An eccentric professor of ancient languages comes into possession of a magical coin that gives him special powers. He offers his talents to the US military but comes to the attention of foreign spies instead, all the while competing with a rival professor to become the next head of department at his university.
Poorly conceived family ‘comedy’ from producer/director William Castle, a man fondly remembered more for his outlandish sales gimmicks than his films. By the early 1960s his name was synonymous with horror flicks such as ‘House On Haunted Hill’ (1958) and ‘The Tingler’ (1959), both of which starred Vincent Price. Castle figured this film would allow him to leave such films behind, and embrace mainstream success. He was wrong.
The film opens with the usual Columbia Studios logo of the woman with the torch, only what’s that at her feet to the right of the screen? It’s Castle himself sitting in his director’s chair! The two enjoy a brief dialogue, and it’s excellently done, unfortunately it’s probably the most interesting and creative moment in the entire film. Next we’re introduced to our hapless hero in the person of familiar comedy actor Tom Poston, and his somewhat careless bicycle ride to work in the morning. This is a well-choreographed sequence, which does provoke a smile, if not actual laughter. Julia Meade turns up shortly afterward as the fetching heroine and good old Cecil Kellaway appears as an avuncular professor. Not exactly inspiring, but a solid opening nonetheless.
The problem comes when Poston gains his powers from the coin. There are three; one of which involves pointing his finger, another the use of the word ‘Zotz!’ and the last with the two actions combined. Using the word alone, he can slow down time, which obviously allows for some jolly shenanigans with people moving and talking very slowly. lt’s overdone a bit, and has been flogged to death since, but it’s not too much of a problem. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his other ‘gifts.’ The pointing finger inflicts pain, which he uses a lot, and combining finger and word actually kills things.
Chuckle as Poston ‘shoots’ a squirrel off a park bench by hitting it with a stab of excruciating pain! Giggle as he causes friends and colleague to double over holding their stomachs in agony! Laugh hysterically as he crawls around on the floor at a faculty party trying to kill white mice with his deadly finger! Not exactly comedy gold. The public might not have been so sensitive back when the film was made, but, even so, it’s pretty mean-spirited and not exactly family friendly.
The film flopped and Castle could not work out why. Undeterred, he carried on in a similar vein with a remake of ‘The Old Dark House’ (1966) (filmed 3 years earlier), and the equally laboured ‘The Spirit ls Willing’ (1966). The problem with both of these pictures was another difficulty shared by this one; they were ‘sitcom’ films, the sort of thing audiences lapped up in their homes in 30 minute chunks with commercials, but weren’t interested in seeing at the cinema at the three times that length. Castle’s career never really recovered.
The cast work hard to try and milk what humour there is out of the lame script, and we have legendary Hollywood ‘heavy’ Mike Mazurki in the role of a Russian enforcer, and Margaret Dumont proving there was life after the Marx Brothers as Kellaway’s wife. But the jokes and humour are strained, and sometimes hopelessly dated. Apparently, healthy eating is wacky and a sign of mental instability! On a brighter note, Poston’s niece and her boyfriend go to the drive-in and watch ‘Homicidal’ (1961), Castle’s homage (rip-off) of Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960). The man was never above a bit of flagrant self- promotion.
A lame and tired enterprise that didn’t dazzle at the time, and now looks positively feeble.