Friday 3 February 2012

VHS Purgatory:
Zeta One
(Michael Cort, 1969)

Say what you like about Nigel Wingrove and his Redemption empire (and there is plenty to be said), I can’t deny that I owe those sleazy mofos a colossal debt of gratitude. Not only for bringing the work of Jean Rollin to my attention (and indeed, pretty much singlehandedly rescuing his films from obscurity during the ‘90s), but also for introducing me to the likes of Bava, Fulci, Argento, de Ossorio, Jess Franco, even George Romero’s ‘Martin’ and ‘The Crazies’. Long before I began to develop a particular interest of the world of cult horror movies, all of these good things came my way in the form of Redemption VHS, all picked up more or less at random from creepy market stall traders during my lunch-break from whatever crappy temp job I was doing at the time, just because they were cheap, and looked weird, and I was bored.

Being Redemption tapes of course, they often had random bits hacked out of their running time, terrible cropped transfers, inexplicable softcore fetish photography on the front and back cover copy written by illiterates. But still, without their formative influence, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing this today. God only knows, I might have been somewhere else entirely, writing about some healthy and socially acceptable pastime that I’d taken up instead. Maybe I’d be skiing, or building model boats, or discussing the novels of H.E. Bates. Well fuck that – thanks to Redemption, I’m watching late ‘60s sci-fi sexploitation films, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

And even now, Redemption’s pioneering assaults on the PAL home video market are blazing a trail through my consciousness in an indirect sort of way. Certainly, no other critics or movie distributors have gone out of their way to point me in the direction of something like ‘Zeta One’, but heaven help anyone who’d stand between me and the copy of this ropey looking Tigon quickie I spied in a darkened corner of Edinburgh’s Avalanche Records last year, hidden behind a pile of oversized photo-books, affixed with a sign that said something like “VIDEOS - £whatever”.

For once featuring a Redemption cover model who is posed LESS salaciously than most of the women in the actual movie (what’s up with that?), the humble 84 minutes of this thing turn out to be, well… kind of extraordinary actually. Like a head-on collision between Jess Franco’s ‘Girl From Rio’, one of Lindsey Shonteff’s witless James Bond spoofs and the kind of dream a sixteen year old boy might have after too much cheese and a marathon screening of Gerry Anderson’s ‘UFO’, it’s certainly highly entertaining, if nothing else.

After an agreeably swanky credits sequence soundtracked by a crazy psyche-lounge Bond theme pastiche composed by Johnny Hawksworth (the genius who also brought us the Roobarb & Custard theme, believe it or not), the action, such as it is, begins in the slightly cramped bachelor pad of ‘Department 5’ agent James Word (see what they did there?). Word’s role in British Intelligence seems to consist primarily of being seduced by sexy enemy agents and feeding them a bunch of misinformation (OR IS IT?) when they pump him for secret info during pillow-talk, and his latest conquest is none other than the thoroughly personable Yutte Stensgaard, of ‘Lust For a Vampire’ fame. After a bit of chat and an extended bout of strip poker, they finally hit the sack, where James spins her a yarn regarding his recent encounters with a race of alien women who make incursions onto the earthly plain from a realm called, I’m afraid, ‘Angvia’ (and if you’re having trouble with that one, ask Johnny Alucard). “I think it’s out in space somewhere, or perhaps it’s not… perhaps it’s right here, in a negative time zone or something”, Word helpfully explains.

As you might expect, from hereon in things get pretty weird pretty quickly, as the film explores the earth-bound activities of these, uh, Angvians, who seem chiefly concerned with kidnapping earth girls and indoctrinating them into their “vast supernatural ant colony”, transporting them back to Angvia by means of “some sort of time or space machine housed in a pantechnicon, or in other words, a large van” (thanks James).

As fans of trashy movies and pulp adventure stories have long been aware, societies of women deprived of male companionship will naturally tend to fall back on a dress code consisting of revealing and impractical fetish gear, and the ladies of Angvia are certainly no slouches in this department, adopting a lively variation on the quintessential ‘roman’ look (ill-fitting fringed togas, nipple tassels and heavy golden accessories) before stripping down to some truly startling Guido Crepax style metal & rope bikinis for combat and ‘physical endurance training’.

Although brief, our visits to Angvia are pretty cool, the film’s budget at least stretching to some truly whacked out psychedelic visuals and brightly-coloured, geometric sets – including a ‘self-revelation room’ walled with pulsing mylar sheeting like something out of Ira Cohen’s ‘Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda’ – all accompanied by bursts of demented Sun Ra style abstract electro-blather that provide a stark contrast to the ham-fisted library cues used through most of the rest of the film (sounds like someone in the editing room was jamming ‘whimsical chase themes vol # 27’ pretty heavily, sad to say). I’d like to be able to credit these way-out sounds to composer Hawksworth (they certainly tally with the gratuitous dissonance he threw into the opening theme), but with a movie like this I guess it’s equally likely they just stole them from somewhere else, or cued up ‘fucked up atonal space jazz vol # 12’. Who knows.

Thus far, it seem as if this whole Angvia business takes its inspiration either from cheesy ‘alien women’ flicks like 1956’s Anglo-American ‘Fire Maidens From Outer Space’ (very much the direct forerunner of the kinda stuff we’re witnessing here), and partly from Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru stories. I’ve always been quite fond of Rohmer’s conception of a hidden island inhabited by a race of man-hating female warriors and their all-powerful queen (sort of doing for the gender issue what Fu Manchu did for racial equality), and have always been kinda surprised that the idea wasn’t seized upon more frequently by exploitation/adventure-happy late ‘60s filmmakers. As it is, Harry Alan Towers (don of the Christopher Lee ‘Fu Manchu’ series) did at least commission the aforementioned Lindsay Shonteff to make ‘The Million Eyes of Sumuru’ in 1967, a film chiefly notable (or so I’m told – I’d love to actually see it sometime) for preceding the also aforementioned ‘The Girl From Rio’, which began filming as a proposed sequel, retaining the character of Sumuru and her secret city of Femina, but quickly spiralling off onto some other shit entirely as Jess Franco’s wayward imagination took control.

In terms of both its sci-fi take on the Sumuru mythos and its ultra-kinky pop art aesthetic, ‘The Girl From Rio’ would seem like a natural companion piece to ‘Zeta One’. Any similarities though can probably be regarded as purely coincidental, as ‘Zeta One’ was actually directly inspired (although curiously this is acknowledged nowhere in the credits) by Zeta magazine – a totally bizarre mod/sci-fi ‘men’s mag’ published in London in the late ‘60s. Sadly, very little info on the magazine seems to be available online, but you can look at some scanned pages from an issue here, and you totally should, because they’re really far out! Seemingly an attempt to blend avant/arty softcore photography with some kind of pulp sci-fi photo-story, the scans clearly reveal that the whole Angvia concept, the characters and situations found in the film, and overall approach to costume and design, came straight from the pages of the magazine. Crazy stuff.

Anyway, back to the movie, and back on earth the agents of Angvia take care to adopt appropriate garb, which, this being 1969, naturally consists of bright red mini-dresses, white leather thigh boots and Mary Quant flapper wigs. As they hop around London trying to induct a young stripper called Ted into their ranks, the girls are pursued not by James Word and Department 5 (he’s back at the shack bedding another Angvian agent) but by some curious characters who seem to be their chief antagonists at earth – renegade aristocrat Colonel Broughton, played by James Robertson Justice, and his chief crony Swyne, played by Charles Hawtrey.

Yes, that James Robertson Justice and that Charles Hawtrey.

I know, I know.

By means of assorted capers too convoluted to bother going into here – including a thoroughly incongruous and unconvincing torture chamber sequence in which a poor thigh-booted maiden is subjected to the indignity of having Justice and Hawtrey leer over her going “oh, my dear.. my dear..” and so forth – the Colonel ends up dispatching his private army of ne’erdowells (and seriously, they’re one rough looking bunch – I think the producers just hung around outside a casting call for a Hammer tavern scene and picked up the rejects) to hunt an Angvian prisoner Most-Dangerous-Game style across his ‘Scottish’ estate.

This prompts Zeta herself (the hereforeto unmentioned Dawn Addams) into action, mobilising a squad of Angvian shock troops to take on the Colonel’s men, and thus before long we find ourselves witnessing the delirious spectacle of a gang of deerstalker & tweed-clad bully boys running around some National Trust woodland pursued by squads of buxom, Crepax un-bikini and flapper wig clad Angvians (one of them none other than Hammer fan favourite Valerie Leon), who proceed to zap them to death with invisible laser beams fired from their fingers! What a sight! Surely my eyes doth lie when they present to me with such wonders!

I’d like to think that this singular sequence represents the vision those swinging cats at Tigon had of the coming decade. With censorship on the retreat and the counter-culture encroaching further into mainstream society, who can blame them for picturing the 1970s as a wondrous era in which the fusty guardians of the old order would be roasted alive in their plus fours amid a hurricane of gigantic boobs and invisible laser beams, to the accompaniment of parping, faux-funky chase music?

That such a starry-eyed vision so swiftly ran aground in the face of the three-day week, ‘Mutiny On The Buses’ and close-ups of Robin Askwith’s pimply arse is a tragedy beyond words. No wonder Tony Tenser packed it in to sell wicker furniture.

For a brief moment though, we can watch ‘Zeta One’ and enjoy the last gasp of a rare moment of cultural optimism that extended even into the world of fly-by-night soft porn movies. Full of seedy detail, unlikely conversations, perplexed looking actors, opportunistic location shooting and all manner of mystifying strangeness, almost every shot in ‘Zeta One’ is an unadulterated joy for fans of Vintage British Weird, a perfect piece of bonkers late night viewing on all levels.

With the exception of a 1972 short subject, ‘Zeta One’ marks writer/director Michael Cort’s sole statement in the cinematic medium, but IMDB does at least boast a nice low-res picture of him playing the trumpet. What a fella!

As is inevitably the case with VHS reviews, the images used in this post aren’t my own screengrabs, but are respectfully borrowed from here, there and everywhere – most notably from the ever-wonderful Island of Terror. The poster above was found at the no less wonderful Pulp International.

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