Film Reviews

Cold War Creatures: Four Films From Sam Katzman – Blu-ray Review

The 1950s was a decade that saw a big shift in horror films. Before this ghosts and ghouls were the predominant fare, with vampires and monsters and other such creatures being tied to the world of the supernatural and the spiritual. However, with the advent of the 1950s, and following the horrific attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a new breed of horror began to emerge; films where science was the cause of the things that frighten us. Cold War Creatures gathers together four such films, all produced by Sam Katzman, that took traditional monsters and added a science twist.

The first film in this collection, Creature With The Atom Brain, took the concept of zombies and added in an element of gangster movies, and a big dose of ‘atomic’ science. Beginning with a lumbering man breaking into a casino to kill the owner and escaping with the money, the film follows a police scientist and his partner as they try to get to the bottom of the case. With witnesses claiming the assailant kept walking after being shot, signs that they possessed super human strength, and traces of radiation left behind, the police come to the conclusion that atomic science is behind things.

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The plot of Creature With The Atomic Brain (1955) is pretty laughable. A criminal using a mad German scientist to reanimate corpses with atomic science in order to get revenge on the men who betrayed him is somewhat farcical; yet the film plays it completely straight, and you  have to give it a lot of credit for that. The super strong walking dead are also quite enjoyable, resulting in some spectacular scenes of carnage and destruction as they terrorise the city.

Next up in the set is The Werewolf (1956), a new take on the classic monster. Whilst the Universal Monsters had helped to shoot the werewolf into popular culture over the years it had become something of a joke; due in large part to it appearing in films such as Abbot and Costello Meet The Wolfman (1948). This film, in contrast, treats the titular monster as a figure to feel sorry for. Rather than being a monster out to harm people the werewolf is a victim of science; a man in a car accident who is experimented on by scientists trying to find ways for humans to survive a nuclear holocaust.

Creature With The Atomic Brain

The werewolf is left to be hunted by the frightened townspeople, as well as the scientist who experimented on him. This poor amnesiac man is hunted like the animal people think he is, and is driven to transform into a monster because he’s not given the chance to do anything else. It’s a pretty sad story, one that puts unscrupulous science as the villain. The werewolf effects are pretty well done in this film too, and whilst it doesn’t have some of the great miniature work that other films in this set have, there are some great set pieces for viewers to enjoy,  especially the final moments of the film.

The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) is probably the most traditional of the films presented in this set, and doesn’t really feature any science gone bad. The story is set in Africa, where a ship carrying a fortune in diamonds has long since sunk into lake Mora Tau. Over the years various treasure hunters have come to try and claim the fortune, but have all met violent deaths at the hands of the zombies that protect the prize. We follow the latest group of treasure hunters as they come to try and claim the fortune for themselves.

The zombies in this film very much follow the traditional zombies of old, undead workers who have been raised through some form of voodoo or dark magics. Unlike other films in this genre, however, there isn’t anyone controlling the zombies, and instead they’re more of a force of nature, appearing whenever they need to protect the diamonds. This feels like a fun old adventure movie, and the scenes set underwater are a lot of fun, especially when the seaweed-clad zombies stalking their way across the bottom of the lake as divers attempt to secure their prize.

The Werewolf

The final film in the set might be one of the best, though not because it’s of better quality. The Giant Claw (1957) is the Sam Katzman take on a giant monster movie, and thanks to some goofy, low budget effects it’s an absolute delight. When a mysterious, huge UFO begins destroying aircraft, a team is set up to look into the phenomenon. However, they soon discover that this isn’t some form of aircraft, or enemy missiles, but instead a giant alien bird. Protected by a force-field of antimatter, the creature is invulnerable to all kinds of conventional attack, leading our heroes to have to turn to science to try and find a solution.

The titular Giant Claw monster is, if I’m totally honest, absolutely awful looking. Instead of looking like a deadly, alien bird it looks like crazed, googly eyed half plucked chicken, flying through the with a wobbly neck and a rubber beak that never stays the right shape. It’s so ridiculously bad that it’s enjoyable, and helps to make this a more memorable film than if it had better effects. There is a lot of fun model work in this movie though, with the creature ripping apart buildings in New York being a particular highlight.

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Each one of the films comes with an introduction by author and film historian Kim Newman, who gives insight into the film and the world in which it was created, as well as full feature length commentaries by a variety of film critics, who go into detail about the film, the way it was received, and the impact it had on cinema. Each movie also comes the Super 8mm version of the movie, a condensed 20 minute version of the films that were released for home viewing. In addition to this, each disc has a visual essay, exploring different aspects of Sam Katzman’s work; which come together to give a very detailed and informative look at the prolific filmmaker.

Cold War Creatures is a box set with a lot of content, yet it feels like it’s only scratching the surface of a genre and era of film that’s absolutely fascinating. Anyone who’s a fan of kitschy, schlocky monster movies is going to find something they’re going to enjoy in this set, whether it’s the more serious movies, or the absolutely goofy ones, this set has something that’s sure to satisfy.

Cold War Creatures is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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