My respect for John Gilling is rising as I begin to see him more as the idiosyncratic weirdball he was, rather than as a jobbing journeyman, my earlier impression. Certainly, realizing he had written for Tod Slaughter and made OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE long before his Hammer days made me appreciate that his association with horror movies came from love, not mere convenience. But 1956’s THE GAMMA PEOPLE (recommended — by which I mean “casually mentioned” — by Joe Dante) is something else.
Faced with an artifact like THE GAMMA PEOPLE, a luminous and misshapen lump of aggregated and mysterious material, like a kryptonite meteor fallen from who knows where, one is forced to concoct theories to account for its existence — the human brain, a question-and-answer organ, is simply unable to accept the object as found and describe it. We must fall prey to the deadly Intentional Fallacy and try to fathom what was going on in the minds of those who created this conundrum. Is it an alien probe, buried for decades, the product of natural but unknown processes, or a chunk of frozen piss that fell off the side of an aeroplane?
My theory may not account for all THE GAMMA PEOPLE’s peculiarities, but it works for me. I think Gilling and his co-writer John W. Gossage were aiming to make a Charters and Caldicott film, and inspired by both the success of Abbot & Costello’s horror spoofs, and Gilling’s own experience with Arthur Lucan/Old Mother Riley, they decided to write a Charters & Caldicott versus Mad Science scenario.
The business of the characters being in a train carriage that gets disconnected and abandoned in a Ruritanian dictatorship is straight out of THE LADY VANISHES, so that’s exhibit A. The pair’s polite, befuddled reactions clinch this theory for me.
However, two things occurred to make this attempt at forging a new double-act turn out quite wrong. One is the decision to make the film a dumb sci-fi movie, about which more later. The other is a two-parter: first, you can’t just invent a double act. The best of them seem to happen by accident, when two people come together and have comic chemistry, and somebody else, besides the audience, notices. William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed as leading man and leading lady, but BECAME a double-act because the teaming worked so well. Martin & Lewis were thrown together with basically no materials and there was an explosion of comedy energy which still reverberates.
The second part of the double-act problem is that at some point it was decided that the film needed an American, and so Paul Douglas, fresh from JOE MACBETH (New York gangster version of Shakespeare filmed in England) was wheeled in to team up with Leslie Phillips. Impersonated by such mismatched talents, the Naunton & Wayne effect is seriously distorted and blurred, only just discernible. Phillips, a great comic force, gets the tone alright, but is vaguely dashing and randy, always, so his version of the Englishman abroad is apt to be racier than the Hitchcock original. Douglas is a lumpen golem, a two-fisted Frankenstein Mobster who’s very nearly cuboid in shape. He looks incongruous in any of the film’s throng of genres.
So the set-up is so misguided it’s kind of delightful in spite of itself. Then we add the plot, which is about a fugitive scientist trying to create child geniuses with gamma radiation (hey, it worked for the Incredible Hulk). He’s also creating learning-disabled “goons”, though it’s never clear whether these are accidents or deliberate. For no reason explained, all the goons are adults and all the geniuses are kids. This would make sense if his intent were to fashion a sort of zombie army.
The IMDb tells us that the original story was by Robert Aldrich (uncredited) — I guess it could have formed a nuclear trilogy along with KISS ME DEADLY and the lesser WORLD FOR RANSOM. Aldrich being chums with Joseph Losey forms a strange connection with Losey’s atomic kid drama THESE ARE THE DAMNED. Plus there’s the Hammer connection. But THE GAMMA PEOPLE was produced by, of all people, Cubby Broccoli, with money from Columbia which seems to have facilitated considerable European location filming — probably in Germany.
Best joke: a scream is explained away by a suspicious character: “One of our poor burghers met with an accident,” and Sir Leslie P says, with the most magnificent straight face, “Oh? What happened to the poor burgher?” Possibly the kind of joke you have to play so deadpan it looks like you don’t realize it’s there, so the censor won’t leap from his chair and wave at the screen like Norma Desmond, or press a secret button on his arm rest that causes four men to charge into the screening room carrying a giant blue pencil.
Walter Rilla, whose son directed VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, is clearly the ideal choice to mass-produce spooky Aryan super-kids.
But the leading lady is Eva Bartok, best remembered for Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. I’m always haunted by her real-life end: she wound up indigent in London, was hospitalized, and tried to tell the doctors and nurses that she had been a movie star. No one believed her. That’s the strange thing about life and films. Her fame evaporated, then she evaporated, but her films are still here.