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Zontar - the thing From Venus / The Eye Creatures
Zontar - the thing from Venus
Both movies on this double-bill are remakes of early AIP releases. Zontar is a redo of It Conquered the World (1956), which had been written by Charles Griffith (though the film credits only Lou Rusoff) and directed by Roger Corman. Though only Hillman Taylor and Buchanan are credited with Zontar's script, Buchanan's film is a scene-for-scene remake, and even much of the dialogue is identical. Rusoff had died in 1963, and Griffith never got credit in the first place, but it was still a pretty nervy move on AIP's part not to acknowledge their script.
As in the earlier film, a satellite is abducted and whisked off to Venus, where a creature (here called Zontar) commandeers it and returns to Earth with plans to conquer it. As in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Zontar cuts off all power throughout the world including all electricity, watches, automobiles, even, improbably, steam engines. (However, there are at least two different shots where cars can be glimpsed merrily driving along off in the distance.) Through it all, Zontar is aided and abetted by Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston), a psychologically unbalanced scientist who believes Zontar's conquest of the earth will save mankind from its own destruction.
Zontar, setting up shop in a spacious cave, stays in radio contact with Keith while sending out one-eyed flying monsters (resembling lobsters with bat wings) to attack key personnel in the area, biting them in the neck and possessing their minds. Neither Curt Taylor (John Agar), Keith's scientific colleague, nor Martha (Susan Bjurman), Keith's frustrated wife, are happy about his betrayal of the human race, and try to stop Keith and Zontar before it's too late.
All things considered, Zontar - the thing from Venus isn't all that terrible, mainly because it's so faithful to its uncredited source. Griffith's original script was biting and sardonic, especially in the scenes between the Keith character (played by Lee Van Cleef in the original) and his wife (Beverly Garland) and, in one scene especially, the Curt character (Peter Graves) and his wife. Martha berates her apparently nutty husband, implying a lack of intimacy since his obsession with Zontar, and while Huston (not the writer-director son of John Huston) isn't much of an actor, Bjurman compares favorably to Garland.
Similarly, Agar is not bad in the Peter Graves role. (Spoiler) A big scene where Curt is surprised by someone possessed by Zontar's bat creatures is shocking and effective in both versions, as is Curt's response to this revelation. At one points he fends off one of the bat creatures with a fireplace poker, coolly never dropping the lit cigarette he holds in his other hand.
In sticking so closely to Griffith's script, Buchanan's version even carries over the wise-cracking soldiers caught up in the invasion. Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze were amusing in Corman's version, but Buchanan can't shoot comedy to save his life. One of the Texan actors attempts a Brooklynese accent with disastrous results.
Overall, Buchanan isn't nearly as inventive as Corman could be with similarly impoverished budgets, and though Zontar lacks Corman's knack for blocking and movement, Buchanan is at least competent and professional, if little more than that. The monsters aren't bad in this, either. Zontar isn't as memorable as Paul Blaisdell's outrageous carrot creature/inverted ice cream cone Venusian in It Conquered the World but it's scarier: an all-black monster moth-man with three eyes. Conversely, attempts to show the satellite in orbit (it looks like a yo-yo) are amateurish. (Movie Rating: **)
The Eye Creatures
Zontar's co-feature is of considerably less interest. Where Zontar competently if unimaginatively remakes a pretty good if low budget film, The Eye Creatures is a much worse remake of a movie that wasn't any good to begin with. Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957) had a great poster and iconically '50s bug-eyed monsters (also by Paul Blaisdell), but the movie was a listless proto-teen comedy cum science fiction mishmash. Like that film, The Eye Creatures merely meanders, with various teens, lowlifes, and inept military types roaming about aimlessly as little gray men from outer space threaten Small Town, U.S.A. AIP veteran John Ashley, then 31 years old, stars as "roughneck" youth Stan Kenyon, though with his good manners, comparatively short hair, jacket and tie, Stan is anything but a delinquent. He and girlfriend Susan (Cynthia Hull) were in the midst of eloping but their plans go awry when Stan's car hits one of the alien invaders, which resemble the Mushroom Men in Matango (1963) and, especially, a less-scary version of one of the more memorable monsters from The X-Files.
Unlike Zontar, which except for the outer space visual effects never attempts anything beyond its meager budget, The Eye Creatures aims higher from a production standpoint (military hardware, more visual effects, etc.) and fails on every level. (A stock shot from the 1953 Invaders from Mars is used to show the flying saucer landing.) A big problem is that the entire story takes place at night, and Buchanan uses a thoroughly unconvincing blend of day-for-night, night-for-night, and soundstage photography, with the day-for-night footage looking so especially bad many scattered shots look like mid-day.
The performances in The Eye Creatures are mostly terrible, and Buchanan's sledgehammer approach to comedy is painful. The film seems content to imitate the original, with even some of the casting recalling the 1957 film, such as Chet Davis's Mike, which clearly cashes in on the original's Frank Gorshin. Movie Rating: (*)
Video & Audio
Both Zontar - the thing from Venus and The Eye Creatures were shot in 16mm for television broadcast so the full frame presentation is correct. Retromedia is pretty ballsy to stick an FBI warning at the head of this double-sided disc (threatening viewers with "dismemberment") considering both titles are presumed to be in the public domain. (Mars Needs Women, another AIP/Buchanan co-production, was legitimately released by AIP's heir, MGM.) Retromedia has stuck copyright notices on these "special edition" DVD versions, but the elements sourced look like ordinary 16mm television syndication prints. That said, the image is reasonably sharp on both titles, though The Eye Creatures looks awful whenever the image becomes dark and an extremely annoying digital breakup (i.e., blocky digital shadows) dominates. Also, Zontar's worn print becomes unsteady at 25:00, fluttering for several minutes. The mono sound is okay; there are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The lone extra is a 20-minute featurette, Remembering John Ashley, an enjoyable tribute shot in 2001 and featuring his widow, Jan, and friends Fred Olen Ray, Andrew Stevens, and Steve Stevens. Included is a clip from Invisible Mom (1997), released the year Ashley died.
Though a legitimate release would have been preferable, this double-bill of '60s cheapies will entertain fans of such films. And while The Eye Creatures definitely lives down to its bad reputation, Zontar proved surprisingly watchable, evidence that a decent script in unimaginative hands can still result in an okay movie.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.