Review: Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman (Arrow Video)
Depending on your own personal taste (and which of his films you're watching), Sam Katzman is either a legendary or infamous figure in the movie industry. As a producer, he's responsible for over two hundred projects, almost all of them rooted in exploitation. From the 1930s until his death in 1973, Katzman courted every trend in the industry, from westerns and jungle pictures to rock and roll and youth gone wild movies. It's notable that we attach so much rememberance on Katzman as a producer; after all, fanfar is usually reserved for directors, writers, and those directly behind the camera, not for the producers who make it all happen. Yet, Katzman's larger-than-life personality and approach stands out against any particular film, director, or actor from his films. One thing is for certain: his savvy business sense and willingness to lean into any and every pop culture trend has given us scores upon scores of interesting and entertaining (note that I haven't said "good") movies that still offer thrills, chills, and the occasional unintentional laugh all these years later.
Arrow Video's new Blu-ray box set Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman perfectly embodies this, and the films included run the gamut in terms of quality. On one end of the spectrum is the exceptional 1956 noir-esque The Werewolf, brimming with tension, tragedy, and pathos. On the other end is 1957's The Giant Claw, an unintentionally-laughable creature feature with a puppet so bad that it serves as an albatross around the neck of the entire film. Individually, these films, made during Katzman's tenure at Columbia Pictures, are enjoyable B-movie romps. And yet, when the four films are viewed as a piece together, they offer us a larger look into Katzman's brief-but-memorable flirtation with science fiction thrillers set against the backdrop of Cold War paranoia. When viewed as a whole, a narrative emerges that is not only worthy of discussion, but is something to celebrate and study, as many of the issues that these films struggle with are ones that we face once again today.
The set begins with Creature with the Atom Brain. As critic and historian Stephen R. Bissette notes in his indispensable presentation on the life and career of Sam Katzman included on the Blu-ray for Creature, the producer believed in the power of the word "atom" and connected it directly with success. The mid-1950s were a tumultuous time where science was growing faster than our understanding of it, and while we could recognize the power of the atom and all the wonderful advances it brought us, we had not yet come to terms with the consequences of such power. With the power of the atom came much fear: fear of those who would exploit and misuse this great power, fear of inevitable destruction, and fear of the cost that must be paid for these great scientific discoveries.
Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) finds a bitter mob boss partnering with an ex-Nazi scientist to create an army of the living dead. Like robots, these empty bodies are now powered by science and controlled from afar by remote control. At the center of the story is Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon), who must wage war against those who seek to absolute power. Creature is written by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) and directed by B-movie master Edward L. Cahn, (The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders). Given the experience of everyone involved, this is a cracking little picture with brisk action, engaging cinematography, and a story that feels genuinely eerie.
Consider a shot early in the movie which finds a man being folded in half backwards, which is shown on the screen by way of shadows on a wall. This scene was directly replicated for 1991's The Rocketeer by director Joe Johnston, whom I'm willing to bet is no stranger to Katzman and the Cold War Creatures of this era. The creatures themselves are equally chilling, with horizontal scars running across their foreheads, giving us the illusion that they've had their skulls cut open to insert radioactive materials, which power them and give them superhuman abilities. This is the first (or one of the first) films to use squibs, and it achieves this to great effect. When these atomic creatures are shot, we see the bullet holes rip through their clothes, and we even see bullet holes in their faces as they're shot at point blank range.
As with all of the discs included in the Cold War Creatures box set, this Blu-ray is loaded with features. We have an introduction to the film with Kim Newman (who provides intros to all of the films included, and runs an average of ten minutes), a commentary by critic Russell Dyball, a feature length (one hour and fourteen minutes) "illustrated presentation" from Stephen R. Bissette, the condensed Super 8mm version of the movie, a theatrical trailer, and an image gallery. Bissette's presentation, Sam Katzman: Before and Beyond the Cold War Creatures is akin to a convention panel or powerpoint presentation, and finds the historian sharing tons of lobby cards, production photos, poster images, and behind-the-scenes photographs as he navigates the fascinating and fruitful career of Katzman as a producer, covering the serials such as Superman (1948) and his creation of the Jungle Jim franchise. It's a feature I'll be returning to again and again.
The Werewolf (1956) is, for my my money, the best film in the set. After the success of Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man, it seems like a given that we'd be treated to a host of lycanthropes on screen, but the simple fact of the matter is that The Werewolf could have gotten away with doing much less. Really, with Katzman behind the film, this movie really over-delivers on expectations. Steven Ritch makes his debut here as the titular monster, but instead of past werewolf stories where a the creatures are victims of the supernatural, our tragic figure here is--you guessed it--the victim of science. After being badly injured in a car accident that left him with amnesia, he was given the irradiated blood of a wolf in an experiment by two scientists to create a vaccine for nuclear fall-out. As a side effect, he now carrying a monster within at all times.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Werewolf is that the change doesn't seem to be triggered by the full moon, but by anger, or fear, or negative emotions. In many ways, it's reminiscent of The Incredible Hulk. The film opens with a confrontation outside a bar in a small rural town. Our tragic protagonist leaves the bar and walks into the night when he's confronted by a bar patron who seeks to rob him. When he refuses to hand over his cash, a fight breaks out with predictable results. All we need is the line "don't make me angry...you wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
The screenplay by Robert E. Kent and James B. Gordon (possibly the same person, with Kent using his pseudonym) is full of the Film Noir themes of inevitability and futility, with a good man catapulted into a series of events beyond his control. Workman director Fred F. Sears (who dropped dead in 1957 from a heart attack at the age of 44) shoots the action like a western, with our lone figure eventually hunted down in the wilderness by what is essentially a posse.
Supplements included for The Werewolf are an introduction from Kim Newman, a commentary from Lee Gambin, Beyond Window Dressing, a fascinating video essay on the role of women in Katzman's films by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the condensed Super 8mm version of the film, theatrical trailer, and image gallery.
Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) is a voodoo tale set in Africa (and yet featuring no black people) that predates George Romero's Night of the Living Dead by over a decade and has more in common with White Zombie (1932) and vampire films than the tropes we associate with the walking dead. For instance, in this lore, zombies sleep in coffins and awake in the night to do their dark work. In this tale, the zombies are protecting the treasures of a sunken shipwreck. As noted in the special features, Zombies of Mora Tau feels like a precursor to John Carpenter's The Fog, with both films featuring long-dead sailors extracting revenge on those who have disrespected them. The standout performer here is Allison Hayes, a dark and beautiful figure who would achieve higher notoriety one year later when she starred as the titular attraction in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
Directed once again by Edward L. Cahn and written by blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon under the name Raymond T. Marcus, Zombies of Mora Tau departs from the science-gone-wrong theme of this box set, but upon closer examination does indeed carry the same sense of dread and stance on mankind's hubris and greed. What the film lacks in Cold War allegory is more than made up for by crackling atmosphere, some truly gorgeous imagery, and an attractive cast. One feels the influence of Katzman's jungle adventure films here with the treasure hunter theme.
The Blu-ray for Zombies of Mora Tau includes a Kim Newman introduction, a new commentary by Kat Ellinger, the new visual essay Atomic Terror: Genre in Transformation by Josh Hurtado which explores the connection between mythic creatures and science, the theatrical trailer, and an image gallery. Note that no Super 8mm version is included. I can find no evidence that this film ever received the Super 8mm home theater treatment.
Finally, the set concludes with what is undeniably the weakest of the four films included, 1957's The Giant Claw. Long the subject of much ridicule and unintentional humor, this film features a gigantic mythical bird that descends from the skies to wreak havoc and destroy institutions of progress (The Empire State Building, The United Nations headquarters) and actually serves as yet another Cold War snapshot of our fears and how advancements in technology and society were endangered by savagery and that which man cannot control. Directed again by Fred F. Sears, the script from Samuel Newman and Paul Gangelin is solid, the acting from Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth) and Mara Corday (Tarantula) is capable, and irony isn't present.
Therefore, when the human action cuts away to the giant mythical bird creature itself, everything falls apart. Truly, this is one of the worst puppets ever committed to screen, and looks like it's on loan from a children's TV show. Katzman, ever the thrifty producer, decided not to use special effects legend Ray Harryhausen (to be fair, it's possible Harryhausen declined this project) and went with a marionette puppet instead. The result is a creature so laughable, so silly, that it destroys the entire movie. Sure, that means every MST3K fan has lots of joke fodder, but it's such a shame. As noted in the essays included with this package, this is as close as cinema has ever really come to displaying the Thunderbird of Native American folklore.
It's an unfortunate end, but one that also serves the narrative of this box set well. All of the themes that are featured in these films exist also in The Giant Claw, but the film also tells the story how how Katzman ultimately walked away from this flirtation with science fiction pictures. After decreasing box office and the ultimate disaster that was The Giant Claw (Jeff Morrow reportedly walked out of a screening in embarrassment when he saw the bird puppet on screen), Katzman knew it was time to move on. Abandoning science fiction thrillers for wild teenage movies and rock and roll pictures (his film Rock Around the Clock from 1956 starring Bill Haley and his Comets had been a financial success), Katzman would continue to chase the latest fads, including Elvis movies, biker pictures, and hippie films.
The disc for The Giant Claw also includes our final Kim Newman introduction, a commentary from critics Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard, a brand new visual essay Family Endangered! from critic Mike White, which examines Cold War Paranoia in the era of these films, the Super 8mm version of The Giant Claw, a theatrical trailer, and image gallery.
But wait! That's not the end of the goodies within this box set! Also included are two double-sided fold-out posters which feature the four pieces of new art created for this box set, three replica lobby cards for each film (twelve in total), and two square-bound books. Cold War Creatures: Art is 80 pages and features introductory essays about each film followed by high quality reproductions of lobby cards, posters, production stills, and promotional images. Cold War Creatures: Essays is 60 pages of writings on these films and their context within the 1950s. The included writings are: "Sam Katzman: The Sultan of Schlock" by Laura Drazin Boyes, "Only Screams Can Describe It: Creature with the Atom Brain" by Neil Mitchell, "Science Versus the Supernatural: Sam Katzman's The Werewolf" by Barry Forshaw, "A Twilight Zone Between Life and Death: Zombies of Mora Tau" by Jon Towlson, and "Turkey in the Sky: The Appealing Legacy of The Giant Claw" by Jackson Cooper.
Cold War Creatures is an astonishing set. The films themselves could be easily dismissed as solid yet dated relics of a bygone era with no relevance to our current lives, a million miles from the special effects powerhouses that currently grace our cinema screens. Upon closer and more thoughtful examination, they reveal films that accidentally tell us more about ourselves as a society than any sociological textbook ever could. Our aspirations and goals are on full display, but so is our greed, our hubris, and our ultimate pessimism that we may very well be destined to destroy ourselves. To go even further, the many cheap exploitation movies that Sam Katzman made during his lifetime serve as harbingers of the genre entertainment that now rules the box office. After all, would we have the modern superhero film if Katzman had not paved the way with his Batman and Superman serials? Would the theme park thrills of Disney's The Jungle Cruise play on our screens if there had never been a Jungle Jim? When thinking about the issues that concern us today--viruses, vaccines, pesticides and chemicals in our food, dwindling resources, destruction from political leaders at home as well as on the other side of the world--it's important to remember that these concerns are not new. They were with us over sixty years ago, too, filling our nightmares with monsters that we ourselves created.