Sunday, 21 August 2011
Creature with the Atom Brain
Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) dir. Edward L. Cahn
Starring: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, Michael Granger, S. John Launer, Gregory Gay
By Alan Bacchus
Sam Katzman is one of cinema’s great schlockmeisters – a Roger Corman-like producer of 1950s B-Horror films. According to the IMDB he has 250 various producer credits to his name. My first entry into the cinema of Sam Katzman is Creature with the Atom Brain, a classic piece of disposable celluloid fom the atomic era.
The film jumps right into the story with not an ounce of backstory explanation. A zombie-like man with a scar across his brain follows another man to his office late at night. The zombie moves to the windows and rips open the covering steel bars with Hulk-like ease. The zombie then approaches the man and strangles him to death. Somewhere else in the world, a maniacal gangster and his German scientist partner, Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gay), watch the action from the point of view of the zombie. They are able to control his movements remotely with simple instructions read into a microphone.
The gangster is the diabolical Frank Buchanan, who has returned from exile in Europe to exact revenge on his enemies. One by one his former colleagues and lawmen that did him wrong die at the hands of his army of remote-controlled humans. There’s a fantastical scientific explanation for how they can control their brains, but essentially they are zombies before there was such a term. The army is called in to help and the authorities, led by mild-mannered scientist Dr. Chet Walker, hunt down Buchanan and Steigg.
I doubt Sam Katzman ever thought this film would last beyond its life in the theatre. In fact, he’d probably be shocked that someone like me would be discussing it 50 years later.
But a film like this changes over time. What was probably a very scary movie for teenagers in its day is now a time capsule comedy – a hilarious slice of the times. Modern films about the 50s frequently make fun of the blindfolded view of the world that cinema showed its audiences (e.g., Far From Heaven and even the Canadian horror-comedy Fido). Domestic suburban life was a blissful fairytale world, and politics and war was noble, heroic and fun. And so, the naiveté of films like these provide us with unintentional absurdist humour.
Remarkably, as a piece of disposable low budget cinema, it actually survives as a polished piece of entertainment. With the help of a fantastic DVD transfer, the black and white image is as crisp and clear as it was in 1955 (probably better, actually). In fact, the sharpness of the image rivals any black and white film made today – try doing a comparative analysis of Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck and this film. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the technical differences.
The film plays to the lowest common denominator of intellect. The actors are there to tell the audience, on the nose, what is going on – and to set up the fun action horror sequences. Some of the acting is horrendous, but excusing this in the context of time is necessary to enjoy the film. Though it’s not particularly scary, once the film gets moving at its brisk pace I got caught up in the melodrama.
The finale will provide some laughs, as the zombie-warriors engage in a huge hand-to-hand battle with the police on the lawn of a suburban home. Director Edward L. Cahn frequently uses a point-of-view shot to show the zombies strangle their victims. It’s overused, but I can imagine it causing a fright to ‘50s teenagers.