“Zotz!” (1962)

by A.J. Hakari

"Zotz!" poster


William Castle fans know the drill. The filmmaker/showman/schlock merchant comes out, introduces his latest movie, and explains a new gimmick that we don’t really indulge in but enjoy anyway. But with Zotz!, there is no prep time. A brief conversation with the Columbia Pictures torch-bearer is all we get before Castle plunges us into…well, with a title as cryptic as Zotz!, it’s kind of impossible to anticipate what’s coming. But even with the most pared-down of expectations, this comedic fantasy is still incredibly limp and lame, its only virtue being its overall inoffensiveness.

Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston) is the epitome of what the 1960s thought all intellectuals were like: sober, celibate, and socially clueless. He leads a life of little excitement, until his niece (Zeme North) receives an ancient coin from an admirer. Jones transcribes some writing on the strange old artifact, which in turn endows him with mystical powers. With a saying of the word “Zotz!” and a point of his finger, Jones can make others double over in pain, slow time down to a crawl, and even cause things to explode. This is too much craziness for one mild-mannered professor to handle, but throw in some Russian spies who want the coin for themselves, and Jones will need to hurry if he wants to master his abilities and save the day.

Zotz! reminds me of those old Disney comedies like Snowball Express and The Gnome-mobile, completely shallow fluff whose existence is so baffling, either Uncle Walt had money to burn or lost one doozy of a bet. It’s hard to imagine for whom a movie like this was made, because even by the sanitized standards of the early ’60s, this thing is mega-tame. You could call it a family flick, although there’s no edge to pull in parents, and I can’t picture kids sitting still for Jones’ efforts to get a promotion. Zotz! is a comedy without humor and a fantasy without awe. It’s so eager to ruffle no feathers, it never develops an identity other than being “nice,” only “nice” doesn’t always translate into solid characters or amusing situations from which we want them to escape.

I wouldn’t call Zotz! one of Castle’s gimmick-based movies (at least not in the way that The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill required theaters to install stuff), but it still claims a pretty weak hook. The extent of Jones’s magic powers essentially entail either running the film in slo-mo or setting off firecrackers, and that this guy is so slow to grasp the simplicity of his capabilities is a source of endless frustration. The climax is particularly aggravating, mainly because Jones is too stupid to realize that saying “Zotz!” at the right times is all it’d take to save his loved ones from dem Commies. The gags are just painful, and as likable as Post is, he’s not a compelling enough lead to provide an effective salve.

There’s no real value — kitsch or otherwise — in watching Zotz! I hate to beat up on an innocent goofball of a flick, but when irony goggles can’t make your movie more entertaining, you’re really sunk. William Castle made a lot of silly movies I’d gladly watch again, but Zotz! is 85 minutes of straight-up dumb.