(3/10) Future James Bond producer Albert Broccoli and Irving Allen masterminded this 1956 British genre mashup about two journalists fighting zombies and gamma ray cannons in a made-up European micro state. Individual parts work fine, but the balance between horror and comedy doesn’t gel, and too many different ideas and concepts compete for space and time. Features sex symbol Jocelyn Lane and Hogwarth’s Sorting Hat.
The Gamma People (1956, UK). Written by John W. Gossage, John Gilling, Louis Pollock, Robert Aldrich. Starring: Paul Douglas, Leslie Phillips, Eva Bartok, Walter Rilla, Philip Leaver, Michael Caridia, Jocelyn Lane. Produced by John W. Gossage for Warwick Film Productions.
IMDb rating: 5.3/10 Tomatometer: N/A Metascore: N/A.
This is a project that was long in the making and met a number of difficulties and should, perhaps, have been abandoned. However, the film finally came to fruition January 1956, and the result is one of the more bizarre science fiction films of the fifties. Set in a fictional European micro state, it follows two unlucky journalists uncovering the plot of a mad scientist creating his own private super race with the help of a radioactive ray. The concept of the death ray was almost old hat when Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi teamed up around it in The Invisible Ray (1935, review) twenty years earlier, and certainly must have felt archaic in 1956. It doesn’t help that the film can’t decide whether to be a comedy or a horror film.
The film starts with two journalists, burly American Mike Wilson (Paul Douglas) and effeminate British Howard Meade (Leslie Phillips), sitting at a game of chess in their train compartment on their way to cover an event in Salzburg. However, their train car mysteriously gets detached from the rest of the train, and when a group of boys pull the … what’s the thing … that lever that switches between different tracks at junctions – their car rolls into the territory of Gudavia. Here they are met by a team of city guards led by a bumbling general by the name of Koerner (Phillip Leaver), all decked out in 19th century marching uniforms. Commotion ensues at the fact that a train with strangers on board has entered Gudavia, and the two men are suspected of being spies, and thrown in jail, before released on the orders of the country’s de facto ruler, Professor Boronski (Walter Rilla), a man modelled on European mid-century dictators like Stalin or Hitler.
The two journalists’ eagerness to proceed on to Salzburg diminishes as a young maid at their hotel (Jocelyn Lane) pleads with them to save the children of Gudavia, and they sense a mystery worth investigating in Gudavia. They soon meet the mysterious Dr. Boronski, who turns out to be a certain Dr. Macklin, shunned in scientific society for his controversial work with gamma rays. Turns out Boronski is bombarding the youngsters of Gudavia with a gamma ray cannon in hope of transforming their brains, as to create super-geniuses, like the young Hugo Wendt (Michael Caridia), who is brilliant but evil, running around leading a pack of kids very reminiscent of the Hitler Jugend, or the piano prodigy Hedda Lochner (Pauline Drewett). Unfortunately the gamma ray treatment doesn’t always work, and instead turns the subjects into mindless zombies, controlled, naturally, by Boronski. The last cog in the wheel is Hugo’s sister/aunt/cousin(?), Paula Wendt (Eva Bartok), who is a reluctant assistant to Boronski, and is soon convinced by Mike Wilson to switch sides and fight for the liberation of Gudavia.
Apart from a scene where Meade chases Hugo and gets attacked by a bunch of mini-zombies, most of the first two thirds of the film is people talking, as Meade and Wilson explore the city and are given a tour of Boronski’s castle, where he is ”teaching” young children who are preparing for a carnival. The climax takes place at a James Bondian castle lair, complete with ray cannon, laboratory, mechanised sliding doors, central alarm systems, etc. Anyone familiar with so-called spy-fi thrillers will recognise the inevitable ending with the good guys at the receiving end of a deadly gamma ray cannon, and there’s even a little nod towards Frankenstein (1931, review).
The film was based on a draft by Louis Pollock, who in the late forties left his job as director of United Artists’ publicity unit to become a screenwriter. This was probably one of his earliest drafts, originating sometime in the very early fifties. Pollock’s screenwriting career never quite took off, and he is perhaps best known for being one of several writers on Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp, although he mostly worked in TV.
In the summer of 1951 it was announced that the UK wing of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was going to make the film in Austria. According to the blog Tickle Me, producer Irving Allen had obtained the rights to Pollock’s story, and that actor-director Anthony Bushnell was going to direct it in colour, and it would be starring horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. However, these plans were derailed, as a young Robert Aldrich, then still a rather unknown assistant director, claimed that he had written the screenplay for the movie and acted as associate producer without getting pay or credit. The film got stuck in litigation, and the matter wasn’t settled until 1955. Robert Aldrich would soon go on to fame as writer-director with such movies as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974). In his book Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren claims that this isn’t the same Robert Aldrich that wrote the original screenplay for The Gamma People, but I think this is one of those rare occasions when Warren is wrong (I have pointed out a couple of fallacies in his book before, so it isn’t unheard of). The author at Tickle Me seems to have too much information about Aldrich’s involvement to be wrong about it.
By the time filming started, Irving Allen had left MGM and formed Warwick Productions in Britain with a fellow named Albert R. Broccoli, who now took on the production. Lon Chaney was out of the picture, either because he was busy doing Indestructible Man (1956), or because he was deemed too washed up. The new script was penned by producer John W. Gossage, a Decca Records publicity man trying to break it in the movie business, and seasoned writer-director John Gilling, who also took over directorial duties. Gilling would later make a number of lesser, but well-regarded films for Hammer in the sixties, like The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Scarlet Blade (1963), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). He also directed a number of episodes of the TV series The Saint with Roger Moore, which in turn gave Albert R. Broccoli the idea to make a film featuring Ian Fleming’s British spy James Bond. In fact, James Bond became the end of the the collaboration between Allen and Broccoli, as Allen didn’t think Fleming’s novel was good enough to be filmed. In essence, he told Broccoli that if he wanted to destroy his career with this James Bond business, he was free to do so, but he would be doing it without Allen. The decision came back to haunt him after the Bond films had proved enormously successful with four films between 1962 and 1965, and Allen was prompted to create his own spy movies for Columbia, featuring secret agent Matt Helm, played by Dean Martin, in 1966. Columbia made four moderately successful Matt Helm movies, but couldn’t compete with Bond.
For the lead, producer Gossage had initially intended Brian Donlevy, who had made such an impact in Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, review). However, the studio switched in the last minute for Paul Douglas, as he happened to be in Britain at the time they intended to shoot, as he was keeping his wife Jan Sterling company when she was filming 1984 for Columbia, who ended up co-producing The Gamma People. The two films were released as a double bill in the US in the end of 1956 – a rather odd pairing.
Douglas was a pretty remarkable man. At the age of 42 he left his job as one of the most successful sports commentators on US radio, determined to become an actor. And he did – almost immediately he was landing leading roles in films, despite the fact that he definitely didn’t have the leading man looks. The first one came in the sci-fi-tinted baseball comedy It Happens Every Spring (1949) and Douglas continued the baseball theme with Angels in the Outfield (1951) and then with When in Rome (1952). His biggest success came in Elia Kazan’s multiple Oscar winning Panic in the Streets (1950). However his career made a slight dip in the mid-fifties. Although he continued to star in well-regarded comedies, more and more of his work was done as guest actor on TV series and in B movies, although few were as bizarre as The Gamma People.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Douglas in The Gamma People, other than the fact the he by his appearance is such an unlikely leading man in a movie like this. He has a very good rapport with his British counterpart Leslie Phillips. At 31 this beloved comedic character actor seems to have been fully formed in his character as the dandy, suave, but whimsical ladies’ man, a character he often played to perfection in the Carry On comedies in the fifties and sixties. Phillips had been a child actor, and one of the few who made a successful transition into adult roles. Although best known for his comedies, he appeared in a number of well-regarded serious films over the years, such as The Red Shoes (1948), The Longest Day (1962), Out of Africa (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Mountains of the Moon (1990), The Jackal (1997) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). Younger audiences may not recognise his face, but certainly his voice as The Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies. Phillips also appeared in the sci-fi comedies Thunderpants (2002) and After Death (2012).
In and of itself the collaboration between Douglas and Phillips works beautifully, and I would loved to have seen them team up in more movies of the more light-hearted kind, as bumbling journalists investigating evil masterminds bent on world domination. They would have been great as a sort of tag-team Inspector Clouseau. But the problem is that they are in the wrong movie. The Gamma People works too hard to be a serious horror movie with a political twist, and the comedic outburst are jarringly out-of-place, and unfortunately lays bare the unfortunate fact that the film was made 20 years too late.
Adding to this feeling is Walter Rilla doing his best Boris Karloff imitation, admittedly a very good one. Rilla was a respected German stage and film actor who made his stage debut in 1921. He fled the Nazis with his Jewish wife and settled in London, where quickly became a noted character actor, appearing in such A-list films as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Victoria the Great (1937). He also wrote radio plays for the BBC and upon his return to Germany in 1957 began a second career as a screenwriter. However he continued to act, sometimes in prestige films like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) or Malpertuis (1971), and sometimes in less prestigious, but nonetheless successful productions like the horror movie The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), the spaghetti western Day of Anger (1967) and The Girl from Rio (1969). He also starred as Dr. Mabuse in a popular franchise of the legendary doctor or death, some of which had science fiction trappings, like Dr. Mabuse vs. Scotland Yard (1963) and The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (1964). His fourth and last sci-fi film was Frozen Alive (1964).
The female lead of the movie is played by Eva Bartok, a Hungarian refugee who was able to smuggle herself out from the communist-occupied country in 1950 thanks to a fake marriage. Better known for her colourful life outside the screen, Bartok was mostly seen in B movies in Britain and Germany, and had a hard time getting cast in British movies even after she had learned English as she was never able to get rid of her accent. She is perhaps best known for her work in The Crimson Pirate (1952) and the original Italian giallo movie Blood and Black Lace (1964). I have covered Bartok at length in my review of her only other science fiction film, Spaceways (1953), so head over there if you’re interested in knowing more about her. Bartok holds up her end well in The Gamma People, without impressing.
Child actor Michael Caridia is splendidly evil as Hugo. He had a good run for five years, but seems to have left acting behind in 1961.
For some, the draw of the film will be seeing Jocelyn Lane in her first credited screen appearance as the hotel maid. She was the younger sister of hugely popular model and actress Mara Lane, and began modelling herself in her teens, soon eclipsing the fame of her sister. By 1956 she was already an internationally famed cover girl, using the artist name Jackie Lane. Cast more for her alluring sex appeal than for her acting abilities (although she is quite OK in this film), she found herself acting in B movies and TV shows in Britain as well as Italy, where she, among others, appeared in the sword-and-sandal cult classic War Gods of Babylon (1962).
In 1965 she moved to the United States, and started appearing under her birth name, partly because she didn’t want to be confused with another British actress called Jackie Lane, who had just been attached to the 1966 season of Doctor Who as the next Doctor’s girl, Dodo Chaplet. In the US, Jocelyn Lane was immediately cast as one of the female leads in the Elvis Presley movie Tickle Me (1965), alongside sci-fi legend Julie Adams from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). It proved to be the highlight of her acting career, which remained unspectacular. She was, however, a hugely popular model, sex symbol and socialite and later married Spanish prince Alfonso von und zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg.
In a small role we also see Paul Hardtmuth, who we’ve covered before in this blog in the review of Timeslip (1955). Hardtmuth also appeared in The Diamond (1954) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
There are many ideas in this film, in fact too many, and none of them are throughly brought to conclusion. First of all there’s the mixing of genres. Blending horror and comedy was a staple in Hollywood since the thirties. James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1932, review) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) are prime examples of films that walk the treacherous line between belly laughs and frights, and they do so sublimely. Poverty Row studios almost always inserted comic relief characters into their horror films, especially if they were aware that the material at hand didn’t have two legs to stand on. Sometimes the comic reliefs saved the films. Case in point: Mantan Moreland in Revenge of the Zombies (1943, review). Other times they were just odious. But horror films mostly got away with it as long as the comic characters were supporting characters. The other side of the coin was when comedians like Abbott & Costello took on horror trappings. But then we knew we were in comedy, rather than horror territory. In The Gamma People the genres never quite gel. For the first half of the movie the two leading men sometimes come off as a classic comedy team, but at other times they are dead serious. This can work, but it requires a story that carries the leads rather than the other way around. As it stands, we’re never really sure whether we’re watching a horror film or a comedy, and thus our brains are conflicted as to how we should be taking in the action on the screen.
Then there’s the blending of historical settings. The film is supposed to take place in then-current-day 1956, but we’re shown that the backward country of Gudavia still hasn’t caught up with the 20th century. This was probably partly done to invoke the atmosphere of the old Universal horror films, forever stuck in the foggy darkness of 19th century gothic novels. However, this further adds to the viewer’s confusion over whether we’re watching a fifties cold was spy yarn or an old-timey gothic horror film.
As for the satirical element of the movie, it is clear that the film is trying to satirise something, and apparently that something has to do with authoritarian rule in Europe. Seeing as the native language of Gudavia is German, and the people are dressed in something that looks like traditional garment from Bavaria or the Alp countries, Adolf Hitler naturally comes to mind. However, the film never quite delves into the matter further, and the feeling you’re left with is that that film sort of tries to tell us that this Hitler guy is a rotten apple, and probably shouldn’t be trusted around gamma rays. Why one would release a satire nine years after the fall of the Third Reich subtly and symbolically satirising the Third Reich eludes me. On the other hand, the villain’s name is Boronski, which has a more Slavic ring ro it, on the other hand we are told that his real name was Mackler, which is kind of a generic name – could be American, could be German, but certainly doesn’t sound Russian. There could be an element of criticism against the European communists – Khrushchev had just been elected chairman in the Soviet Union, and there was Tito in Yugosalvia, as well as Hoxha in Albania. But then again, why the Germanic setting if one was trying to criticise Russian or Balkan communists? The only conclusion I’m left with is that someone at some point had an idea, which was lost, and then the screenwriters simply used the Hitlerian parallel as window dressing for the story.
In the beginning of the film there’s a scene where Hedda plays the piano, improvising, and Hugo scorns her for this, telling her that perfection can only be reached through mathematical precision. There would have been a chance in the film to further some discussion about the concept of the Übermensch, but, alas, that subject isn’t really explored in any more depth either.
What Dr. Boronski is actually trying to do is also a bit foggy. It seems he at some point was actually interested in furthering the human race out of humanitarian reasons, but this is clearly no longer the case. But exactly why he is now hell-bent of creating his own little country populated with super-geniuses and zombies is never quite explained. One would assume that there’s some plot of world domination at play here, but as far as I can remember, this is actually never stated outright in the film. My only explanation for all this fogginess regarding any sort of ”point” the film is trying to make is that there is none. If there at some point in production was one, it has at least become thoroughly lost over time and revision.
Since the first sci-fi films started popping up, they warned us of man playing God, whether it was Rotwang ”resurrecting” the love of his life in the form of a robot in Metropolis (1927, review), Henry Frankenstein trying to create life in Frankenstein or Dr. Morris actually bringing people back from the dead in The Mad Ghoul (1943, review). In these films man was ”meddling in God’s affairs”. The prevailing Luddism of the thirties and forties was more of a moral nature – man’s reach exceeding his grasp, but it the fifties these notions had a tangible example – the atom bomb, and the mysterious effects of radiation. The Gamma People plays squarely into the fifties nuclear scare, while retaining all the trappings of Whale’s Frankensteinean mad doctor tale, again mixing two genres that fail to meld successfully.
The treatment of radioactivity, of course, has no basis in any science, other than the vague notion that people had that radiation could cause ”mutations”. What is glanced over in almost all sci-fi films of the era is that radioactivity causes mutations in the offspring of the radiated person/creature and not the radiated victim itself, in whom it merely causes cell death and ultimately organ failure. In this film, there seems to be no logic whatsoever to Dr. Boronski’s gamma rays, as it seems they can perform pretty much any task he wants them to perform.
The Gamma People was cinematographer Ted Moore’s third film, and he immediately shows his teeth. Despite the sometimes cramped sets, the low budget and the quick shooting schedule, he manages to provide occasionally beautiful and startling photography – especially the wide shots of the characters moving about in the beautiful British countryside add value to the movie. Moore became a favourite of Cubby Broccoli’s, and went on to film a number of James Bond movies, starting with Dr. No (1962) and ending with The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He was also DP on the Ray Harryhausen movies The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981). He won an Oscar for A Man for All Seasons (1966). Apart from some sci-fi-esque Bond movies, he also shot The Day of the Triffids (1962) and Michael Anderson’s miniseries The Martian Chronicles (1980).
Production designer John Box went on to win four Oscars for his work on period pieces like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Oliver! (1968). He also designed the sci-fi cult film Rollerball (1975). Costume designer Olga Lehmann worked on 1984, First Men in the Moon (1964) and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969), thus sharing her sci-fi credits between authors George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. She won four Emmys for her work on TV. Second unit director Robert Lynn worked on Superman (1978) and Superman II (1978) and branched out to directing on TV, including some science fiction.
Visual effects creator Tom Howard later worked on Village of the Damned (1960), Gorgo (1961), Children of the Damned (1964), Battle Beneath the Earth (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973) and The Little Prince (1974). He won two Oscars for non-sci-fi movies.
British filmmakers had dabbled in the so-called spy-fi genre genre before, noteably in the films Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949, review) and Dick Barton at Bay (1950, review), as well as Timeslip (1955, review). The Gamma People is in many ways another step along the way towards the James Bond films. There’s many elements in the film that would later show up in Broccoli’s films about Agent 007. Perhaps the most obvious one is the evil genius hidden in a secret lair with a super-weapon, bent on world domination. The gamma ray cannon is naturally a precursor to all the laser weapons in the Bond movies – but it perhaps most closely resembles Scaramanga’s laser cannon in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Another famous James Bond scene almost completely ripped from the script pages of The Gamma People is the carnival scene in Moonraker (1979), where Bond is being chased by Jaws in disguise under a huge papier mache head. In The Gamma People, there’s also a carnival scene, and this time it is another villain, Hugo, hiding under a giant head – a head which takes up a lot of focus in the plot, for some reason I fail to discern.
The Gamma People is mostly interesting as one of the most queer genre benders of fifties sci-fi. (Speaking of queer, one could argue that there some serious homosexual subtext between the two leads. But I digress.) Individual moments work very well, and the movie has some rather decent acting in it. It’s a decently entertaining watch at 79 minutes. The production and direction are good enough B movie fare. But as a film, the movie just doesn’t gel. We don’t care for the main characters one bit, nor really about what happens to the village of the damned. Very little makes any sense from a plot perspective, and logic simply doesn’t enter into the picture. It feels as if someone at some point had an idea and wrote a script draft, then a lot of other people just threw stuff at it, in hope that something would stick. None of the ideas are thought through or given much conclusion. But as stated, the biggest problem is that the merge between horror, spy thriller, science fiction and comedy just doesn’t work.
The Gamma People (1956, UK). Written by John W. Gossage, John Gilling, Louis Pollock, Robert Aldrich. Starring: Paul Douglas, Leslie Phillips, Eva Bartok, Walter Rilla, Philip Leaver, Martin Miller, Michael Caridia, Pauline Drewett, Jocelyn Lane, Olaf Pooley, Rosalie Crutchley, Leonard Sachs, Paul Hardtmuth, Cyril Chamberlain, St. John Stuart. Director: John Gilling. Music: George Melachrino. Cinematography: Ted Moore. Editing: Jack Slade. Production design: John Box. Costume design: Olga Lehmann. Makeup artist: George Frost. Sound recordist: Peter Davies. Visual effects: Tom Howard. Produced by John W. Gossage for Warwick Film Productions.