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. Continue reading

Riders to the Stars

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(5/10) In a nutshell: In his second OSI film producer Ivan Tors teams up with writer Curt Siodmak and director/actor Richard Carlson to to train a group of unwitting volunteers to become USA:s first astronauts. Although the film is presented in a refreshingly sober and scientific manner, the basic scientific premise of it is pure hogwash. The documentary feel lends it a nice calm, and although Carlson directs his actors well, he doesn’t quite have the chops for the climactic action sequence. Enjoyable, but no classic.

Riders to the Stars (USA, 1954). Directed by Richard Carlson and Herbert L. Strock. Written by Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors. Starring: William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, Martha Hyer, Dawn Addams, Robert Karnes. Produced by Ivan Tors for Ivan Tors Productions. IMDb rating: 5.6/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

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With its January 14 US release, Riders to the Stars was the first science fiction film of the brave new year of 1954. The film was the second in producer Ivan Tors’ trilogy about the Office of Scientific Investigation – a sort of FBI for nerds. The previous one was the charming The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), which made good use of special effects shots from the German 1934 film Gold (review). The last one is perhaps the best known; Gog, which was released in 1954 as well (review). The two latter films were filmed in colour. Continue reading

Donovan’s Brain

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Based on The Wolf Man creator Curt Siodmak’s influential novel, this is the first real sentient-brain-in-a-vat film. It’s hampered by a rather dull tax fraud subplot and the generic mad scientist storyline, which was quite passé in 1953 – even though the scientist, played by Lew Ayres, isn’t mad at all. On the plus side, the direction feels modern and grounded and the acting is primarily good. Holes in logic abound, and the ending is a cop-out. Stars future First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Donovan’s Brain (1953). Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by Hugh Brooke & Felix E. Feist. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Reagan, Steve Brodie. Produced by Tom Gries for Dowling Productions. Tomatometer: 50 %. IMDb score: 6.0/10.

The original brain in a vat.

The original brain in a vat.

There are tropes in science fiction that have become so commonplace today, that they are reduced to clichés. The time machine, the UFO, the mad scientist, the lunar landing, the killer robot, the invisibility serum, and of course the disembodied brain. The ”brain in a vat” has become a staple villain of sci-fi comics, the best known are probably Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Brain in DC Comics. The disembodied brain has also turned up in a number of TV series and films, and the basic concept has been drawn upon for cyborgs like Robocop. But the one film that people keep referring to as the essential brain-in-a-vat film is the independently produced Donovan’s Brain, made in 1953, based on Curt Siodmak’s novel of the same name. Continue reading

The Magnetic Monster

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(4/10) In a nutshell: This 1953 film uses least 10 minutes of special effects from the German film Gold and steals its premise from an Arch Oboler radio show, but still manages to come off as something quite original. Made by Ivan Tors and legendary sci-fi writer Curt Siodmak, the film follows a sort of sci-fi FBI, trying to neutralise a radioactive material that keeps growing and threatens to sling the Earth out of orbit. Starring sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson and features a bit-part by comedienne Kathleen Freeman.

The Magnetic Monster (1953). Directed by Curt Siodmak, Herbert L. Strock (uncredited) & Karl Hartl (uncredited). Written by: Ivan Tors & Curt Siodmak. Inspired by The Chicken Heart by Arch Oboler (uncredited). Edited from the film Gold (1934, uncredited). Starring: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Kathleen Freeman, Hans Albers, Michael Bohnen. Produced by Ivan Tors for A-Men Productions. IMDb score: 6.0

King Donovan and Richard Carlson in a magazine ad for The Magnetic Monster.

King Donovan and Richard Carlson in a magazine ad for The Magnetic Monster.

Legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman made many of his most famous sci-fi films by taking lavish European special effects films that were virtually unknown to American audiences or even critics, and intercutting them with newly shot scenes with American actors. The method wasn’t new. In 1943 Edward Dmytryk took a good portion of his Captive Wild Woman (review) about an ape woman from a 1932 lion taming film called The Big Cage. But what probably inspired Corman even more was German expat Curt (Kurt) Siodmak’s 1953 film The Magnetic Monster, which basically took its whole last 20 minutes from the German sci-fi thriller Gold (1934, review). Continue reading

The Lady and the Monster

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The first film adaptation of Kurt Siodmak’s influential novel Donovan’s Brain features, for the first time on screen, a disembodied brain asserting its influence on people around it. Well shot and directed for second-tier studio Republic in a gothic noir style, and good acting from Erich von Stroheim and Richard Arlen. Unfortunately the script doesn’t live up to its source material and the film contains ghastly wooden acting from Czechoslovakian ice-skater-turned-studio-boss’-girlfriend Eva Hruba Ralston in her first feature role.

The Lady and the Monster (1944). Directed by George Sherman. Written by Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen, Erich von Stroheim, Helen Vinson, Mary Nash, Sidney Blackmer. Produced by George Sherman for Republic Pictures. IMDb score: 5.1

Erich von Stroheim as Dr. Mueller in the 1944 film The Lady and the Monster.

Erich von Stroheim as Dr. Mueller in the 1944 film The Lady and the Monster.

Poster

Poster

The early forties were a golden age, in a sense, for really bad B horror movies, many of them featuring German mad scientists, for obvious reasons. One of these, and not at all the worst of them, was The Lady and the Monster. Now, the title is a tad misleading since, first and foremost, the movie doesn’t primarily concern a lady, and secondly, there isn’t really a monster in it. The green one with the claws, depicted on the poster to the right, has nothing at all to do with the movie. One supposes that both the title and the poster were made up simple to lure monster movie fans to cinemas. Continue reading

House of Frankenstein

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Universal’s horror stars gang together for the franchise’s second monster bash in a film that is a mix of good and mad. There’s too much going on in a too short period of time, Dracula is thrown by the wayside and the plot holes are big enough to fill a stadium. But there’s also a dash of originality and some first-class acting in this 1944 film.

House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal. Tomatometer: 55 %. IMDb score: 6.2

Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein.

Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein.

Quick! Give me the five greatest mad scientists of the forties! Did you say Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carroll Naish? Great, now you have them all in one film! This was the second monster mash movie after the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), starring Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Lon Chaney also turns up in House, again as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The film is sometimes referred to as ”The House of Frankenstein” and sometimes without the prefix. Continue reading

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first of Universal’s monster mashes, made in 1943, sees the studio finally dropping the ball in their monster franchise. What could have been a decent, fun B horror flick is ruined by Univseral first casting Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster and then doing its best to erase him from the film.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. 1943, USA. Directed by Roy William Neill. Written by Curt Siodmak. Sort of suggested by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye. Produced by George Waggner for Universal. Tomatometer: 25 %. IMDb score: 6.5

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. have a standoff in a promo shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. have a standoff in a promo shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

By 1943 Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had lost all roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein apart from the name. Scriptwise there isn’t even much proof that it is part of the same francise as the original 1931 Frankenstein (review). There isn’t even a Dr. Frankenstein in the film (on screen anyway). The original Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive, passed away in 1937 and one must say that it is to the studio’s credit that they didn’t try to replace him with another actor (apart from a brief hallucination sequence in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), but instead had not one, but two, sons of Frankenstein take up the mantle, Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke. One might suppose that Universal thought that a third son might be pushing it. We do, though, get a granddaughter of Frankenstein in the shape of Ilona Massey, but she is no doctor (she’s a woman, d’uh). Continue reading