Zotz! directed by William Castle
Today, the name “Tom Poston” might not resonate with anyone who happens to be younger than those in the baby boom generation. Boomers and their parents will surely remember Poston, however, from his numerous appearances on 1960s game shows such as To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line?, not to mention any number of sitcoms, including The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. His film appearances, however, were scarce and infrequent, making his comedic turn in producer/director William Castle’s 1962 offering, Zotz!, one to especially cherish. Castle, at this point, was on a genuine roll, having released, over the four previous years, no less than five wonderful, gimmicky horror films that are still much beloved five decades later: House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus and Homicidal. Zotz! was something of a departure, a lighthearted fantasy played for laughs, and one that, as it turns out, is a wonderful entertainment for any age group, thanks in large part to Poston’s hugely ingratiating performance.
In the film, Poston plays the part of Prof. Jonathan Jones, an expert on ancient Eastern languages at a college in the fictitious town of Saracen Valley, CA. Jones is something of the absentminded type (he has a book stand on his bicycle’s handlebars so that he can read while pedaling!) as well as a health food fanatic (his everyday breakfast is a glass of sauerkraut juice with a big bowl of dry wheat germ; thus, how bizarre it is when he is later shown sprinkling monosodium glutamate on his “fillet of eggplant!”). Jones’ life is turned upside down one day when he translates the inscription on his niece Cynthia’s (Zeme North) coin amulet, which she’d received from her archaeologist boyfriend. The coin confers upon Jones three wonderful powers from the ancient god Zotz: the power to inflict pain with the pointing of a finger; the power to induce slow motion by uttering the word “Zotz;” and the power to kill by pointing and saying “Zotz” simultaneously. Unfortunately, these newfound abilities only cause Jones a world of problems, making his colleagues believe him to be nuts, and later resulting in his abduction by Russian agents who are desirous of his awesome powers…
Working from a script by Ray Russell and Walter Karig (Karig was the author of the 1947 Zotz! novel, which has been read by how many people, I wonder), Castle does a fine job of crafting still another fun piece of escapism. He is abetted by a great cast of supporting actors; old pros who play their parts straight and thus turn in marvelous comedic performances. The cast includes Cecil Kellaway (still going strong here at age 71) as the dean at Jones’ school; Jim Backus (former Mr. Magoo and future Gilligan’s Island castaway) as Jones’ rival for the position of department head; former Groucho foil Margaret Dumont (here in her penultimate role) as the dean’s wife; Fred Clark as a Pentagon general; Mike Mazurki, here in a nonspeaking role, as the thuggish Russian agent Igor; and an uncredited cameo by Louis Nye, who had often appeared with Poston on the old Steve Allen Show, as a wacky “death ray” inventor. Still, this is Poston’s show all the way, and he runs with it. Surprisingly, his bumbling prof is later shown to be fairly suave when charming the newly arrived language professor Virginia Fenster (Julia Meade), and even pretty cool and resourceful when opposing those Communist baddies.
Castle must have appreciated Poston’s contribution here, or at least enjoyed working with him, as the actor also appeared in Castle’s following film, The Old Dark House (a 1963 retooling of the 1932 classic). Zotz! also features several sequences that are quite amusing, such as the party scene, in which Jones releases a slew of white mice to demonstrate his newfound powers; the sight of the Backus character being compelled to give a dinner toast in slow motion; the discovery that the copilot of the plane that is whisking Jones to Mother Russia is a dead ringer for Nikita Khrushchev; and the fact that Cynthia and her date go to a drive-in movie to watch … Homicidal! (A good choice, says I!) Unlike Castle’s previous horror classics, Zotz! was essentially gimmick-free, with the exception of the complimentary, plastic Zotz coins that were given to all theater patrons. (Hmmm, I wonder if I might be able to purchase one of these on eBay…) The film should appeal to fans of such pictures as The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel, 1963’s Son of Flubber. The target demographic of Zotz! is probably 12-year-olds, but somehow, I found it charming and enjoyed it immensely. Score another one for the great William Castle!