Schlock Value: Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966)
By the mid-1960s, science fiction films had become much cheaper to produce, and thus, were more plentiful than ever before, but they were still considered “kid stuff.” Simply put, no one really took sci-fi seriously. Of course, this would all change in a few years with the release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey. But in 1966, the creativity behind science fiction films was at an all-time low. So much so that the execs at American International Pictures decided, in their infinite wisdom, to just remake some of their own properties specifically for late-night television. That’s when they tapped producer, writer, director (and self-proclaimed “schlockmeister”) Larry Buchannan to helm a handful of pictures including a remake of Roger Corman’s 1956 film, It Conquered the World. Retitled Zontar, the Thing from Venus, the film was shot on 16mm film with a fraction of the original’s already shoestring budget and with a cast of unknown actors who spent most (if not all) of their careers in B- and C-grade fare.
It follows a well-intentioned scientist who has been in contact with an alien being from the planet Venus. Believing this alien can solve many of the world’s problems, he finds a way to bring it to Earth, only to discover that it has much more sinister plans in mind. Now, Roger Corman was notorious for his ability to get the most out of a small budget, but what happens when you try to make the same movie for practically nothing? Let’s find out.
The film begins at NASA in what appears to be a set in someone’s basement. There are lots of cheap-looking computers and gadgets, and stock footage of actual shuttle launches on the monitors. Rocket scientist Curt Taylor is overseeing the launch of a brand new laser communications satellite. Months later, while Taylor and his wife Pat have dinner with his colleague, the crackpot scientist Dr. Keith Ritchie and his wife Martha, Ritchie reveals that he’s been using what appears to be the sweetest home stereo money can buy to secretly communicate with an alien being on Venus ever since the launch of the satellite. Unfortunately for Ritchie, this alien known as Zontar is inaudible to anyone except him.
As Ritchie describes it, they communicate via “hyperspace hypnotism.” Naturally, Taylor doesn’t believe him. At this point, Taylor receives a phone call from his staff informing them that they’ve lost control of the satellite, which is now on its way back to Earth and is projected to make landfall conveniently close to the laboratory. Ritchie, believing Zontar to be a benevolent messianic sort of being who could perhaps save mankind from itself, relays this information, as well as the names and job titles of all the prominent local officials, to Zontar, who hitches a ride to Earth on the descending satellite.
Upon his arrival, the three-eyed, bat-winged Zontar immediately halts the energy flow to everything in the area: automobiles, telephones, even running water. But this ain’t The Day the Earth Stood Still. His next step is to release small “injectopods,” which are little more than rubber bats attached to some fishing line. These “injectopods” carry small parasitic devices which attach to a person’s spinal cord, placing them under the direct control of Zontar himself. And thanks to Dr. Ritchie, genius that he is, he knows exactly who to target.
The town, of course, erupts into chaos. People start dying, the military rushes in. It’s pure pandemonium. And Ritchie, still somehow believing Zontar to ultimately be a force for good, aids and abets him the whole way. Curt Taylor and Martha Ritchie, now probably wishing they had believed Keith earlier, are none too pleased with this treasonous behavior and they begin working to stop Zontar’s plot for world domination. It’s not until his wife is killed that Ritchie realizes that he’s been duped and decides to venture down into the sulfur spring cave where Zontar is hiding out to finally face this harbinger of destruction.
When whittled down to its essential plot points, Zontar, the Thing from Venus actually sounds pretty fun. Sure, it’s hardly the first science-fiction film to use an invading alien as a metaphor for Cold War paranoia, and these characters are some of the dumbest scientists ever committed to celluloid, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Unfortunately, the final product is a complete and utter failure in every possible way. First of all, it looks as cheap as all get out. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to find out it actually was indeed shot in someone’s basement. The sets look like they’re about a half-second away from collapsing, and Zontar looks like he was just cobbled together with bits and pieces of household items. To make matters worse, the DVD transfer is pretty horrendous. It can’t have helped that this thing was shot on 16mm and probably not maintained over time. And, honestly, I don’t blame anyone for the neglect. No one is going to miss Zontar. On top of that, it doesn’t appear that anyone involved knew how to use a camera, let alone frame a shot. The entire film just looks flat and boring, which I suppose would be somewhat forgivable if the acting was any good.
Just about every actor in this film, with the possible exception of John Agar (Curt Taylor), turns in the most lifeless and unimaginative performance imaginable, as if they were told to stand on their mark and recite their lines. I swear if they were any more wooden, I could use them for kindling. As a result, what should be the most exciting sequences in the film are about as captivating as watching paint dry, and at an hour and 20 minutes, Zontar more than overstays its welcome. By the end, I just wanted Zontar to take over the world, and kill Keith Ritchie for being stupid enough to bring him here in the first place.
If you’re a Corman fan, do yourself a favor and watch It Conquered the World instead. It’s still low-budget sci-fi trash, but it’s at least fun low-budget sci-fi trash from someone who knew what the hell he was doing. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to watch this no-budget, half-assed remake. It’s the movie equivalent of a photocopy of a photocopy, plain and simple. For those still interested, it’s available in Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Sci-Fi Classics collection.