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
face it: I needed Larry Buchanan.
see, Larry Buchanan, in the 60's, contracted with AIP to remake some
of its already impoverished films as part of a TV 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).
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 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.
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
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
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 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.
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....
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 power...it 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
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
first act as ambassador from Venus is to "stop all power at its
source", which means all electricity and means of transportation
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.
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.
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...
takes them home in his still-functioning car (it's good to be
Zontar's friend), after informing Zontar via homemade LCS 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."
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."
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".
manages to wheedle out of Keith that Zontar cannot grow another injectapod
for Agar for a week; the Venusian 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
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.
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.
leads to Agar and Keith facing down once more - they both are supposed
to kill each other, so they immediately set to 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.
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
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.
our Comedy Army pals are confronting Zontar in the cave, and are finding
that their bullet buddies are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
an equally important role, the Collaborator's Wife, Susan Bjurman does
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.
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* .
the subject of our monster, we have more of a dead heat. It Conquered's
killer cucumber is distinctly absurd; Corman 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.
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!
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
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.
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.*)
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.
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?
was it just me? Well, if you'll excuse me, I have to go work on my laser
communication system. Dormez bien.