- Higher Ground
At first glance, working Hegel’s dialectic into an analysis of Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966) seems akin to killing a housefly with a B-52. What is there to say about an obscure director’s reworking of 1950’s teen drive-in fodder that evades plain sight? Zontar features the genre’s obligatory ethereal pitch oscillation—a Theremin?—to signify outer space, while badly milked dialogue and visual gaffs signify one of the cheapest mass market movies ever made--budgeted at $20,000 to $30,000.
The 80-minute Zontar, shot in 16 mm color, is one of eight pictures Larry Buchanan made for a syndicated television package that included The Eye Creatures (1965), Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966), and Mars Needs Women (1967). These films--known as Buchanan’s Azalea Pictures--fed the voracious appetite for feature content triggered by the rise of new UHF stations and 24-hour color broadcasting.
In its 2004 obituary of Buchanan (b. 1923), the New York Times stated: he made a “spate of lurid, awful B movies.” Rob Craig’s enthusiastic examination of Buchanan’s oeuvre testifies that the Times at least got the lurid part right. But then, according to Craig, even cultists have missed the mark, viewing Buchanan as “badfilm” entertainment, “low-rent cinema gone haywire, good only for chuckles,” or dismissing him as a “hack, a cultural anomaly unworthy of further consideration.”
However, argues Craig, no B-movie director covered higher ground, such as the Bergmanesque Strawberries Need Rain (1970), or did more with less. Take the birth of The Naked Witch (1961), as recalled in Buchanan’s 1996 autobiography, It Came from Hunger: Confessions of a Cinema Schlockmeister. A film distributor in Texas wanted to back “a drive-in picture with lots of nudity and very little dialogue,” adding, “and all I can spend is $8,000.” The Naked Witch returned its production costs 10-fold and gave Buchanan his first “hit.” Apart from his luridness, Craig also sees virtue in Buchanan’s “exciting” crudity, “abiding intelligence,” sophisticated narrative structures, and experimental flair. Craig wants to accord Buchanan his rightful place in the low tier pantheon that includes Sam Fuller, Edgar G. Ulmer, Roger Corman and Oscar Micheaux—all once-dismissed or neglected B-movie auteurs.
Craig builds his case by examining nearly the entire Buchanan catalog of some 30 pictures. He treats the films as shards of American history, fitting the bits into a frame linking recurring Buchanan motifs to societal fissures. Thus, Craig’s essays also work as stand-alone pieces of cultural criticism—no viewing experience required. Indeed, the Buchanan bizarre quotient is such that Craig’s book could easily pass as a fictive, parallel account of the 60s.
Craig more or less proves this florid claim through a mix of copious citations and repetitive exegesis meant to register Buchanan’s punching power. Patriarchy, the “middle-class heterosexual couple,” and the U.S. government sustain repeated body shots. For example, in It’s Alive (1969) “the entrenched patriarchy rears its ugly head one last time as it tries to drag civilization down, literally, to the bowels of the earth.” In Zontar, the housewife Martha speaks like an automaton, “as if she is mourning not only her suburban laziness [she purchased the dessert pie] but the very loss of tradition the extended family entailed, a tradition lost in the sterile postwar community . . . Suburbia, to the modern woman, is both sentence and prison” (p. 99). And in The Eye Creatures, the Air Force’s cover up of a flying saucer proves that “the military-industrial complex not only lies and cheats and obscures truth, but revels in these dark acts.”
At times, however, Craig weakens his crusade with a sprinkling of grad-school speak, circa 1980. For example, he refracts the stars in Naughty Dallas (1964), Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976), and Good Night, Sweet Marilyn (1989) through the glass of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis. This turns Buchanan into a bagman, raises [End Page 91] the shrink to omnipotence, and enervates the reader with dogma about...