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Monday, September 1, 2008

The Gamma People

This is an obscure British sci-fi movie, and not easy to come by. The basic premise is pretty traditional -- that of the evil scientist conducting inhumane experiments in a remote European castle. The actual execution of the plot could charitably by called quirky. At times, the word 'bizarre' seems to fit better. The movie cannot quite decide if it's anti-communist, anti-nazi, or anti-science. It dabbles in all three. The writers tried to interweave a comedy thread which can't rise much beyond a half-smile. The drama or suspense moments regularly scrub off any comedy momentum. The overall result is a movie that tries to make some sort of statement, but doesn't take itself seriously.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Two reporters, Mike and Howard, are on a train to Salzburg to cover a music festival. Their train car becomes detached from the rest of train, gets onto a different track and rolls downhill a long ways into the tiny and virtually unknown "Democracy of Gudavia". There, they are jailed as potential spies by the Sergeant Schultz-like commandant of the guard. The journalists are released, but not allowed to leave Gudavia by one subterfuge or another. A man manages to slip them a note, asking for help, but this man is murdered that night. The journalists are intrigued. They visit the castle of a Dr. Boronski, who is the 'big man' of Gudavia. While a good front is put on, there are hints of something afoot. The doctor has been experimenting with gamma ray bombardment of the human brain -- particularly in pre-pubescent children of Gudavia. It produces either prodigies such as the piano virtuoso Hedda and the mini-tyrant Hugo, or it produces imbeciles. Hedda's father tries to smuggle her out of Gudavia by night, but Boronski's mob of imbecile minions kill him and capture Hedda. Mike and Boronski's not-too-willing assistant Paula sneak into the castle to free Hedda. They are caught and subjected to Boronski's mind-draining gamma beam. Howard arrives with men from the village. They fight their way through the imbecile minions. Just before it is too late for Mike, Paula and Hedda, Hugo has a change of heart and pushes Boronski onto some electrical equipment, sparking a big fire in the lab. Howard helps them escape. Boronski dies in the fire. Afterward, everything has returned to a sort of quaint 19th century alpine sort of normal in Gudavia. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
While it's not an especially original theme (evil scientist), the oddness of the story is curious enough to keep a viewer's interest piqued.

Cold War Angle
While this thread is present, it's so tangled with the others, that it's not particularly clear. The closed (and fearful) society alludes to the Iron Curtain. Boronski's confiscation of the children in order to 'improve' them, also hints at the social controls of a communist state.

Confused Comedy -- A fair amount of the dialogue between Mike and Howard seem intended to be comical. The bumbling commandant also seems to be designed for laughs. The rest of the movie tries to be spooky or menacing or moody. The regular interspersing of moody and comic tends to deflate both. Like eating ice cream and a sirloin steak at the same time.

Nazi Ghosts -- Much of Gamma People is built around a lingering fear and loathing of the Nazis. Gudavia is an alpine state, speaking German, with troops in late 19th century parade uniforms. Youth in the crowd of citizens wear Lederhosen. Boronski's real name was Dr. Macklin (i.e. Dr. Mengele who experimented on children). Boronski's children wear uniforms highly reminiscent of Hitler's youth squads, the Hitler-J√ľngend. Hugo himself is the very picture of the Nazi ideal. The defeat of Boronski and rescue of Hedda and Hugo (who becomes a nice boy) amount to a sort of symbolic retelling of the Allied victory and 'rescue' of the German people.

Faster Eugenics -- Boronski explains that man will eventually evolve into a smarter, more talented being. Rather than wait for the slow pace of 'evolution', he bombards young (less formed) brains with gamma radiation to speed up the process. His success rate is low, but he presses on. He intends to use his √úbermenschen to breed a superior race, and use his living-zombies as an army of minions. This two-groups paradigm (superiors and subhumans) is also a very Nazi way of seeing things.

Not Obviously Evil -- The character of Dr. Boronski is played almost too cooly. He comes across as genial and maybe even correct. This makes his shift at the end, training his beam on Mike, Paula and Hedda seem out of place. Rather than poor directing, this may be a subtle commentary on the Nazi's or despots in general. They can act pleasant and reasonable at first, but become monsters.

Catching Some Rays -- Radiation was still a pretty mysterious thing in the 50s. Magnetism was thought in the early 1800s to be able to heal amazingly or do magical things. In the later 1800s and early 1900s, electricity was imagined to have magical powers to heal or create monsters. While both of these have lingering reputations, it was radiation in the 50s which marginalized them. Radiation was the new magic catalyst to just about anything the imagination could dream up -- for good or ill.

Bottom line? Gamma People is a strange little movie. For fans of 50s sci-fi, it can be fun to watch because it is so confused and quirky. For viewers expecting more logic and who like their comedy and drama separate, this might not be a movie worth watching -- let alone buying. For the fan, however, it's odd enough to be worth the watch.


Unknown said...

A fun movie.
The best part was Eva Bartok.
Enough said.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Stan Lee saw this movie when it came out? Dr.Bruce Banner became 'The Incredible Hulk' as a result of exposure to Gamma radiation, while his arch-enemy the Leader became super-intelligent. Also the pocket European country is very like Latveria - Dr.Doom's kingdom - in 'The Fantastic Four'. Best wishes, Zokko.