Well, here's something I don't get to say all that often: a few months back, I was in the wedding of the grandnephew (um, or something like that) of Walter Karig, whose satirical 1947 novel Zotz! was adapted into a pretty much unrecognizable slapstick comedy shortly after his death. I know, I know...no one reading this cares, but goshdarnit, that puts me within a couple degrees of producer/director/schlockteur William Castle, and I'm pretty sure that's something to be proud of.
Future sitcom mainstay Tom Poston stars as Jonathan Jones, a professor of ancient Eastern languages. Okay, maybe an etymologist isn't the most obvious choice for the lead role in a manic family comedy, but all that changes when Jones stumbles onto a long-forgotten mystical coin. See, it turns out he's one of a tiny handful of people the world over with the know-how to translate the rules. If he holds the coin and points at someone or something -- intentionally or not! -- he unleashes The Power of Sudden Pain. He can slow anything in his field of vision down to a crawl with The Power of Retarded Movement just by uttering the magic word "zotz". If he points and zotz-es at the same time...well, that's The Power of the Silent Death, and that's no good for anyone.
Jones isn't altogether certain what to do with his newfound superpowers, but no matter if he tries to show them off or keep 'em under his hat, the guy winds up looking like a nutjob. That might give conniving professor Horatio Kellgore (Jim Backus) the leverage he needs to muscle his way into that cushy chair in the dean's office, and...ooohhhh, does that mean the bombshell that was just hired (Virginia Fenster) will be Jones' colleague or his replacement? At the end of the day, Jones decides to do the right thing and use the coin in the service of his country, but we're waistdeep in the Cold War and all, and other powers have their eyes on that magical little so-and-so in the professor's coat pocket.
I've been desperately wanting to see Zotz! ever since my pal David first told me about his familial connection to the movie a decade and a half ago. Zotz! didn't find its way onto DVD until 2009, though, and even then it was exclusively part of Sony's William Castle boxed set. This Columbia Classics on-demand DVD is the first time the movie's landed a home video release all its own in ages. So, was it worth the wait...? Well, no, not really. That's the mildly frustrating thing about Zotz!. I mean, it has the right cast: a cartoon character-come-to-life like Tom Poston in the lead, the once and future Thurston Howell III, Cecil Kellaway, Fred Clark, and, heck, even Margaret Dumont reliving her days alongside the Marx Bros. during a madcap dinner-party-gone-wrong. The oddball powers and peculiarities of this magic coin sure do offer a lot of similarly inspired possibilities too.
It's just that even though Zotz! has charm to spare, it never really gets a laugh. The big comedic setpieces all feel uncomfortably forced, often straining credibility even in a world where saying "zotz" can alter the flow of time. I mean, if Prof. Jones wanted to show off his powers in private to the dean, why would he bring a cage with a couple dozen white mice to a ritzy party? Who drives down the street pointing right for, like, eight minutes straight? I guess there's something to be said about Tom Poston doing a 1962 version of The Matrix' bullet time photography, and I'm kind of fascinated by Jim Backus' slow-mo dinner toast, but...yeah. Zotz! is never aggressively terrible or anything like that, but a comedy that's really not all that funny is awfully tough to recommend shelling out twenty bucks to buy sight-unseen. If you're desperate to give Zotz! a look, I think my vote would have to be to Rent It.
Zotz! looks okay on DVD. The image is definitely on the soft side, and the clumsy compression leaves a bit to be desired, cramming 90 minutes of video into the space of 2.7 gigs. The strain definitely shows. On the other hand, definition is alright, contrast is solid throughout, it doesn't look like any excessive digital noise reduction has been heaped on, there's very little in the way of wear or speckling, and...whew! I think I've finished working my way through the checklist.
Being part of Sony's on-demand program and all, it kind of goes without saying that Zotz! arrives on a single layer DVD-R. Well, it goes without saying if you're a dweeb like me, anyway...
Zotz! sports a very robust Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack (192kbps). The music, dialogue, and sound effects alike are rendered cleanly and clearly. No clipping, distortion, hiss, clicks, or pops ever get in the way. There's a very brief blip around the 1:25:05 mark, but other than that...? Definitely a notch or two above average.
That's it as far as audio options go: no dubs, remixes, or subtitles this time around.
- Trailer (3 min.): The one and only extra is an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer.
The Final Word
Charming but kinda laughless, Zotz! plays like one of those room temperature, largely forgotten live-action Disney comedies from the tail-end of the '60s. With a gleefully inspired premise and a cast like this, it's sort of a drag that Zotz! continually sputters and stalls. Not bad or anything, exactly, but...y'know, Rent It first.