The Gamma People (1955)
Directed by John Gilling
Produced by John Gossage
Screenplay by John Gilling, John Gossage
Story by Louis Pollock, Robert Aldrich
Cinematography by Ted Moore
Edited by Jack Slade
Music by George Melachrino
Warwick Films, distributed by Columbia Pictures
(1:17) Amazon Prime
Somewhat late in life, I have made a significant discovery: I love science fiction movies from the 1950s. Good, bad, low budget, cardboard sets, I don’t care. Although all of them were made before I was born, there’s just something about ‘50s sf movies that pulls me in. Maybe it’s the postwar “We’re all going to get bombed back to the Stone Age” mentality, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I still remember my older brother telling me about all these great movies he’d seen, titles like Forbidden Planet, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them!, The Thing from Another World, and many others. Maybe I’m just a goober.
A few days ago, I did a search on Amazon Prime for “50s sci fi movies” and fell into a tunnel so long and dark I thought I’d encounter the mole people. Amazon must have scoured the earth (and maybe other planets) for some of these flicks. I stumbled across a film called The Gamma People that boasted this description:
An American reporter smells a story when he is stranded in an Iron Curtain country where the local dictator is using gamma rays to transform children into mutated henchmen.
That description (like many of those on Amazon Prime Video) is not entirely accurate, but it was enough for me to immediately click “Watch now.” Plus the Prime Video image looked very Devo-ish (Are we not men?), so there’s that. And is that Paul Douglas starring in this movie? Done.
The Gamma People begins with what we quickly figure out will be an odd couple movie: American journalist Mike (Paul Douglas) and British photographer Howard (Leslie Phillips) are traveling by train through central Europe to cover a music festival in Salzburg when their railroad car becomes dislodged from the rest of the train. (Happens every day, right?) Inertia brings them to the country of Gudavia, whose dictator Boronski (Walter Rilla) has been using gamma rays on children as a means of mind control. (Probably helps them get better grades, too.)
Simply trying to catch the next train or hire a car, Mike and Howard get the runaround from all the locals. They meet a sadistic kid named Hugo (Michael Carida) who’s just one of the recipients of Boronski’s gramma ray treatment. You can see from Hugo’s recent sculpture project that he’s suffering absolutely no ill effects from the gamma rays, none whatsoever. Yet Hugo’s sister Paula (Eva Bartok) may be able to help Mike and Howard out of this mess.
No one, however, is able to help the film’s mess of a script, penned by John Gilling and John Gossage. Gossage has only one other writing credit (1958’s Prescription for Murder), but Gilling wrote and directed quite a few films, including writing the original story for Joan Crawford’s final picture Trog (1970). Make of that what you will…
Although Bill Warren, in his tremendous two-volume work Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (2016 edition), states that the Robert Aldrich who prepared the original Louis Pollock story for the film isn’t the same director Robert Aldrich we’re familiar with, Aldrich fessed up to his connection to the film in an interview with George Addison in the book Robert Aldrich: Interviews (2004).
Had Aldrich actually been credited for The Gamma People, I can’t imagine Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and the rest of the guys on the set of The Dirty Dozen harassing him unmercifully for his connection to the film. Just picture Lee Marvin standing a couple inches from the director’s face, saying, “Aldrich! The Gamma People? What the hell were you thinking?”
Apparently Paul Douglas was still in England after filming the Ken Hughes crime picture Joe MacBeth (1955) and thought he’d pick up a few bucks from The Gamma People. Douglas seems to know he’s in the midst of a turkey, but he’s certainly giving it his best shot. The pairing with Leslie Phillips is actually charming in a goofy sort of way. This weird buddy picture reminded me just a little of the David Naughton/Griffin Dunne pairing in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Just a little.
The Gamma People has way too many elements for it to be effective: horror, mystery, comedy, satire, science fiction, mad scientists, politics, etc. Had it focused on just one or two of these aspects, it could’ve been a more cohesive film, but it would lost much of its charming weirdness. It won’t be for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. Maybe you will, too. The film is not available on DVD or Blu-ray, but you can catch it on Amazon Prime. If you watch it and start making weird sculptures, I’m not responsible.
I think my next stop in ‘50s sf will be Devil Girl from Mars (1954). Stay tuned.
Photos: Heritage Auctions, Cool Ass Cinema, JustWatch, Scifist, IMDb