The Gamma People (1956) – Friday Night At The Home Drive-In

Poster for The Gamma People (1956)The Gamma People (1956) by #JohnGilling
#PaulDouglas #EveBartok #LesliePhillips

Two reporters are stranded in a strange country where the local dictator is using gamma rays to experiment on children.

“Sinister looking dump isn’t it.”

#Horror #SciFi

The first thing that struck me while watching The Gamma People (1956), was the nice opening theme music played by a full orchestra. It didn’t feel like a cheap B-movie. It felt more like a serious film, almost like I was watching something by Alfred Hitchcock, or maybe some sort of epic adventure drama. Had a mistakenly chosen a prestige picture for my night at the home drive-in?

As the music gives way to the scream of a train whistle (once again making me think of Hitchcock), we see a train travelling through a beautiful European landscape – and then two men inside the train playing chess. Through their window, we can see that they are travelling through the mountains.

Unknown to them, the car they are riding in accidentally becomes unhitched from the train. Some children pull a switch, which causes the runaway car to go down a different track from the rest of the train. It crosses a border, illegally, and winds up in a city/country that hasn’t seen a train in years.

It must be noted that the runaway train car seems to keep travelling for quite a distance, considering there’s nothing pulling it – and is doesn’t appear to be going downhill. I’m not sure if it would have actually gotten that far, even taking into account the effects of inertia. But I’m no train expert, so I’ll let it go.

An intriguing beginning, but who are these guys?

The two men playing chess are journalists on their way to cover a music festival. One is American, the other is British.

The movie feels a bit like a comedy, perhaps along the lines of The Inspector General (1949). Two fish out of water, mistaken for something they are not (in this case, spies). The tone is definitely comical as the two men attempt to find a way out of this strange country. They are told there are no phone lines going anywhere, and there are no cars available. One attempts to send a telegram, and the worker carefully takes down his message – and then tells him it will not be delivered.

It all seems a little strange and surreal.

So there’s comedy, but what about horror?

At one point, the British critic finds himself surrounded by strange creepy people in the middle of a dark street. Frightened, he runs away and winds up in the arms of the surprised American critic.  As he tries to explain what just happened to him, it almost comes off like a slightly more intellectual version of an Abbott and Costello movie.

They – and we – eventually figure out that the dictator of this fictional country is experimenting on children. It seems, on the surface, like he is trying to turn them into geniuses. And like any good fan of 1950s science fiction movies, I expected him to accidentally turn the kids into mutated monsters or giant beasts of some sort. But alas, the reality was somewhat more… realistic.

The dictator’s experiments are turning some of the kids into something that resembles the Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany (and they would have been a fairly fresh memory when this project was started in 1951). Put simply, some of the kids appear to be goons who do the bidding of the dictator.

So the horror element in The Gamma People (1956) is more reality based than the average monster movie. 

So is The Gamma People worth watching?

It’s always dangerous to take a comedic approach. As I’ve discussed before, a bad horror film can be funny, a bad science fiction film can be funny, but a bad comedy can’t be funny. Fortunately, the comedy in this movie isn’t quite bad. It’s not exactly great, but it’s sort of at times almost worthy of an Abbott and Costello film. At the end of the day, I would much rather watch Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948) than this.

One other thought on The Gamma People…

I don’t particularly like movies that focus on evil children. If they’re done extremely well, they can be good. The Bad Seed (1956), Bloody Birthday (1981), and a few others certainly have a cherished place in my collection… but there’s nothing I find more annoying than an evil kid getting away with all kinds of evil stuff, and generally being an asshole.

The Gamma People features one such annoying A-hole. He demonstrates his symbolic representation of the brainwashed Hitler Youth by saying things like “sentiment has no place in our society” just before he betrays the heroes, his parents, or anyone else who’s been kind to him. You just want somebody to punch him in the face…. but of course nobody ever does because he’s a kid.

The Final Word

The Gamma People (1956) is most definitely #NotQuiteClassicCinema. It’s not quite the best kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema, but it’s also not the worst. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you might find it to be perfectly acceptable as the middle feature of a three part movie marathon. I doubt that I will need to revisit in the future, but I don’t regret checking it out on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

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