee some stock footage of a rocket launch. We note that NASA has been downsized to three scientists and John Agar, so that last Republican budget must have passed.

Ha ha, we kid our Compassionate Conservative brethren (as they like nothing better than a joke at their own expense); this is some sort of military operation, the launching of the Laser Communication Satellite (?). John Agar is Curt Taylor, the head of the project, and he is annoyed to no end by the intrusion of his friend, Keith, who is some sort of brilliant physicist. Keith explains expositorially that he has been arguing against the launch of the satellite for quite some time, and in fact he predicted the destruction of its predecessors by forces unknown. Agar is having none of this "forces unknown" crap and launches the stock footage anyway.

Cut to three months later (we know it's three months later because the characters tell us so). Agar and his wife, Anne (Pat Delaney) are having dinner at Keith's house. Conversation turns to the Laser Communication Satellite (henceforth LCS); Agar is smug because it hasn't blown up yet, but is surprised that Keith is even more smug. Keith asks Curt to come to the den, he has something to show him, over the protests of his wife, Martha (Susan Bjurman) - whatever it is seems to be a bone of old That is one serious subwoofer, Keith.contention between husband and wife. Keith says he knows Agar will understand, and the men retire to the den, leaving the wimmenfolk to do the dishes.

Keith's toy is a closet full of electronics - a Laser Communication device he built on his own, with no help from the military (take that, John Agar!). Flipping it on, he treats us to some science-fiction sounds, which he assures us is Venus. "Can't you hear it?" he asks Agar. "That other sound. Listen to the voice." It seems that Keith has been communicating with something on Venus that calls itself Zontar. Agar is unimpressed, and Martha is totally peeved at her hubby - we get the impression that Keith has been telling everyone he meets about Zontar: friends, delivery men, frightened Jehovah's Witnesses....

Agar gets called back to the base because the LCS has simply disappeared, which cranks Keith's smugness up a few notches. But by the time Agar makes it to the base, the LCS has just as mysteriously reappeared. The decision is made to bring the LCS back to Earth (which it can apparently do under its own truly is, as the General in charge likes to intone, "The scientific achievement of the age!"). But as the LCS enters the atmosphere, it starts making its own course changes, prompting much panic and attempts to regain control, until it passes from radar.

Those of us who stuck with Keith know what's going on... Zontar hijacked the LCS, rode it back to Earth ("All in an hour!") and has now used it to make a landing at the nearby "hot springs cavern", where the heat and humidity apparently make it similar to its native climate.

Zontar's first act as ambassador from Venus is to "stop all power at its source", which means all electricity and means of And now, a scene from BLAIR WITCH PROJECT IItransportation grind to a halt. The populace panics. Agar and Anne find themselves stranded when their car stops and have to walk to Keith's house. It is during this hike that they spot one of Zontar's "injectapods", flying creatures that Zontar has grown out of its own body mass, whose purpose it is to seek out prominent citizens and attach antennae to the back of their necks, zombifying them and allowing Zontar to control them from afar. "What is that weird-looking thing?" asks Anne. It is a valid question, as the injectapods look like nothing less than lobsters with bat wings. "I don't know, but I don't like it," says Agar, throwing a stick at the beastie.

Agar misses, and the injectapod goes on its wobbly way to the neck of the General, who then declares martial law, sending all the military personnel at the base on a forced march to counter the "Communist uprising". He tells the remaining scientists... all three of them... to stay at mission control, because those Commies would love to get their mitts on them.

The Agars finally make it to Keith's house and he explains to them the whole Zontar-has-shut-down-everything scenario, and how he feels the arrival of the Venusian heralds a new golden age for Man... only to be met by disbelief and derision. Of course, what Agar and Anne do not realize is that there are two injectapods being grown with their names on them...

Keith takes them home in his still-functioning car (it's good to be Zontar's friend), after informing Zontar via homemade LCS "I found this on the genetically-altered corn."that it can trace the "power pulsations" of the auto to the Agar household. Upon seeing a stampede of people (the populace is still panicking and running willy-nilly, including that one kid who just keeps cutting across the flow of traffic) Agar decides he has to check things out at the base, and pulls a bicycle out of the garage. Whilst cycling to the base, he sees the Zontarfied (Zontarized? Zontarrific?) sheriff shoot the elderly newspaper editor, who was refusing to evacuate. (I don't know about you, but if I saw somebody gun down a man in cold blood, my first reaction would NOT be to ride up to him and ask him "What's going on?"... but then, I'm no rocket scientist) The sheriff declines to kill Agar, because "Zontar says you are to be one of us."

At the base, Agar meets the General, who explains that everyone's been moved to a nearby airbase for safety, and offers Agar a RIDE in his FUNCTIONING Jeep ("an experimental model," the General explains... damn, that Zontar's slick!). However, Agar notices the General has antennae sticking out his neck, karate chops him and drives off in the Jeep to confront Keith. He accuses Keith of being an accessory to murder, and from there the whole thing just descends into a philosophical exchange of ideas, ending with Agar accusing his friend of being "the worst traitor in history" and huffing off in his purloined Jeep to fight Zontar in any way possible. Martha saw the gun jammed in Agar's belt and informs Keith he "just had an undeserved stay of execution."

Back at the Agar household, Anne informs her husband she has a surprise for him.... AAAAA! IT'S A LOBSTER WITH WINGS!!!! As the faded star ducks the injectapod whirling madly about his head, Anne leaves for a little walk. Deprived of any sticks to hurl at the beastie, Agar has to satisfy himself with beating it to death with the weapon of choice in crap movies, a fireplace poker. He immediately receives a phone call from Keith, who was told by Zontar about the injectapod's destruction; he asks Agar to come over - as one of the converted, Anne's car now works - and Agar agrees, but first he "has to do something".

Martha manages to wheedle out of Keith that Zontar cannot grow another injectapod for Agar for a week; the Venusian OOOOOOh!  Isn't that SCARY, keeds?  Ah- WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!feels that he is too dangerous, and has ordered Keith to kill his friend. Martha helpfully tells us that the mayor and his wife died in the stampede (off-camera, where it was more economical), why not use their injectapods on Agar? Oh, they've already been used, Keith tells her (and us)....

Back at the base, the lone female scientist wakes to find that everything works again, and her two co-workers are "Checking everything out". "Who wants coffee?" She asks. "Not us," they reply. "Well, I do," she says, opening the cabinet and finding two dead injectapods. In the single most profound argument for cutting back on caffeine ever filmed, she is then strangled by one of her fellows while the other, Jeffrey Coombs-like scientist calmly tells Zontar that everything is under control.

Anne returns from her walk to find what she assumes is a Zontar-fied Agar (forget what I said about them being slick) and tells her hubby that now they will be as one... forever. "Forever?" asks Agar. "Forever," Anne assures him. So Agar shoots her dead, without even asking if she meant that literally or metaphorically.

This leads to Agar and Keith facing down once more - they both are supposed to kill each other, so they immediately set to Rargh!  Rargh!  Dammit, stop laughing!  RARGH!one more struggle of ideas, just for old time's sake - not realizing that Martha has hijacked Agar's car and is speeding toward Zontar's cave hideaway, gun in hand.

Having just gone through Martha's final meltdown with his Venusian antics (and finding out that Agar has just killed his own wife), Keith is shaken enough to see the other side of things... especially when, over his Radio Shack LCS, Keith hears Martha find Zontar, shoot him to no effect, and scream piteously as the Venusian kills her. (I should add this is also witnessed by one of our Odious Comic Relief soldiers...yes, I was trying to ignore them... who goes back to his forced-march squad for help)

Enough is enough, decides Keith, who yanks out the core of his Laser Communications System, which he tells us is a laser with "a plutonium ruby crystal" (wha-?). He and Agar proceed to go on the warpath. Agar is dropped at the base, where he bursts in on the general and the two scientists, who are plotting nothing less than blowing up the President! Agar and his .45 caliber pals soon put a stop to that nonsense.

Meantime, our Comedy Army pals are confronting Zontar in the cave, and are finding that their bullet buddies are The whole reason I own this movie.predictably useless. One of the Odious Comic Relief soldiers gets his skull crushed for his troubles (Yesssssssss! YES!) and the rest retreat, clearing the way for Keith and his laser. Holding the laser high over his head like a sacrificial dagger as Zontar wraps him in its batlike wings, Keith toasts both of them, pretty much ending the Venusian invasion. The end.

Or it would be, except Agar has one last philosophical speech about man being a feeling animal, and growth having to come from within, blah-de-blah-de-blah. Fade out.

Comparing Zontar with its source material, It Conquered the World, is a far less complicated task than the last time I did this, comparing Journey to the Center of Time with The Time Travelers, because unlike these two, the remake makes no real attempt to establish its own identity; Buchanan even preserves a poorly-considered edit in the first dinner scene. Though having to fit into a two-hour TV slot, Zontar has more padding than It Conquered: this comes in the superfluous form of lengthening the LCS disappearance/retrieval, people dodging the injectapods (which merely sneak up on you in It Conquered), and the antics of the Odious Comic Relief soldiers (which seems to be something of a motif for Larry Buchanan films). Therefore, the only distinctions that can be drawn between the two fall into the realms of acting and directing.

Is it live.....John Agar's Square-Jawed Scientist is one of the angriest characters I have seen since General Grayson in Reptilicus. It almost seems as if Agar was aware that his career had slipped so low that he was actually appearing in a Larry Buchanan film, and he took it out on his character. It's quite easy to visualize Agar walking about the city with a bundle of sticks under his arm, to throw at anything he "doesn't like." Peter Graves played this character in the Corman version, and his hero is on a more even keel, seeming much more reasonable in the early portion of the story. And Graves, with his wonderful voice, manages to pull off that final speech.

...or is it Memorex?In the Collaborator role, Tony Huston (himself a frequent Buchanan collaborator) is simply overmatched; his physicist most often assumes the steely-eyed glare of the psychopath to show his detachment from humanity. Lee Van Cleef, of all people, is the Collaborator in the original, and he gives a matter-of-fact, even somewhat sympathetic performance. It is possible to believe his character is an overly-injured idealist who has been manipulated by "a superior intelligence" into viewing a complete takeover of the earth through, not particularly rose-colored glasses, but lenses that have certainly been rendered myopic by a constant gazing toward his distant goal, a Utopia devoid of human foibles like greed, hatred or competition.

Ah, hell, they're both good.In an equally important role, the Collaborator's Wife, Susan Bjurman does not Ah, hell, they're both good.embarrass herself, which is quite an accomplishment, considering she is given all the overwrought lines in the movie. I haven't done a line-by-line comparison, but I feel that her constant pleas to her husband to come back to himself and stop this space nonsense were also expanded to pad out Zontar, and after awhile, these just start to get whiny. Again, Huston's character is so obviously on the cusp of a psychotic episode, we have to wonder why she hasn't either left him or had him committed. In the Corman version, the role is assayed by Beverly Garland, who is one of the few genre actresses that could eclipse Bjurman's achievement. Garland never got the credit she really deserved for her Corman roles; her wonderfully strong, yet undeniably female characters still shine, after all these years - her Collaborator's Wife is no different. Fame of a kind finally found Garland in her continuing role in My Three Sons, a long way from injectapods and evil asparagus.

Though the two movies use basically the same scripts, in It Conquered, it is much more easy to believe that the two couples have been friends for years; the constant clash-of-ideals arguments (and these are the talkiest monster movies ever made) are much more believable and engaging in the Corman version, and the soldiers are not used for (totally) Odious Comic Relief* .

On the subject of our monster, we have more of a dead heat. It Conquered's killer cucumber is distinctly absurd; Corman Hey, Jerry!  Haven't seen you since the last reunion!  What's with the torch?originally desired scientific accuracy (or somesuch) and had Paul Blaisdell construct a squat, sturdy creature, to cope with the enormous pressures that prevail on Venus... until he saw Beverly Garland making fun of it. Realizing the monster, of necessity, had to be taller than his leading lady, he ordered the prop man to make it larger, somehow. Voila: the first Conehead (or, as Joel put it, "The Kool-Aid Guy gone bad!" Or Tom Servo: "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters!"). Zontar's three-eyed humanoid bat is much more menacing, if improbable; the only thing that keeps it from winning, hands-down, is its incredible lumpiness. It looks unfinished, especially compared to the smooth organic lines of the grinning gherkin, but is doubtless the best Buchanan could afford. As a brief sidetrip, it should also be noted that for his electronic gear in Keith's den and mission control, Buchanan couldn't afford to go for a lot of futuristic looking stuff, as in Corman's film, and instead had to rely on surplus electronics, with the odd benefit that his high-tech gear looks a lot more realistic. That is, except for a Jacob's Ladder, which is (for some reason) merrily buzzing away in the control room, as if it were Victor Frankenstein's laboratory.

Perhaps predictably, Corman beats out Buchanan in the director sweepstakes. The worst mistake made in Zontar occurs during the cave sequences, and I 'm not even talking about the fact that the cave entrance appears to be some sort of storm sewer. As Martha winds her way deeper into the cave in search of Zontar, each successive shot is connected by a dissolve, which is filmic shorthand for a passage of time. Thus her trip - and the successive journey of everyone else who seeks out the titular bad guy - seemingly takes hours. These sequences would be too long, even if joined by cuts; but Buchanan, in true low-budget filmmaker style, shot and paid for that footage, and dammit, he's going to use it!

Pre we being too hard on Buchanan here? With a reported budget of $35,000 ... most of which probably went for John Agar, and the rest for the Zontar suit... it's amazing this movie even exists. There's no denying that Buchanan's films are marred - or made distinctive, depending on your critical bent - by his naiveté, his inability to figure out where to put a camera or when to cut away to another angle (which alone is the kiss of death for such a talky film). Yet somehow, thirty years later, here we are, examining them (or asking for them to be examined, depending on which side of the monitor you are sitting).

Perhaps it was the fact that, 12 year-olds that we were when first encountering these films, even at that early age, we were sure we could do as well, if not better - the presence of such movies is not a little comforting. Perhaps it is because Buchanan's dogged persistence in making these films despite all their obvious hardships still manages to shine through, if even on a subliminal level. By all reports, Buchanan was an absolutely square dealer who honored his obligations to everyone (certainly a rare enough thing in the film world) - perhaps, on even a more subliminal level, we recognize this. Or maybe we just love crap.

Yes!  Die, comic relief!  Die!We're used to hearing about how Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a prime piece of Cold War allegory, a parable of the paranoia that held sway over America in the face of the Communist Menace. It's surprising that It Conquered the World or its second-generation clone, Zontar, is never spoken of in similar terms. After all, it's a cautionary tale: the Egghead is suckered in by Propaganda that promises a new Golden Age based on Pure Intellect; the Collaborator tells the Invader exactly how to take over the Civic and Military chains of command; and everyone who is touched by this stealthy coup d'etat is rendered soulless, and therefore Godless. In this light, the Square-Jawed Scientist's gunning down of the Infected seems more militaristic than vengeful: they have become Pure Enemy, and he is protecting the American Way of Life. (No wonder the humanistic Collaborator shudders and is shaken when he discovers his friend has just murdered his wife; apart from all the claptrap above, it's a brutal, shocking moment.*)

Well, the reason we probably don't hear much about that is because Body Snatchers is much more subtle (always a plus in allegory), and, let's face it, it's a better movie.

If you choose to ignore the Cold War ramifications, what remains is basically the Nerd's Revenge Fantasy: he has a Powerful Invisible Friend who is going to make him King, and then you'll be sorry! You'll all be sorry! Both versions have a scene where the Collaborator calmly tells his mocking wife, "The days where people laughed at me are over." Who among us has not had that sentence primed and ready in our vocabularies, set to fire at the appropriate time?

Oh, was it just me? Well, if you'll excuse me, I have to go work on my laser communication system. Dormez bien.




 It Conquered the World



Bats or cucumbers - take your pick.

- September 19, 1999