• Gabe Powers

Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman LE Blu-ray Review


Arrow Films

Blu-ray Release: September 14, 2021

Video: 1.78:1 & 1.85:1/1080p/Black & White

Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono

Subtitles: English

Run Time: 293+ minutes

Director: Edward L. Cahn and Fred F. Sears


Though producer and director Sam Katzman’s career spans almost every genre and extends back to the late ‘20s – including serials and work with major studios – the nature of cult film fandom means that he is often remembered as a purveyor of double-feature bottom bill fodder. As such, his select few sci-fi/horror productions tend to be characterized as the also-rans of the ‘50s exploitation era, like a B-grade version of B-movie independents Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Arrow Video has compiled a collection of four Katzman films – two directed by Edward L. Cahn and two directed by Fred F. Sears – which represent the best, worst, and best/worst that Sam Katzman Productions had to offer during the heyday of American drive-ins.


Creature with the Atom Brain

A mob boss hires an ex-Nazi scientist to reanimate his dead thugs. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


Katzman had first attempted to crash the zombie market in 1944 with a late-in-the-game cash-in on Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) entitled Voodoo Man (starring Bela Lugosi and directed by William Beaudine). Eleven years later, he and director Edward L. Cahn tried again with an atomic era twist, creating Creature with the Atom Brain (1955). Clocking in at just over an hour long, Creature with the Atom Brain (a strange title, since we seemingly all have atoms in our brains…) is not a zombie movie, but not in the Voodoo or living dead traditions. It’s closer to alien replacement movies, like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which preyed more on Cold War era brainwashing fears than fear of death. It is also, of course, preying on the existential anxiety brought on by the invention of the A-bomb, albeit in a far less apocalyptic manner than Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) or Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954). The sci-fi accoutrement and James-Whale-on-a-budget sets also connects it to the Frankenstein tradition, but it is the police procedural and gangster movie elements that manage to set it apart from a very busy B-movie field. Unfortunately, Cahn doesn’t lean in hard enough to the high-concept ridiculousness of Curt Siodmak’s screenplay. This is essentially Dragnet vs. the Nazi Controlled Mob Zombies, but is taken so seriously that it feels more like a failed attempt at serious drama.


Cahn was a workhorse of a director who settled into a zero-budget sci-fi/horror groove around the time of Creature with the Atom Brain. This late career run included The Zombies of Mora Tau (see below) and Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), but his biggest contribution to the genre was 1958’s It! the Terror from Beyond Space, which inspired Dan O’Bannon’s original Alien screenplay. And speaking of screenplays, the biggest crew name here is Siodmak, known for his work on dozens of genre classics, including The Wolf Man (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943); two films that heavily inspired multiple movies in this collection.


The Blu-rays in this set were created using restored HD masters from Sony Pictures. There is no other information on the restoration process. The results aren’t always up to Arrow’s highest standards, but, considering the age and original condition of the films, it is more than satisfactory. Previously, all four movies were made available from Sony in a two-disc set entitled Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman. That version of Creature with the Atom Brain was reframed to 1.33:1, while this 1080p, black & white transfer is presented in the intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The two Cahn movies (this and Zombies of Mora Tau) are particularly dark, though, fortunately (in this case), cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline’s photography benefits from some pretty high contrast mastering, leading to occasional edge haloes, but otherwise creating relatively neat element separation, despite heavy, chunky grain. Most inconsistencies can be attributed to the differences between shooting on sets or outdoors and notable print damage is limited mostly to a few scratches during close-ups or at the beginning and end of reels.


Creature with the Atom Brain is presented in its original mono and uncompressed LPCM 1.0. The bulk of the film is dialogue-driven and the performances are clear and consistent. The minimal incidental effects are thin, but the various stock music cues and sci-fi sounds are crisp.


Extras

  • Commentary by pop culture historian Russell Dyball – A semi-regular contributor to Shout Factory releases, Dyball offers up a solid defense of important members of the cast & crew, while also summing up their various careers in an occasionally screen-specific manner. He also does a good job criticizing Creature with the Atom Brain’s many slow spells in the context of a double-feature, where people might be starting the film in the middle or taking extended bathroom/snack breaks.

  • 2021 introduction by historian and critic Kim Newman (8:32, HD) – The author of Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011) takes a concise and relatively complete look at Cahn’s career, discusses Creature with the Atom Brain’s place in zombie movie and ‘50s sci-fi history, and notes some recycled footage (which will come up again later).

  • Sam Katzman: Before and Beyond the Cold War Creatures (73:57) – The back cover describes this as a documentary, but it’s more of a PowerPoint lecture. It isn’t a bad PowerPoint lecture, but viewers should probably be prepared for that, not a flashily edited, multi-interview subject documentary. Comic book artist, author, and horror movie historian Stephen R. Bissette (last seen doing similar work for Arrow’s Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection set) explores Katzman’s serials (including Batman and Superman), his habit of blatantly ripping-off whatever was popular at the time (he essentially made mockbusters), his ballyhoo promotion, his cohorts, and his exit from sci-fi/horror filmmaking for rock ‘n roll musicals, complete with slideshow images of ads, posters, magazine articles, and comics from his own collection.

  • Super 8mm condensed version of the film (19:27, HD)

  • Trailer

  • Image gallery









The Werewolf

An auto-accident survivor is used as an experimental subject to create a vaccine for nuclear fall-out with hair-raising side-effects. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


Depending on one’s tolerance for aged B-movie standards and omitting the moments that exceed those expectations, the movies in this collection generally fall under the ‘enjoyably bad’ banner. They fit the Mystery Science Theater 3000 model, even if they weren’t ever featured on the series. Fred F. Sears’ The Werewolf (1956) is the exception, because, aside from some clunky pacing, it is a genuinely good and sadly forgotten entry in the werecreature canon. What’s most notable about The Werewolf is that it visually mixes Old Country Gothic with a modern noir, while thematically combining western and horror tropes. Given the snowy mountain backdrop, it’s almost as if a monster movie has invaded a Jack London story. All four of these movies are good-looking, especially considering Katzman’s Z-grade pedigree, but The Werewolf is very nearly as gorgeous as the dreamy Val Lewton productions that I suspect Katzman and company had in mind while making these films. Cinematographer Edward Linden also shot Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong and its first sequel 23 years previous, and this was his feature swan song.


Like all the best wolf-man movies and Incredible Hulk stories, The Werewolf is a full-bore tragedy about a lowly wretch with uncontrollable monster instincts thrown into a nomadic life in hopes of keeping himself and those around him safe. Instead of being beholden to the power of the full moon, the title creature is the result of experimental medicine, though the Cold War connotation is less on-the-nose this time. It seems that scientists have accidentally created a lycanthrope while trying to develop treatment for future victims of an inevitable radioactive fallout (they are, of course, villains, who only want to inoculate specific people against nuclear war). Despite taking the typical route with the werewolf’s plight, the origin is unique and Clay Campbell’s truly feral monster make-up is pretty remarkable. Since Hammer and Paul Naschy wouldn’t get around to making werewolf movies until after the turn of the ‘60s, The Werewolf’s major competition was probably Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), which was released a year later with a younger drive-in audience in mind. Fowler Jr.’s movie helped spawn a series of teenage horror films, likely contributing to Sears’ film’s longer term of obscurity.


The Werewolf is presented in 1080p and its intended 1.85:1. The transfer is more delicate than the Creature with the Atom Brain transfer, which benefits from its harsher contrast, but a similar approach would have flattened Linden’s layered grey tones. The soft edges and grain levels appear natural without mushing up the stronger white highlights, and the deepest blacks are rich without unintended crush. The only problems I notice are some moiré-like effects throughout the busiest patterns and a touch of pulsing during daylight scenes. The mono LPCM 1.0 soundtrack is a bit quiet on the effects and incidental sound side of things, but the dialogue and music are clean and neatly mixed. Once again, the score is made up entirely of stock music.


Extras

  • Commentary by critic Lee Gambin – The author of Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film (Midnight Marquee, 2018) takes a lovingly academic approach to talking about The Werewolf, delving into the careers of the cast & crew, context of the era, the history of werewolf mythology and movies, the ways ‘50s horror endeavor to subvert the era’s social norms, and more.

  • 2021 introduction by critic Kim Newman (13:53, HD) – Newman’s second intro gives props to director Frank F. Sears, his career as a journeyman filmmaker, and The Werewolf’s place in ‘50s sci-fi/horror.

  • Beyond Window Dressing (23:35, HD) – Historian, critic, and author of The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021) Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explores the women of Katzman’s films, the ways they embrace and avoid gender stereotypes of the era, and their careers as actresses.

  • Super 8mm condensed version of the film (7:33, HD)

  • Trailer

  • Image gallery









The Zombies of Mora Tau

Treasure hunters get more than they bargained for in the search for a cargo of diamonds that went down with a sunken ship when they discover the zombified crew members are guarding the loot. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


Still more than a decade away from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Katzman and Cahn returned to zombies for The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), which continued Creature with the Atom Brain’s sci-fi slant, but also dialed back to an earlier era with Voodoo trappings. Its innovation appears to be making the living dead aquatic in nature, an addition to the lore that would later sit at the heart of Ken Wiederhorn’s Nazi zombie classic, Shock Waves (1977) and be touched upon by Romero when he made Land of the Dead in 2005 (Stephen R. Bissette points to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls [1962] as another early example of water zombies). Remembered somewhat justly as a cornball bottom-biller, Zombies of Mora Tau isn’t without its merits. Its jungle Gothic imagery is brimming with enough spooky atmosphere to overcome stock characters and low-energy exposition scenes. The script, based on a story by George H. Plympton, was written by blacklisted Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) scribe Bernard Gordon. Gordon doesn’t dip as deeply or explicitly into post-colonial fear as Siodmak & Ardel Wray did for Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, but he nonetheless frames the plot around the conflict between proper, W.A.S.P.y society and the ‘deviant hordes.’ The zombies aren’t people of color and the greater moral is an anti-greed parable (very similar to a mummy’s curse situation), but the theming is clear enough.


Zombies of Mora Tau interests me as an influence on Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979). Both movies are set in far-flung tropical corners of the globe that require lengthy boat trips to get to. Both locations have a colonial history that informs some of the zombies’ identities (in Mora Tau, they are several generations of diamond hunters, and in Zombie, some of the living dead are resurrected Spanish conquistadors). Characters in both films are attacked by underwater zombies during dives (old-fashion ADS and scuba, respectively). Other similarities are less impressive, such as men being killed off by their curly-haired, sexpot spouses, who they refused to acknowledge have become the living dead. Fulci’s film was designed to cash-in on the success Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) in Italy (entitled Zombi 2 in an effort to trick audiences into thinking it was a sequel), but, besides graphic violence and flesh-eating ghouls, the two films have very little in common. For what it’s worth, Romero might have borrowed the zombies’ fear of fire for Night of the Living Dead.


Zombies of Mora Tau is presented in 1.78:1 and 1080p HD. As previously stated, the two Cahn-directed movies in this collection are considerably darker than the two Sears-directed movies. That said, this particular film is the darkest in the set, to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s going on at some points. I imagine that Cahn and cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline aimed for a moody look and struggled to light all the outdoor sequences, while the folks at Sony and Arrow struggled to find a balance between sharpness and contrast levels that would appear natural and discernible. The results are good, aside from (I’m assuming) unavoidable stuff, like blooming hard light edges and black-crushed shadows. The LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is a smidge flatter and quieter than some of the others in the set, possibly because a number of scenes were shot with a single ‘room’ mic, based on the fact that incidental sound is as loud as dialogue. This is another round of stock music, but it really fits the film nicely this time, especially the title theme.


Extras

  • Commentary by critic Kat Ellinger – Critic, editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine, and author of Devil’s Advocate: Daughters of Darkness (Auteur Publishing/Liverpool University Press, 2018) once again brings her A-game to talk about a B-film. Like the other commentators in the collection, she offers up a lot of context, comparing Zombies of Mora Tau to the sci-fi/horror, Gothic, and zombie movies released before and after it. She also gives her perspective on Katzman and Cahn, sums up the careers of cast & crew members, including Allison Hayes (of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman [1958] fame) and Marjorie Eaton (of Mary Poppins [1964] and Empire Strikes Back [1980] fame), and discusses the underlying significance of racial/cultural in zombie fiction.

  • 2021 introduction by critic Kim Newman (7:34, HD) – Newman credits Zombies of Mora Tau as an important entry in the cinematic zombie canon, comparing it to John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), Night of the Living Dead, Fulci’s Zombie, and other Italian-born films (I usually write the movie reviews before I watch extras and was very disappointed to discover that both Elinger and Newman were way ahead of me on the Lucio Fulci connection).

  • Atomic Terror: Genre in Transformation (19:48, HD) – Critic and programmer Josh Hurtado explores the intersection between mythological horror (zombies, werewolves, and cryptids) and real-world science (mostly of the nuclear variety) throughout Katzman’s horror productions in this slick little video essay.

  • Trailer

  • Image gallery








The Giant Claw

An enormous bird from outer-space descends to chow down on the people of planet Earth. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


The final film in the collection is the most notorious – Fred F. Sears’ alien bird monster ‘classic,’ The Giant Claw (1957). It’s easy to mount credible defenses of The Werewolf and Zombies of Mora Tau, but The Giant Claw is undeniably silly, laughable, and weighed down by long bouts of boring exposition and technical mumbo-jumbo. The bird monster’s dopey appearance is usually the butt of jokes about the film, especially since Katzman and Sears had originally planned on reteaming with special effects titan Ray Harryhausen, following a successful collaboration on 1956’s Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. The idea that audiences were robbed of a Harryhausen stop-motion critter possibly on-par with the Rhedosaurus of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is a hard one to get over, sure. Still, The Claw is a charmingly dopey creature and every bit as goofball as some of the kaiju building smashers seen in some of Toho’s lowest-budget efforts nearly a decade later. The quality of the (often dull) technical mumbo-jumbo is respectfully opaque, too. Screenwriters Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin should be commended for finding an unprecedented origin for their “flying battleship.” I assume one or both of them was already researching quantum physics and figured the antimatter universe was as good an excuse as any.


Like Zombies of Mora Tau, my interest pertains to The Giant Claw reminding me of a personal favorite, in this case Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent (1982). Cohen’s film is almost a spoof of Sears’, complete with an early ‘80s R-rating and period-pertinent social satire. Unlike The Giant Claw, which mostly revolves around armed forces and scientists trying to destroy the antimatter beast gobbling up people across North America, Q: The Winged Serpent cleverly avoids the typical monster movie human point-of-view. The climax features the NYPD battling a dinosaur-like flying monster atop the Chrysler Building, but the creature is a nearly incidental part of the small-time criminal protagonist’s story – a plot device. But what’s really neat in comparing the two films is that Cohen digs into the idea that the monster is, in fact, an ancient Aztec god, brought back through blood sacrifices, whereas Sears and The Giant Claw screenwriters only briefly consider the idea that their monster is a mythological creature, when a French Canadian man refers to the bird as “la carcagne” – apparently a flying beast with the head of a wolf and body of a woman.


Due to iffy copyright, all of these movies were at the mercy of bootleg and grey-market video companies, but The Giant Claw was such a cult sci-fi standby that it must have been released seven thousand times over the last four decades. It was also released twice on Blu-ray already, once in Germany via i-catcher Media and once in Australia (along with The Werewolf) via Umbrella Entertainment. The Giant Claw isn’t as nicely shot as The Werewolf, but Zombies of Mora Tau cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline does what he can and this 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer looks as good as the other three in the collection. Studio-shot footage looks the best, featuring the finest grain and cleanest gradations. The stock footage and clips borrowed from other movies is far darker and grainer, and the special effects sequences tend to be a little more snowy (probably to do with macro photography or something). The LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is an improvement on the other three, due mostly to the more extensive sound design of sci-fi contraptions, jets, bad weather, and the screeching cry of the giant alien bird.


Extras

  • Commentary by Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard – The critics and programmers team up for a fun, funny, and informative look at a movie that is almost impossible to take seriously. They talk about the cast & crew, the subtexts of the atomic monster genre, compare the film’s martial law moment to current COVID lockdowns, and Katzman’s cyclical approach to exploitation filmmaking. Westwood also states that she personally interviewed Cohen and that he never mentioned The Giant Claw as an inspiration.

  • 2021 introduction by critic Kim Newman (12:27, HD) – Newman closes out his intros with a thorough background on the film’s pre-production, in which Katzman opted not to pay Harryhausen prices for special effects wizardry (Bissette goes into generally the same stories during his video essay). He half-heartedly defends the giant turkey in the end, referring to it as an early animatronic.

  • Family Endangered! (12:51, HD) – In the final video essay, critic Mike White explores post-WWII and Cold War politics and paranoia in Katzman’s films or, specifically, the four films in this set. He suspects that Bernard Gordon also wrote The Werewolf under a different pseudonym.

  • Super 8mm condensed version of the film (6:29)

  • Trailer

  • Image gallery







Limited Edition box contents:

  • Fully illustrated 60-page collector’s book featuring extensive new writing by Laura Drazin Boyes, Neil Mitchell, Barry Forshaw, Jon Towlson, and Jackson Cooper

  • 80-page collector’s art book featuring reproduction stills and artwork from each film, and new writing by historian and critic Stephen R. Bissette

  • 2 double-sided posters featuring newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin

  • Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork for each film by Matt Griffin

Bibliography:

  • Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema (FAB Press, 2005), by Jamie Russell

  • Atomic Age Cinema: The Offbeat, The Classic and The Obscure (Midnight Marquee Press, 2014) by Barry Atkinson


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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