The Cult of the Azalea Pictures by Larry Buchanan (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Filmmaker Larry Buchanan (1923-2004 collapsed lung) is feted for his bad movies and the worst of these are his Azalea Pictures. They are a series of eight movies, which were shot on budgets of about $30,000 each, starting in the mid-1960s. Produced by American International Pictures they were the first of the colour television “tv movies” as they were made especially for teevee…

Director Buchanan

However, despite being shot on something less than a shoestring and on very tight schedules, there is some art to be found among the washed out colour, the often suburban settings and the stories which were also often remakes of 1950s sci-fi films.

Welcome to Larry Buchanan’s Azalea Pictures. You may have heard of some of them as they comprise of The Eye Creatures (1965), Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966), Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966), Mars Needs Women (1967), Creature of Destruction (1967), In the Year 2889 (1967), Hell Raiders (1968) and It’s Alive (1969).

Azalea Pictures credit

Originally commissioned three at a time, the final film of the nine doesn’t really count and that is the cinema released A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970). They were renewed after the initial success of the first three movies.

Thanks to the book The Films of Larry Buchanan: A Critical Examination by Rob Craig as well as Buchanan’s own autobiography It Came from Hunger! – we have this article.

The Eye Creatures was based on Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957)

The Eye Creatures title card comes up on a picture of a 16mm projector being threaded. The Azalea Pictures were shot on 16mm and not the more expensive 35mm which most other movies of the day were. Thus the projector is symbolic of the Cyclops – one of the eye creatures – perhaps the ultimate eye creature. Not to mention the eye creatures like us who watch the movie The Eye Creatures.

This movie is a remake of Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957) and is about invading aliens who arrive on Earth on an invading UFO and who “must be presumed to be unfriendly”.

Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957) trailer

To avoid worldwide panic, the authorities keep the sighting of the UFO to themselves. Meanwhile, in one of the themes of the movie – lost privacy – air force personnel spy using cameras on teenagers making out in cars.

The concept of “watch the skies” is forgotten as we forget about the aliens spying on us as we spy on one another – some with sexual predilection. While it’s one of those teenagers and teenage hero in peril movies, star John Ashley (1934-97 heart attack) was well into his thirties when he starred in this picture.

John Ashley played teens into his 30s and had a career later in the Philippines

That the Azalea Pictures are a reaction to the malaise and non closure to the JFK killings in Dallas – the film like most of the Azalea Pictures were shot in that city – here we have the despondency and cynicism of the country, once an oasis of Doris Day (1922-2019 pneumonia) movies. But it is now a voyeur’s paradise with censorship relieved, leading to the nudity of The Pawnbroker (1965) playing mainstream cinemas.

The nudity in The Pawnbroker (1964/5) was daring for a mainstream film

Again there was a sexual revolution… But the reflection of this malaise in The Eye Creatures is shown with the use of the O’Neal Funeral Chapel who supplied the hearse and casket to transport JFK’s body to Air Force One to fly back to Washington. Furthermore, you can spot an O’Neal ambulance in one scene, which is possibly the very one used to carry Lee Harvey Oswald’s body to Parkland Memorial Hospital when he was killed. So the piece is seminal with its projector, lack of privacy even in death, Zapruder etc.

An O’Neal ambulance appears in The Eye Creatures

“What can you expect with all those bad books being written nowadays?,” says a doctor about teenagers seeing spacemen instead of pink elephants when they are suspected of being drunk.

“I just know they’re watching us,” says a girl in lover’s lane in a car with her boyfriend.

The air force prefers to watch teenagers than possible aliens from the skies

It reflects the paranoia of a future that would be realised in this day and age. Not quite Orwellian – but one under surveillance with a surplus of cameras, both CCTV and hand-held phones.

That the young woman is being watched by a corrupt military source opens up into our planet being watched by malevolent aliens – The Eye Creatures.

The saucer used on screen at the beginning of the movie was a well-known 1960s toy, while the landing on Earth effect was lifted from Invaders from Mars (1953).

Cheap special effects in The Eye Creatures included a popular children’s toy

With a car called Elvis: “she shakes and shimmies a lot but she really goes” – the theme of the empowerment of youth is nodded at, as the teenagers must take matters in their own hands due to disbelieving local authorities, while the air force won’t let on what’s really happening.

The Eye Creature costumes were elaborate for an Azalea Pictures

The costumes of the eye creatures are made of latex and foam and are quite elaborate for the budget – as I mentioned around $30,000 – and FX man Jack Bennett did really well on this one. His creature for other Azalea Pictures is far more hokey. It is probably not surprising the creatures have multiple eyes and the same costumes were used again in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

The paranoia of the piece, that someone is watching us is underlined when the air force colonel says in one scene: “Someone may be watching us right now.” Do you feel safe alone in your lounge-room?

The climax of the film has the eye creatures dissolved by light – the teenagers gather their car headlights in the final face-off.

The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) used one of the costumes again. Here’s a trailer.

“After all, we’re just a couple of crazy kids,” says Ashley about the probability of anyone believing their story. The air force having destroyed the UFO, the teenagers killing the aliens… what’s left to do but neck under the surveillance of the corrupt adults!

VHS cover

But they have passed through the rites of passage, albeit in all but a day, with flying colours and they too are now, practically, adults. They have done it themselves and Buchanan asks the same of the Americans of the day… Their king assassinated, the country’s direction lost in Vietnam – they must learn to grow up without authorities, who would only muddy the JFK situation with the Warren Commission. The conspiracy paranoia was here but Buchanan asks us to outgrow it and start afresh. Try and forget the corrupt adults watching over us. They are immaterial despite the feeling they bring with their invasion of privacy, and a feeling that a human being is compromised through self-consciousness and its general feeling of invasion. Alien or not! We must reach a compromise together in a car while necking out!! Yes?

A very quick The Eye Creatures trailer

Next off the Azalea Pictures production line was Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966). When the name Zontar is first spoken it sounds like “Santa”, so it’s not surprising that one of the main themes of this remake of It Conquered the World (1956) is about worshipping false idols. Zontar/Santa instead of God/Christ.

Kids and teenagers watching this film, who escape reality by watching films and television could probably relate to the bickering adult couples in this movie.

A poster for Zontar the Thing from Venus (1966)

This movie is set in suburbia and tells of a scientist played by Anthony Houston (real name Enrique Touceda III) who has made contact with an alien named Zontar who promises great things for the human race when “it” comes to Earth. Houston tells his friend, another scientist played by John Agar (1921-2002 emphysema): “All our dreams of perfection will be realised. Zontar will see to that.” Houston listens to the long-range radio, which to Agar sounds like “progressive jazz” and perhaps bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan to others.

It Conquered the World (1956) trailer

It was the time of the space race when Zontar was filmed and so there’s a rocket base central to the story.

Director Buchanan used something akin to a theatre troupe of actors who are sprinkled throughout his Azalea Pictures on more than one occasion. Houston, Pat Delany, Roger Ready, Jeff Alexander, Neil Fletcher and Billy Thurman they all contribute to the Azalea universe. Houston, who would write several of the films, and Delany would marry during the period of the Azalea films.

Anthony Houston aka Enrique Touceda III wrote and starred in some of the Azalea Pictures

That Zontar communicates with Houston through a radio in the lounge room also brings the horror home as the viewer is probably watching it in a similar lounge room.

It’s an almost existential exercise to view the Azaleas today. It takes a big leap of faith for the suspension of reality to keep taking effect – something akin to the trance sequences of Creature of Destruction.

What are the strange sounds that eminate from scientist Houston’s closet? Eggs frying?

Sadly, the films may be depressing to watch by younger viewers spoilt by the Marvel Universe – they may even be impossible to watch with any objective seriousness. Yet there is something to these movies and I enjoy Zontar far more than the original It Conquered the World.

The moment Zontar is mentioned bad things start happening as the satellite launched has disappeared. The two scientists and their wives are the main characters and the men will be pitted against each other as power fails, car engines stop… Zontar has landed!

A Zontar the Thing from Venus trailer

Meanwhile some type of Venusian flying injecta-pod takes control of the minds of key members of the local community when it attaches itself to their necks. Before all this the women are bored as they buy cakes at the bakery for the weekend lunches they host. Typical modern suburbia! But as is common in several of the Azaleas, it will be the women who save the day in an act of self-sacrifice. So with this part of suburbia in limbo without power – something a little horrifying – and indeed there is panic on the streets as if the Communists from China or Russia have landed – it’s really Zontar!

Some have described Zontar as little more than a bowel movement with eyes

We finally see him and while some critics have described him as resembling a bowel movement with eyes, it’s really some sort of bat with three eyes – the third one representing all seeing psychic ability.

Houston is blinded by some sort of religious zeal when it comes to Zontar. Agar calls Houston “the most diabolical traitor of all time” for allowing Zontar to land on Earth, where it lives in a warm cave which somewhat replicates the environment on Venus. It is while these men argue that Houston’s wife flees the suburban home with a revolver…

Pat Delany/Delaney married Anthony Houston during the making of the Azaleas

Agar has already killed his wife after she was irreversibly possessed by an injecta-pod! She goes to the cave and vents her feminist anger at it: “Zontar, you’re slimy! Horrible!” She goes to kill it but the gun jams and Zontar kills her. Houston and Agar hear it on the radio and the spell over Houston is broken by the female martyr. It is no longer Santa promising peace on Earth and good will to man – but the murdering Zontar! And the martyr who tries to help save the world is a woman!

A statue of the god Janus

To speak intellectually for a moment, the two scientists, once opposed like the two faced Janus, the Roman God of duality among other things… The film is a treatise of the duality of man in terms of philosophical and religious outlooks even within the confines of the heterosexual relationship of man and woman. Well it sounds intelligent! This duality can be shown in men with different points of view philosophically and religiously, and in a male/female relationship where interest in sex is diverted by religious dogma. There is also the duality within man himself where his thoughts and point of view can swing or change from one pole to another in an instant, as shown through the death of Houston’s wife.

Neil Fletcher was another common face in the Azaleas

So deep for a $30,000 quickie!

And it had to be stretched as its original source material ran only seventy minutes and each Azalea picture had to make the 80-minute mark.

Buchanan is hard on religion in this one. In fact, he was brought up in a religion-based orphanage after losing his mother at a young age and a father who couldn’t cope. For him the lesson of false idols was planted young as he saw the injustices of the orphanage – especially the tortures doled out if you were a bed-wetter like Buchanan. The lesson of man also being unable to be a free-thinker was planted there too.

An electric arc generator or Jacob’s Ladder appears at the end of Zontar

Houston’s religious mania is well-intentioned but as the CODA, which follows Houston’s death along with Zontar as he uses an almost laser-like gun on the bat-like creature – says: All Houston found was “death, fire, disillusionment, loss.” These words are spoken by Agar his polar opposite – other than his wife – and friend, then enemy and then friend again. Agar goes on to say, man can overcome these things but it must come from within not from without.

A friendship at the crossroads in Zontar

He speaks atheistically: “It must come from learning. It must come from the very heart of man himself.” It’s a nice speech and one of the last images is of an electric arc generator, or Jacob’s Ladder, with two poles and a spark rising up between them… The spark of an idea, a spark of friendship despite being poles apart… there is hope! No wonder this is a cult movie!!

As for Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966), there are elements of I Walked with a Zombie (1943) with its, in this case, relentless jungle drums and its superstitious natives. Something also used in Voodoo Woman (1957). Both have women who are either driven mad by men or kept prisoner by them.

Tom Conway wears a silly hat somewhere in Voodoo Woman (1957). Here’s the trailer.

More repression of women in the pre-feminist era! The swamp creature is obviously evolution based and Trent the scientist is a man who plays God instead of believing in one. Trent is played by one of Buchanan’s troupe, actor Jeff Alexander (1932-1998). Another film which influences Swamp Creature, is White Zombie (1932) with its voodoo element.

Jeff Alexander tortures his wife and is high and mighty with the natives

“You’ve always been too young and too stupid to understand my work,” says Trent after striking his wife, locking her in her room with “no intention of killing her”. He is a torturer! And one low on the evolutionary scale like his “children”!

Themes of this film include female empowerment, which happens at the end when the female creature disobeys its “father” and how a woman ultimately emancipates herself despite being in a controlling relationship. There is also the law of the jungle as well as the embryonic black power movement among the natives who bow down to Trent in his almost Southern pre-civil war bayou mansion. The film was made in the wake of the Watts riots in 1965.

Voodoo in the bayou is the undoing of the evil scientist in Curse of the Swamp Creature

The rural whites in this movie are shown as evil and conspiratorial, even murderous. There is no real community except for the voodoo community which is used as a belief system for the blacks. Theirs is a repressed community like women in general at the time.

There is also the regression of civilised man and his want and to create a child despite impotence and without a woman. There is also the themes of depression and low self-esteem.

A paper cutting advertising Curse of the Swamp Creature

Trent locks away his wife while “procreating” in his laboratory instead. In this case a misguided option where creating a child in a test tube is a cold and Godless affair. This impotent bully of a male figure tells her: “Everything will be much better, very soon.” He also says: “obedience is the key to survival”, this so-called master of the jungle, who is really just a child-like egghead scientist. The idea of science as a lifestyle option rather than human relationships is another theme.

Voodoo and a madwoman make up some of the plot of I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

As with the Azaleas, which were meant to be watched in dreary 1960s living rooms on a colour teevee, they were really just filler for 24-hour colour television stations. It was found it was cheaper to make these movies than buying the rights to European movies and local movie product from the studios. Thus they were commissioned and the art of the Azaleas was born!

John Agar drops by the swamp and sits and stands round smoking packets of cigarettes

So watching dreary looking lounge rooms, motel rooms and other cheap, claustrophobic sets add to the paranoia and yet close to home otherworldliness of the Azalea Pictures. It’s true, the films do, according to writer Rob Craig, have an “ambience” due to the familiarity of the scenes.

It is Agar’s second of his three Azaleas and he is not as at home in this one as he was in Zontar. In that one he appeared to be having fun but in Swamp Creature he seems to just sit and stand around smoking a packet of cigarettes. I don’t know how much he was paid but it was far from a career high for the actor and former alcoholic who had worked with legendary director John Ford (1894-1973) earlier in his career.

The actual swamp creature “Brenda” looks like actor Bill Thurman in costume

Like all the Azaleas, this one has intellectual pretensions beyond just a cheap monster movie which is pretty remarkable, as I have stated.

A failed KKK?

“We haven’t had visitors in over a year,” says Trent’s wife to Agar and it is she at the end of the movie who escapes her closet and compels the female creature to use free will. In the end “Brenda”, or the Swamp Creature, throws Trent and herself into a pool full of alligators. Trent comes undone and justice and balance are restored to the swamp. They have destroyed the man whose horrible creatures he would dispose covered in white sheets in the pool full of alligators. Attempts to create a new KKK anybody?! I prefer KFC! No, Red Rooster!! And so Agar and Trent’s wife fly off into the distance in a short CODA.

Stay and discover Mars Needs Women in PART TWO.

1 Comment

  1. flinch
    Permalink

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    Reply

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