Cold War Creatures (1955-57)
A review of Arrow Video's box-set 'Cold War Creatures' (Creature With the Atom Brain, The Werewolf, Zombies of Mora Tau, and The Giant Claw).
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 established the United States as the dominant global superpower, but it also led to it becoming more vulnerable once its Soviet rivals gained similar nuclear weapons. Science was the source of America’s triumph after World War II but was swiftly predicted to be the source of its downfall. Mixed feelings about science is at the fore of Arrow Video’s fascinating new box-set ‘Cold War Creatures’, featuring a quartet of movies that Sam Katzman’s Clover Productions made for Columbia Pictures between 1955 and 1957.
“The human race will destroy itself,” says Dr Chambers (George Lynn) in The Werewolf. “The science of destruction is always gaining on us.” And while it might be difficult to imagine a more overt statement of Cold War fears, The Giant Claw actually opens at the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, which ran from Alaska to Iceland as a sentinel against incoming Russian missiles.
But science saves the day in The Giant Claw when wielded by good men; while in The Werewolf it’s the bad, or at least misguided, science from Chambers that leads to a monster menacing the small town of Mountaincrest. Similarly, in Creature With the Atom Brain, it’s a former Nazi scientist whose work on reanimating corpses creates the threat (and many former servants of the Third Reich worked on the US missile programme), but in thwarting him the authorities also rely on scientific investigation. Tension about scientific progress is ultimately resolved in these films with the suggestion that it’s fine, as long as the right people are in charge.
‘The Other’ is commonly feared too: extra-terrestrial life in The Giant Claw, the walking dead (that exact term is used) in Zombies of Mora Tau, cruel humanoid beings in Creature With the Atom Brain, and even Steven Ritch’s lycanthrope in The Werewolf has a vaguely eastern European air.
But while these films have much in common, and not just thematically (low budgets, limited sets, no-name casts, stock music), they’re not all cut from the same cloth. Zombies of Mora Tau is a fairly conventional exercise in exotic horror; The Werewolf is primarily a movie of one man’s plight and the ethical dilemmas it raises, despite the mad scientist story grafted on (don’t let anti-vaxxers see this movie). The Giant Claw, by contrast, is directly about an attack from the sky on the US and is deeply interested in the military and technological response that would provoke; while Creature With the Atom Brain raises the spectre of sophisticated enemies within America’s borders.
None are bad films, and with each lasting just over an hour, none outstays their welcome. Zombies of Mora Tau has perhaps the least to recommend it, beyond the curiosity value of 1950s zombies (which are pre-George Romero, so aren’t decayed, show intelligence, and sleep in coffin-like boxes). But The Giant Claw—the best of the bunch—is suspenseful and exciting, while Creature With the Atom Brain also works well as a creepy science thriller, and The Werewolf gains much from skilfully atmospheric photography.
Taken together, the four movies provide an intriguing insight into ’50s societal concerns, as well as fine examples of the lean, uncomplicated power that the best B Movies once had. Arrow Video has also packed the set with a wide range of bonus material, which we sadly weren’t able to review in time for publication due to the late arrival of the discs.
A gangster enlists a former Nazi scientist to resurrect corpses that will do his bidding.
Creature With the Atom Brain, like The Werewolf, speaks directly to fears about science being used the wrong way, but it also draws on a range of horror precedents. If the creatures themselves are zombies of a kind, there are also obvious resemblances to Frankenstein’s monster, while a comment that “the murderer must have had the strength of an ape” evokes Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
At its best, though, the film resembles nothing more than Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) from the following year, and there’s something truly creepy about the reanimated corpses’ mindless dedication to their mission and their slightly robotic delivery.
As in both The Werewolf and (especially) The Giant Claw the audience is lectured on scientific topics, too, though (despite the title) the subject here is physiology rather than the secrets of the atom. Also interesting, in terms of ’50s perceptions of science and technology, is the way that people are monitored remotely on TV screens; add Nineteen Eighty-Four into the mix of influences?
The film flags occasionally, especially when the creatures are absent, and its mystery-solving is never as absorbing as The Giant Claw’s own. But at its best, Creature With the Atom Brain is the spookiest film of the box-set, with a threat that comes close to being genuinely disturbing even 65 years later. The metaphorical meaning may be obsolete but the Uncanny Valley effect isn’t.
USA | 1955 | 69 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
After an experimental vaccination goes wrong, a man loses his memory—and finds he turns into a wolf when angry.
The last film of cinematographer Edward Linden, who had been working since the 1920s, The Werewolf is shot with real noirish verve from the beginning. After a pseudo-learned voiceover on universal and historical werewolf myths, we see a troubled man walking a nighttime small-town street, crisscrossed by shadows. Soon after there’s a great shot in a bar, with him in the background and another, brooding man in the foreground, the whole deliberately imbalanced frame feeling like it’s about to tip into violence.
Later, the first man—the titular werewolf, played by Steven Ritch—will awaken in a drain, caught between darkness and light. It’s an obvious touch, but an effective one, and Fred F. Sears’s direction displays many similar flourishes. In the werewolf’s first attack, for example, we only see feet protruding from a doorway while beast and man struggle; we hear a roar; then we hear the screams of an old woman as she sees what’s happened, but we don’t see the monster for quite a while.
When he comes he bears no resemblance to a wolf—he has more the goofy air of a character from the Cats (2019) movie, with slightly Trumpian hair—but overlook that (as you’ll also need to overlook SFX in the otherwise excellent Giant Claw) and The Werewolf is a decent drama, largely focusing on conflicts among those hunting him.
In a disc set where few performances are of any noteworthiness, look out for young Kim Charney as the boy Chris. His screen career petered out after a decade or so, and he turned to medicine, though presumably not in a lab full of caged wolves and mysterious dials.
USA | 1956 | 79 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
When a pilot reports a UFO the military brass assumes it’s a joke, but after planes start going missing over the United States they come to believe him…
The term “U.F.O” had only been coined four years before The Giant Claw was released, and the film is almost crowded with what was then up-to-the-minute science and technology: cameras in observation balloons, lots of expounding on atomic physics to impress the audience.
But despite the owner of the eponymous giant claw being almost risible in modern SFX terms (visible control wires, a fierce attack on a model train set), The Giant Claw is a gripping movie that builds suspense much longer than The Wolfman or Zombies of Mora Tau—both of which give away their fearsome secrets too quickly (or, indeed, in their titles).
Dramatically, it’s by far the most effective movie of the box-set, managing to make the preposterous problem at its centre seem real and the need for a solution seem urgent. A scene where characters pore over a map, seeking a pattern in the recent UFO incidents, could almost come from a forensic detective procedural of many decades later; and the 1950s tech itself can be inherently interesting, too.
Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday are unusually strong as the leads, with real chemistry, and there’s added interest in considering The Giant Claw as a kind of American equivalent of the Japanese kaiju film (Rodan! The Flying Monster! was released the same year).
USA | 1957 | 75 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
A gang of treasure hunters hopes to recover diamonds from a sunken ship off the coast of Africa, but find it protected by undead guardians.
Zombies of Mora Tau is the least ambitious of these four films, the only one not set in the US, and the only one in which there’s little role for science and scientists. As a result, while it’s certainly possible to see the zombies of the title as enemies within or the brainwashed (as in Creature With the Atom Brain), Cold War anxieties are at most lurking in the background rather than spotlit.
It’s also the only movie here where the highlight is a performer. Marjorie Eaton (who much later played, though her voice was dubbed, Emperor Palpatine in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back) is an elderly lady who’s long lived in Africa and has a peculiar connection with the zombies: her husband was captain of the ship carrying the sought-after diamonds, and now is one of the walking dead.
She’s given to making wonderfully ominous pronouncements (“only fools are afraid of the grave… there are worse things… bodies around here must be buried quick”) and, in one effective scene, actually takes the visitors on a tour of the graveyard where all those who previously tried to get at the diamonds are interred. It culminates, cleverly, in a row of open graves.
Indeed, her character Grandmother Peters finally becomes the real star of the film at its unusually human conclusion, where the emphasis is on loss as well as love, and the emotions feel real.
Allison Hayes as the bad girl (offset by Autumn Russell as a much duller good girl) is also entertaining. But Zombies of Mora Tau, though it builds atmosphere convincingly at first, suffers from repetitiveness. There’s some wandering through the jungle at night, a dive to the sunken ship, a visit to the zombies’ lair, an explicatory discussion in a drawing-room, and then the same all over again.
And in any case, it simply doesn’t have the thematic depth of the other movies in this set; it’s not terrible, but it’s the weak link here.
USA | 1957 | 70 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
Arrow Video’s transfers of all four films are crisp and lush, with rich blacks and finely graded greys. The uncompressed mono sound is notably good too. Creature With the Atom Brain was shot on a 1.37:1 negative but intended to be exhibited at 1.85:1, so the 1.78:1 ratio here is only a slight departure from that.
directors: Edward L. Cahn (Creature / Zombies) • Fred F. Sears (Werewolf / Claw).
writers: Curt Siodmak (Creature) • Robert E. Kent & James B. Gordon (Werewolf) • Bernard Gordon (story by George H. Plympton) (Zombies) • Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin (Claw).
starring: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens & S. John Launer (Creature) • Steven Ritch, Don Megowan & Joyce Holden (Werewolf) • Gregg Palmer, Allison Hayes & Autumn Russell (Zombies) • Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday & Morris Ankrum (Claw).