ONE OF THESE THINGS IS JUST LIKE THE OTHER

Sometimes, when setting out to write a review, something catches my attention and the project quickly becomes two separate reviews. Okay, that’s bullshit! Such a thing has never happened. Until now, that is.

Originally, I had intended to review Larry Buchanan’s 1966 no-budget, made-for-television, sci-fi schlocker Zontar, The Thing From Venus (aka Zontar, The Invader From Venus). My reasons for wanting to review the film were simple, much like the person writing the review. 1) The film had been in my collection for some time and I had just never found the opportunity to watch it. 2) With a title like Zontar, The Thing From Venus, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the film. And 3), the film starred John Agar, a man whose battles with the bottle not only helped him work his way out of Hollywood, but also helped him work his way out of Shirley Temple’s panties (the other STP). Yes, Agar was once married to America’s Sweetheart… when she was only 17 years-old. That’s illegal in some states these days. So is this film.

Agar stars as “Dr. Curt Taylor”, the head of a far-from-top-secret laser-communications satellite project. Or some shit like that. The film opens with the rocket carrying the satellite preparing to launch. However, the scientist that helped develop the project now considers the launch to be a mistake, claiming that extraterrestrial life has deemed Earth too primitive to be allowed to explore space. That man, Dr. Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston, brother of Anjelica and son of John, but here using the name “Anthony Houston”), also happens to be Curt’s best friend. However, as Keith doesn’t pay Curt’s bills, the launch commences as planned.

Months pass with no incident. Keith has remained resolute in his beliefs, much to his wife’s dismay and distress. During a dinner at his house, Keith reveals to Curt a large radio transmitter in his den, which he claims to secretly use to communicate with an alien life form named Zontar. In case you missed it earlier, he’s from Venus. Curt fears his friend has become delusional. However, he soon receives word that the satellite has mysteriously vanished from orbit!

If any (or all) of this sounds familiar to you, chances are that you’ve watched Roger Corman’s 1956 film, It Conquered The World. That film, which starred Peter Graves and Lee Van Cleef, is a classic sci-fi tale that’s best remembered for the poor choice in creature design, resulting in an alien that some have affectionately (and not-so-affectionately) called a “killer artichoke”. Zontar is a remake of that film. A nearly scene-for-scene, line-for-line remake. This is now, arguably, a review for 2 films.

Curt departs for the installation, which appears to be a fairly short drive given how small this town seems to be. Probably too small to have its own space center, if you ask me… but hey, I’m no rocket scientist.  Within moments of his arrival, the satellite reappears. The order is given to bring the satellite down, but the vessel takes its own course back to Earth, burying itself in a cave located underneath a hot spring.  While I’m not sure that the model used for the satellite here looks better than the one found in It Conquered The World, I’m also not sure it looked worse.

Meanwhile, Keith’s wife, Martha (Patricia De Laney – Mars Needs Women, The Swiss Family Robinson), tries to talk her husband to bed, believing the man to be suffering from a lack of rest, as well as stress brought on by his profession. As Martha is a rather attractive woman, and adorned in a rather flimsy (yet not provocative) nightgown while she does so, I personally think I could have forgotten about ol’ Zontar for at least an hour. Okay, 20 minutes.

Upon his arrival on Earth, Zontar somehow emits a sort of electromagnetic force that shuts down all mechanical power on the planet. Cars stall out. Watches stop keeping time. Electricity and radios stopped as well. Everyone on the planet affected, except for the alien’s good pal, Keith. Believing it has come to prevent us from destroying ourselves, Keith continues communications with the invader, feeding it information on the town’s leaders and military officials.

Using flying creatures that spawn from its own body, Zontar instead plans to “conquer the world” through a form of parasitic possession. After a failed attempt on Curt and his wife, one of the creatures attacks a military general while he’s strolling through an undefined wooded area near the installation. And by “attacks”, I mean “bumps into”. It leaves a probe-like device in the back of the man’s neck, much like in Invaders From Mars, before it falls inactive. The General, now essentially dead, serves as Zontar’s first “slave”, with the town’s sheriff following shortly after.

As may be expected, the sudden shutdown of all power sources on the planet throws the populace into a panic. Well, at least it throws this small town into a panic. The town, called “Lincoln” in the film, is actually the neighborhood of Casa Linda, in East Dallas. The scenes of the streets filled with citizens running around in a panic would appear to be nothing more than residents of the community who just wanted to appear in a movie, a few of the director’s friends and neighbors presumably included as well. This is made evident by the huge smiles that most of these people have clearly displayed on their faces, despite supposedly fleeing in terror.

Zontar’s “mission of peace” is proven to be not-so-peaceful when he makes the Sheriff murder the town’s elderly newspaper editor, all because the man refuses to leave his office. As all the presses wouldn’t have been working due to the power outage, I don’t see the man as much of a threat to the alien’s plans of world domination, but it sure has dramatic effect. Or it might have… had Agar’s character not ridden into the scene on a bike that looks like it was stolen from Pee-Wee Herman. Needed for Zontar’s plans, Curt is allowed to ride away unharmed, albeit now fully aware of the alien and its true intentions.

More people are “turned” by Zontar’s flying beasts, including some quite close to Curt.  Meanwhile, Keith’s own life is slowly crumbling. Martha has finally reached her breaking point with her husband’s obsession. She chastises him for being a willing slave himself to Zontar’s demands, as well as an accessory to the murders of those now serving as “drones” for the alien. In a final attempt to convince his wife that his beliefs are well-founded, Keith divulges the alien’s hiding spot to her. However, all this does is provoke her to kill the monster herself. All the while, Zontar has assigned Keith the task of killing Curt!

Keith is finally forced to change his views on the alien, and soon sets out to kill Zontar as well. He reveals a contraption that looks quite like the tip of a gigantic ball-point pen…. but is conveniently revealed to be a plutonium-ruby crystal beam laser. He had one just lying around. Not only did Keith use this item to initially establish contact with the alien, but he also states that it can be used to destroy the creature as well. Much more interesting than any of these developments is the huge continuity error found in this scene when the filmmakers seemingly forget whose house we are supposed to be in.

More of Zontar’s plans for world domination are divulged, as the General informs the now “turned” base engineers that he is to board a plane for Washington to meet with the president and his cabinet. At which point, all would be killed by an explosive device that the general is carrying. However, these plans get nowhere as Kurt soon bursts through the doors and shoots them all, no questions asked.

The final showdown with the alien takes place deep in the cave under the hot spring, and as you might assume, not everyone survives. Making this assumption is easier if you’ve seen It Conquered The World, as Zontar ends the same damned way, complete with the closing monologue about how the answers to mankind’s evolution as a species will not come from outside of our world, but from power found within ourselves.  While this may have been acceptable coming from Peter Graves, there’s got to be some irony in Agar advocating a power that he himself had trouble finding. Ya know, with his raging alcoholism and such.

Despite the low-budget (reportedly around $20,000), Zontar, The Thing From Venus is still a fairly compelling movie. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as compelling as It Conquered The World, a film it so closely replicates as to render itself pointless. While It clearly has the better performances and the somewhat higher budget, Zontar is still quite watchable. More so if you haven’t seen It Conquered The World. Sure, both films feature a highly laughable creature design, but at least the alien vegetable (from It) doesn’t look like it’s creator was so ashamed that he beat it with a stick before shoving it out in front of the camera.

TRIVIA: S.F. Brownrigg, director of Don’t Look In the Basement & Don’t Open the Door served as the film’s sound supervisor.

 

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