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Sunday, October 30, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 25: Zaat (1971)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Story by Ron Kivett and Lee O. Larew
Screenplay by Don Barton and an uncredited Arnold Stevens
Directed by Don Barton and an uncredited Arnold Stevens

Marshall Grauer:  Dr. Kurt Leopold
Wade Popwell:  The Monster
Paul Galloway:  Sheriff Lou Krantz

Well, damn. Looks like I'm busting out the blank tile rule again this year because there aren't that many October-appropriate movies that start with Y (which is one of the two letters I had to pull the ripcord on). Ironically enough, those are the two letters I warned someone about when he wanted to join our merry band of OCD sufferers and write HubrisWeen reviews earlier this year. He wised up (or "chewed through the straps", to hear Dr. Freex tell it) but the point remains valid. J and Y are often the hardest ones to find. O isn't easy either, or X. Pretty soon I'm gonna have two W flicks and two Z flicks in a row, or use movies with numerals as the starting characters.

But enough of that crap, it's time to watch a movie whose title doesn't tell you a goddamned thing about what's going to happen. Which is probably a good idea, because "mad scientist turns himself into a lungfish monster" is a great premise for people who enjoy the peculiar charms of the Adult Onset Lycanthropy genre but I don't see mass audiences charging to a drive-in to watch The Human Lungfish Strikes! or something like that.

The film starts with a closeup of some seaweed and the unseen narrator calling it "Sargassum:  The Weed of Deceit". The narrator is obsessed with a fish that blends in to the sargassum thanks to its skin coloration and textutre. Apparently he likes that fish the way I dug Gila monsters when I was in grade school. After seeing the sargassum fish for a while we also get some stock footage of a shark and a scorpion fish as well; then, out of nowhere the narrator gives a pretty good Mad Science laugh and says he's not insane, they are. I'm assuming it's a pretty general "they". He also says that today's the day he'll become "one of you"; "you" being "a fish" instead of "some stock footage", probably. 

Then the narrator, revealed as a middle-aged guy standing on a beach, says that once he's changed himself into a fish he'll conquer the universe with the help of his oceanic brethren. That's got to be at least a score of 8.2 on the standard ten point Malign Hypercognition Syndrome scale, although I'm at a loss to imagine how one will conquer the universe with a bunch of fish (even ones that can blend in with sargassum). Over the credits, the mad scientist (who is named Dr. Leopold, but we won't find that out for a while) walks to his laboratory and a folk song about sargassum plays on the soundtrack. I do not know what the deal is with sargassum, but I will say it's a terrific word to type. Once the song runs out we're treated, if that's the word, to a real-time sequence of Dr. Leopold trudging to his lab in some kind of industrial space. While mixing up a bottle of chemical goop (that's supposed to make gigantic fish that eat human flesh), Leopold's voiceover says the formula can be expressed as "Z sub A, A sub T" or ZAAT. So, hey, title completion very early in the film.

Leopold has an octopus in a really small tank. That can't be that much fun for the poor creature; they're very intellegent. Maybe it'll sneak out of its prison and go catch a movie or something. While we get a look at the octopus, we also see Leopold looking over his recipe for making a fish creature and he recites the procedure (which I guess he wrote himself, unless he's working with the equivalent of shake-and-bake for his mad science revenge plot). While Dr. Leopold pulls a lungfish out of its tank he thinks about its Encyclopedia Britannica entry and then puts it back in the tank. Did I just watch the mad scientist try to take his fish for a walk?

It took the doctor twenty years to come up with his scheme, which means he went bad reasonably young, I guess. He does some SCIENCE! with some colored liquids and shuffles over to his gigantic day planner Aztec calendar wheel, upon which he has drawn and written what he's been planning to do for the last seven years. Today (or a day very soon) is the day for "Self Transformation", so we'll watch Dr. Leopold flip some switches on a control board and there will be a buzzing noise on the soundtrack for a little bit. Twelve minutes into the film and there hasn't been a single syllable of spoken dialogue, but we do get to see Dr. Leopold take his shirt off and shoot himself up with a gigantic syringe of what I assume is ZAAT. Then, again in real time, he plods over to a big water tank and lowers himself into it after turning on some more equipment that has blinking lights on it. I'm a complete sucker for low-budget computer noises in science fiction movies, so the beeping boops in this section are plenty entertaining to me. Add in the Geiger counter noise for no reason and show off Dr. Leopolds saggy old-man boxer shorts as he prepares to lower himself into the ZAAT tank and you've got some prime "we don't particularly know what we're doing" material for the film.

Dr. Leopold has rigged up a block and tackle to lower himself into the transformation tank, which he does (and sinks below the surface). Lights blink and bubbles froth in the tank, and after about thirty seconds Dr. Leopold has been transformed into a bipedal lungfish monster in a pretty decently realized low budget monster suit. He sees that he doesn't look much like a catfish but doesn't mind too much, then plods over to his mad science day planner and crosses "Self Transformation" off his to-do list. He scribbles a little dot over the hand-drawn map of Florida and picks up his spray bottle of ZAAT. The voiceover says "And now, another big challenge for you," as the stuntman in the fish monster suit tries to walk down stairs without falling (SPOILER:  He succeeds). 

I hope you like Strolling Monster footage, cause that is exactly what is on the menu now. Dr. Lungfish wanders around a bit in a forest, squirting ZAAT at a lungfish like it's a cat he wants to stay off the furniture. Then he goes for a refreshing dip in what I presume are the Everglades (this film is severely allergic to even the most basic exposition). Some clips of fish and amphibians mix in with shots of Lungfish Man squirting some ZAAT in the water while the Geiger counter noises go off on the soundtrack. Also on the soundtrack--some electronic bleeps that go faster and faster while nothing on the screen speeds up. It seems stagey and artificial even for this film.

Off on a sandy patch of land, Sheriff Lou Krantz and Rex Baker, a marine biologist from the DNR (I think) talk about the presence of walking catfish in the area while the Creature From The Industrial Building peers at them from the shallows (and, to be fair, I thought that was a cool shot). Then Leopold goes back to his lair, making me wonder to myself where he keeps his keys. He's got no pockets. He crosses off the picture of Florida on his big elaborate circle of Mad Science and then a voiceover of another scientist berating Dr. Leopold for tampering in God's domain pops up as an auditory flashback to earlier days. A scientist from his past yells at Dr. Leopold for unrealistic theories and tells him to cool it with his experiments. Given that the human lungfish stomps off in a slow fury after thinking about that, I'd bet we're going to see some LUNGFISH VENGEANCE at some point.

But not any time soon. The next scene is Sheriff Krantz and Dr. Baker getting on each other's nerves while Dr. Baker, wearing what appears to be a pajama top, does some chemistry while the sheriff calls him "boy" (which comes across really badly because Dr. Baker's a black dude) and grumbles about walking catfish breaking into peoples' garages, which sounds like a particularly Florida kind of problem to me. Dr. Baker has found elevated levels of radiation on the water samples he's going through, which means some kind of pollution in the area. He's probably thinking more along the lines of industrial runoff than "grudge-holding manfish with a bottle of chemicals", but if he's a decent enough scientist he'll figure it out sooner or later.

And then we go back to Dr. Leopold swimming in the Everglades in some honestly pretty cool underwater photography (though the film can't seem to decide if he's in three feet of water or fifteen). He spies on a young woman out camping and painting a landscape before going back to his busy schedule of swimming around and squirting ZAAT from time to time. Stock footage of some animals react to the ZAAT exposure by dying, and Dr. Baker starts taking a few more samples of either lake water or animals.

Meanwhile, somewhere close by or not, Dr. Lungfish sees one of the scientists who laughed at him at the University out fishing with his wife and sun. The fish creature swims under their boat and tips 'em into the water, where he drowns the scientist and his son and pursues the man's wife, who screams and faints, but survives the ordeal. Over in the morgue, Sheriff Krantz and Dr. Baker look at the dead scientist's body, which has claw marks on the side of its neck. Baker says it's a claw mark while the sheriff says it's a fish bite. And back in his Vengeance Pad, the fish monster crosses off one of the two pictures on his big vengeance chart before fixating on the remaining one. 

Over at the hospital, Sheriff Krantz gives a brief impromptu interview to a journalist, wherein the audience learns that 1) the sheriff is just dogshit at giving interviews, and 2) the ZAAT in the lake has apparently seeped into a reservoir or something because area people are getting sick from exposure to it. Over in the lake, Dr. Baker is fishing with a net to get samples of animals that might show more radiation contamination; Dr. Fishman swims into his net and tears it to pieces in a fit of anger. Which gives the doctor a pretty good look at the thing Leopold turned himself into and one of the puzzle pieces re:  what the heck is going on here slips neatly into place for the marine biologist. A lengthy phone call to someone or other gives us Dr. Baker's half of the conversation about the stuff we just saw happen in the movie.

Then it's time to watch Lungfish Man stalk that woman who was painting the wilderness; her dog notices the mutated scientist but she doesn't. Then the monster stalks the other scientist that pooh-poohed his theories back in the day; like virtually everyone else in the film, that guy's planning to go fishing later so the Leopold Beast sneaks up on him while he's goofing with a rod and reel. The guy goes down, his neck fatally clawed, to be discovered later (I guess). But enough of that monster attack shit, it's time for a Winnebago with INPIT written on the side to pull up and the jumpsuited people inside to walk past paparazzi (...huh?) before talking to Sheriff Krantz about the strange deaths in the area. Although the movie doesn't let us know what INPIT means right here, it's the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigative Team. Think of them as Global Frequency on a budget and without the specialized skills.

After some more stalking, Leopold snags that wildlife painter lady and pulls her underwater when she goes for a swim. Turns out he's going to sneak her back to his lab and try to turn her into the Bride of Lungfish; this attempt fails when a fuse blows (or something) and the electrical equipment craps out. Either the ZAAT poisons the victim or she drowns, but either way there's not going to be a female lungfish creature in Dr. Leopold's life any time soon--especially after he wrecks a bunch of his gear in a fit of rage. It's too bad, because he pinned a sketch of a woman up on his big day planner wheel scheme explainer, and now he has to make another sketch and kidnap another woman after tossing the body of his first abductee in a previously unseen tank of super-strong acid.

Right around that time the Woman From INPIT goes looking for water samples in what I thought was the Everglades but which the film now informs me is a landlocked spring. I guess this means the lungfish beast won't be teaming up with or fighting the were-jellyfish from Sting of Death. ALAS! Anyway, the INPIT researcher calls back to her base of operations to get data about just how much radioactivity ought to be in the water in Florida and while she (and the audience) wait for the results on that request the guy from INPIT and Dr. Baker string up a big net to try and catch the fish creature that Baker saw tear his tiny net to pieces. The INPIT agents think they're dealing with some kind of mutant lungfish that has become homicidal, which does seem at least a little more plausible than "mad scientist turned himself into an amphibious creature and killed people he disliked from his academic career".

That night the INPIT crew and Dr. Blake are hanging out in the RV talking about whether or not the monster's going to be a redneck (yes, really) when Dr. Leopold swims into the net they've strung across the mouth of the spring. Their Winnebago has some kind of monster detector alarm amongst its accoutrama, so they pile out to see what's going on with the net after it chimes. The creature's good and tangled up in the net, too, but manages to escape and attack the trio of investigators on the shore. The man from INPIT stabs the monster while the woman gets some photographs of it before it dives back into the spring and presumably escapes.

Next up is the sheriff giving an angry interview to a reporter while surrounded by dozens of angry townspeople (it's a pretty cool crowd scene, honestly; they got plenty of people to be in it). While there's a monster on the loose, the plan is to send all the townsfolk away to the nearby city of Fort Dunn for the Red Cross to treat as evacuees; the remaining people will lock their doors and keep a gun handy in case the monster comes by. And somewhere in there the sheriff will try to do something about the monster, probably.

There's also a cool shot of the monster peeking in at the INPIT guy's hospital room (while the INPITters and Dr. Blake are looking at photos of Dr. Leopold's current configuration). There's some romantic tension between the two INPIT staffers that barely registers, and they wonder what kind of venom the sea monster they've been tracking might have. Then it's time to see Leopold stagger back to his lab, suffering the effects of the stab wound that he sustained when attacking the investigators. The interior monologue returns after a pretty lengthy absence, where we learn that Dr. Lungfish is indeed planning to kidnap another woman and turn her into a fish monster as well. Then he has a flashback to the botched experiment that killed his first victim, even though we just saw that about five minutes ago. Since he is a literalist kind of mad science unholy mutation, he sketches out another pretty woman and pins it to his revenge board before stomping out to carry out the next phase of his plan (or, perhaps, re-try to carry out the current phase of his plan).

So I'm starting to think the sheriff isn't a very good detective, because it's after multiple fish creature sightings that he remembers Dr. Leopold from back when he was a human, and how he bought an old research station as war surplus from the Department of Whoever It Is That Manages Sea Labs And Sells Them To Mad Scientists. INPIT has the lab listed as a possible source of radioactive contamination, and Dr. Blake and everyone else is still treating the monster as a mutated fish that's attacking when it feels threatened rather than a grudge-holding dweeb that made himself into a creature. Turns out the two dead scientists used to work in that lab back in the day; two others that are connected to the facility get a call from their friendly neighborhood deputies to warn them about the monster and its apparent mad on for people who used to work at the lab.

The creature goes for an awkward stroll at night, still hurting from the wound in its side. At length, it makes its way down to a pharmacy and forces its way in, looking for the really good painkillers. Whatever Leopold found in a refrigerator, he drinks a bottle of it and almost immediately gets woozy. For some reason the lungfish man knocks a whole bunch of stuff off the shelves before going out into the night again. He walks past the sheriff's station where the deputy fails to notice the monster outside, then walks to a porch where his obligatory two necking teens / victims declare that their map speck town is too dull to attract a monster. The boy gets reasonably gorily slashed to death and the creature drinks some of his blood. The sheriff charges towards the location where he heard the girl on the porch screaming, but finds a folk guitar-and-flute duo performing and settles in to watch the show.


The interminable concert goes on long enough for the monster to walk up to the building, hear what's going on, and stomp off into the darkness. The sheriff leads the hippies off like he's the Pied Piper of Haight-Ashbury and they saunter down the darkened streets of the town with a police escort. They wind up at the sheriff's department, put into the cells for their own protection (and without a single word of protest from anyone who just got locked up). Then the monster strolls past the INPIT vehicle to the accompaniment of a musical sting. Yet another shot of him peeking in through a window at humans lets him see the two INPIT agents making out in the guy's hospital bed. Filled with anger because he's the only one of his species and doesn't get to canoodle with anyone, the creature goes off into the night.

Sheriff Krantz stops off at the drug store to start working on the theft report there, only to find Blake and the INPIT dude are already there taking fingerprints and analyzing the slimy inhuman footprints on the floor. They're forced to conclude that the creature was intelligent enough to realize that it needed something from the drugstore and then got it (which is a rational conclusion, yes, but how were they going to explain it to each other than the bog monster figured out how to read?).

In the morning everyone goes looking for the monster, but not in the lab where they knew an obsessive scientist used to hang out. The INPIT guy has a Geiger counter, because of course he does, and he leads the sheriff off in search of whatever's setting it to full crackle (working theory:  atomic fish monster). And Leopold, in his lab, has another syringe of Monster Juice ready to stick into the woman from INPIT once he kidnaps her. This would be a fine time for the tension to ratchet up and the action to build, but instead the woman from INPIT takes a phone call from headquarters and the two guys looking for the monster wander around a lot.

Oh, and here's where the sheriff says that there used to be a mad scientist named Leopold who lived in the area and wanted to turn people into fish. Which is the kind of thing you don't want to hear about a week into the investigation, damn it! Who hired this man? At least the INPIT guy flips out about as much as I did. Nobody notices the six-foot-tall lungfish creature wandering around the town in broad daylight as it stalks the woman from INPIT, who is changing out of her jumpsuit so the audience has a woman in her underwear to ogle before they take a look at her taking a shower (from the outside and blocked by the curtain). She starts typing some correspondence while the monster slowly walks past the window behind her, which would be a really suspenseful shot if the movie wasn't moving so ponderously.

Evntually she gets abducted by Leopold, but not before she dodges him once and throws some stuff at him, which gives her points for not being a helpless victim. But she still leaves the house in a fireman's carry over the monster's shoulder. The three dudes who left her alone charge very belatedly to the rescue and find the place empty. The INPIT guy makes a command decision:  it's time for all of them to go to the lab that Dr. Leopold bought and take care of this fish monster problem once and for all. The sheriff and Dr. Blake go in the lawman's Jeep while the INPIT investigator drives a sight gag of an aquatic dune buggy into the spring. It's even less impressive than it sounds, because the thing stalls out in the water. He winds up ditching the ludicrous little vehicle and heading off on foot, toting a rifle. He flounders around in the swamps by the spring like a compete moron, making me wish it wasn't too late for the movie to order in a different hero.

Meanwhile, Dr Baker and Sheriff Kranz make it to the research station and find that there's a generator still running, which supplies the place with power. The Leopold monster eventually makes its way to the woods near the lab, with the INPIT guy in tepid pursuit. The sheriff and Dr. Blake poke around a little bit while waiting for the climax of the film to show up, draining all the tension out of the film. They find the big Revenge Planner Wheel and realize that something really really odd is going on, but don't openly state that they figured out Dr. Leopold turned himself into a lungfish monster.

Eventually, and I do mean eventually, the monster shows up and realizes that the jig is at least on its way to being up. He sets the woman from INPIT down and claws the sheriff to death after a short fight in which a man with a gun decides to bring a stick to a monster fight. That gives Leopold the opportunity to carry his kidnap victim to the transformation tank, which Dr. Blake fails to notice as he riffles through Leopold's notebook. So the woman from INPIT gets shot up with transformation juice, and Blake hears her scream from the Science Chamber before Lungfish Man can dip her in the pool. He also brings a stick to a monster fight and gets his ticket punched after putting up a very poor showing for himself (academicians do not know how to brawl). But he sabotages some of the equipment before he goes and also gets the monster trapped briefly in a tiny net, and also makes an attempt to keep the abductee from getting dunked in the tank before he expires. That just leaves the guy from INPIT to show up in a belated cavalry charge before his colleague gets mutated into a She-Fish.

That guy finally does show up with a rifle, putting a few slugs into the Leopold monster as it walks into the ocean. As does the woman from INPIT, who I guess is being hypnotically compelled to do that or something. There isn't even a voiceover at this point to explain it. Heck, for that matter, I don't know if Leopold is wounded or dying when he goes into the surf toting a big canister of ZAAT during the denouement. 1971 means that it's time for a Bummer Ending, even if the movie didn't really set it up ahead of time.

Well, you might be surprised to hear me say this, but I wish that Don Barton got a chance to make a second movie after this one failed to make much of an impact at the box office. There's enough that goes right (the monster suit is pretty nice, especially for the budget, and I was hugely impressed by the underwater sequences) to make up for the plodding and repetitious script. There's about twenty minutes of fat that could have been trimmed pretty painlessly from this one, and about five minutes of explanations that should have been added in somewhere. I wonder if Barton didn't realize he could edit a sequence in where the sheriff explains about Dr. Leopold earlier in the movie--as things are, the main forces of law and order in the film come off incredibly badly.

But hey, filmmaking is an art and it's a craft and it's a skill, and like most things of that nature you learn how to do them by doing them. There are plenty of directors who had their shots and never went on to do much of anything else, and their potential went unrealized. It's a real shame, because there's the shape of something really interesting and compelling in this movie underneath the goofy strolling and runtime-padding musical numbers. With a couple more practice films under his belt there's no reason that Don Barton couldn't have been someone fondly remembered for a half a dozen regional hits. Unfortunately, profitability trumps all other concerns when it comes to cinema. Or even movies. Or flicks, which this one definitely was.

What do you think, Joe?

"I want to buy a vowel. And turn all the other Neopets into fish monsters."

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