John Gilling, 1956
Starring: Paul Douglas, Eva Bartok, Leslie Phillips, Walter Rilla
Two reporters — the American Mike and English Howard — are taking a train across Europe to cover a music festival in Salzburg when their car becomes detached and they find themselves stranded in the strange kingdom of Gudavia, which is controlled by a totalitarian government and isolated from the outside world. At first determined to leave, they learn that a formerly famous scientist who disappeared from Europe has reinvented himself in Gudavia and has been experimenting on the local populace with terrifying results. Determined to capture the story, Mike and Howard risk their own lives to get the bottom of Gudavia’s mystery.
Director John Gilling may not be one of the most recognizable names in British horror, but he should be better remembered than he is today. He went on to direct some notable efforts — including The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), an early interpretation of Burke and Hare’s sordid history, as well as films for Hammer like The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Reptile (1966), and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). His zombie film for Hammer, the gripping, beautifully shot The Plague of the Zombies (1966), is their sole outing in this genre and predates Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) by two years.
But perhaps Gilling’s most neglected horror gem is The Gamma People, this essentially forgotten mashup of horror, comedy, nuclear terror, and Cold War paranoia. The film is set in the fictional country of Gudavia, a tiny, unknown country somewhere between Germany and Eastern Europe. And, perhaps curiously, the story — from director Robert Aldrich and Alfred Hitchcock Presents writer Louis Pollock — has a blend of Germanic and Soviet themes. The village looks like it was plucked from the Alps and borrows much from Frankenstein, including German-looking military uniforms and villagers’ outfits, a gloomy castle, and laboratory set piece. There is a whiff of Nazi human experimentation and the tribes of children who run around terrorizing locals were clearly modeled on the Hitler Youth.
There is something equally Soviet at play, for example the country is in the tight grip of totalitarian rule and they are utterly closed off from the outside world, like North Korea or Eastern Europe in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are no trains, cars, telephones, or other messaging systems to allow anyone to escape or contact outsiders and eyes are everywhere. The film’s sense of postwar terror and the Red Menace extends to its use of mad science. Dr. Boronski is not just experimenting on humans in order to produce a “master race”-like country of savants and geniuses, but he is blasting people with gamma rays. The experiments are unpredictable and the doctor either creates mindless adult goons or child geniuses. This is one of the first horror films to focus on menacing children and though some of them have implied, rather than overt powers, it’s a subtle but effective addition to The Gamma People. Curiously, Boronski is played by engaging German actor Walter Rilla — the father of director Wolf Rilla, who would go on to director Village of the Damned just a few years later.
The two leads are equally enjoyable, even though they represent the film’s comic elements. Mike (Panic in the Streets’ Paul Douglas) is a brash, pushy American stereotype, while Howard (Carry On’s Leslie Philips) is a hilariously over-the-top Brit with a genteel accent and an eye for the ladies. Mike and Howard have an opposites attract sort of working relationship and there are some amusing romantic undertones: they are taking the scenic route to cover a music festival in Salzburg — where they happen to be the only two passengers in their entire car — and when they arrive in Gudavia, they are given the bridal suite of a hotel to share, with just one bed. Of course at the film’s conclusion, they are joined by some precocious children and a lovely young woman (an early appearance of Eva Bartok of Blood and Black Lace).
The Gamma People isn’t for everyone, but it comes recommended. It’s criminally under seen and has an effective balance of chills, humor, and science fiction. Though it’s occasionally unintentionally comical, scenes like the doctor’s torture-by-radiation-poisoning of Mike and his lady love is chilling. There are also some appealing visuals, including great shots of the countryside and elements of German expressionism. Weirdly, a few James Bond regulars worked on the film, including producer Albert Broccoli and cinematographer Ted Moore. And brace yourself for the creepy masks that the villagers are constructing for what is apparently an ancient pagan festival. I don’t believe it’s available on DVD, but you should be able to find it online with some clever searching.