Saturday, 1 November 2014

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

Creature with the Atom Brain is another delightful sci-fi/horror concoction from Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman boxed set.

This is a mad scientist movie written by Curt Siodmak. The mad scientist in question is Dr Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gay) and of course he’s working on ways to bring the dead back to life. The money for his experiments is provided by gangster Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger). Buchanan was sold down the river by his fellow mobsters and he wants revenge on them and on the District Attorney who got him deported from the United States.

This movie hits the ground running with a splendid opening sequence in which a zombie-like heavy disposes of a gangster by snapping his spine like a twig and then escaping through an open window even though he’s been shot multiple times. When the police arrive on the scene they think they’ve struck it lucky - there are plenty of very clear fingerprints. The only problem is that the prints belong to a minor hoodlum who died twenty-four days earlier. Also puzzling for police scientist Dr Chet Walker (Richard Denning) is the fact that the fingerprints are luminous. And the blood found at the crime scene is not blood but a chemical compound. And sure enough (this being a 1950s sci-fi/horror movie) a Geiger counter reveals very high levels of radioactivity.

It doesn’t take Chet Walker (who is rather brighter than most sci-fi movie heroes) long to figure out that someone is using dead men as atomic-powered remote-controlled killers.

When a rather jumpy scientist-looking guy with a strong German accent leaves traces of radioactivity behind him in a bar Chet Walker is close to putting the pieces together. The guy in the bar was clearly a German mad scientist and he must be the man behind the terror that is now stalking the city.

Steigg and Buchanan also don’t take long to figure out that Walker is on their trail and must be stopped. Their anxiety to stop Walker becomes extreme when Walker calls in the military and has trucks cruising the streets equipped with radiation detectors. For good measure Walker has also persuaded the Air Force to have jet fighters overflying the city at low altitude. It’s never quite clear what purpose the jets serve but they do shake up the bad guys a bit.

The plot plays out pretty much as you’d expect with the bad guys hunting Dr Walker while he’s hunting them.

The acting is pretty basic. Gregory Gay makes a passable mad scientist although he doesn’t overact quite enough. Michael Granger’s performance as gangster Buchanan is serviceable enough and is suitably hard-boiled. Richard Denning is stunningly but amusingly condescending as Chet Walker although he seems a bit too bookish to be a police scientist. He does manage to come across as very professorial though. This is a movie that would have benefited greatly from the presence of at least one iconic horror star who could have added some real colour and menace to Dr Steigg but sadly the budget was too limited to stretch even to a second-rank star.

The necessary infodumps to explain the zombie killer are handled in typical 50s fashion with a professor showing a short film to Dr Walker. The technobabble is of a high standard; in other words it makes no sense at all but it sounds very scientific.

The secret to making this sort of film succeed is to utilise ideas that don’t require too much in the way of special effects and this movie gets away with virtually no special effects at all.  There is some reasonable cool-looking gadgetry and Steigg’s mad scientist laboratory is quite impressive. The tunnel connecting the main laboratory to the room where the zombies are kept is a nice touch and is a good example of the use of ideas that look good but cost almost nothing.

There’s very little in the way of makeup for the living dead men with the creepiness having to be supplied by having the actors shuffling around and acting even more woodenly than the rest of the cast. Considering the movie’s very low budget it’s a fairly effective if not very original technique.

The transfer is very good. The movie was shot in black-and-white and is presented fullframe which is perfectly correct. 

Creature with the Atom Brain does not reach any great heights but it provides pretty reasonable entertainment value. Recommended.

1 comment:

Mercurius Aulicus said...

And here is the review at the great atomic horror movie site, Radiation Cinema: