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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Zotz’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, it’s scary how hard you have to try to get a laugh…

Zotz! (1962)
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: William Castle

Now and then, we need to try something else.

It keeps us out of a rut, refreshes the batteries. If done well, we discover we have a new talent, and if it flops, we learn our limits.

By 1962, William Castle had developed a reputation for being the grand showman of horror. You not only went to see a scary film from him, you got to experience the wild gimmick tied to it. For Macabre, you got nurses with hearses out in the lobby. For House on Haunted Hill, there was “Emergo,” a skeleton that would float over the audience. For The Tingler, there was “Percepto,” where a few lucky patrons would find themselves in a seat in the theater with buzzers rigged under their seat. Often for a Castle presentation, there was more to laugh at than scream at.

So it’d make sense that when he needed to cleanse his pallet, he’d go with a comedy…

We’re pretty well clued in right from frame one how this is going down, when in the opening credits Castle shares the one-word title with Columbia, the lady at the front of the studio’s films holding the torch aloft:

From there, we open in Saracen Valley, CA, as we watch Professor Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston) begin his day. He rises at 6:30 AM, uses the pulley weights in his bedroom to exercise, has a bowl of wheat germ for breakfast that’s washed down with sauerkraut juice, and rides his bike to the campus to teach ancient languages.

His behavior is considered strange by everyone who knows him, because it’s 1962 and Jones is ten years ahead of how most Californian liberal arts college professors will act during the next decade.

Putting up with all this is his niece Cynthia (Zeme North), who’s staying with him while her folks vacation in Europe. She happens to be going steady with one of Professor Jones’ former students, who sends her a coin he found on an archeological dig. He thinks it might be a charm of some sort which he sends her as a token of affection, making him the most casual antiques trafficker ever depicted in the movies.

Less tolerant of Jones is Professor Horatio Kellgore (Jim Backus), his colleague in the language department specializing in modern languages. It’s nothing really personal, mind you, it’s just that with the head of the department, Dean Updike (Cecil Kellaway), ready to retire, he wants desperately to be the new department head, and Jones is the other candidate for the post.

Once all the players have perfunctorily shown up and explained their role in the story, Jones notices that the trinket sent to Cynthia contains writing, in an old language that only ten people left in the world can translate. As Jones is one of those ten, he takes the coin from Cynthia and starts to work on the inscription, more out of curiosity than anything else.

As he makes progress, he first says “Zotz,” which is the name of a deity with powers that the coin channels to its user. At that, a major storm comes out of nowhere, which hits a woman walking by his house, leaving her unharmed but zapping away all of her clothes.

Embarrassed and confronted with something way outside his comfort zone, Jones gives the woman (Julia Meade) his jacket and some of Cynthia’s clothes, and asks that they both forget that this embarrassing thing ever happened. This allows Jones to decode how to use the coin though both translation and trial and error:

  • If you have the coin and point at any creature, the target is wracked with pain and doubles over
  • If you have the coin and say “Zotz!” aloud at any creature, the target is slowed down
  • If you have the coin and point at any creature while saying “Zotz!” aloud, the target dies a horrible death

Which, for a comedy, seems kind of harsh, even if it is William Castle we’re talking about here…

In the midst of the trials, Jones gets an invite to a mixer thrown by the dean and his wife (Margaret Dumont). The evening is a bit of a shocker, as Jones meets the woman he clothed, who turns out to be Professor Virginia Fenster, his new colleague at the department. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jones tries to give the dean an impromptu demonstration of his powers, which goes south quickly when he starts to evoke the powers of the coin, which at that moment is in Cynthia’s possession, around whom casual havoc ensues.

After the disastrous party, Dean Updike puts Jones on a temporary mandatory sabbatical. Jones fills the sudden gaping hole in his calendar by taking a trip to the Pentagon, to try and convince the military that he has a weapon for them. While the top person he ends up trying to demo to, a disinterested General Bullivar (Fred Clark) absent-mindedly dismisses him, he gets the attention of a man from the government, Josh Bates (Carl Don), who is very interested in Jones’ work but fails to tell him which government he’s from

 “Y’know that guy on the front right, kinda reminds me of someone…

So yes, there’s this infusion of the Cold War into the comedy, which takes the film into some predictable places. And because this is a comedy, the second power to slow people down gets used far more often than it had before, because they felt then that pain and death should only be in serious films about superpower struggles. So as a result, there’s really a lot of slo-mo carrying the film as the stakes get higher.

Then again, a good portion of comedy is all about timing…

Timing was certainly working against the script. The source material, a novel by Walter Karig (who at one point was one of the authors that used the “Caroline Keane” byline for the Nancy Drew books), was written in 1947 and set during the Second World War. There’s a coin with powers and a woman denuded by lightning, but beyond that the novel bears very little resemblance to the screenplay Ray Russel turned in. If anything, a strong case could be made that Castle’s film owes more to Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor from the year before than it does the credited source material.

Speaking of weak connections, what keeps the film from taking it where it needed to go was Poston. He’s affable, quite likeable, but doesn’t have the presence to build the film around. The rest of the cast is game enough, but without a solid lead to work off, nothing gels. (This was one of only two films Poston would star in, with the majority of his work in television; apparently this helped the actor to know his limits…)

Castle, meanwhile, took to the opportunity to try comedy with a bit more success. Assisted by Bernard Green’s score providing the right accent to every time Zotz’s power was evoked, he keeps the film interesting to look at, though not actually laugh-out-loud funny. It ended up being light fare to break up Castle’s output, a small diversion that didn’t lead to any major shift in his career.

During the film’s first run, Castle the showman had a gimmick for the patrons who came to the shows. He made available to hand out to attendees plastic copies of the Zotz! coin, nearly identical in appearance yet unassuming and unpowered

Compared with some of his earlier gimmicks, this might have seemed to his loyal fans like a bad joke…

 

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