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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: The Gamma People (1956) review


Paul Douglas (Mike Wilson), Leslie Phillips (Howard Meade), Walter Rilla (Boronski), Eva Bartok (Paula Wendt), Michael Caridia (Hugo Wendt)

Directed by John Gilling

"A thing without a mind is nothing... an unfortunate failure."--the hypocrisy of the villain, Boronski, who controls people via his Gamma Ray machine and through oppression.

The Short Version: This barely discussed bit of Quatermass-lite British science fiction from the late 50s is a curious blend of quasi-horror and comical repartee between its "Odd Couple" leads and the arrogant genius of a pint-sized brat -- the creation of an evil Hitlerian mad scientist. Among this sinister doctors creations are an army of mindless goons that have seemingly had their memories wiped, acting as brutish automatons. It seems the filmmakers were at odds as to what sort of picture they really wanted to make. Gilling's bizarro concoction works in spite of its peculiar plot and frequent comical moments resulting in a generally satisfying little B-movie programmer.

Two reporters--one American and one British on assignment to cover a Salzburg music festival, end up stranded in Gudavia, an unmapped Eastern European village lorded over by a dictatorial mad scientist. By using gamma rays to turn people into mindless automatons, the effects of the rays also create a small army of pint sized geniuses with potentially dangerous inclinations.

This obscure British science fiction oddity comes from the same hand that guided Hammer horrors THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE REPTILE (both 1966), and THE MUMMY'S SHROUD (1967) a decade later. But unlike those films, what little horror there is in THE GAMMA PEOPLE is derived from using science to create a super race of beings, and to turn people into mindless goons, or living zombies. One gets the feeling the filmmakers may have been trying to replicate the success of Britain's Quatermass film series here. However, the potentiality for suspense and terror is undermined by numerous comical scenes and chases; and therein lies the conundrum of this movie. 

Gilling's B/W curio almost defies description. It's one part sci-fi and one part comedy with a bit of post WW2 socio-political commentary. Overall, it's an overly silly, if fun, and wholly entertaining movie.

A lot of this has to do with the lively script (co-written by Gilling) packed with goofy banter between the odd couple reporters; two men who stumble into investigating strange goings on in this tiny totalitarian town. Just shy of 79 minutes, there are some plot points that could do with some fleshing out (the main villain, in particular, and we could see more of the zombie slaves), but the performances are engaging enough to look beyond minor details. 

Arguably the best thing about Gilling's GAMMA PEOPLE is the bratty genius, Hugo (Michael Caridia). He does a fabulous job of playing a tiny terror, but one with an unusually high intelligence and propensity for devout sarcasm. Three of his best moments are his introductory during a piano scene, a chess playing exchange between him and co-lead Phillips and again with Phillips while little Hugo embraces "the child in all of us".

The devilish, diminutive, brainy brat is just one among a motley clutch of creepy kids seen here. This other bunch are seen only sparingly, but grouped together, they evoke slight imagery, and look forward to the classic VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED from 1960. However, only two of the children (Hugo and a child piano expert) are seen as possessing uncanny abilities. 

The success of this forgotten 'B' programmer is owed to a large degree to the unlikely duo of the two lead actors, Douglas and Phillips. Their interactions with each other just prior and during their unwitting arrival in the mysterious town of Gudavia display numerous low key comical moments. They also play very well off of each other even if they don't look like your typical sci fi movie heroes.

The tyrannical villain Boronski appears modeled partially on Hitler and Mussolini. The Cold War era totalitarian system is also a sinister presence; yet it, too is undermined by a lack of concrete danger brought on by the intermittently jovial tone. Boronski not only controls his zombies with his gamma ray machine, but uses fear and oppression to control the townsfolk as "zombies" of another sort. Once these two interlopers enter the fray, the subtext of a free society vs. dictatorial rule seeps into the narrative and remains there till the end.

Working with what is obviously a low budget, the mad scientist lab and other villainous accouterments have an Ed Woodian look to them. This, too, offsets any serious atmosphere the film may have wanted to incur. A Frankenstein mentality is introduced late in the picture once we finally see Dr. Boronski's headquarters, which is revealed to be situated within a European castle. He has turned this oldeworld fortress into a hi-tech facility complete with electronic doors built into its medieval architecture.

The B/W photography by Ted Moore (of James Bond fame) is also worthy of mention. Frequently the actors are dwarfed by the majesty of the European countryside. Some of the opening shots (and others spread out over the course of the movie) reflect a stark view of isolation and entrapment that adds an air of believability that this Hitlerian mastermind could rule over a small populace with an iron hand virtually unnoticed. Flanked by mountainous terrain and a pervasive overcast, this adds much scenic splendor as well as a gloomy aura to a movie that unfolds with two different styles simultaneously.

Ted Moore also was DP on the last two Harryhausen Sinbad adventures, and also CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). His other genre work includes THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962), PSYCHOMANIA (1973) and ORCA (1977).

Director John Gilling also helmed some Hammer adventure pictures like THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962) and THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (1965); and other horror pictures such as THE FLESH & THE FIENDS (1960), BLOOD BEAST FROM OUTER SPACE (1965) and his last, the troubled CROSS OF THE DEVIL -- a film originally to have starred Paul Naschy.

While I wouldn't recommend this to diehard horror fans, or anyone expecting monsters and overt seriousness, THE GAMMA PEOPLE is a very interesting film, especially on the second viewing. For nostalgia merchants and less stringent viewers of old fashioned science fiction, this nifty little 'B' picture delivers 79 minutes worth of breezy, if off kilter entertainment.


Erich Kuersten said...

This is on DVD I think, via HAMMER'S SUSPENSE set, from somewhere. Maybe

venoms5 said...

I've not seen any legit releases, Erich, unless there's one from Italy or Germany under a different name. Amazon carries a VHS only.

Unknown said...

The way the village Gudavia is presented in this made me think of Latveria home of Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four.

venoms5 said...

@ Ralph: Interesting point.

@ andrea: It showed up only once so I recorded it and ended up enjoying more than I expected to.

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