Cast & Crew
Journalists Mike Wilson and Howard Meade are on their way to cover the music festival in Salzburg when their rail car comes uncoupled from the rest of the train, stranding them in Gudavia, a country whose borders have been closed to the outside world for five years. Mike and Howard are soon met by Koerner, the head of the military-like police force, who imprisons them. Upon learning of the intruders, Boronski, the mad scientist who rules the state, orders their release. Sequestered at the local hotel owned by Lochner, Mike and Howard find themselves cut off from all communication with the outside world. In the hotel lobby, Lochner's daughter Hedda masterfully plays the piano. When Hugo, an authoritarian young boy, criticizes Hedda's playing as overly sentimental, Paula Wendt, the children's tutor at the institute run by Boronski, consoles the girl. Afterward, Anna, the hotel maid, passes the journalists a note from Bikstein, one of the doctor's assistants, begging them to save the children from Boronski. Soon after, Bikstein is murdered in the street outside the hotel, but Koerner downplays the incident and then notifies Mike and Howard that the doctor expects them at his castle the following morning. That night, Howard is strolling through the village's oddly deserted streets when he is surrounded by a group of ghoulish looking characters who, at the sound of a whistle blown by Koerner, quickly disband. Upon meeting Boronski the next morning, Mike recognizes his host as a scientist named Macklin, who mysteriously disappeared from sight five years earlier. Boronski admits that he was indeed Macklin, but changed his name after shifting his research from the study of old age to youth. Boronski then introduces the journalists to Paula and shows them Hedda playing the piano and Hugo sculpting a hideous mask to wear in the upcoming carnival. After leaving the castle, Mike and Howard question Bikstein's widow, who gives them a diary that her husband took from Boronski's lab. The journal reveals that Boronski has been bombarding children with gamma rays to transform them into either geniuses or imbeciles. Meanwhile, Lochner, upset that Boronski has taken custody of Hedda, plots to smuggle the girl out of the country. Overhearing their plan, Hugo hurries to inform Boronski. Meanwhile, Mike encounters Paula riding horseback through the countryside and questions her involvement with Boronski. Paula tersely replies that her father once worked with the scientist and then gallops off. As she rides past a secluded stream, she overhears Hugo tattling on Lochner. Concerned for Hedda's well being, Paula sneaks out of the castle that night to warn Lochner, but he ignores her. As Lochner leads Hedda over the hills, they are attacked by Boronski's ghouls, who hurl Lochner over a cliff and then kidnap Hedda. Unable to sleep, Mike is wandering the countryside when he hears Paula's screams and finds her sobbing at the sight of Lochner's body. When Mike beseeches Paula to tell him what has happened, she runs away and Boronski then appears and taunts Mike. To avoid impending disorder, Boronski orders Koerner to cancel the carnival. Back in town, Mike incites the populace by telling them of Lochner's murder, and after he berates Koerner for failing to perform his duties in investigating the case, the people rebel and decide to stage the carnival. During the festivities, Frau Bikstein beckons to Mike to go to her house, where Paula is waiting with news that Hedda is being held at the doctor's castle. Hugo observes them and notifies the police, who come to search the house. After overpowering the officers, Mike grabs Paula and runs into the street, where Leslie, who has obtained an old car from Koerner, picks them up. As they drive toward the castle, one of the tires goes flat, and after they all climb out of the vehicle, it explodes. Realizing that they are in grave danger, Mike sends Howard back to town for reinforcements while he continues with Paula. Upon reaching the castle, Paula throws a switch that opens the concealed doors leading to the doctor's lab and the tower in which Hedda is imprisoned. After rescuing Hedda, they are about to slip out when Boronski and his assistants enter the lab. Preoccupied with an experiment, Boronski fails to notice them, allowing them to escape. When Hugo stops them in the passageway, Paula pleads with him to let them go, reminding him that she is his sister and that Boronski killed their father years earlier. Unmoved, Hugo sets off the alarm after which Boronski locks Hedda, Paula and Mike in the control room and aims his deadly gamma ray at them. As Howard and the townsfolk storm the castle, Hugo watches as Paula and Hedda begin to writhe from the effects of the ray. Suddenly, Hugo begins to cry and angrily pushes Boronski off his platform, sending him crashing into the equipment below, which then bursts into flames. After Hugo throws open the door to free Paula and the others, he is knocked unconscious by one of Boronski's assistants. Picking Hugo up from the floor, Mike rushes outside to join the townsfolk as they watch the castle crumble in flames. With the evil of Boronski lifted forever, the children cavort through town in celebration. After Koerner delivers a new car to Mike and proclaims that the country will return to normal, Mike, Howard, Paula, Hedda and a now humanized Hugo climb into the vehicle and drive off.
St. John Stuart
William Hill Bowen
Albert R. Broccoli
The Gamma People
The film opens as American journalist Mike Wilson (Paul Douglas) and his friend, British photographer Howard Meade (Leslie Phillips), are playing chess on a train winding through picturesque European mountains and countryside (actually filmed in Austria). The two are on their way to cover a music festival in Salzburg when the strangest thing happens: their passenger car becomes uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, thanks to some mischievous boys, rolls into an Eastern Bloc country called Gudavia, directly past an armed guardhouse with signs posted: Keep Out! The two are instantly arrested as spies. Referring to the flamboyantly dressed Captain-at-arms, Wilson says, "I'll get a hold of the American Counsel and get this Comic Opera character straightened out." This bit of self-reflexive dialogue points out the odd nature of the film; the characters have stumbled into Mythical Kingdom territory, usually the exclusive province of comedies, musicals and fairy tales.
Wilson and Meade are released from prison but find that the oppressed Gudavia has no car for them to escape with, no communication with the outside world, and a population that is kept in line by the military and by a literal squad of "Goons." The Goons are mental defects - idiots - the result of experiments being conducted by Dr. Boronski (Walter Rilla), the leading citizen and scientist in the country. Boronski is trying to develop geniuses through his Mark-5 Gamma Ray machine, but it turns out many more defective subjects than brilliant ones; he writes off the results saying, "Science is a series of risks, all therapy eventually reaches a point of no return." Wilson and Meade encounter two young products of the doctor's experiments: Hedda (Pauline Drewett), a piano virtuoso, and Hugo (Michael Caridia), a boy genius with an ego as large as his intellect (bearing a smart uniform, Germanic accent and superior, judgmental manner, Hugo suggests nothing less than a Hitler Youth). As the reporters are held captive in their hotel room, they are slipped an ominous note that reads, "You must help us. Our situation is desperate. Our children must be saved. Dr. Boronski must be destroyed."
The Gamma People evolved from a script treatment originally written in the early 1950s by Robert Aldrich, then a screenwriter and the future iconoclastic director of such films as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). According to Aldrich biographers Alain Silver and James Ursini, the original treatment was optioned by producer Irving Allen, but "...was shelved when its would-be star, John Garfield, was gray-listed." Eventually, The Gamma People was made by Allen with his partner Albert R. Broccoli, an American producer based in England who would later go on to gain fame for the James Bond series of films (co-produced with Harry Saltzman). The final version of The Gamma People did not list Aldrich in the credits, instead crediting John Gossage and John Gilling with the script, from a story by Louis Pollock.
The original cast was to include Brian Donlevy as American Mike Wilson. Donlevy would have brought a burly gravitas to the role, and he had already appeared in a classic British science fiction film, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955 aka The Creeping Unknown), as the deadly-serious Professor Quatermass. Apparently, comedic actor Paul Douglas was instead asked to do the part after he accompanied his wife Jan Sterling to England; Sterling had been cast in 1984, the film that would eventually be co-billed with The Gamma People. Douglas was an A-list actor with such credits as A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), Clash by Night (1952), and Executive Suite (1954). For The Gamma People, he was paired with Leslie Phillips, who was just beginning his long career of portraying quintessentially British stereotypes (he is still active as of 2011). The two talented comic actors share much of the screen time, and they came up with, or were given, several "bits of business" in their scenes together. The comedy is constantly juggled with more disturbing scenes of madness, shock, and callousness arising from the mind experiments that are taking place.
At the time of release, reviewers made note of the odd mixing of genres; the writer for the Monthly Film Bulletin, for example, noted that "old fashioned melodramatics are interspersed with some lumbering ventures into comedy, and, in spite of Austrian locations, the treatment is on a distinctly elementary level." The critic in Variety called the film "minor league entertainment" and wrote, "The characters and situations are clumsily handled, as is the comedy injected in an attempt to lighten proceedings. The dialogue is trite and there is virtually no suspense as the film unspools [at] a very draggy 78 minutes."
Modern writers have noted the flaws in The Gamma People while admitting that it remains interesting and watchable. In his exhaustive book Keep Watching the Skies: The 21st Century Edition, Bill Warren calls The Gamma People "...rather pokey, but always interesting in a what-will-they-think-of-next style. It would not have seemed out of keeping at all for the film to have included a few musical numbers and a car chase. It keeps threatening to turn into a comedy... despite some scenes of rather unpleasant horror." Michael R. Pitts, in his book Columbia Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1982, writes that "performance-wise, the film is best served by Walter Rilla as the mad scientist and Michael Caridia as the brainwashed Hugo. While The Gamma People captures the smothering atmosphere of an authoritarian state, its admixture of too many plot themes keeps it from building up any real excitement." In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy writes, "Director Gilling... blends an uneasy but not uninteresting mixture of comic opera and drama... Considering the plot's possibilities, its anti-communist propaganda is surprisingly muted..."
Following The Gamma People, British director John Gilling would go on to helm several more science fiction and horror movies; his most fondly remembered are a pair of shockers shot back-to-back for Hammer Films, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile (both 1966).
Producer: John Gossage
Director: John Gilling
Screenplay: John Gossage, John Gilling (screenplay); Louis Pollock (story); Robert Aldrich (original story, uncredited)
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Art Direction: John Box
Music: George Melachrino
Film Editing: Jack Slade
Cast: Paul Douglas (Mike Wilson), Eva Bartok (Paula Wendt), Leslie Phillips (Howard Meade), Walter Rilla (Boronski), Philip Leaver (Koerner), Martin Miller (Lochner), Michael Caridia (Hugo Wendt), Pauline Drewett (Hedda Lochner), Jackie Lane (Anna), Olaf Pooley (Bikstein)
By John M. Miller
Keep Watching the Skies: The 21st Century Edition, Bill Warren, McFarland, 2010.
Columbia Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1982, Michael R. Pitts, McFarland, 2010.
What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films, Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1995
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy , Woodbury Press, 1984.
The Gamma People
Sinister looking dump isn't it.- Mike Wilson
The opening and closing onscreen cast credits differ slightly in order. The film was assigned two different copyright numbers for the same claimant on the same date. A June 1951 Los Angeles Examiner news item notes that Brian Donlevy was initially slated to star in the film. In April 1955, a Daily Variety news item noted that Trevor Howard was to co-star. Although an early Hollywood Reporter production chart places Patricia Medina in the cast, she was subsequently replaced by Eva Bartok.
Although an April 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item states that Ned Washington was hired to write songs with George Melachrino, there are no songs in the released film and Washington is not credited onscreen or in any reviews. Hollywood Reporter production charts state that location filming was done in Imst, Austria, and onscreen credits add that the film was produced at the M-G-M British Studios in Elstree, England.