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Cold War Creatures: Four Films From Sam - Cold War Creatures( Blu Ray Boxset) [Arrow Video - 2021]

Here from the guys at Arrow Video- both in the UK and US- is a four-film boxset focusing on a selection of 1950’s films from producer Sam Katzman-whose low budget production often gave great returns. He moved from making action/adventure serials in the early 1930s, before becoming known for blends of Sci-fi and horror- and this boxset focuses on four films that blended nuclear and cold war-related elements with sci-fi/ horror settings. As we’ve come to expect from Arrow, we get a good selection of extras on the set- including new commentary tracks for each of the films, other extras, and a sixty-page inlay booklet.

 

Born in 1901 in New York Sam Katzman came from a poor Jewish background- he started working in the film industry as a prop boy at age 13. Then slowly, but surely worked his way up the ladder, learning virtually every facet of filmmaking before becoming a producer. Between the years 1933 and 1972- he produced a whopping two hundred and thirty-nine films. The four films presented here are all from Columbia Pictures studios, and with that in mind and the period they were made in, there are touches of Noir present in a few of the films offered up.


On the first disc in the set, we have 1955’s Creature With The Atom Brain- this found mobster Frank Buchanan(Michael Granger) teaming up with ex-Nazi doctor Wilhelm Steigg(Gregory Gaye) to create radio controlled and Atomic powered zombie to carry out revenge on those who had the mobster deported. The film was directed by NYC born polish immigrant Edward L Cahn-whom between the years 1932 and 1962 had a whopping one hundred and twenty-eight directorial credits from his name- starting off with pre-code newsroom drama Up For Murder and ending with Lon Chaney led period werewolf film Beauty And The Beast. Creature With The Atom Brain is a well-made, eventful and fairly pacy B movie that rolls in at a trim one hour and nine minutes.
 
The radio-controlled zombie action kicks straight in after the credits- as we see the bulky figure of a suited man making his way down a misty night-time road. He’s making his way to the mansion of a gangster who's in the process of putting away club takings from the night, while ( conveniently for the plot ) talking on a dictaphone as he does so. The large man smashes through a window, grabbing the gangster saying ‘I told you I’d be back then he picks the gangster up-and-in shadows breaks his back- the gangster goons try to gun him down, but the bullets do little to stop him, and here we switch to mobster Buchanan and Dr Steigg back in their lead-lined lab controlling the anatomically reanimated and remote-controlled man. Here is when the films hero comes into play- police doctor Chet Walker(Richard Denning) who has neatly brill creamed blond hair, smokes a pipe, has a loving housewife, and an around eight years precious daughter at home. Walker takes back the glowing blood and fingerprints from the crime scene to his lab- finding out both are both radioactive, and the fingerprints are from a con who has been dead some days. And as the film unfolds we get a host of zombie henchmen chasing down and killing those who got mobster Buchanan deported, as Walker and his faithful slightly tubby partner Capt. Dave Harris (S. John Launer) try to figure out where the mobster and the Nazi doctor are running their remote control zombie-killing team from.
 
The zombies them self’s look rather Frankenstein monster-like with cut lined foreheads, makeup stitches and vacant stairs, though can(somehow) talk through them from the lab. Over the film's length, we get a dribs ‘n’ drabs of the science behind it, but largely the whole thing is pacey and eventful- with one remote control killer after another been sent out, all ramp-up to a neat finale with an army of the remote-controlled dead doing battle with the cops and army, with explosions, shoot outs(this was one of the first films to use squibs to simulate gunshot wounds), and even some light chopper action. All in all, making Creature With The Atom Brain a great start to the set.


On the extras side on this first disc- we have a commentary track from critic Russell Dyball- and this is brimming with facts, observations, and entertaining critique. He starts off talking about the film atmospheric credits/ stumbling figure, as he moves on, he compares the creatures POV to that of a slasher film, mentioning this comparison later on when another creature attacks someone in a garage in a rather Michael Myers manner. As he moves on, he discusses producer Sam Katzman, and his love of pulp sci-fi/ horror that he brought into his films. He talks about the love of all things atomic in the ’50s, which at one point led to a child's nuclear test set appearing on the market. As we move on, he discusses key characters, the film's structure, and its unfold. He gives good bios of even the smallest part actors, comments on-screen action, and much more. I believe this is the first track I’ve heard from Mr Dyball- I was most impressed and will certainly keep an eye out for him in future releases.
We get an eight-minute introduction to the film by respected genre historian and critic Kim Newman, and as always, he gives a great overview/ introduction to the film- moving from discussing the film's title and how it’s gone on to be a parody, onto talking about how the progressed the look of the zombie and giving his general thoughts on the film. We have Sam Katzman: Before and Beyond the Cold War Creatures- which is an hour and thirteen minutes illustrated presentation from historian and critic Stephen R. Bissette. Here he gives an in-depth look at the producer's career- moving from his pulp serial work, to the different phases he went through in his genre productions. Along the way, he talks about his favourite films in Katzman filmography, with the whole thing featuring a great selection of poster artwork, stills and press book- all in all, making for a most interesting and informative presentation. Lastly, the disc is topped off with a condensed super 8mm version of Creature with the Atom Brain, a theatrical trailer and an image gallery
 

Moving onto the second disc and we have 1956’s The Werewolf- which finds two dubious doctors treating a man after a car crash, and somehow changing him into a wolfman. It was helmed by Boston born Fred F. Sears- who sadly passed at the very young age of forty-four, though he accomplished quite a lot in those years- after fifty-five directorial credits to his name as well as seventy-seven acting credits. The Werewolf features some passable enough transformation scenes, and some effective wolfman stalked through woods footage, but the main focus/ core of the film is a sacred/ confused man not understanding what’s happening to him.

The film opens with Mr voiceover discussing the lycanthrope legend, and if it could be possible- as a lone figure staggers down the night-time street of a snowbound and forest surrounded small town. The man (Steven Ritch) stumbles into a bar, seemingly very confused not knowing how he got there or who he is. After barely touching his drink he staggers out again, been followed by another patron- who tries to rob him- off-camera in the shadows the stranger seemingly turns into a wolfman as one on-looking woman screams. Fairly soon Sheriff Jack Haines (Don Megowan) and his deputy Ben Glover(Harry Lauter) are on the case- trying to track/ trace the stranger- Glover gets a claw swipe from the beast. And with this injury, we meet the other two key characters- Dr Jonas Gilcrist (Ken Christy) and his young female assistant Amy(Joyce Holden).
 
In time we find out the stranger/ wolfman has a wife and son, and basically, he was treated by two dubious doctors Dr Emery Forrest (S. John Laune) and Dr Morgan Chambers(George Lynn) after a car crash- they have seemingly experimented on him and he escaped. The evil doctors head to the town where the confused man/ wolf is roaming to try and silence him before he remembers too much. The film unfolds going back and forth between the smalltown itself, and its surrounding woods- as the stranger tries to come to terms with his switch from man to beast, which often happens when he’s angered. Going against the normal werewolf legends- it doesn’t need to be either a full moon or at night-time- as he switches a few times in broad daylight.
 
The Werewolf is more about dealing with switching from man to beast, and the issues/ and emotional turmoil when this happens. It’s a well-made blend of light horror, dodgy scientists up to no good, and its main pull/ focus- dealing with switching form and its emotional impact.
 
On the extras side, we get a commentary from Australian genre critic Lee Gambin- and this is another well researched and thought out track from Mr Gambin. He starts by discussing the voiceover that opens the film, talking about the use of the word lycanthrope in other genre films of and before the film to hand. He moves on talking about how the film uses the loner coming into town trope, which often appeared in both westerns and noir cinema. Moving on he gives brief bios about the actors on screen- going from lead to bit players. He talks about how werewolf films changed between the ’40s and ’50s, giving an example of these. He discusses the film themes, moving on to talk about the themes in general appearing in horror/ sci-fi films of the ’50s, and much more- making it certainly a track you could play a few times. Others wise on the extras front on this disc we get another intro from Kim Newman- this runs around the thirteen-minute mark, and finds him starting off discussing how director Fred F. Sears started working on Sam Katzman produced films. He goes on to, of course, largely focus on the film to hand giving a good assessment of the picture- though I’m not sure if I’d advise playing this before the film, as it does give away spoilers. Next, we get Beyond Window Dressing,- a twenty-three-minute visual essay by historian and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discussing what role women play in the four films on this boxset, and how in a small way Katzman helped with development and depth given to women in genre films. Lastly condensed super 8mm version of The Werewolf, theatrical trailer, and Image gallery.


On disc number three we have 1957’s Zombies of Mora Tau- and as its title suggests it’s a living dead film about treasure seekers, with touches of gothic horror and noir added into the mix. It was directed by New York-born polish immigrant Edward L. Cahn, who had directed the first film in this set Creature With The Atom Brain, and the film to hand certainly enhances and adds to the eerier/ atmospheric elements of that film.

The film is set off the coast of Africa. It begins with Jan Peters- played by the wonderfully named Autumn Russel- been driven by a  chauffeur through the dense night-time jungle. She’s on the way to stay with her Grandmother(Marjorie Eaton)- along the way, a man covered in seaweed stumbles into their path, but the chauffeur knocks him over and carries on driving. When they get to grannies house Jan is clearly and understandable upset, and soon enough we find out that the man was part of a crew that died off the coast fifty years ago- and now he and his crewmates wonder about the area, with their main focus been protecting the treasure of diamond’s that sit at the bottom of the sea, just off the coast near her grandmothers  
Fairly soon a band of new treasure hunters turn up at the property- we have tough and moustached driver Jeff(Gregg Palmer), his dark hair and sultry femme fatale girlfriend Mona( Allison Hayes), and their older doctor college Jonathan(Morris Ankrum). In a wonderful moment of campy gothic horror, the group get taken to see the graves of the other treasure hunters from the past, who have been killed by the roaming ghouls. As the film unfolds we get fairly neat recreations of the group driving- with some tense in driving suit interactions, and around the sunken boat. We get great shots of the lumbering living dead, as they suddenly appear from the sea, shadows, and even wonder through grannies house. On the whole, the zombies look suitable creepy. Like the other films on the set Zombies of Mora Tau runs just over hour mark- and for the most part, it’s enjoyable, at times fairly creepy and eerily tense. We do unfortunately though have quite a few bland talky moments in the house sets, and these do slow things down/ drag the flow of the film a little.
 
Moving onto the extras on this disc. We get a commentary track from respected genre commentator Kat Ellinger, she starts off talking about the film it double-billed with Man Who Turned To Stone, and the opening credits when the zombie gets knocked down. As she moves on she discusses where the film sits in the development of the living dead genre, talking about what influenced, and what it went on to influence. She talks about Zombie cinema and the literature that influenced it, she talks about the touches of American gothic in the film, how some of the effects were done, and much more- making for another worthy track from Ms Ellinger
We get Atomic Terror: Genre in Transformation- a nineteen-minute audio essay by critic Josh Hurtado, exploring the intersection of mythical horror creatures and the rational world of science in the films of Sam Katzman. And we get another intro from Kim Newman- this runs seven and a half mins- he talks about how the film influenced Zombie cinema of the ’70s and ’80s, and how its plot could well have influenced John Carpenters The Fog, as well as general talk about the film.
 


Lastly on the set, we have 1957 The Giant Claw, and as its title suggests this is a classic giant creature feature, with of course a cold war twist. It was helmed by Fred F. Sears, who was behind another film on the box The Werewolf- and I must say this is a lot campier and entertaining fun than The Werewolf, with its downbeat look at the pull between man and beast. 

The film kicks off with cocky yet lightly charming brill creamed Mitch MacAfee(Jeff Morrow) up in the air doing test flights in a plane over the north pole, he’s an electronics engineer- with his colleges sparky brunette mathematician Sally Caldwell(Mara Corday) and a few assistants on the ground. While up in the air Mitch sees a huge blurry shape above him- and when getting back down to the base, he tells his colleges it was a UFO as big as ‘battleship’- his colleges berate/ mock him with his claims…but fairly soon more sightings of the UFO are seen, and in time we find out it’s a giant prehistoric bird- that looks rather like a grey and ragged take on Cadbury's Mr Parrot- with bulbous eyes, big teethed beak, and a tuft of thick hair on its head. 

As the film unfolds we get a highly cheesy but enjoyable creature feature- with the giant bird chewing up model planes & grabbing parachuting folk out of planes, later attacking cities. They can’t gun the giant bird down due to it been surrounded by a force field- so it’s left to the plucky and bantering duo of mathematician Cadwell and engineer MacAfee to save the world. As you might expect with this type of thing, there’s a shed load of military stock footage, and repeated rushing crowd footage- but this adds to the fun of the whole thing. Both Morrow and Corday have good chemistry together, with the rest of the cast been competent enough B movie players. All in all, I was rather taken by The Giant Claw, saying that this and Creature With The Atom Brain stand as my favourite films of this boxset.
 
The extras on this disc take in a commentary track by critics Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard. This starts off very playful and pun-filled as the pair introduce the film, and discuss that it’s seen as one of the most laughable of 50’s creature features. As they move on they talk where the film sits with other giant creature pictures, discussing their own favourites in the genre. As they move along, they talk about the film to hand, its themes, and how it sits in the whole globalizing thing. The track moves between jokey playful and more scholarly thoughtful- all making for a worthy track. We get the final intro from Kim Newman- this runs twelve minutes, he discusses how he rather likes the creatures look, and how it may have influenced later monster makers. He talks briefly about the actors and the film on the whole. We get Family Endangered! - a twelve essay by critic Mike White on the theme of Cold War paranoia in Sam Katzman monster movies.  A condensed 8mm version of the film, that was made for home viewing, a trailer
 
Cold War Creatures: Four Films From Sam Katzman is another well-presented and rewarding extras lined boxset from the folks at Arrow Video. Most certainly a set for those who enjoy 50’s Sci-fi, horror, or Noir- as there are a fair few touches of this genre throughout this set. Let us hope this set gets a follow-up, as Mr Katzman was involved with a huge amount of neat sound genre films- with titles like Spooks Run Wild, Jungle Man-Eaters, Hot Rods From Hell, and How To Succeed With Sex…to name just a few.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Roger Batty
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