“One quality united Mr. Buchanan's diverse output: It was not so much that his films were bad; they were deeply, dazzlingly, unrepentantly bad. His work called to mind a famous line from H. L. Mencken, who, describing President Warren G. Harding's prose, said, ‘It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.’” – New York Times obituary for Larry Buchanan (1923-2004)
Zontar, the Thing from Venus
Review Date: January 5, 2008
Released by: Retromedia
Release date: 8/23/2005
Region 0, NTSC
opens at the Zone 6 space command center, where personnel are preparing for the launch of a revolutionary new laser communications satellite. As he nervously watches the preparations for the launch, program chief Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar
) is informed that his old friend and colleague Dr. Keith Ritchie (Anthony Houston
) is outside demanding to see him. In a contentious face-to-face argument, Keith demands that the launch of the satellite be cancelled, saying that it is a threat to humanity. It is his belief that alien intelligences are monitoring Earth's scientific and cultural development, and that launching the satellite will be a dangerous provocation. As they debate the final countdown begins and the rocket carrying the satellite is launched. Curt smugly tells his friend that the problem has become academic. "For your generation, yes," replies Keith.
We catch up with the two men six months later as Curt and his wife Ann (Susan Bjurman
) dine over at the house of Keith and his wife Martha (Pat Delaney
). When the topic of conversation turns to the satellite, Keith shows his friend an advanced radio setup in his living room. He claims that he has made contact with an alien creature living on the planet Venus, a creature whose name roughly translates as "Zontar". Curt listens to the static and noise coming in over the receiver, but is unable to make out the voice that Keith claims to hear. Just then, the house receives a call from the space command center saying that the satellite has disappeared from its orbit. Curt rushes back to deal with the problem. The ground crew is eventually able to make contact with the satellite again, but when they try to bring it back to Earth for an inspection they lose control again and it disappears.
The next afternoon the electricity goes off all over the nearby town. Not only that, but cars, water, telephones and even wristwatches fail to work. Curt and Ann are out driving when their vehicle just shuts off. Knowing that Keith lives nearby they walk to his house where they are smugly greeted by him. Keith treats them to a fantastic story - it was Zontar who hijacked the satellite. He rode it all the way to Earth and is hiding nearby, and it was he who caused the power to go out by stopping all energy at its source. But despite these actions, the alien is not evil. In fact, Zontar will soon usher in a new utopian world in which war, disease, suffering and stupidity are a thing of the past. Curt dismisses his friend's claim as lunacy, but when he and Anne get back to town they realize that something is up. The town is being forcibly evacuated. To his horror, Curt watches as the police chief kills a man in cold blood, only to have the chief tell him that he did it on orders from Zontar. It seems that the alien is using flying bat-like creatures to implant biological control devices in humans - and Curt is next on the list. Curt realizes that he has only one way to defeat Zontar and save Earth from enslavement – he must convince his old friend that by helping the alien with its conquest he has betrayed the entire human race.
The Eye Creatures
opens at a military facility as Lieutenant Robertson (Warren Hammack
) of the Air Force receives a special, top secret briefing on UFO activity. He is shown a film of an unidentified spacecraft in orbit and is informed that the military believes the sector where he is stationed will be the one where the next contact with alien visitors will take place, and that the spacecraft will attempt a landing. He is sent back to his home base with instructions to relay all the information to his commanding officer.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Stan Kenyon (John Ashley
), a cocky teenager who that very night is planning on eloping with his beautiful girlfriend Susan (Cynthia Hull
). After spending a little time necking at the local lover's lane they start driving towards the highway. However, since lover's lane is on the property of a crotchety old farmer named Bailey who doesn’t want the kids there, Stan drives without headlights to avoid being caught. Suddenly a strange figure runs out into the road and they run over it with the car. Thinking they've hit a person, the two are shocked to realize that it's actually a hideous, humanoid monster. They run to the farmer’s nearby house to call for help, but Bailey chases them off. Frustrated with all the teens running around his land, he calls the police and asks them to come out. As all this has been happening, a local drifter named Carl (Bill Peck
) has been searching the woods. He saw the alien spaceship landing and is trying to find the creatures in order to get rich. He stumbles across the dead monster underneath Stan's car, but he is eventually attacked and dragged off by more of the creatures.
Stan and Susan see the police heading out to the farm and follow them, arriving just in time to see the police loading a covered body into an ambulance. Stan is surprised when the cops treat him like a suspect and make him take a drunk driving test. Back at the station, the lead detective tries to make him sign a confession to hit and run driving. Confused, Stan quickly gets answers when they go to identify the corpse - the body the police found under his car is that of drifter Carl! Now Stan and Susan have to prove the aliens exist and that they framed him. But not only will they have to outwit the invaders, but also the military, which has located the alien spacecraft and wants to cover up the event to prevent a panic.
Both Zontar, the Thing from Venus
and The Eye Creatures
were produced in Texas by low budget master Larry Buchanan. Both were made at the behest of American International Pictures for TV syndication, and both are remakes of 1950's AIP films. Both were also part of a package deal of films Buchanan made for AIP's television arm under the banner of Azalea Productions that included remakes of three other of the company's old movies.
To understand what a Larry Buchanan remake is like, one must first clear their mind of their pre-conceived notions of what a remake is. Forget about all those remakes of classic films that have hit theaters in recent years, films like the new Halloween
and Dawn of the Dead
that have taken liberties with their source material, for better and for worse. Buchanan's remakes are not like that. If you want a frame of reference for evaluating his films, the only modern equivalent would be the Psycho
remake from the late 1990's. In other words, a virtual carbon copy. Although some of the Buchanan remakes did feature changes in terms of location and plot, in general they are little more than line-for-line copies of the old films' scripts.
For most viewers, Zontar, the Thing from Venus
will be the most familiar of the two films, not just because the title is famous in and of itself, but also because it is a remake of Roger Corman's It Conquered the World
from 1956, a film which is generally considered one of the very best of the decade's low budget monster movies. The original film starred Lee Van Cleef as the misguided scientist, Beverly Garland as his wife and Peter Graves as the hero who must fight the alien, an outlandish-looking beast constructed by the famous monster maker Paul Blaisdell.
As a movie, Buchanan's remake is far inferior to the original. The film isn't just worse than It Conquered the World
- it mangles it into a form that would make it completely unrecognizable if it were not for the fact that every scene and almost every single line is a copy from the earlier screenplay. Much has been made of the fact that the budgets given to Buchanan were impossibly low, even by the standards of American International (Sam Arkoff wanted the movies shot in Texas because there were no film unions there). It's true that the budgets for the Azalea films were so low that nobody involved could have had any reasonable expectation that the movies would turn out any good, and looking at Zontar
it's easy to spot places where more money could have made a difference, and not simply in the realm of special effects. The movie is full of moments that might have been improved if only there had been a little more money to do a few extra takes, shoot extra coverage from some other angles or simply spend more time rehearsing with the actors. These are things that may not be as glaringly obvious as the strings holding up Zontar's control bats, but taken together they are big part of the reason why the movie looks and feels so seedy.
But it's not just the low budget that makes Zontar
so greatly inferior to It Conquered the World
. As a director Roger Corman has a special touch that Buchanan just doesn't have, and with one exception his actors in the original were better than Buchanan's team of local stock players and washed-up Hollywood names.
There is no more telling an example of the difference between the two movies that a key scene that occurs near the end of both screenplays. The dialogue is practically identical between both versions, but the direction and the acting make all the difference. In the original It Conquered the World
, Peter Graves comes home to discover that his wife has been possessed by the alien. She unleashes one of the control bats on him and goes for a walk, but her husband manages to outmaneuver and kill the creature. The alien radios Lee Van Cleef and tells him about the device's destruction. Van Cleef calls Graves on the phone and asks him to come to his house to talk things over. Graves agrees, but states that there is something he has to take care of first. When his wife comes home he pretends to be possessed and, when his wife says that they will be like this forever, he pulls out a gun and shoots her, running to her body and holding her as she breathes her last breath. It is one of the most touching scenes in any 50's sci-fi or horror film because of the tragedy it illustrates, and the way that it changes the hero's relationship with the invader's accomplice. Before that point he had been against the alien because he knew that its intentions were evil and that his friend was being manipulated. But with the death of his wife, it suddenly becomes personal. Not only does Peter Graves play the scene wonderfully, but it's also one of the most surprising and shocking moments in any 50's horror or science fiction film. It's even surprising to viewers today because the sight of a hero pulling out a gun and shooting his own wife dead runs so counter with what they'd expect from a movie of that type.
In the remake, the scene falls flat. When talking on the phone to Keith after destroying the alien control device, Buchanan has John Agar holding the gun in the frame and looking at it, leaving us with no doubt as to what the "something" he needs to do is. Even audiences who haven't seen It Conquered the World
know what he is planning. Thus the crucial surprise and shock of the moment in the original is fully telegraphed in advance in the remake. When the moment of truth finally arrives, Buchanan has Agar holding his wife and then shooting her. Agar attempts to look agonized when he kills her, but he just can't do it. The John Agar of ten years earlier could have pulled the scene off easily, but by the mid-60's the alcoholic, ageing performer was just too wooden to make it work.
Yet, inexplicably and despite all its failings, Zontar, the Thing from Venus
still manages to improve upon It Conquered the World
in one crucial way, and that is in the casting of Anthony Houston as the misguided scientist. For all his faults as an actor, Houston is somehow a better fit for the role than Lee Van Cleef was. In a 1982 issue of Zontar, the Magazine from Venus
, writer Brian Curran makes the point that Van Cleef seems like too strong a personality to have been seduced by the invader's promises of a better world, and I agree. Van Cleef comes across as too intelligent and too self assured to be fully believable in the role. In contrast, Anthony Houston has no such problems. In his hands, Keith Ritchie becomes the type of person that we all remember (and sometimes were) from high school - the nerdy, geeky guy who couldn't get girls and spent most of his time getting tormented by jocks that would give him swirlies and stuff him into his locker. He's the same type of nerd who would grow up to become a dot-com millionaire and marry a hot wife while those same jocks were getting beer bellies and losing their hair. Houston plays Keith as the type of outwardly successful but inwardly insecure person who would be susceptible to Zontar's utopian promises.
Not as famous as Zontar
but no less awful is The Eye Creatures
, a remake of Edward L. Cahn's 1957 sci-fi comedy Invasion of the Saucer Men
. Here though, the drop in quality between the original and the remake is not quite as pronounced. Unlike the talented Roger Corman, Cahn was mostly a hack director and the script to the original film was not very good to begin with. Nonetheless, Buchanan still manages to make the remake more boring, more incoherent and more amateurish.
The Eye Creatures
was the very first of the Azalea remakes, and as such one can see Buchanan clearly struggling with issues of adapting the old scripts for new films, issues that he would never quite solve. The original Invasion of the Saucer Men
only ran sixty-nine minutes, but Buchanan needed to deliver a movie that was a comfortable syndication length of eighty minutes. When he made Zontar
the following year he would handle a similar problem by adding extra dialogue to scenes and dragging out the pace, but for his inaugural remake Buchanan tackled the issue by copying the original screenplay and then adding additional scenes to pad out the running time. The opening sequence with Lieutenant Robertson was not in the original film, and from there Buchanan occasionally breaks up the narrative with new scenes of two Air Force personnel who like to use their electronic surveillance equipment to spy on the teenagers at lover's lane.
Despite copying the screenplay for Invasion of the Saucer Men
more or less line for line, the remake still manages to lose several crucial details that make the narrative more confusing. In Cahn's film, the alien invaders attacked their victims with their fingernails, which were needles that injected pure alcohol (this was a detail that was very clearly shown). In the original the drifter that the aliens killed died because he was already severely intoxicated. The teenage couple is eventually exonerated when the autopsy of the drifter reveals that he died of alcohol poisoning, thus leading the police to conclude that the teenagers didn't actually kill him, but just ran over his body after he was already dead. The alcohol aspect is crucial to other plot points as well. When the authorities ask the leading man to take a breathalyzer test they do so because the teenage couple, having handled the alien's dead body, smell like alcohol themselves. Near the end of the film the couple manages to locate a friend of the drifter's and take him into the woods to search for the aliens, which they find. The creatures attack the friend and drag him off. During the final scene, after the aliens have been destroyed by the car headlights of the kids at lover's lane, the man is rescued but he cannot corroborate the story to the authorities because he is so intoxicated that he can't even remember what happened. The main character puts the pieces together and realizes that the aliens use alcohol as a weapon.
In The Eye Creatures
, the crucial alcohol detail is somehow missed. Unlike in Cahn's film, there are no clear shots of the invaders injecting their victims, and somehow at the end the Stan character is not given the line drawing the connection between the aliens and the drifter's death from alcohol poisoning. As a result the drifter's death remains confusing and his friend shows up intoxicated at the end for no apparent reason.
The "eye creatures" themselves are a bit of an anomaly. The full body costume used is, while unconvincing, also more elaborate than most of the other monsters in the Buchanan universe, particularly the wet-suit gill man that appears in films like It’s Alive!
and Creature of Destruction
. Even stranger, only one full costume ever appears in the film. When multiple eye creatures are shown onscreen, the other monsters are played by actors wearing eye creature masks with black shirts and pants (in cheap, overly dark home video versions this creates an even more surreal effect, with the monsters' heads seemingly floating in mid-air). This strange business with the monster suits has always puzzled viewers, but I believe I have an explanation for the matter. In the April/May 1997 issue of Filmfax
(#60), on page thirty-eight during an article on AIP writer and producer Deke Heyward, there is a picture of what is unquestionably the same monster mask that is seen in The Eye Creatures
. The caption identifies it as an unused prototype for AIP's Die, Monster, Die!
, a Boris Karloff film produced that same year. It makes sense that AIP would, after rejecting that design, happily ship the costume off to Texas for the movie. After all, they had paid money for someone to design and build the prototype, and they might as well get some use out of it. That would also serve to explain the existence of only one full suit. As a prototype it's likely that only one full costume ever existed, and it was surely a lot cheaper to produce and ship extra masks than extra costumes.
In so many ways, it's sad to think that these movies are what Larry Buchanan is remembered for, and what he will probably always be remembered for. Contemporary writers almost always focus on the Azalea films, which have come to serve as emblems of his career as a director. Part of this may be because, with the exception of the war film Hell Raiders
, his TV movies have never really been out of circulation, whereas so many other films in his canon are either forgotten, out-of-print or even permanently lost. But in my mind, that's only part of the explanation. It isn't simply that the Azalea films are more accessible. It's also because these movies represent an inaccurate but easy frame of reference for us to view Buchanan's career with. It's a frame of reference that allowed his career to be summed up in with statements like the one that is quoted at the beginning of this review.
Having recently re-read Buchanan's autobiography for the first time in many years, I was very much struck by Buchanan's opinions of his own career. By the end of his life he knew that the Azalea films were what he would be remembered for and, even though he clearly regarded them as a low point in his career, he had absolutely no bitterness over having them as his legacy. He took a genuine - if warped - pride in their notoriety. But yet, while had he no regrets over his genre films, he also didn't regard them as that important to him personally. A telling detail is the way he treats them in the book. Each film of his is given its own chapter, but the chapters on the Azalea films are some of the shortest in the entire volume, and are all padded out with quotations from other writers. In contrast, his chapters on virtually unseen films like High Yellow
are significantly longer.
Although Buchanan never explicitly states this anywhere, I do suspect that he was never particularly interested in making horror and science fiction films. The evidence lies in the movies he chose to make when he was not working for AIP. He made exactly one horror movie prior to his association with the company (The Naked Witch
) and exactly one afterwards (The Loch Ness Horror
). His non-AIP output is eclectic, showing an interest in courtroom dramas (Free, White and 21
, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
), westerns (Sam
, Comanche Crossing
), bio-pics (Down On Us
and several films about the life and death of Marilyn Monroe) and oddball films like his religious epic The Copper Scroll of Mary Magdalene
Buchanan' willingness to take artistic risks and experiment with genres separated him from contemporaries of his like H.G. Lewis and Al Adamson, and yet his movies were often still incredibly profitable. Free, White and 21
, a film he based on a racially charged criminal trial in his home city of Dallas was a monstrous hit, and is the production that in fact brought Buchanan to the attention of AIP. It's true that he was never the greatest filmmaker. He was an intelligent man, but he did not have the kind of intelligence needed for creating great artistic works. What he had was street smarts - the ability to work around impossibly low budgets and tight shooting schedules and still finish a movie. And by all accounts, he enjoyed it, even when it was miserable. If there is one quote that truly sums up Buchanan, it would be his own when he said, "I never cared if they were any good or not! I just wanted to make movies!"
Both films are presented in their original 1.33:1 broadcast ratios.
Zontar, the Thing from Venus
begins with a warning stating that it was compiled from different sources of varying quality, and its transfer is the worst of the two features. Colors are dull and faded, and the prints the transfer was taken from were covered with scratches, splices and grime. One of the prints also clearly had worn sprocket holes, since a long portion of the transfer features an image that jumps up and down in the frame.
The Eye Creatures
looks much better, with surprisingly strong colors and a pleasingly detailed image. However, there are still quite a large number of specks, scratches and vertical lines visible on the transfer, even though it's in overall better shape than its companion feature.
Both transfers suffer from Retromedia's typically shoddy level of compression, with numerous digital artifacts. Dark scenes in both features will often break up into big, blocky pixels, and because it features so much night photography, and darkened day-for-night photography, The Eye Creatures
suffers the worst.
Both films get Dolby 2.0 Mono mixes.
has a very flat, crackly sound to it, with inconsistent volume levels and a lot of noticeable hissing and popping in the background.
The Eye Creatures
features some noticeable popping and hissing, but reproduction of dialogue and music is above average.
Unfortunately, Retromedia has decided to muck up the film's soundtrack, apparently for copyright purposes. You see, films like The Eye Creatures
that are presumed to be in public domain are extremely vulnerable to digital piracy. Their transfers can be ripped and used on some other gray market label's releases easily and legally because the films are not copyrighted and American copyright law does not allow a simple video transfer to be copyrighted in and of itself. So the solution is to make some creative alterations to the soundtrack, changing just enough that it can be considered a new version capable of being granted copyright protection. Previously Retromedia did this to Buchanan’s It’s Alive!
when they released it on DVD with his In the Year 2889
, but the effect then was subtle and not very noticeable. However, they’ve really overdone it with The Eye Creatures
– there are new sounds of doors closing, footsteps, ambient noise, a new sound for the aliens' spaceship, etc. Most of the new sound effects stick out like a sore thumb and are highly distracting.
The theft of transfers is a serious issue - painstakingly restored masters from Image and Criterion releases have popped up on budget labels. However, since Retromedia has repeatedly released DVDs ripped from pre-recorded VHS tapes and put out releases of films whose public domain status is questionable, for them to be concerned about someone else stealing their material seems just a little bit hypocritical.
There’s only one extra here, but it’s a good one. It’s a twenty-one minute featurette entitled Remembering John Ashley
, and it consists of interview subjects who share their recollections of the actor, who passed away in 1997. Amongst those who appear on camera are Fred Olen Ray and Ashley’s widow Jan. Because most of the interview subjects didn’t meet Ashley until his later years, the featurette mostly focuses on the period towards the end of his life. It was originally produced to appear on Retromedia’s 2001 release of Beast of the Yellow Night
, and The Eye Creatures
is only mentioned once in passing.
I’m not very happy with this release. I don’t care that Retromedia couldn’t find good elements for Zontar
and that both features sound crackly and hissy. It’s very hard to find good quality film elements for Buchanan films (although I suspect that MGM has the original materials for the Azalea pictures) and I’m not particularly bothered by scratches or faded colors in that context. What does bother me and bother me greatly is the changed audio for The Eye Creatures
and the fact that both transfers look like they were authored using those “burn your home movies to DVD” software kits that you can buy at Circuit City for $20. The included featurette is a nice touch, but with a $19.95 MSRP this release is overpriced for all but the most dedicated Buchananphiles.
Zontar, the Thing from Venus
Movie – D
Image Quality – D
Sound – C-
The Eye Creatures
Movie – D-
Image Quality – C
Sound – C
Supplements – B-
- Running Time – Zontar, the Thing from Venus – 1 hour 20 minutes
- Running Time – The Eye Creatures – 1 hour 19 minutes
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- 1 Disc
- Remembering John Ashley featurette