Creature with the Atom Brain

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(4/10) Cult director Edward Cahn’s comeback film from 1955 has sci-fi favourite Richard Denning tracking nuclear-powered zombies. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak is back at his favourite subject – brains – but it’s not his best script. An exploitation cheapo with major studio backing, this was a gore-fest in the fifties. Today it seems flawed, but still entertaining and competent.

BRAAAAINS!

BRAAAAINS!

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, USA). Directed by Edward L. Cahn. Written by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, S. John Launer, Michael Granger, Gregory Gaye, Linda Bennett. Produced by Sam Katzman for Clover Productions.
IMDb rating: 5.4/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

”In a sense, this film’s title sums up the appeal of the science fiction/monster movies of the 1950s. It’s lurid, it’s to the point, and it deals with (a) monsters, (b) atomic radiation and (c) intelligence, all within a single exploitable phrase. Creature with the Atom Brain. Run that around your tongue for a while, and imagine yourself a 12-year old”. Thus writes Bill Warren in his fifties’ sci-fi bible Keep Watching the Skies about the film that this review concerns, a cheap exploitation affair from Sam Katzman’s Clover Productions, a subsidiary of mid-level studio Columbia Pictures. And for once, the title actually lives up to the film. Nay, it undersells the film – it should be in plural: CreatureS with Atom Brains!

Creature with the Atom Brain was produced by Katzman himself as the bottom half of a science fiction double feature (I have waited almost three years to get to write that phrase!), alongside Charles Schneer’s and Ray Harryhausen’s giant octopus film It Came from Beneath the Sea, which I reviewed just a few days back. It was written by Curt Siodmak, probably as a commission, and directed by Edward L. Cahn, an industry veteran known for his ability to shoot films fast but competently. In fact, this was his first brush with sci-fi, unless you count a short Our Gang effort from 1940, which involved a robot, but it certainly wouldn’t be his last.

On the basis of the title alone one would suspect that this film would be among the bottom-feeders of the fifties Poverty Row movies – but I was pleasantly surprised by its purposeful forward momentum, its level of entertainment and the overall quality of film – considering it was filmed in a week. That is not to say that this is a good film, but on many levels it stands head and shoulders above some of the dregg that Poverty Row studios churned out during the decade. But then one should remember that despite never quite having had the muscle to compete with the Big Five, Columbia was actually never on Poverty Row, but considered one of the Little Three – along with Universal and United Artists. It had in fact improved its standing in the fifties, when the five big major studios suffered economically from the loss of their own theatres, due to the effects of the so-called Paramount case in 1949. Columbia continued rather unscathed from the break-up of the studio system because it owned relatively few theatres. In 1953 and 1954 the studio had won the Oscars for best picture.

Inspecting some out-of-order nuclear zombies.

Inspecting some out-of-order nuclear zombies.

Still – Creature with the Atom Brain was a low-budget B movie made as the bottom half of a B movie double feature. The top half of the coupling, It Came from Beneath the Sea, had a budget of 150 000 dollars, including Ray Harryhausen’s expensive stop-motion animation. I haven’t found budget figures for Creature with the Atom Brain, but it would surprise me if Katzman gave the film more than 100 000 dollars. To put this in perspective: Universal’s mid-budget sci-fi films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review) and This Island Earth (1955, review) cost around 600 000 to 800 000 dollars to make, and big budget movies of the time clocked in at between 3 and 5 millions.

The plot is rather simple: exiled mafioso Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger) has snuck back into the US, where he has ”enlisted” the help of former Nazi scientist Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gaye), who has found a way to re-animate dead bodies and turning them into superhuman beings by injecting them with radioactive materials and giving them mechanical brain implants. Steigg has intended the nuclear-powered zombies to help people, but Buchanan uses them (by way of voice control) to kill all the people who helped get him exiled.

Michael Granger and Gregory Gaye.

Michael Granger and Gregory Gaye.

When strange murders start occurring, police captain Dave Harris (S. John Launer) and forensic scientist Chet Walker (Richard Denning) soon put two and two together, and follow the trail of radioactive blood to Buchanan, who has holed up in a lead-lined house in the middle of the city. When Buchanan realises the smart Walker is on to him, he sends his zombie goons to take him out and trash the city in the process, and even go so far as to kill Harris and have him resurrected as a zombie, threatening Walker’s wife Joyce (Angela Stevens) and daughter Penny (Linda Bennett). Finally the movie ends with a great showdown at the bad guys’ mansion where a small army of nuclear zombies take on the police force.

Still, seasoned screenwriter Curt Siodmak keeps the script tight and adds just enough curve balls and little surprises to keep things interesting, and adds some domestic scenes that don’t feel contrived or like they’ve been added for padding. The dialogue is hardly Shakespearean and does occasionally get very clumsy when the characters need to give a lot of exposition, but it still flows along rather nicely. The bad guys are cardboard cutouts, but the good guys are – while one-dimensional – fleshed out just enough to make us believe that they could actually exist outside of the movie. Siodmak gives Mr. and Mrs. Walker a couple of very cute scenes together, and creates a special bond between the daughter and Walker’s colleague ”Uncle Dave”, which actually makes it quite heart-wrenching when you see Dave turn up at their door as a zombie.

Curt Siodmak.

Curt Siodmak.

Curt Siodmak, of course, is best known for creating The Wolf Man in 1941, practically inventing the modern werewolf myth in a single stroke, further elaborating on it in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review). A journalist, author, occasional director and screenwriter, he started his career alongside his director brother Robert in Germany, and contributed to a number of European sci-fi films in the thirties: F.P.1. Does Not Answer (1932, review), The Tunnel (1935) and Non-Stop New York (1937, review). Siodmak did the bulk of his work in the late thirties and early forties for Universal, contributing to several films in both the Invisible Man franchise and the on-going Wolf Man/Frankenstein monster mashup series, with ever declining results.

However, his most lasting legacy to science fiction is the 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain. Even if it can’t be claimed that Siodmak invented the brain-in-a-vat trope, he certainly cemented it. It was filmed in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster (review) and in 1953 as Donovan’s Brain (review), and was made again in 1963 as The Brain. It also spawned a plethora of straight ripoffs and inspired a whole subgenre. One of his finest screenplays was for the 1943 horror movie I Walked with a Zombie, and in The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), he dealt with other displaced body parts taking on a life after death. Another one of his better screenplays was the one he wrote with producer Ivan Tors for the first of Tors’ Office of Scientific Investigation trilogy; The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), where a proto-X-Files team deals with a strange new material threatening to grow exponentially and devour the world – a clear metaphor for nuclear power. Now add all of these Siodmak themes, shake them together and add a dash of cold war paranoia, and you basically have Creature with the Atom Brain.

Tristram Coffin, Richard Denning and S. John Launer.

Tristram Coffin, Richard Denning and S. John Launer.

One thing that runs like a thread through all of Siodmak’s scripts is heart and humanity. Siodmak always had a deep sympathy for his characters, and tried to root the fantastic events that were unfolding in an emotional reality. The long-lasting appeal of Lon Chaney Jr’s wolf man was not that he changed into a werewolf when the moon was full, but that he didn’t want to change – that throughout the franchise, his character struggled to free himself from the curse of ripping his loved ones to shreds – even if it meant taking his own life. Siodmak often made his heroes family men, and took the time to show their wives, their friends and their children for the audience to get a sense of what they were fighting to protect, not only what they were fighting to destroy. In the film Donovan’s Brain one of the key elements of the plot is the friendship between the protagonist, his wife and their assistant and good friend. In Riders to the Stars (1953, review) Siodmak takes us to meet the wife of a murdered scientist, and even makes us feel sympathy for one of the bad guy’s lackeys, who revolts against him, at her peril, in the end.

Zombies, hanging around.

Zombies, hanging around.

In Creature with the Atom Brain the bad guy isn’t the scientist creating the zombies, but the criminal using them. Siodmak goes out of his way to create scenes of affection between Mr. and Mrs. Walker, and even points out that Denning’s character can be a bit of a jerk to his wife sometimes, but still a loving husband and father. The wife’s fears and questions form a part of the narrative, not to speak of the friendship between Mr. Walker and his good friend and colleague, and ”Uncle Dave’s” and the daughter Penny’s wonderfully sweet relationship. Dave comes by for breakfast and feeds her porridge, while she quizzes him on why he isn’t married. All the while, the Mister is trying to engage the Missus in morning sex upstairs.

This doesn’t take away from the fact that the script is really dumb at some instances. First of all we have Buchanan’s whole plot to get rid of his opponents. One would think that a powerful gangster could think of an easier way to kill his enemies than to engage in nuclear zombie making. Sure, the zombies are super-strong and more or less impervious to bullets, but they kill by brute strength, where a good sniper could have done a much cleaner and faster job. Or why not plant a bomb? Or even simply give his victims radiation poisoning? But of course, one must allow for such eccentrics – the film is about nuclear zombies. But one does wonder why Buchanan seems so surprised when the police catch his trail. His zombies ARE killing off all his very publicly known enemies, and even have a built-in mechanism to return to the home base after the kills – making it a rather easy job for the police to simply follow them straight to Buchanan. Buchanan is stunned when Walker figures out the murders are carried out by dead men who have been turned into nuclear zombies. Well, the murders were carried out by corpses stolen from the police morgue, and they bleed radioactive blood. Putting two and two together, the answer is rather obvious, isn’t it?

A lobotomised S. John Launer and Michael Granger.

A lobotomised S. John Launer and Michael Granger.

On the other hand, Walker and the rest of the police, as well as the wife and the daughter, are equally unobservant when Captain Dave Harris returns after having been killed and zombified. Although his personality is completely changed and he acts, well, like a nuclear zombie, and has a giant surgical scar running across his forehead – in fact one just like the nuclear zombies Walker has been trying to kill – nobody catches on. Despite spending a good half hour with his friend, Walker never once asks the question: ”Hey Dave, how come you have a giant surgical scar on your forehead? It looks just like someone sawed open your skull and put in a nuclear brain, just like the scars we found on the nuclear zombies. You haven’t had a quickie lobotomy since yesterday, have you?”

Director Edward L. Cahn is best known today for his low-budget schlockers of the fifties and early sixties, including Voodoo Woman (1957), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Invisible Invaders (1958). But his legacy has undergone a slight restoration in the last years, when film scholars have rediscovered his early work. Cahn had been rattling around Hollywood almost from the very beginning – he started out with menial tasks on the studios in his teens, and soon advanced to become editor – in fact he worked his way up to become one of the top editors of Hollywood during the late silent era. He edited films like The Man Who Laughs (1928, one of my fav movies of all time, btw.), Broadway (1929) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

A young Edward L. Cahn.

A young Edward L. Cahn.

In the early thirties, Cahn directed a handful of dark, gritty, beautifully edited films for Universal, westerns and crime dramas, and was considered something of an auteur on the rise, even though his films were too brutal and dark for some tastes. Well remembered today are Law and Order (1932), Afraid to Talk (1932) and Laughter in Hell (1933). But for reasons that seem to have escaped film historians, his contract with Universal ended abruptly, and he soon found himself directing comedy shorts, like those about Our Gang. He did get a brief comeback in the late forties with a few feature films, and in 1951 made the rather interesting Experiment Alcatraz, but then disappeared from the scene for four years, disregarding a little TV work. Creature with the Atom Brain was actually the first film he directed after his hiatus, and as such the starting point of his new coming as a movie director. Cahn’s talents for quick and efficient shooting was soon picked up on by Nicholson & Arkoff at exploitation studio AIP, the home of Alex Gordon and Roger Corman, but he continued to work for respected studios like United Artists and Columbia, who were happy to provide him with genre films and B fare, like Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. He was well-employed, making a decent living throughout the fifties to his death in 1964, sometimes churning out close to ten films a year.

A zombie attacking.

A zombie attacking.

Being an editor, Cahn knew very well how to get by with a minimum amount of shots and edits, which meant he often kept the camera rolling for whole scenes without a single cut, even following actors from one room to another. But he also knew these scenes needed some energy, so he would have his actors change position, sit down, stand up, pace around to create a more dynamic feel. These are the sort of simple yet effective tricks that many lesser directors of shoestring-budget movies didn’t get. That’s why so many low-budget films feel like an endless muddle of static talking heads. You seldom get this feeling in Creature with the Atom Brain, although the shooting schedule clearly took its toll even on Cahn, and much of the setup is static and uninteresting. Cahn lights well, giving the film more depth and atmosphere, in the few instances he actually has time to do so. The opening shot of a zombie approaching on a street, in complete darkness, lit only from the back by a few street lamps, is wonderful. He also makes good use of POV cameras, giving the audience a zombie point of view – and Buchanan’s as he watches what the zombie sees through a monitor.

One thing that doesn’t seem like a big deal today, but which was revolutionary in 1955, was the fact that you can see the bullets hitting the zombies as they create holes in the zombies’ suits. This was accomplished through so-called squibs, small explosives placed under the actors’ clothes, that blew holes in the costumes. The technique had been used on a few minor westerns, but never in a film with the distribution like this one. Even though the bullet holes were bloodless, this was the height of brutal gore in movies at the time. Cahn also has his zombies brutally murder their victims – sort of off-screen, but the audience sees and especially hears just enough to make it a gore-fest in fifties terms. He also shows an x-ray of a brain with an implant. Today it feels wonderfully hokey, as the implant has clearly been drawn with a marker on top of a real x-ray, but still it probably made an impact on the young audience, as did the scenes where we are shown the large metal implant before it goes into a brain. Again the actual insertion is isn’t shown, but we see just enough to make us use our imaginations. The film somehow escaped US censors, but received an X-rating in the UK, a K-18 rating in the Netherlands and was outright banned in Finland and Sweden.

Eerie opening shot.

Eerie opening shot.

But whatever style and atmosphere Cahn creates for a few select shots is often swept away in the next scene, and the overall feeling of this movie is that of a forties serial. While the director works well within the confines of the production, it still has a clear shoestring feel to it. The squibs and a few small explosions are basically all the special effects that the budget can muster, but on the other hand Cahn doesn’t even try to pull off effects that he knows wouldn’t look good. There’s no credited makeup artist on the roster, and it shows, since the zombies’ surgery scars are highly unconvincing, and look like something out of a comic book. Columbia’s long-time art director Paul Palmentola does what he can on the budget, and there’s a certain added realism created by the fact that the production team has gone to some lengths to actually portray the hazards of radiation. Buchanan and Steigg wear proper radiation suits and the lab is not only lead-lined, but it also requires the duo to go through a quarantine corridor, the sort which would later become staple in biohazard movies. Less convincing is perhaps that Steigg himself has become so radioactive that the police can more or less follow his trail with Geiger counters, and still it seems to have no ill effect on him.

Richard Denning and Richard Carlson out monster hunting.

Richard Denning and Richard Carlson out monster hunting in Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954.

Richard Denning is the nominal star in the film, and likewise the actor that makes this movie at all interesting to watch. Denning was a minor TV star at the time, after having played the lead sleuth alongside Barbara Britton in Mr. and Mrs. North (1952-1954), and would go on to more television fame in the Australian series The Flying Doctor (1959), as detective Michael Shane (1960-1961) and as father Steve Scott on the family sitcom Karen (1964-1965). Just as he was about to retire in Hawaii in 1968, he was lured into playing the role he is perhaps most famous for, the mayor in Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980). He was also a known voice on the radio, after having starred opposite Lucille Ball in the program My Favourite Husband (1948-1951). But in between TV roles, there was a period when Richard Denning was the hottest science fiction star in Hollywood, as he racked up lead after lead in sci-fi movies, starting with Universal’s smash hit Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953, review), where he actually played second fiddle to his predecessor as science fiction golden boy, Richard Carlson. He followed up with Target Earth (1954, review), this one, Day the World Ended (1955, review), The Black Scorpion (1957) and finally Twice-Told Tales with Vincent Price in 1963.

Richard Denning shortly before his death.

Richard Denning shortly before his death.

In an interview with Tom Weaver Denning has no kind words for Edward L. Cahn as a director, nor does he actually have anything bad to say either, as he states that on low-budget films like these the director’s didn’t really have any time to direct: ”They kept things glued together”. But he says he had no problem working on quickie pictures, as he was used to TV and radio work, which often went along even faster. Furthermore, he had a business education, and was able to see things from the producers’ points of view: every inch of film cost money, every retake ate off the budget, every second the camera wasn’t rolling, somebody was still getting paid. In 1957 he appeared in one of his few A films, An Affair to Remember, opposite Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Denning remembers feeling bewildered about the way 20th Century Fox let money go to waste. He explains how some days all three stars would sit around a ready-dressed set, with all cameras in place, without shooting a single frame. They would lounge around the set, do a bit of rehearsal, and when Cary Grant had had enough, he would simply call it a day, and everyone went home: ”My thought was: ‘How can they do this? This is costing money!’ In the time I spent on An Affair to Remember, I could have shot six feature films – and I’m only in the last half of the thing!”

Richard Denning and S. John Launer.

Richard Denning and S. John Launer.

Denning was so busy in the fifties, that by the time Weaver interviewed him, some films had completely disappeared from his memory – one such was Creature with the Atom Brain. However he was quite familiar with Curt Siodmak from Universal’s horror films of the forties, some of which starred legendary scream queen Evelyn Ankers, Denning’s wife. In fact, Ankers appeared in three pictures written by Siodmak: The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula (1943) and Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949). Denning tells Weaver: ”That sci-fi stuff was his knack, and he was good at that”.

Of the other actors, the only one really doing anything other than phone in their performances is Angela Stevens as Mrs. Walker. Perhaps because this was the one time in her very brief stint as a B movie lead that she didn’t have to play a damsel in distress next to a Johnny Weissmuller way past his prime. Stevens is actually pretty good in this film, and based on this viewing it’s a little surprising that she never got past bit-parts and Z movie leads before finishing her career as a TV guest actor in 1960. Creature with the Atom Brain is certainly her most distinguished film (not counting uncredited walk-ons).

Angela Stevens.

Angela Stevens.

S. John Launer is very decent in his role as Captain Dave, but ultimately delivers a forgettable performance. This TV character actor is perhaps best known for his recurring role as Judge Ryder on Perry Mason (1958-1966). Character actor Michael Granger does a very weird portrait of Buchanan, maybe because he spends most of his on-screen time speaking in a strange monotonous voice into a microphone.

Gregory Gaye, a distinguished bit-part and character actor, plays a rather sympathetic, but wimpy Dr. Steigg, showing of his talents for comedy, although ultimately the role doesn’t give him much to work with. Gaye was born Григорий Григорьевич Ге, or Grigoriy Grigoryevich Ge (for some reason his birth name is sometimes given as “Gregory de Gaye”), in S:t Petersburg, Russia in 1900, son of renowned stage actor Grigoriy Grigoryevich Ge, which means his grandfather’s name was also Grigoriy. One must commend the family’s creativity in choosing names for their sons. According to a Los Angeles Times obituary, Gaye fought in the Czar’s army during the Soviet revolution in 1917, and was driven across Siberia by the bolsheviks, until finally he reached the east of China, from where he boarded a ship to Seattle, and made his way to Hollywood. There he became active in the large Russian community, and managed to get into film thanks to his Russian contacts in the industry. He appeared in small parts in a number of big movies, often playing European authority figures or businessmen. He is perhaps best known for his role as the German banker who gets brushed off by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942).

Gregory Gaye in Casablanca, 1942.

Gregory Gaye in Casablanca, 1942.

Gaye appeared in the sci-fi serial Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951), as well as William Cameron Menzies’ pseudo-sci-fi film The Whip Hand (1951), and had a recurring role as the villain The Ruler in a number of episodes of the TV series Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955). His last role was that of the Russian prime minister in the Sean Connery film Meteor (1979). He passed away in 1993.

The rest of the film is populated by something of a who’s who of veteran bit-part players – just the number of extras on the movie confirms that this is a film made on a studio budget, rather than a Poverty Row movie. Many of them were also science fiction staples, but they are too many to mention in total. But one could single out Nelson Leigh, who actually managed to grab a lead in Allied Artists’ World Without End (1956), Chuck Hicks, if for no other reason than that modern audiences may have seen him as a dock worker in The Ring (2002) or as an extra in Legion (2010), and finally Charles Horwath, who was one of the best stuntmen in Hollywood in the fifties and sixties.

Stock music was edited by Columbia staple Mischa Bakalenikoff, and the music is serviceable. Of the rest of the crew one might want to mention editor Aaron Stell, who went on to become a rather well-respected craftsman in Hollywood, and earned an Eddie nomination for his work on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Of course, he didn’t have much work to do on Creature with the Atom Brain, except dig out all the stock footage of things blowing up, but what he does is fine. Stell edited a few sci-fi schlockers for AIP, but actually also worked on the cult classic Silent Running (1972).

Michael Gramger and Gregory Gaye doing nuclear surgery.

Michael Granger and Gregory Gaye doing nuclear surgery.

Speaking of things blowing up. As the film finally gets going in its last 20 minutes, Buchanan sends out his minions to kill Walker, and in the process they proceed to level the city. As one reviewer puts it: they proceed to cause mayhem ”until Columbia’s entire archive of stock footage is depleted”. Pop Matters asks itself: What gets gets reduced to its component atoms [in the film]?” Answer: ”A guy in a suit; another guy in a suit; two more guys; another guy (by report); a bus; a train; a plane; some army guys; a factory; a jeep; an electricity tower; a lake (a lake?—yes, a lake); a guy driving someone else’s car; two more guys (sheesh); a guy in a white coat; a gangster with really bad aim.”

DO THEY?!

DO THEY?!

The themes on display are very fifties, although with Siodmak as the writer, the movie takes on an almost archaic slant. Despite the city being literally overrun with radioactivity, nobody seems to worry about the actual hazards of this. Crime scenes are never quarantined, nor does anyone take any measures to, for example, evacuate the city, or even the area around the villains’ base, even though it most likely contains an illegal nuclear plant that might, for all we know, explode at any given instance. This is the way radioactivity was dealt with in the forties, when we still didn’t really know anything about it. Sure, by 1955 the public’s knowledge was still sketchy, but ten years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the very real dangers of radioactivity were pretty well established.

The movie establishes this danger repeatedly. Buchanan and Steigg take extreme measures to protect themselves during the experiments, and Walker at one point states that a single drop of the zombies’ blood contains enough radiation to kill a man if he was exposed to it long enough. However, Buchanan and Steigg have no problem walking unprotected around a dozen super-charged zombies inside their base, Steigg seems completely unaffected by the fact that he has absorbed so much radiation that he literally leaves a radioactive trail, and just after warning his colleagues about how dangerous the zombies’ blood is, Walker simply leaves the thing resting on his desk, and doesn’t even bother to lock his lab when he exits. And when the police attack the villain’s lab, they don’t bother with protective gear – or as mentioned, any sort of evacuation of even the closest neighbours. Instead they proceed to hurl hand-grenades at a building containing a nuclear reactor. No, despite the script being somewhat updated with fifties scientific knowledge, the film still deals with radioactivity the way one did in the thirties and forties – that is the same way in which one dealt with, for example, the pituitary gland – as a magic word. In the forties radiation and the pituitary gland were filled with magic, horror and wonder. They could resurrect people from the dead, turn you into an ape or a werewolf, they gave you the power to kill with a touch, made you invulnerable and gave you super-strength, turned you invisible or gave you power over other people’s minds. Even in the forties this was a lot of hokum, and must have been even doubly so in 1955.

Grehory Gaye checking his radiation oscilloscope.

Gregory Gaye checking his radiation oscilloscope.

The film makes no serious attempt to comment on, for example, the nuclear bomb or the ongoing experiments to start producing electricity for the American people through nuclear plants. It merely uses the popular topic at the time to create an exciting film. If one wishes to look for social messages, the one that lies closer at hand is the cold war paranoia of communist infiltration, and the zombies could perhaps be interpreted as innocent Americans being manipulated by an evil Soviet puppet master. But this is also sketchy. First and foremost this is a cheap exploitation film simply using popular tropes and themes of the time to make a quick buck, and in the process hopefully entertain the audience. And that it does, in my opinion.

As an interesting side-note, one can point out that this film was one of the precursors of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), along with films like Invisible Invaders and perhaps most importantly The Last Man on Earth (1964). But where Romero’s movie was something of a liberal manifesto, Creature with the Atom Brain does its best to cement traditional values. Siodmak may have been something of a liberal back in the day, but when it comes to, for example, family values, he often found himself backing traditional conservatism. Here Mrs. Walker is a stay-at-home mum, whose life seems to revolve around taking care of the daughter, doing the house work, preparing dinner for the hubby and even making the hubby’s drinks for him. And as usual, there’s no people in Los Angeles (or where-ever the the film’s supposed to be set) that aren’t Caucasian. Not a black man, Asian or Native American person in sight. Not even as a corpse.

Edward L. Cahn directing Judy Bamber in Dragstrip Girl, 1957.

Edward L. Cahn directing Judy Bamber in Dragstrip Girl, 1957.

Like, for example, Richard Denning’s previous sci-fi movie Target Earth, Creature with the Atom Brain is one of those films that have sort of fallen into that black hole of films that are remembered only by completists and aficionados. It’s not good enough to be counted as a cult classic, nor is it bad enough to be hailed as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. Not even Denning himself could remember a thing about it. Later Cahn films like Zombies of Mora Tau, It! The Creature from Beyond Space and Invisible Invaders are better known than this movie – but not necessarily better. Disregarding a few dips into real bad movie territory (like The She-Creature), Cahn usually made the kind of exploitation films that hover just above 5 out of 10 stars on IMDb.

Cahn does have his admirers, especially his early movies and some of his film noirs of the early sixties are very well regarded in certain circles. His ”restoration” began with noted film critic Dave Kehr’s column about Cahn’s early films in Film Comment magazine. Later, at MoMa, Kehr indeed showed a retrospective of three of his early films in accordance with a Carl Laemlle Jr. retro. Since then, outlets like Bright Lights Film Magazine, Streamline Films and Variety have all chimed in. R. Emmett Seeney writes that Cahn left behind ”a grimly deterministic body of work”. French director Bernard Tavernier hails the new interest in Cahn, calling his film Afraid to Talk an ”unrelenting masterpiece”. Film journalist Imogen Sara Smith discusses Cahn’s last film at Universal, Laughter in Hell, and writes that it “still feels raw as an undressed wound. Cahn would remain true to the bitter end to its bleak and brutal view of human life. A fitting epigraph for his oeuvre would be William Carlos Williams’s famous admonition to readers of Howl: ‘Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.’”

Death by zombie.

Death by zombie.

But alas, as Smith also writes, ”you could say he worked his way to the bottom”. But even his work at studios like AIP has been praised in later years. Quentin Tarantio references Dragstrip Girl (1957) and Motorcycle Gang (1957) in Pulp Fiction (1996). It! The Terror from Beyond Space was clearly an inspiration for Alien (1979) (regardless of whether the idea for It! was stolen by screenwriter Jerome Bixby from A.E. van Vogt, which it was, as stated by Bixby himself), and of course Romero owes Cahn something of a debt for his zombie movies. That doesn’t necessarily make his films good, but at least he was able to tap into something that resounded with people. Sometimes the praise for these B movies goes a bit over the top into ridiculous territory, as in Gary Westfahl’s Biographic Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Westfahl is a champion of bad fifties directors, finding auteur notions with hacks like Bert I. Gordon. In his post on Cahn, Westfahl goes into a long rambling text on the ”hermeneutics of zombification”, somehow arguing that Cahn made his films stiff and slow, because he himself worked stiffly and slowly because he actually didn’t want to make these B movies, lending his films what he calls ”a special ambience”. This is, of course, absolute nonsense. It’s like one of those awful texts by philosophy students imposing Descartes and Freud on Roger Corman movies. No, one would be wise before setting out on such ventures to listen to Richard Denning, who recalls that Corman did little more than say ”Action”, ”Cut” and ”Print” on set.

The brain implant.

The brain implant.

Others, like David Nusair at Reel Film Reviews, state that ”Creature with the Atom Brain never comes off as anything more than a tiresome, thoroughly dated piece of work – with the film’s lack of broadly ridiculous elements essentially negating one’s ability to easily mock it amongst friends (ie it’s just dull).” French movie blog DeVilDead states that the film does move along at a good pace, but overall the reviewer Antoine Rigaud finds the film ”très banale”. While Bill Warren has very fond memories from seeing the film as a 12-year old, he concedes that the film is ”at best undistinguished”. But as Arbogast writes: ”it’s all in good fun and at 69 minutes the film’s flaws are far from fatal”. I’ll leave it to Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant to sum it up: ”Totally lacking in artfulness or noble pretensions, Creature With the Atom Brain is pulp trash at its best.”

And what about me, then? Well, I find myself concurring with Rigaud, Erickson and Arbogast. The film is indeed ”très banale” and very flawed. The script is perhaps its biggest problem, although Siodmak gives it a few redeeming touches. It is very competently, if unimaginatively filmed, and with the exception of Richard Denning, the cast is as bland as a tuna sandwich. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. It moves along at a good pace, and is short enough for one to forgive its inadequacies. It’s a fun, middle-of-the-road fifties exploitation flick.

Janne Wass

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, USA). Directed by Edward L. Cahn. Written by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, S. John Launer, Michael Granger, Gregory Gaye, Linda Bennett, Tristram Coffin, Harry Lauter, Larry J. Blake, Charles Evans, Pierre Watkin, Chuck Hicks, Charles Horvath, Nelson Leigh. Cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr. Editing: Aaron Stell. Art direction: Paul Palmentola. Set decoration: Sidney Clifford. Sound: J.S. Westmoreland. Produced by Sam Katzman for Clover Productions.

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14 thoughts on “Creature with the Atom Brain

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