The Gamma People

Two bumbling journalists accidentally save a European backwater country from a mad scientists creating zombies and a master race with the help of gamma rays in this British 1956 B movie from later Bond producer Albert Broccoli. 4/10

The Gamma People. 1956, UK. Written by John W. Gossage, John Gilling, et. al. Starring: Paul Douglas, Leslie Phillips, Eva Bartok, Walter Rilla, Philip Leaver, Michael Caridia, Jocelyn Lane. Produced by John W. Gossage.IMDb: 5.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Before we get to the film at hand, I’d like to give a small announcement to my regular readers. If you’re just here for the movie review, you can skip this first text block. If you have followed this blog for a while, though, you may be aware that this is the second incarnation of Scifist (hence the title Scifist 2.0) — the first one is still (as of writing) up and running at scifist.wordpress.com. And if you check out the last post on the old blog, you’ll notice that it is a review of The Gamma People. I started Scifist in 2014, as an attempt to create an online encyclopaedia of SF movies, complete with background information, analysis and critical reviews, simply because there didn’t seem to be such a site in existence. This was all done aus Liebe zur Kunst as a side-project to my day job. However, in 2017 my day job was taking a toll and I was in a bit of a mental slump, which led to a total writers’ block as far as Scifist was concerned after I’d finished my article on The Gamma People. I found a new spark for the blog around a year later, but unfortunately by then I had forgot all my login information and got no help from WordPress. Finally I realised that the only solution was to start all over again. However, not from scratch, since all my old texts were still available online. In a way, this was a blessing in disguise. During the three years I had been developing the blog, I had also been developing its style and my own voice as a movie critic and amateur film scholar, so the style of my writing in the first posts didn’t match the one in my later posts. Plus, all the research I had done during these years (and all the SF novels I had read) had given me a whole new insight into the earliest films I had reviewed, in some cases completely changing the way I viewed them. So instead of just copying my old posts, I re-wrote them. While there was a sense of frustration about having to redo already done work, there was also a feeling of elation. “Yes! I get to do it all over again! And I get to make it better!” So, with a sense of both excitement and dread, I present to you the last of my reviews where I can still use my old text as a crutch, The Gamma People:

Paul Douglas and Leslie Phillips as our heroes.

This British 1956 product 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 film follows 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 they are rerouted by a group of boys into the territory of Gudavia. Here they are met by a guard patrol led by a bumbling general by the name of Koerner (Phillip Leaver), all decked out in 19th century marching uniforms. 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.

Leslie Phillips, Jocelyn Lane and Paul Douglas.

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. 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. 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, and leads 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 jamesbondian 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 climax 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).

Leslie Phillips in the midst of the zombie kids.

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. 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, 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.

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.

Director John Gilling (right) with Anthony Nelsin Keys on the set of The Reptile in 1966.

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. 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.

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 lay 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. 

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. 

Walter Rilla (middle) with his gamma ray cannon.

The film received mainly poor reviews. Variety wrote: “The characters and situations are clumsily handled, as is the comedy […] The dialogue is trite and there is virtually no suspense.” The Monthly Film Bulletin called the film an “old-fashioned melodrama” interspersed with “lumbering ventures into comedy”, and found the treatment on an “elementary level”. According to Barry Atkinson’s book Atomic Age Cinema, the film “wasn’t a great success at the box office”.

As of writing, the The Gamma People has a 5.3/10 audience rating on IMDb, based on 600 votes, and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide gives it a decent 2/4 stars. AllMovie, however, awards the movie only 1.5/5 stars, without bothering with a review. TV Guide calls it “a  hodgepodge of horror and comedy”, although it does note the “intriguing plot”. Film historian Bill Warren writes that the movie “never jells into a coherent whole”, but is nevertheless “no worse than fair”. Barry Atkinson does applaud the design of the laboratory and the “whiff of European sex” brought to the film by Eva Bartok. But on the whole he calls the movie underdeveloped, too stolid and curiously dated. Chris Barsanti at The Sci-Fi Movie Guide pans it as it a “bland relic”.

One phrase that appears in almost every online review of The Gamma People is “interesting ideas”, followed by a “but…”. Derek Winnert fives it 2/5 stars, writing: “Despite the intriguing premise […], there are hardly any thrills or good acting to report here. [The] screenplay has huge problems sorting out all its many strands and issues, and the obviously tiny budget helps to sink it further. Nevertheless, it stays interesting for all its mind-bending ideas.” Mark David Welsh says: “What really scuppers proceedings here is the uncertainty of tone. At first it seems like a bit of a lark […] But then it all gets a bit heavy with robotic kids and the oppression of the local populace. […] It’s a mix that just doesn’t gel. But there are some interesting ideas here.” Veteran critic Dennis Schwartz gives The Gamma People a C+ rating: “The messy undeveloped film about mind control never comes together to make sense nor was it properly executed, as it remains intriguing only for all the peculiar ideas it raises.”

Michael Caridia as the local Hitler Jugend.

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. Comedy and horror have gone hand in hand since the birth of cinema. Successful amalgamations could straddle a fine line, but still never lost sight of where they truly belonged. James Whale loved to fill his horror films with dark, subversive comedy, but even his comedy had a horror element. Charlie Chaplin could make a superbly funny film about Hitler, but satire is a distinct genre with rules of its own. Abbott and Costello had all the trappings of the old horror movies in their spoofs, but no-one ever mistook them for scary films. But it feels as if The Gamma People genuinely doesn’t know whether it’s supposed to be a subversive cold war horror film or a care-free buddy comedy. And you can’t have both.

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. But as Richard Scheib writes in his 2/5 star review at Moria: “The Gamma People feels like it wants to be a Communist threat film but seems awfully tentative about doing so. […] The Gamma People takes place in a Soviet republic but in actuality it seems more like a forgotten town in the backwater of the German Alps. […] It is a film set behind the Iron Curtain but where the Communist threat surprisingly enough seems non-existent or at best provincial in nature.” One reason for this lack of coherence regarding the communist threat was the fact that the UK didn’t experience the same kind of red scare that the US did after WWII.

Walter Rilla and Eva Bartok.

The film toys with the idea of the Übermensch, and at one point it touches on a deeper discussion on whether “perfection” is something that can be measured mathematically, or expressed rather through creativity, but the subject is dropped as quickly as it is raised. And while Dr. Boronski is hell-bent on creating a master race, the film never explains exactly what purpose this race would serve. 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. There’s the old good-scienist-scorned-goes-bad plot device, but neither is this angle ever explored. One could, if one wished, have pitted the rustic 19th century culture of Gudavia (unspoiled, so to speak, by technology and modern ideas) against the destructive modernity brought on by Boronski’s science, but the movie doesn’t even acknowledge this possibility.

So, we have a film which is not quite a comedy, nor quite a horror movie, that’s sort of a cold war red scare film, but without the actual red scare, featuring a mad scientist breeding a super-race in utmost secrecy, but who doesn’t seem to do so for any particular reason. It reads like an “idea film”, but never gets around to presenting this idea. If there ever was a “point” to be made by the story, it seems to have been lost through time and rewrites. So while The Gamma People has technical assets to its favour, good music, good cinematography, a nice atmosphere, great shooting location and decent production design, it is undone by its innate schizophrenia. It simply doesn’t know what it wants, nor what is supposed to be. As someone wrote, if this film had as well-produced as it is, it could well be a so-bad-it’s-good classic. But the classy(ish) production compels you to actually take it seriously — John 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.

Paul Douglas, Eva Bartok and Leslie Phillips.

Paul 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.

Leslie 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).

Walter Rilla.

Walter 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).

Eva Bartok.

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.

Jocelyn Lane was 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).

Jocelyn Lane on a magazine cover.

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).

Cinematographer Ted 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).

Leonard Sachs and Leslie Phillips.

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 1984First 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.

Janne Wass

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.

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