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Sony takes a bold step this Halloween with its Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman set. The two-disc box contains four Columbia monster matinee thrillers and adds a few extras from the previously stingy Sony vaults. Not exactly a household name, 'Jungle' Sam Katzman was a Hollywood veteran famous for producing cheap westerns and thrillers in the 1930s before moving on to equally cheap program pictures at larger studios. After a stint at Monogram scrapping with the East Side Kids, Katzman found a 1950s home at Columbia, where it didn't seem to matter how insubstantial his pictures were. To Sam's credit, he did provide a launching pad for producer Charles Schneer's collaboration with a young special effects whiz named Ray Harryhausen.
When it came to exploiting fads, Katzman had no equal. Major studios shunned juvenile delinquency and Rock 'n' Roll pictures after The Blackboard Jungle, but Katzman rushed out Rock Around the Clock, the first of a chain of cookie-cutter lip-synch teen musicals. Sniffing out another new trend, Katzman started his own line of ultra-cheap monster and horror pix, competing with independents like American-International. This set gathers together four of Katzman's oddball monster efforts. Designed to thrive at the bottom of B&W double bills, they're often as threadbare as one-set wonders from Monogram and PRC. But for campy 50's genre fun, they're hard to beat.
1955's Creature With the Atom Brain was concocted as a bill-filler for the debut Schneer-Harryhausen epic It Came from Beneath the Sea. Enjoy that first atmospheric shot of a sinister man approaching the camera, for most of this unintentionally hilarious thriller takes place in unimpressive sets. Authored by Curt Siodmak of Donovan's Brain fame, the movie must have been considered sordid trash in 1955. Nazis, gangsters, corpses and radioactive remote control figure into a goulash of maniacal murders. In other words, it's great fun!
Despite its lowbrow concept Creature With the Atom Brain moves like a house afire and delivers the maximum gore that 1955's Production Code would allow. Peckinpah - esque bullet hits rip into bodies and a gruesome silhouette shot depicts an atom-powered killer snapping a victim in two. The actors play the essentially humorless story straight, leaving us to ponder some truly weird scenes. Richard Denning's doctor-cop detects amazing facts about a bit of blood, but takes an inordinate amount of time to notice that his best pal's head has been sawed in two, leaving big stitch marks across his forehead. Buchanan must individually guide his zombie killers by microphone, yet he can send all of them out at once to commit complicated crimes of sabotage. This occurs in a ridiculous montage that pulls in every bit of destruction available to the Columbia editors -- planes crashing, toy trains derailing, etc. Squadrons of cop cars pour onto the street, in stock footage at least twenty years old. Richard Denning is shown taking off in a Bell-style helicopter, and in the next stock-shot angle the craft has been transformed into a giant Sikorsky model.
Creature With the Atom Brain is peopled with ex-serial actors that snap out their lines and stay sober no matter how preposterous the situation. Writer Siodmak's odd notion is that radiation can 'power' a lifeless body, which provides the excuse for the atomic zombies. Interestingly the gangster and the scientist have difficulties dealing with residual radiation, which makes them easy to trace. Dr. Steigg is suffering from radium poisoning.
For his climax, director Edward L. Cahn stages a gory shootout between troops and zombies. In traditional terms the mayhem is every bit as tasteless as that in later pictures like Invisible Invaders, The Last Man on Earth and Night of the Living Dead. Spilling from Buchanan's mad lab, the zombies are met with rifle bullets and grenades but still can't be stopped. Totally lacking in artfulness or noble pretensions, Creature With the Atom Brain is pulp trash at its best.
The Werewolf is this collection's Odd Beast Out, having been filmed on location at Big Bear in the San Bernardino mountains. Other than some odd continuity mixing-up of night-for-night and day-for-night shots, and inter-cutting shots with and without snow on the ground, this is actually a fairly ambitious production. An update of the standard Hollywood werewolf story becomes a sort of downbeat wolf hunt, with a sympathetic monster as the prey.
This is certainly one of Fred F. Sears' better-directed pictures, if only because the mountain location affords more possibilities than Sam Katzman's cramped studio sets. Sears even takes the effort to stage a couple of interior scenes with an interesting shadow or two. Screenwriter Robert E. Kent would soon set up his own production unit at United Artists, making the same kinds of films. A misunderstood monster is really a victim of criminal scientists. He's captured but escapes and must be shot down. As in a western, the main conflict concerns whether to shoot first or ask questions instead. Beefy Don Megowan (The Gill Man in the same year's The Creature Walks Among Us) is okay as the sheriff, while Joyce Holden fares better as the 'junior doctor' petitioning for fair play for furry monsters. Eleanore Tanin's wife never seems as concerned as she should be, even when the mountain community is hunting her husband with high-powered rifles; maybe she's formulating her strategy to sue the county for violating Duncan Marsh's civil rights!
The Werewolf returns to normal Katzman territory when it introduces a preposterous pair of scientists. The humorless George Lynn practically foams at the mouth with his theories that Armageddon will turn mankind into animalistic savages. S. George Launer's skull zipper from Atom Brain has healed but his character is ridiculously inconsistent, opposing his partner's weird ideas and then assisting him in violent crimes. They break into Duncan Marsh's prison cell hoping to administer a poison inoculation, only to find their victim already transformed into a slobbering wolf man.
Steven Ritch wrote as well as acted in Hubert Cornfield's superior 50s noir Plunder Road, but neither career took off for him. His is sort of a method werewolf, cowering in fear when in human form, convinced that he can never rejoin his family. Fuzzy, mismatched lap dissolves turn Duncan Marsh into a standard wolf man, with makeup reminiscent of Matt Willis in Return of the Vampire. He does get in an effective snarl here and there, but never looks like anything a good deer rifle wouldn't bring down. Unfortunately, watching Duncan Marsh suffer is no fun, and the movie ends with a perfunctory gun-down. Forget wolfs-bane and holy water: the best thing for intimidating a werewolf is a diesel road grader!
Much sillier -- but more fun -- is 1957's Zombies of Mora Tau, a no-budget groaner with several campy performances. The giddy mish-mosh of a script mixes a treasure hunt with zombie nonsense in a minimalist 'African' setting with no black characters. Although a corps of automaton-like zombies patrols the grounds of a very un-African mansion, seeking to kill those who would claim a lost treasure in diamonds, the picture hasn't an ounce of mystery or horrific poetics. The movie will appeal to viewers that like to see the cameraman readjust his framing in the middle of a shot. When the actors stall between dialogue lines, the awkward gaps are left intact! To clear the record once and for all, Mora Tau is not a USC fraternity.
Zombies of Mora Tau is great trashy fun. Always a hoot, Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman) openly rejects her husband for hunky Gregg Palmer and cuts right to the heart of every situation. She tells Grandma that she's so old she might as well just die and stop bothering people. Even graying Morris Ankrum wants a kiss from Hayes' Mona. The treasure hunters are in serious zombie denial. The creepy staring men shamble about dragging seaweed behind them. Their favorite trick is to emerge from underwater to strangle their victims, like the old Lorelei phantoms. The zombies kill off a couple of expendable crewmen, proving Grandma's warnings beyond any doubt, but nobody accepts the fact that Mona has become a zombie. Mona is ice cold, doesn't breathe and tries to stab people, but that may be just a coincidence.
In the most enjoyably idiotic group scene, Grandma takes the assembled cast on a stroll past the graves of five or six expeditions that tried to steal the diamond treasure over the years. None in the new expedition are overly concerned, even when they see that their graves have already been dug!
Second female lead Autumn Russell must have made a connection with Tony Curtis, for she shows up in cameos in Sweet Smell of Success and Spartacus. She often looks a lot like Lisa Marie from several Tim Burton films. The script forces Russell to be carried around over a zombie's shoulder, like a sack of potatoes. Luckily, the zombies all seem to be played by stout, strong stuntmen types.
The film's most foolish scenes happen at the bottom of the ocean, where the divers are assaulted by pesky zombies. The footage is filmed dry-for-wet, with the actors pretending to move in slow motion and a few bubbles superimposed. It's very silly. Under the name Raymond T. Marcus, blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon must have had a big laugh writing this potboiler.
The most notorious film in the package is The Giant Claw, a 50s Sci-Fi movie that consistently wins polls for the most ridiculous monster. The actors attending their first screening of the finished film must have been shocked to find themselves inter-cut with some of the worst effects in film history. Established monster fighters Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday and Morris Ankrum faced giant tarantulas, Metaluna Mutants and Martian zombies, but The Giant Claw turns out to be a ridiculous piñata-like goofy bird with pop eyes and a Bullwinkle beak. Little kids might be startled, but anyone over eight surely laughed their heads off when this hit the screen. The prolific writers Paul Gangelin and Samuel Newman pack the dialogue with lousy jokes ("Honest to Pete, I'll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again") and lame pseudo science, but of the tiny cast only Ankrum and Robert Shayne seem to realize how silly it all is. The unintended laughs in The Giant Claw are so consistent, it's like a 50s monster-thon version of Airplane!
Just a year after Toho's impressive Eastmancolor epic about a supersonic pterodactyl named Rodan, Katzman cashed in with this jaw-droppingly absurd creature feature. Mostly ignored when first released, The Giant Claw now plays like a camp wonder with a so-bad-it's-good rating in the stratosphere. An opening narrator (who sounds a bit like Albert Dekker) drones on about national defense before the story takes a left turn into monster territory. The dialogue in several scenes appears to have been stripped and replaced by the narrator telling us what's going on. Somewhere in the world, Coleman Francis was taking notes ...
Mara Corday and Jeff Morrow put their hearts and souls into their 'cute talk' dialogue scenes and do their best to animate the rather claustrophobic screenplay. Other than a brief trek to Griffith Park, representing a very dry Canada, they act their hearts out in dinky sets, often staring through windows at monster footage to be inserted at a later date. We can imagine a first assembly of the film after principal photography was completed, with blank 'scene missing' inserts covering special effects to be produced later. As these effects promised battles in the sky, an attack on New York City and the deployment of a super-duper Mu Meson weapon, Corday and Morrow might have had high hopes for the film.
As far as Katzman was concerned, his job was getting audiences into the theater, not putting quality on the screen; we can imagine that Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen's superior Katzman films were tolerated only because they outperformed the other cheapies. The rumor has always been that the special visuals for The Giant Claw were farmed out to Mexico, but credited effects men Ralph Hammeras, George Teague and Lawrence J. Butler have some pretty impressive titles on their résumés. Perhaps they were only consulted, for the monster bird indeed resembles something built by an alcoholic taxidermist. The neck and head are like twisted taffy, and a stupid look is frozen on the monster's face. It flies without flapping its wings; when it interacts with airplanes and parachuting fliers, errant wires are visible everywhere. Perhaps the single most unconvincing giant monster shot in film history occurs when The Giant Claw plucks a freight train from its tracks and carries it off into the sky. The (HO scale?) cars stay linked together like sausages, with the engine still puffing away!
Of course, when Corday and Morrow's horrified faces are inter-cut with the incredibly idiotic bird, the result is hilarious. Watching a frame progression of stills taken from a weather balloon, the cast acts impressed when they should be laughing out loud.
The dialogue is just weird enough to be funny. Everybody from the narrator to various pilots describes the flying bird as being as big as a battleship, and Mitch spouts klunky dialogue like "That makes me Chief Cook and Bottle Washer in a one-man Bird Watcher's Society!" The military men repeat the 'guns, tanks, bombs' speech from The War of the Worlds. Mitch frantically assembles his Mu Meson projector in the belly of a B-25 while the giant bird pursues them, and Ankrum's general shouts literally down his neck: "For God's sake hurry man! It's catching up with us fast!"
Katzman throws in stock shots already used in the Harryhausen films, blowing up City Hall twice to represent New York buildings crumbling. We see clips from The Day the Earth Stood Still and even Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo . A plain white backing is used for insert shots of men and women looking up and screaming at the supposedly threatening killer bird. It's the very definition of the concept, 'entertainingly cheesy.' Old monster fighter Morris Ankrum's last shot shows him laughing. It's supposedly because the Atom-Bird from Another Galaxy has been defeated, but we know better: The movie's finally over, and it was a hoot for him too.
Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman comes on two discs, two titles per. All of the shows except Creature with the Atom Brain are presented in beautiful enhanced 1:85 transfers. Why Atom Brain should be excepted makes no sense at all, since it's clearly meant to be matted as well. The other films benefit from having the extraneous ceilings and floors removed, while Atom Brain looks unfocused and less distinct. Audio quality is uniformly excellent, proving that Katzman's pictures were at least mixed with care.
Sony's added extras are special treats. Chapter 2 of the 1951 serial photoplay Mysterious Island combines Jule Verne's basic plot with outrageous concepts like a female Alien in a metal dress, and natives with zig-zag spears. The Civil War castaways include a black comrade, a nice touch. However, when the soldiers run around rocks (which accounts for 70% of the running time), the black guy is always last. In fights, we never see him roughing up a white actor.
We also get a 1934 comedy short called Midnight Blunders, an innocuous spook show in which two cornball comedians run around konking each other on the head, and dodge a Frankenstein-like monster. It was made by Jules White, the producer that later took on The Three Stooges. The same kooky sound effects are in evidence.
The Mr. Magoo short Terror Faces Magoo has the nearsighted gentleman confusing his nephew Waldo with a giant gorilla dispatched to serve as a hairy burglar. The cartoon has a takeoff on an Edward R. Murrow-like news show, and mixes the usual nonsense with some odd hipster jokery. The package also offers trailers for all four films, as well as a couple of Harryhausen titles.
The package bursts with appropriately manic hype: "Frightful! Beastly! A Double-Dose of Spine-Tingling Fun!" The copy rightly suggests that the Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman would be great for sampling at a Halloween party. In their own twisted way, the campier titles in this set are just as entertaining as some of the fifties' more celebrated classics.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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