Director: Larry Buchanan
Retromedia/Image Entertainment

Larry Buchanan. The name will cause legions of monster movie fans running in the opposite way, while others long to once again set their heads in front of the boob tube and gaze at one of his hastily-produced wonders. Following up last year’s much-appreciated double disc of IT’S ALIVE/IN THE YEAR 2889, this August Retromedia once again pays homage to the late filmmaker with two of his most popular films on one platter: ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS and THE EYE CREATURES. Both titles, produced by Buchanan’s Azalea Pictures and released straight to television by AIP-TV, are remakes of earlier AIP creature flicks, but with seemingly only a third of the original budgets!

A remake of Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS is probably Buchanan’s most famous film, if only for the title (anyone remember SCTV's hilarious takeoff, which was recently released on DVD?). Stone-faced scientist Keith Ritchie (Anthony Huston) warns Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar) not to allow a very expensive laser satellite project to be launched, as he has been warned of the danger by “forces unknown.” Well thanks to NASA stock footage played under the credits, the satellite takes off, but apparently a Venusian creature stowaways back to earth and hides in a cave. Keith communicates with the alien through his bulky living room stereo system, and when Curt is asked to decipher the garbled chatter he guesses, “Some sort of progressive jazz?” The alien’s name is hard to pronounce, but if you were to say it, it might sound something like Zontar, or so claims Keith, as the shit really starts to hit the fan. Even though Keith believes Zontar’s mission is beneficial to mankind, flying bat/lobsters nick people in the back of the neck, leaving a funny little needle there, and causing them to become soulless, emotionless beings under the alien’s control. And when Zontar makes all machinery come to a halt, we get the treat of seeing John Agar riding a bike around while trying to keep a straight face. Even better is seeing him fight off one of those annoying bat/lobster flying thingies with a fireplace poker.

Shot in Dallas for a few thousand dollars (as was THE EYE CREATURES and all the other Buchanan/AIP efforts), ZONTAR is crammed with painfully wooden acting, hilarious over-acting (Pat Delaney as Keith’s tormented wife), dreary setpieces and locations, horrendous special effects, grating stock music, pacing as dull as a decade-old butter knife, and a John Agar performance not to be missed. Always looking like he can’t believe he’s in this movie, Agar is a hoot as the hero, and his best line, “A drink I could use,” says it all! Buchanan regulars Neil Fletcher (as a general) and Bill Thurman (seemingly the only cop in town) look just as lost as Agar, as does most of the cast. An easily noticeable flub is in scenes where all machinery is supposed to have stopped, yet cars are visible driving by in the background or reflected in windows! ZONTAR himself is actually one of the better creatures in a Buchanan monster flick (and that’s saying, well… nothing), a dark, grotesque, faceless being with three scattered eyes, an outward rib cage, and immense folded wings. Too bad we never really get a good look.

The first film Buchanan film shot for AIP-TV, THE EYE CREATURES is a remake of 1957’s INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN, and follows the same script very closely, right down to a line about an automobile named after Elvis Presley. In it, 30-year-old John Ashley plays teenager Stan Kenton, who is about to elope with his goody-good girlfriend when a drive out in the woods (apparently a hot spot where teenagers neck) brings trouble. It’s there that a UFO made from hubcaps lands, and our nice couple steers their convertible into an alien laying dead on the ground. Thinking that they killed it, they contact the police, who just think the lovers have just had a bit too much to drink, and don't buy their story. Meanwhile, some other aliens kill a drifter who was bent on exploiting their spacecraft for big bucks, and they put his body in place of the dead creature. As the hapless military investigate things, Stan and Susan are arrested after they bring the cops back to the scene. They then easily run away from police headquarters, are terrorized by a severed creature’s hand, and assemble a group of horny teens to fight the pesty otherworldly visitors with car headlights.

THE EYE CREATURES is one of Buchanan’s better paced films, but its main reason for having any absorbing effect on fans is its shear overall shoddiness. If you’ve seen INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN, you’ll know what to expect: a cheaper version, shot in color a decade later, with poor attempts at comedy and no innovative Paul Blaisdell monsters to ogle at. The monsters here have white, lumpy heads (much like the Michelin Tire Man in those old TV commercials) with a bunch of little eyes all over, and a large open mouth cavity. Some of the actors playing the aliens didn’t have full body suits, so their black clothes and white sneakers are conspicuously on display in some shots! THE EYE CREATURES is also the last picture that John Ashley did for AIP (he was in a bunch of their “Beach Party” films) before he went on to a memorable trip to the Philippines for a series of drive-in classics.

Both titles were shot on 16mm, and in this presentation, look surprisingly good. The full frame transfer (the correct ratio) on ZONTAR has ok colors and the print source is in decent shape, with some minor dirt and and few jumpy frames. At any rate, it’s MILES above an atrocious, unwatchable DVD version released by Treeline Films as part of their “50 Movie Pack: SciFi Films.” THE EYE CREATURES looks even better with richer colors and a sharper image, and the audio on both is adequate. This copyrighted, "special edition" of THE EYE CREATURES has some enhanced sound effects (doors shutting, footsteps, etc.), apparently to avoid it from becoming bootlegged by inferior DVD companies.

There’s an extra on the disc that originally appeared on Retromedia’s release of THE BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT. It’s a video featurette titled "Remembering John Ashley" that includes interviews with his widow Pat Ashley, Andrew Stevens, Steve Stevens (who starred with Ashley in HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR), and Fred Olen Ray, who directed Ashley in his last film role. The interviews paint Ashley as a nice, friendly guy who was great at telling stories and loved talking about the movies that he was in.

With their double disc of ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS and THE EYE CREATURES, Retromedia thankfully helps fill the void in a year extremely short on “Midnite Movies Double Features” releases from MGM. Now all the world needs is a double set of CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION and CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE, but it’s mostly likely going to take a nation to convince MGM/Sony to do so! (George R. Reis)