Color, 1968, 97m.
Directed by William Castle
Starring Christopher George, Greta Baldwin, Henry Jones, Monte Markham, Harold Gould
Olive Films (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Project X

The first of three completely unrelated films named Project X (only two of which are sci-fi films) marks another unexpected detour in the directorial carProject Xeer of fright master William Castle, who normally divided his time between gimmick-laden monster favorites and awkward but fascinatingly weird comedies. Imagine a futuristic take on the James Garner reality-bending thriller 36 Hours created by filmmakers on LSD after watching a TV marathon of The Time Tunnel, and you'll start to get an idea of what to expect here.

Stuck in suspended animation in 2118 after a disastrous plane crash, American spy Hagen Arnold (City of the Living Dead's George) holds a crucial secret inside his brain about Asian attempts to attack the West. Unfortunately that information's been psychologically suppressed by drugs taken during his capture and torture, so it's up to a group of scientists headed by Dr. Crowther (Jones, aka the ill-fated Leroy from The Bad Seed) to pry his psyche apart and find out the truth. That involves putting him in a simulation of Hagen's favorite period, 1960s America, with a true-crime twist involving the team members manipulating the scenario to get him to open up. On top of that there's a saboteur in the mix, and a sexy Project Xblonde (Baldwin) offers a few distractions of her own as well.

The world depicted here is an unusual one, with the globe solidified into two opposing political forces and petty crime a thing of the past. The constant references to the "matrix" created for the hero will definitely remind viewers of a certain later sci-fi film franchise, and the comparison is more apt than you might think. Project XThe themes of virtual versus actual consciousness and the symbiotic relationship between technology and biology are all in place here, concerns that would become far more common as special effects caught up to filmmakers' ambitions. If that sounds too cerebral, well, don't worry; there's a lot of entertainment value here, too, including some wild animated sequences (courtesy of Hanna-Barbera!) at regular intervals with lots of bright, splashy colors and superimpositions floating all over the screen. The cinematic drug culture was at its height when this came out, so no doubt Castle was hoping to attract some of the same turned-on viewers who were flocking to 2001: A Space Odyssey the same year. That didn't happen, of course, but seen today this is a fascinating, compelling curiosity with an appealing mixture of '60s pop culture attitude and tantalizing sci-fi concepts. Oh, and for you film score buffs there's a trippy score by the great Lalo Schifrin (Enter the Dragon), too.

Completely unavailable in any home video format prior to Olive Films' Blu-Ray and DVD releases, Project X has always been sort of an outsider in Castle's filmography due to its basic nature and the fact that it very rarely appeared on TV, and even then in pretty sorry-looking condition. Though absent any special features, the Blu-Ray manages to correct those years of neglect with a terrific transfer loaded with rich, super-saturated hues and excellent detail along with the much-needed restoration of its original aspect ratio. Some of the optically-processed shots involving monitors displaying other footage onscreen look softer and dupier by their very nature, but that's a side effect of the original production. The single-channel DTS-HD mono soundtrack is also pristine and sounds more robust than expected, particularly during the more elaborate animated bits.

Reviewed on July 13, 2012.