Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
John Gilling's 1955 British science fiction film The Gamma People is one oddball flick, and one that in spite of an abundance of nifty story ideas, never quite seems to gel into a quality whole. This really is a shame, because the film does boasts some really nice elements, and an unusual story that manages to keep the audience interested. This low-budget effort abandons the fascination in the 1950s with outer space travel, giant radioactive monster, or aliens from another world, and instead focuses on something happening in our own world. It's small-scale sci-fi, and I think if the film would have been perhaps more focused and set in its intentions, it would be well-regarded as a cult classic of intriguing fantasy from yesteryear. Alas, the film is thrown off track by a variety of elements that serve to present the film in a more comedic light, eventually resulting in an onscreen identity crisis.
The story follows two newspapermen, one American, one British, who find themselves stuck in a strange Eastern European country after they are stranded while trekking cross country by train. The village of Gudavia is hardly where these two want to be, it seems, as the townspeople are an odd bunch who seem reluctant to offer up any hope for their escaping the sleepy town. It seems the whole place is under the control of a scientist/dictator type, Dr. Boronski, who instills in his citizenry a combination of respectful obedience and a fearful outlook to anyone not from their village. As the reporters investigate, they discover that the Boronski is not who he seems to be, and is conducting strange experiments with the effects of gamma rays on the human brain in an effort to create geniuses. The dark side of the experiment, however, is that for every genius, there are numerous mindless goons created, all of which are at the command of the deranged scientist.
The Gamma People certainly has a fascinating premise, and one that's presented in a unique way by the scriptwriting team of director Gilling and John W. Gossage. Setting the film in an almost feudal village that's full of secrets and strange customs puts the viewer in the same situation as the two newspapermen; we're unsure as to what's really going on as much as these two are for the most part. While the script establishes Boronski as the obvious villain from the start, and we have some knowledge about the nature of his experiments, the script nevertheless builds its story in a peculiar sort of way, accentuating the mystery surrounding the village and its odd inhabitants. There's an underlying tension in the film that's palpable: the plight of the newspapermen to escape at first, then their interest finding out what truly is going on in this seemingly idyllic village.
The main problem with the film, then, is that the script seems intent on throwing in groan-inducing slapstick humor at every opportunity, particularly early on in the film. The British reporter, Howard Meade, is presented as a sort of womanizing goof, one that hardly seems capable of writing a coherent news story (nor attract a woman) as he bumbles around, tripping over himself and often winding up in troublesome situations. The resulting early parts of the film create a sort of paradox in the mind of the viewer: are we supposed to take this film seriously, or laugh at the general wackiness? Not helping the situation are several bits that comes across as being unintentionally funny. Numerous passages of the dialogue are mind-numbingly asinine and the Bavarian accents are frequently horrendous; until the ball really gets rolling on the investigation into Boronski's work, The Gamma People could easily be taken as comedy.
Then, suddenly, the film takes a more serious tone, as it becomes apparent that the villagers generally object to their treatment by the overpowering dictator. Gilling's film makes an abrupt about face, and we're left with a film that's now a suspense thriller with sci-fi overtones. The American reporter, Mike Wilson, apparently the action star of this segment of the film, goes tooth and nail with Boronski and his army of goons in an attempt to free the village of his subtle tyranny. While this section of the film works significantly better than the more comedic parts, it's odd that the film makes such an decided change of pace midway through, and the changing tone of the film might leave a viewer confounded.
The Gamma People has several interesting details in its story, most of which involve a young boy genius who is more or less Boronski's agent, reporting to the doctor with any insubordination among the citizens. He scolds a young piano prodigy who gets excited by the emotional passages in music rather than simply play the parts technically, spies on the widow of Boronski's assistant who is suspected of harboring anger towards the dictator, and generally acts like a snotty kid you would just love to slap in the mouth. Towards the end of the film, a local festival takes place, which serves to establish Gilling's film as a precursor to 1973's The Wicker Man. In many ways, these two films are quite similar, both dealing with an unusual group of people who harbor dark secrets and follow a misunderstood pagan religion, although The Gamma People lacks the later film's air of weird sexuality.
Paul Douglas does a fine job as the American reporter convinced something secretive is going on in Gudavia, coming across equally well both as an inquisitor type and as the ultimate action hero of the film. Leslie Phillips as his British counterpart is also quite good, although his role in slightly weaker and more reliant on comedy and slapstick routines than the straight-faced Douglas character. The stunning Eva Bartok, oozing a dark sensuality all over the screen, plays a teacher at Boronski's institute who eventually comes to realize that she must try to eliminate the scientist's grip on the village. Phillip Leaver as the local police captain is probably the most blatantly comic character of the lot, as he's portrayed as completely inept for the entirety of the film. In the villainous roles, we have young Michael Caridia as the nefarious boy genius Hugo, and in the role of Boronski it's Walter Ridda who effectively portrays deranged delusions of grandeur. Overall, the cast is surprisingly good, and the story manages to hang on to coherency through the abundant, somewhat misplaced humor largely due to their efforts.
Director Gilling's work in the film, overall, is well done, nicely capturing the flavor of the Bavarian settings. The entire production keeps the setting's mystique intact, offering up unusual and seemingly authentic location work both indoors and out (the outdoor shots look absolutely gorgeous). While the comedic elements of the film do offer a few hiccups, around the midway point, Gilling's vision for the film does become quite focused and the story clips along until the end. I emphasize again that it's unfortunate that the opening half of the film is so meandering; this film could, and probably would, have been regarded quite highly as one of the more unique genre films of its day had it have been more consistent.
It's regrettable, then, that today The Gamma People is widely regarded in a negative light as camp or schlock. It's true that the film shoots itself in the foot with the inclusion of screwball humor during the first half, creating problems for the viewer expecting a more straight-faced film. Nevertheless, boasting one of the most unique storylines in these kinds of films, solid technique from a production crew that obviously possessed talent, a whimsical setting that's quite convincing, and a solid cast that makes the film work in spite of some scripting mis-steps, The Gamma People is perhaps one weird forgotten film that's most deserving of being rediscovered. I went into this film expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised by it. I don't think one would ever call it a true classic, but as the unusual fantasy that it is, this one is well worth a look.
Blood & Guts = A few off-screen deaths
Language = Youth these days...always talking smack, but nothing offensive
Fap Factor = Eva Bartok wears form fitting clothes
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12