When I think of director William Castle, I usually think of two things: B-horror movies like “House on the Haunted Hill,” “The Tingler, “ and “Macabre,” and the gimmicks that often went along with those movies. Castle, however, did venture into some other genres. Today’s film is one of Castle’s excursions into comedy, 1962’s “Zotz!”
The film centers on a language professor named Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston). Jonathan is, well, let’s just say he’s wired a bit differently than most people. He is often found riding his bicycle from his home to the college campus where he works. Of course, he has a special attachment on his handlebars so he can also read a book as he rides…causing many near miss accidents. Oh, and his drink of choice is usually sauerkraut juice. Jones lives with his niece Cynthia (Zeme North) who one morning receives a letter from a former student of Jonathan’s who is on an archaeological dig. The letter also contains a gift, a bracelet with an ancient coin attached. The coin bears the word “Zotz.”
At first, Jonathan ignores the coin, but when he catches sight of the ancient writing on it he is intrigued. He convinces Cynthia to hand the trinket over so he can study it. He soon begins to decipher the writing on the coin, but as he translates the words a sudden storm breaks out. He is then disturbed by a knock at the window. It turns out to be a naked woman. She claims to have been struck by lightning, which caused her clothes to be blown off. Jonathan later learns that she is a new addition to the university faculty, Professor Virginia Fenster (Julia Meade). He helps her out, somewhat unwillingly, but soon becomes somewhat enamored with the lovely lady.
The next day in one of Jonathan’s classes, strange things begin to happen. As he points at various class members to call on them, each is struck by sudden pain. That night, he translates the writing on the coin and learns that it grants special powers to whoever possesses it. Pointing at someone inflicts pain, speaking the word “Zotz” causes “retarded movement” (in other words, slow-motion), and doing both together causes sudden death.
Jonathan soon begins to try out his new power on various people and animals. He even plans to show off his discovery at a party hosted by the university’s Dean Updike (Cecil Kellaway) and his wife (Margaret Dumont). Also in attendance are Jonathan’s academic rival Horatio Kellgore (Jim Backus) and, to his surprise, Professor Fenster. But when Jonathan tries to demonstrate on some mice, nothing happens. Unfortunately, he is unaware that Cynthia has taken the coin back from him…which is causing all sorts of craziness on her date.
Jonathan then ends up trying to take his discovery to the Pentagon, figuring the military would be interested in it as a weapon. The powers that be don’t take him seriously, however…but his discovery soon catches the eye of some Russian agents who set out to capture Jonathan and get the powers for themselves.
“Zotz!” is based on a novel of the same name written by Walter Karig, who was one of the several authors who used the name Carolyn Keene when authoring Nancy Drew stories. It’s certainly different from most of William Castle’s other efforts. It has an interesting premise, but it doesn’t necessarily work well as a comedy. Oh, it’s got some funny moments, but I couldn’t help thinking that the film may have been more successful had Castle approached it with his normal slant towards horror rather than trying to get laughs. I mean let’s face it, giving someone the power to inflict pain by pointing, and worse, to kill with a word and a gesture has a lot of B-horror movie potential. While I admire Castle for trying something different, this story could’ve used a bit more of the macabre that he was known for.
While Castle may not have had as much of a flair for comedy, he does get a solid assist from his cast. Tom Poston is enjoyable in the lead role. He is perfectly cast as a guy who’s too much of a genius to realize that he’s the ultimate doofus. And you pretty much can’t go wrong with Jim Backus, who is great as Jonathan’s scheming rival. It’s also great to see Groucho Marx’ favorite leading lady Margaret Dumont in a small role.
“Zotz!” is a film that’s worth a look, especially for those interested in William Castle’s career. However, it’s a film that leaves one begging for a slightly darker take on the same material.