Project X – £9.99

William Castle’s Project X (1967) – out on Blu Ray from 101 Films – is like a fugitive from a frustrating dream where you go into the past and discover a book or comic that never really existed. If I’d ever heard of horror maestro William Castle directing a science fiction movie (1), it had never registered, so that enhances the feeling of coming across something from a parallel world!

The movie itself has the structure of a dream where the narrative suddenly shifts in strange unexpected ways. Christopher George (Grizzly, The Rat Patrol) plays 22nd Century geneticist Hagan Arnold who is sent on a secret spy mission to “Sino-Asia”. He discovers a secret that will destroy America but his memory is wiped by an anti-interrogation drug injected before the mission by his own side. American scientists seek to recover his memory by an elaborate process which involves convincing him that he’s a bank robber in 1960’s America.

When I read the precis on the back of the Blu Ray, I assumed this would be a cheap way filming a lot of the movie on 1960’s city streets. But surprisingly this action takes place in a reproduction of a remote farmhouse flung together by the 22nd Century military. It’s almost like Mission: Impossible with the main cast of scientists assuming false identities. The casting of actors like Philip Pine and Henry Jones who regularly guest-starred in 1960’s TV shows and Van Cleave’s spot-on jazzy score during this sequence heightens the resemblance to a Quinn Martin production. *

*Christopher George himself would later star in the Quinn Martin TV movie The House on Greenapple Road (1970). The subsequent series, Dan August saw Burt Reynolds take the leadGeorge was already starring in The Immortal (1970-71).

When the amnesiac George sleeps, scientist Henry Jones uses a mind-scanning process to creates holograms reproducing what is known of George’s mission in the hope that his sub-conscious will then reveal what is unknown. This leads to the most incredible development of the whole film. It’s almost as if William Castle actually journeyed forward into the 21st Century and saw a modern day thriller with all the computer generated stunts and special effects! And on returning to the 1960’s, he did his best to recreate what he’d seen by commissioning Hanna Barbera to animate the dream sequences. George and other actors are superimposed over cartoon sequences designed by Carl Urbano and Alex Toth (at least some of which are retreads from the Jonny Quest TV show).

Scriptwriter Edmund Morris (another TV veteran) effectively reverses the plot of Leslie P. Davies’ novel The Artificial Man (1965). In the book, the hero is a science fiction writer living in a 1960’s village. Friends and neighbours keep making remarks which inspire the development of a novel he is writing about life in a dictatorship in 2016. After he meets a girl from the village who believes she is living in 2016, the author gradually realises that he’s a secret agent who has lost his memory. It really is 2016 and his life as a writer has been part of a plot to recover the secrets held in his lost memory. There are obvious overtones of the 1967 TV series The Prisoner and it’s intriguing that Castle and North chose to give the big revelation right at the start of the movie – as if they wanted to make sure they didn’t confuse anyone.

We only get vague hints of what the world of the future is like – women are designated as sterile or breeders, and nobody knows what a potato is. There’s an implication of the dictatorship of Davies’ novel, but since most of the action takes place in a top secret military project it’s hard to be certain. Harold Gould plays the Colonel in charge of the operation, constantly in opposition to Jones and Pine as the scientists. There’s a slight hint of Waiting for Godot watching actors who usually play supporting roles taking the lead – you’re constantly waiting for the big star to turn up – but with even George laying comatose or addled for much of the movie, it’s Jones and Gould who dominate. There’s a darkly amusing scene at one point when it’s feared that the project has been exposed to a plague – and Jones calmly lays out to a horrified Gould how they’ll have to quarantine the base as the infection spreads , with each new victim cremated by the survivors. Jones delivers this speech with a methodical slyness, so we’re never quite sure if he’s already thought of the loophole that’s going to save them.

The second source for the movie is Davies’ novel The Psychogeist, which has similar themes of amnesia, a man recalling a childhood comic which may actually be memories of life on an alien planet, and a top secret project. When scientist Jones comments during one scene that, “What we see in the mirror and what the mind sees filtered through our ego is quite another thing.” he seems to be stating the main theme of Davies’ work.

Monte Markham: “I am the Master, you will..” (Oops, wrong show)

It’s possible that The Psychogeist inspired the character of Gregory Gallea, the mysterious figure played by Monte Markham (star of The Second Hundred Years TV series – later to be the Seven Million Dollar Man rival of The Six Million Dollar Man). Markham wears an Ed Bishop catsuit and a Roger Delgado beard so he looks like a futuristic villain, but plays Gallea with a convincing ambiguity, so we’re never quite sure of his connection with George and the mysterious disembodied entity that manifests itself in the project (2). Picking up a plot strand from The Artificial Man, George’s character has met a girl from the village (Greta Baldwin) who is unaware of the deception. When she’s arrested by the military, Markham tries to enlist her aid in busting George out of the project. Once again, just when you think you know what direction the movie’s going in, Castle veers off in another direction.

As a piece of science fiction, Project X often looks outdated, and as a work made for hire it looks cheap – especially in comparison to some of the other movies coming out at the time. But it has a kind of mad charm and beneath the surface there are a number of interesting concepts, not just as science fiction but in relation to other films (3)

(1) In fact, Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story (2007) on the Indicator 13 Ghosts Blu Ray, does mention Project X as a project handed to Castle by the studio before Rosemary’s Baby but released as an anti-climactic follow-up to the success of the Ira Levin adaptation.

The 101 Films Blu Ray of Project X comes with a commentary by Allan Bryce and David Flint and a new documentary, Money Back Guarantee in which commentators such as Vic Pratt (above) of the BFI relate William Castle’s career in ballyhoo. It’s obviously cut price in comparison to the documentaries on the recent Indicator box set, but then cut price is well in the spirit of Castle and Project X – and it still manages to be entertaining and informative.

(2) SPOILER – Gallea is the villain, albeit one with a convincing motivation. One could only wish the next actor to play The Master on Doctor Who could be given a Ludovico Treatment and sat in front of Markham’s performance as Gallea so they can see there is another way to play a villain without going full Jack Nicholson/Johnny Depp.

(3) SPOILER *** The movie ends with Henry Jones telling Greta Baldwin that George has been given a new identity and new memories as an engineer. Baldwin is informed that she also has a new identity and that she was officially married to George three days ago. George affects a particular vacuousness in his new identity and as they depart hand-in-hand it’s hard to dispel memories of Arnold Shwarzenegger and Sharon Stone in Total Recall.