Sunday, 19 September 2021

Cold War Creatures (1955 - 1957)

"Fantastic Collection of Movies By A Master Exploitationeer"

That's producer Sam Katzman I'm talking about, by the way. A man who started his career working on serials, moved onto Monogram classics like VOODOO MAN, was instrumental in giving us Ray Harryhausen classics like THE BEAST FROM 20 000 FATHOMS and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and ended his days working with exploitation legends like Joe Solomon on movies like THE LOSERS. In the late 1950s Katzman produced four black and white monster movies that have provided endearingly and understandably popular to this day, and that's what we've got here.

Most of us will already have the region one DVD set of these four films, but as usual Arrow Films have pulled out all the stops to provide a Blu-ray upgrade and a healthy set of extras for each one, so let's take a look at what we've got:

Disc One: Creature With the Atom Brain (1955)

         "Embrace your inner ten year old" suggests Kim Newman in his specially filmed introduction to this, a film whose plot would get reused quite a bit in TV series of the following two decades, most notable some of the Brian Clemens-Albert Fennell produced episodes of THE AVENGERS. A criminal takes revenge on the men who sentenced him by teaming up with a mad scientist who can resurrect the dead and turn them into remote-control slaves with the use of a brain implant. It's brisk, breezy, daft fun and as Mr Newman also points out, doubtless formed the inspiration for many of the films that subsequently satirised this particular kind of film-making.

Extras kick off with an excellent commentary track from pop culture historian Russell Dyball who provides an engaging commentary that strikes the right balance between background information and commenting on what's happening onscreen. Stephen R Bissette provides an unmissable special feature in the form of an excellent 73 minute visual essay that tells you all about Sam Katzman's career and the many projects the producer was involved with. There's plenty of SF and horror talk but I also found all the stuff about the JUNGLE JIM movies and Katzman's work on serials fascinating. All very good indeed. Finally, there are also a 19 minute 'Super 8' digest of the film, stills gallery and trailer.

Disc Two: The Werewolf (1956)

Arguably the best film on this set. Fred Sears had a lot of Westerns under his belt by the time he came to direct this and THE WEREWOLF has a very Western feel to it. Steven Ritch is the Man With A Past who comes to a lonely mountain town only to find himself hunted through no fault of his own. Gloomy, snow-bound exteriors rather than the Columbia backlot (as pointed out by Kim Newman in his introduction to this one), a tragic, hapless central character, and two 'evil doctors' who come across more like the heavies in a Cornell Woolrich novel all combine to make this one surprisingly effective.

Extras wise we have a commentary track from Lee Gambin who knows his werewolves (his definitive text on THE HOWLING is a treat) and provides us with an informative commentary that ties in with the onscreen action. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides the visual essay on this disc, spending 24 minutes taking an in-depth look at the female characters in the four films in this set beginning with THE WEREWOLF. You also get a condensed 8mm version of the movie, as well as a trailer and image gallery.

Disc Three: Zombies of Mora-Tau (1957)

We're on the coast of Africa, and a gang of bickering unscrupulous diamond thieves are searching for a treasure-filled sunken ship. Unfortunately it's guarded by the ship's crew, under a curse and now zombies, who rise from their coffins to protect it.

ZOMBIES OF MORA-TAU may be the least of the films on this set but it's an interesting movie nevertheless. As Kim Newman says in his introduction, the concept of zombies underwater was new and would be used again in Lucio Fulci's 1979 ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS and others. It's also the only film on this set to contain supernatural elements. Kat Ellinger explores and contextualises this in her commentary track which is more informal than the previous two and enthusiastically chatty, as if you've met someone in the pub who can't wait to enthuse about Sam Katzman's films. 

        The other main extra is a visual essay by Josh Hurtado that talks about how advances in science informed the movies on this set. As you might expect, if you've been watching these discs in order then you'll have heard a lot of this before but on its own it stands as a decent 20 minute piece. You also get a stills gallery and a trailer but they seem to have lost the 8mm digest version for this one.

Disc Four: The Giant Claw (1957)

"For many either the best or the worst of the set" says Kim Newman and indeed, if it were not for the (very) special effects THE GIANT CLAW might well have been a monster movie to rival IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, although even the great Ray Harryhausen might have had trouble coming up with what was required here. The cast (toplining Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday) is watchable and the plot is standard (but by no means poor) monster stuff. 

        It's the monster itself that will make or break you with this one - a gangly, hairy, totally non-aerodynamic turkey-thing with, it must be said, quite the effort having been put in to give it an expressive face. It's intended to be played dead straight but you can't help feel the film is shooting itself in the foot with scenes like the monster's reveal on photographs, with the grotty creation coming nearer until its silly face is leering right at the camera.

Extras for THE GIANT CLAW are a commentary track from Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard who have a rip-roaring time getting into all the fun of the film. Mike White provides the disc's visual essay looking at the Cold War themes in Katzman's monster movies, and you get stills, a trailer and (yes it's back!) an 8mm digest version of the film.

As well as all the above Arrow's set comes with a 60 page collector's book with new writing on the films, an 80 page art book filled with stills and artwork, two double-sided posters featuring the new artwork for the set, and each of the disc sleeves is reversible so you can either display that new art or the original posters.

Cold War Creatures: Four Films From Sam Katzman is out now on Region B Blu-ray from Arrow Films

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