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William Castle, the B-movie mogul who built his empire on the clever and outlandish promotions of such films as Macabre , House on Haunted Hill  and The Tingler , is best known for his gimmicky horror films. Yet, after making six highly profitable films in a row in that genre, he decided to try something different after Mr. Sardonicus in 1961. He wanted to do a whimsical comedy-fantasy but had some reservations about how his fans would respond.
Zotz! (1962) was based on a 1947 novel by former naval captain Walter Karig, screenwriter of the Victory at Sea TV series and author of three Nancy Drew novels under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The fanciful premise takes place in the imagery setting of Saracen Valley College in California where Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston), professor of Ancient Eastern Languages, is being considered by Dean Joshua Updike (Cecil Kellaway) as the new Dean of the Language Department along with his rival, professor Horatio Kellgore (Jim Backus). Although Jones appears to be Updike's choice for the position, his confirmation becomes questionable after he takes possession of an ancient coin uncovered in an archeological dig by a former student and starts behaving strangely. He discovers that when he is in possession of the coin he can cause intense pain in people simply by pointing at them. He can also retard movement in people, planes, cars, animals or insects simply by saying the ancient word Zotz! More importantly, by pointing his finger and saying Zotz! at the same time, he can kill or destroy his object of choice. When he reveals his findings to a Pentagon official, he is not taken seriously but soon finds himself, along with his niece Cynthia (Zeme North) and new love interest professor Virginia Fenster (Julia Meade), stalked and threatened by Soviet agents.
Made during the Cold War era, Zotz! even references Khrushchev's name in the dialogue and, in the kidnapping-by-plane sequence, the pilot is a Khrushchev lookalike (played by Albert Glasser, the music composer of such B-movie horrors as The Cyclops  and The Amazing Colossal Man . Yet, the film not only parodies international espionage thrillers but also the world of academics. Castle's main interest in the project, however, is clearly the exploitation of the magic coin and its powers which includes countless scenes of Jones' experimentation - freezing a moth in mid-air, causing a jet plane to travel in slow-motion, zapping a tree lizard or creating an instant thunderstorm. The level of humor throughout is clearly targeted toward juvenile audiences with its emphasis on slapstick, particularly a cocktail party invaded by mice that ends with a cake in the face of the hostess (Margaret Dumont, Groucho's foil in many of the Marx Brothers' films). There is also a sick sense of humor at work in several scenes such as one where Cynthia, unaware of the magic coin's power, points out a direction to her date (Jimmy Hawkins) as they drive down a city street and sidewalk pedestrians collapse in pain as they pass. Jones's public humiliation of Kellgore at a former dinner party by making him speak a form of gobbly-gook also goes beyond its comic intent displaying Castle's overbearing fascination with a visual gimmick.
Still, even if Zotz! is better in concept than execution, Castle deserves credit for trying something different. In his autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, he said, "The change of pace was therapeutic for me, and I found myself just as much at home creating laughs as I did getting screams." He certainly has fun with "Lady Liberty," the opening Columbia logo, hailing her from his director's chair with the salutation "Zotz!" as she replies, "Zotz? What's Zotz?" before the movie launches into the playful credits with peppy cocktail jazz by composer Bernard Green. She even reappears at the close, announcing "Zotz's all!" The fact that Castle was able to exploit the famous Columbia logo in this manner (in his ax-murder thriller, Strait-Jacket (1964), "Lady Liberty" appears headless!) demonstrated his good relationship and box office clout with the studio management. And, of course, in addition to making his own Alfred Hitchcock-like appearance in each film, Castle couldn't resist some additional self-promotion within Zotz!: in this case, we see scenes from Castle's Homicidal , when Cynthia and Jimmy are at the drive-in.
Tom Poston, who plays Professor Jones in Zotz!, was best known at the time for his television appearances in such popular TV quiz shows as I've Got a Secret [1961-1966] What's My Line? [1958-1966] and To Tell the Truth [1959-1968]. He was an unlikely leading man but Castle gave him top marquee billing again in his next film, the macabre comedy remake of The Old Dark House . Neither film helped advance Poston's film career so he focused instead on his TV work and supporting roles in such movies as Soldier in the Rain  and Cold Turkey .
As expected, Zotz! didn't wow most mainstream critics such as Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who labeled it "a flaccid farce" and "foolish tale" but Castle knew his fan base and what attracted them. "When the picture was just about to be released," he wrote in his autobiography, "I took out extra success insurance. Millions of golden plastic "Zotz coins" were manufactured and sent to theatres all over the world. Huge billboards, put up weeks in advance of our openings, had just the word "Zotz!" printed on them. Car bumper stickers and "Zotz buttons" by the thousands went out, and the magic "Zotz coins" were distributed in cities weeks before opening. I wanted the kids to get used to saying, "Zotz, Zotz, Zotz!" My worries about doing a comedy completely disappeared when the picture opened. Thousands of kids flocked to the theatres to learn how their magic "Zotz coins" worked. The aftermath was a joy to behold. The kids of America were "Zotzing" each other and everybody else. Imagination is a marvelous thing. I've often wondered how Walt Disney would have made the picture."
The Disney aside is intriguing because the Buena Vista company had recently released The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 and it had a plot premise - featuring a laboratory creation called flubber - that might have inspired Castle's interest in creating a similar type movie due to its huge box office success. Ironically, it was Disney that became interested in Zotz!. "After obtaining the rights to the novel," Castle revealed, "I received a call from Walt Disney inquiring whether I would be interested in selling Zotz! at a big profit. He felt it would make a wonderful Disney film and politely told me it was not my style. I declined his offer as graciously as possible, but wondered if I had made the right decision." Disney certainly would have given it a bigger budget for special effects and a bigger name cast, but it would have lacked the quirkiness and off-beat appeal of Castle's self-indulgent B-movie wonder.
Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Ray Russell l; Walter Karig (novel)
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Bernard Green
Film Editing: Edwin Bryant
Cast: Tom Poston (Prof. John Jones), Julia Meade (Prof. Virginia Fenster), Jim Backus (Prof. Horatio Kellgore), Fred Clark (Gen. Bullivar), Cecil Kellaway (Dean Joshua Updike), Zeme North (Cynthia Jones), Margaret Dumont (Persephone Updike)
by Jeff Stafford
Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America by William Castle (Pharos Books)