Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?
PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again —
While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.
So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).
The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister…
The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.
Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.
Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.