Friday, June 4, 2021

Gamma People, The (1956)

... aka: Dokter Boronski's Geheimen (Doctor Boronski's Secret)
... aka: El monstruo del rayo gamma (The Gamma Ray Monster)
... aka: Les secrets du docteur Boronski (Secrets of Doctor Boronski)
... aka: O Monstros do Raio Gama (The Gamma Ray Monsters)

Directed by:
John Gilling

American newspaper reporter Mike Wilson (Paul Douglas) and British photographer Howard Meade (Leslie Phillips) are headed to an assignment to cover a music festival in Salisbury when their car gets detached from the rest of the train. They instead end up rolling into a small (fictional) village called "Democracy of Gudavia," which is so small it doesn't even show up on their map. They're immediately apprehended by Commandant Koerner (Philip Leaver) and his troops, who accuse them of being spies and promptly throw them into prison. They're soon let go on orders from a higher-up but discover that getting out of Gudavia may be much more difficult than getting in. It's against government policy for trains to go through there, there are no cars and no ways to communicate with the outside world, despite there being a telegraph office (staffed by a clerk who refuses to send out a telegraph) and working phones (operated by someone who refuses to connect a call outside the village). Just what have the duo stumbled into here?

Mike and Howard are put up in a hotel for the night and immediately notice strange things are afoot and the entire town either seem to be trying to cover up something or are too scared to talk about that something. A hysterical woman screaming outside their room is disregarded. At night, the streets are empty aside from packs of running children, as well as zombie-like men dressed in black who aimlessly roam about. Hotel maid Anna (Jocelyn Lane) passes along a note to the reporters given to her by defector scientist Bikstein (Olaf Pooley) warning that the town must be exposed and children are in danger. Soon after, Bikstein is found dead.

Gudavia is being run by a mad scientist / pseudo-dictator named Dr. Boronski (Walter Rilla). Boronski was once a respected biologist named Dr. Macklin but has since changed his identity and is now posing as a schoolmaster. In his spare time, he's been exposing "the immature brain" of children to gamma ray radiation, which can be used to either enhance their intelligence or turn them into imbeciles. Their precocious prized pupil, Hugo (Michael Caridia), is an ill-tempered and cocky little shit who would have been right at home leading a local chapter of Hitler Youth, but not all of the kids have turned out evil. There's also little Hedda (Pauline Drewett), a piano prodigy with a kind nature who hopes to escape the village along with her father, Lochner (Martin Miller). The black-clad zombie men have all had their brains fried with radiation until they're reduced to easy-to-control goons Boronski can order to do his dirty work. Not that the non-experimented-with local police are much better as they gladly just go along with Boronski.

At first, Mike and Howard just want to leave but their inquisitive nature soon gets the best of them and they find themselves too immersed in the mystery to just run off. They find a few unlikely allies along the way, starting with Boronski's assistant Paula Wendt (Eva Bartok), whose father had also worked for the mad doctor and who may be blackmailed into helping him. The widow (Rosalie Crutchley) of the murdered scientist also provides key information and eventually all of the scared villagers decide to finally fight back against the authoritarian figure who's taken over their once-quaint village.

Science fiction? Lighthearted adventure-comedy? Serious horror flick? Political commentary on the dangers of rising authoritarianism in certain Eastern Bloc nations? Well, this is basically all of the above, which is both part of its charm and, for certain viewers, part of the film's undoing. For me, this was an uneven but ultimately delightful little yarn with some laughs, an intriguing and engaging plot, surprisingly potent horror scenes and just enough sociopolitical red meat factored into the equation to maintain some interest beneath the surface. The pacing is agreeable, it strays away from wallowing in expository dialogue, on-location filming in Austrian makes for a scenic backdrop and there's seldom a dull moment in here, which all combine to tilt this up a notch in my scoring. Whether or not you will find this strange brew as charming as I do is entirely up to your own personal tastes but, either way, this is certainly offbeat enough in tone and execution to stand apart from similar 50s sci-fi programmers.

First announced way back in 1951, this Columbia release went through a number of stop-start pre-production stages, with different stars (John Garfield, Brian Donlevy, Dick Powell, Virginia Grey and Patricia Medina) announced but then dropped, before finally being filmed in 1955. Robert Aldrich (of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? fame) had written the original story treatment, though he's not credited on the film (Louis Pollack is). The production team is pretty upscale for this type of film. It was very nicely shot by Ted Moore just a few years before he won an Oscar for A Man of All Seasons (1966) and this also features lavish art direction from John Box, who'd win four Oscars over his nearly 50-year-long career, starting with 1962's Lawrence of Arabia

Gamma is also noteworthy as an early genre effort for director Gilling, who'd later go on to make a name for himself with respectable genre films like The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Reptile (1966) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966); the latter two for Hammer.

Here in America, this played theaters in 1956 on a double bill with Michael Anderson's George Orwell adaptation 1984. RCA/Columbia first released it on VHS in 1986, and it was reissued on video in 2004 by Goodtimes, but it has yet to get a legit DVD release.

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