Texas Terrors: The Late Night Films of Larry Buchanan Part One
By the mid 1960’s, television had firmly established itself in almost every American home. As local stations began to expand their programming days, they tapped into a market of second shift employees and insomniacs that had previously gone without entertainment after the conclusion of local news and talk shows. These stations lacked the bottomless pit of syndicated series reruns available today and infomercials were still a distant nightmare. One of the few avenues available for late night programming was packages of old movies that could be shown throughout the pre-dawn hours. Local all night movie programs like Night Owl Theater became a thriving secondary business in these years for movie studios with an extensive back catalog of films.
Sam Arkoff’s American International Pictures was one of these studios who dusted off their old film cans and raced to television stations to cash in on the late night boom. Unfortunately, AIP was also one of the newer players in the studio game and lacked the more extensive resources of the old timers like Universal and Paramount. To pad out their movie packages, Arkoff hit on the novel idea of adding new films specifically created for television syndication. This would give AIP an edge and help them compete against larger companies offering only black and white classics from yesteryear. Arkoff also had the perfect person in mind to make these direct to television time killers, a young director who had just been signed to a contract with AIP, Larry Buchanan.
An aspiring actor and entertainer, Larry Buchanan had served time in the Hollywood system and then abandoned it to return to his home state of Texas. He did not, however, abandon his dream to be in the motion picture business but he did switch to the back of the camera. Buchanan had already produced a number of features including Free, White, and 21 which had proven very successful for the film’s distributor, American International Pictures. Not being one to pass up an opportunity, Sam Arkoff put the young filmmaker under a multi-picture contract and, almost immediately, discovered the perfect vehicle for his low budget talents.
Today, recycling the plot elements of one film into another is referred to as a remake or reimagining and happens constantly. Forty years ago, it was a much rarer occurrence and was called “economical”. AIP owned the rights to the scripts of several movies produced by another thrifty filmmaker, Roger Corman, and saw no reason they could not be cannibalized to save money for this project. Corman’s films were low budget, black and white, and featured a stable of competent but relatively unknown actors who were on their way to bigger and better things in the film industry. Buchanan was given the seemingly impossible task of delivering similar films on a ridiculously smaller budget (roughly one third of what one of Corman’s pictures had been produced for); shooting them in color, and using name actors whose days of glory were fading fast.
Larry Buchanan produced eight direct to television films under this contract and all but one, the war film Hell Raiders, were in the science fiction genre. Four of these were remakes of earlier Corman films but Buchanan managed to slip in original scripts for the remaining three. This package spent decades making the television rounds, first on the late movies and then it eventually found its way to local Creature Feature programs. The following is an overview of the seven films that comprise Larry Buchanan’s bizarre late night movie collection.
The Eye Creatures (1965)
After leaving Frankie and Annette in the Beach Party pictures and before he established himself in the Philippines in the Blood Island series and other Manila horrors, John Ashley battled lumpy aliens in Texas. Larry Buchanan’s first television film for AIP is a remake of one of Roger Corman’s most popular titles, Invasion of the Saucer Men, which was made only eight years earlier. Eye Creatures sticks very close to its source material but the diminutive bulb headed aliens of the original are replaced by creatures who look like the Michelin Tire Man with hives. As sub par as the monster costumes were, they would still be the best of this entire series!
Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966)
Buchanan’s second film is probably his best known, if for no other reason than the laughable special effects. This remake of It Conquered the World removes much of the dramatic sub plotting of the original script and pairs the story down to just the action. Stalwart leading man John Agar takes the helm against a humanoid bat creature that appears to be made from paper-mache and does most of his world dominating from deep inside a dark cave. Agar proves in this film that his greatest talent was the ability to keep a straight face in spite of the ridiculous dialog and action going on around him. Copious stock footage and dead pan deliveries make Zontar an unintentional laugh riot.
Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966)
After struggling through two Corman remakes, Buchanan finally convinced AIP to let him film an original script. There isn’t much originality on display here but at least we do get a real swamp. Arkoff’s one stipulation for the new film was that John Agar had to return as the star. Apparently he hadn’t seen Zontar yet! Future Doll Squad leader Francine York is also on hand as the bayou love interest. For this go round, Agar’s hero thwarts a mad scientist trying to create a reptile / human hybrid in his remote laboratory. What we finally end up with is Buchanan regular Bill Thurman in a rubber mask with ping pong ball eyes, the beginning of a trend, tossing people into a convenient pit of alligators. Curse was probably a blessing to a generation of insomniacs but how many films have a monster named Brenda?
Coming Next Week: Sex starved Martians, has been teen idols, and the original It’s Alive!