NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The career of producer-director William Castle is too often evaluated purely on the barmy gimmicks (Emergo, Percepto) he used to ballyhoo horror-exploitation pictures (The Tingler, Homicidal) into boffo boxo. Castle plainly wanted to be as famous as Alfred Hitchcock became in the 1950s (thanks to his TV show) and stamps himself all over his movies. He even dares impinge on that most sacred of Hollywood spaces, the studio logo: this opens with a tiny Castle in his director’s chair pointing his finger (and trademark cigar) at the torch-holding Columbia lady and shouting ‘zotz!’ whereupon the studio figurehead asks (pertinently) ‘what’s zotz?’ It must have come to Castle’s attention that Hitchcock wasn’t just a Master of Suspense but a genius at black humour (he subversively, but aptly described Psycho as a comedy), which meant he felt obliged to turn out a run of frankly dispiriting macabre comedies (the Hammer Films remake of The Old Dark House is probably pick of the litter: it’s at least better than this, 13 Ghosts and The Busy Body) between his more gruesome (if scarcely ‘straight’) horrors. Oddly, when Robb White or Robert Bloch was scripting and the knowing likes of Vincent Price or Joan Crawford or Nigel Green (in the underrated Let’s Kill Uncle) were cast, Castle’s horrors could be witty: House on Haunted Hill is as much acidic farce as acid bath. But trying to be funny led Castle to fall flat on his face. Case in point: Zotz!
Based on a novel by Walter Karig (a naval hero whose film credits are mostly as an advisor to documentaries of the Victory at Sea vaety) and scripted by Ray Russell (author of the source story for Castle’s Mr Sardonicus and screenwriter of Corman’s The Premature Burial), Zotz! has a ruthless premise but lacks the heart to do anything with it, falling somewhere between Disney’s ‘flying rubber professor’ movies (the script even tags its hero as ‘an absent-minded professor’) and the ruthless British comedy of campus murders A Jolly Bad Fellow (aka They All Died Laughing). A specialist in ancient languages, Professor Jonathan Jones (wobble-chinned Tom Poston) comes into possession of a coin from ‘Ukranistan’ which a former student who is sweet on his niece Cynthia (Zeme North) has found on a dig and decided to send to his girlfriend on a charm bracelet rather than turn over to the proper authorities. Jones decodes the writing on the coin, accidentally bleeds on it, and discovers it has magic properties – if he points at someone while it’s in his pocket, they double over with chest pains … if he says zotz! while pointing at something, it dies or explodes … and if he does something else complicated, time is slowed down. The premise, like A Jolly Bad Fellow, suggests protagonist will be tempted by the opportunity to murder people who get in the way – like his bullying faculty rival Professor Kellgore (Jim Backus) – without a trace … but he never uses the coin to kill, even in self-defence when dimwitted red spies (Carl Don, Mike Mazurki) try to get the secret weapon away from him. At the end, the coin is dropped and balanced over a sewer only for big lug Mazurki to sneeze …
It’s full of stuff that is only theoretically funny … mice let loose in a cocktail party (cue much screeching and climbing light fittings from women in evening dress), a huge cake thrown in the face of the hostess (old Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont), people keeling over on the sidewalk when Cynthia absent-mindedly zotzes the neighbourhood, Kellgore’s dull after-dinner speech slowing down to a drone (slow motion is assumed to be an automatic laugh-getter), a woman (Julia Meade) turning up naked outside the unmanly hero’s house (he admits he’s heard of people losing all their clothes but not being hurt in a lightning strike, but this isn’t followed up – it seems to be a side-effect of activating the coin), the hero so absorbed in reading a book while cycling that he makes a large woman drop all her groceries by nearly running her over. It’s all accompanied by a non-stop mickeymousing score from Bernard Green which adds a wah-wah-wah over every punchline or sight gag in a vain attempt to maintain that this really is honestly funny and not painful. Poston, a drag on The Old Dark House too, is a pop-eyed lightweight who seems vaguely to be going for Danny Kaye circa Merry Andrew, while a cast of solid character comics (including Fred Clark and Cecil Kellaway) are told to mug outrageously. The party scene even falls back on that most desperate measure, cutting from someone taking a pratfall to someone else laughing out loud. The climax, in which Jones uses the coin to slow his descent after being thrown off a building, might have been influential on The Hudsucker Proxy. When the characters go to a drive-in, they naturally take in Castle’s Homicidal, though no mention is made of the fright break or coward’s corner. The expression ‘zotz’ as a euphemism for killing is used throughout Richard Condon’s novel Death of a Politician.
As a fantasy, Zotz! is a bust too. The rules of the coin are arbitrary and once it’s activated anyone can use it. For a story like this to work, there has to be a downside to using the magic power to get ahead (not that Jones ever really does) and there needs to be a darker element to the wish-fulfilment as easy success goes to the put upon feeb’s head (as in even The Brass Bottle or The Mask). Reportedly, Karig’s original story is a fable about nuclear weapons and the consequences of being able to wipe out people just by pointing a finger. Though the spies want the coin as a secret weapon and Jones tries patriotically to give the thing to the US military (which, being 1962, is seen as a responsible and reasonable thing to do rather than insane) there’s little trace of content in this kid-level runaround. In fact, just in case this could be interpreted as peacenik propaganda, the commies – including Albert Glasser (who scored 1950s sf films like The Amazing Colossal Man and Monster From Green Hell) as Kruschev – are presented as zotz-happy clowns and the coda finds Jones dragging his girlfriend to the Lincoln Memorial for patriotic uplift. At the end, the Columbia lady comes back to conclude ‘that’s zotz!’