Saturday, May 16, 2015

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon – Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

There was much rejoicing in the blogosphere earlier this year when Marilyn “Ferdy” Ferdinand announced that the series of For the Love of Film blogathons staged to solicit funds for one of our passions here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—film preservation—would re-ignite after a brief hiatus.  I participated in For the Love of Film I and II, but had to skip the third go-round due to pressing outside concerns.  This year, the For the Love of Film extravaganza will turn over couch cushions for enough change to fund “Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.”  A total of $10,000 will be needed to cover the lab costs (plus a new score for Quarantine’s streaming web premiere), and it is hoped that the essays contributed to the blogathon will encourage folks to give whatever they can to the National Film Preservation Foundation for this most worthy cause.  Regardez:
Click on the “Gort” Button and make a contribution…and you’ll also be entered in a drawing to win fabulous swag at the end of the blogathon.  Why a “Gort” button, I hear you ask…unless that’s the voices in my head, in which case never mind.  Well, this year For the Love of Film’s theme is science fiction in cinema…and that presented a bit of a quandary, only because I was sort of torn as to what movie I should write about.  I thought about a discussion of the Shakespearean overtones in Forbidden Planet (1956), or asking “Is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) an allegory of Communism or McCarthyism?”  Finally, with the deadline looming, I decided to fall back on what always works in situations like this: snark on a terrible B-film.  And so, without further ado, TDOY Twilight Theatre presents: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)!

A few seconds before the opening titles commence, we see this eerie figure slowly shambling up a walkway.  We’ll get a better look at the mysterious individual once we know who’s in this flick, who directed, produced, etc.

A scene shift, and the shambling thing has somehow acquired an automobile…suggesting that there’s an Alamo nearby and they don’t seem to be too particular who they rent to.  The mystery man (Karl 'Killer' Davis) stops outside the palatial residence of a racketeer named James Hennessy, who is totaling the end of day receipts.  One of his underlings (Paul Bradley) informs him that the day’s take comes to about $20,000, and we’re to assume that this income will not only be undeclared on his income tax but probably derives from such illegal operations as pinball machines and Redbox kiosks.  Hennessy tells his lackey that he’ll be with him in a sec, and when his man Godfrey has left his office he starts to dictate the take into a Dictaphone for his secretary.  (You know you’ve really made it as a gangster when you can afford to take on a secretary.)  In mid-sentence, the stranger that pulled up in the car outside bends the iron security bars with his brute strength and smashes the window to Hennessy’s study.

MAN (robotically): I told you I’d come back… (Hennessy reaches for a gun tucked away behind a mobile bar) Remember Buchanan?
HENNESSY: Why…you’re not Buchanan!
MAN: I don’t look like him…but I am him…don’t you recognize the voice, Jim?  I promised to see you die…and I will

Hennessy empties his pistola into the stranger, but that’s an exercise in futility—he appears to be impervious to bullets.  We don’t actually see what happens next to Hennessy, but the shadows on the wall don’t leave much to the imagination:

Ouch!  Snap into a Slim Jim!  The killer, having performed some unorthodox chiropractory on Hennessy, then proceeds to exit the same way he came in—even as Hennessy’s henchmen start shooting at him.  Who is this mystery man who calls himself “Buchanan”?  James Buchanan?  Edgar Buchanan?  During the murder of Hennessy, we’ve watched as two men monitor the mystery man’s movements via remote TV screen, with one of them ordering him to “come back home.”  This man is Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger), an ex-racketeer with several scores to settle—including one with the now-deceased Hennessy.  The other is a bespectacled scientist with a German accent—he’s Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gaye), whose insistence on keeping a low profile suggests that there may be a few skeletons in his closet.

BUCHANAN: Well…your creature’s helped us get rid of the first one…I’ll see them all die before I’m through…
STEIGG: Ach…if I had only known when you first offered to help me financially…
BUCHANAN: Dr. Steigg…if it weren’t for my money, you’d still be experimenting with cats and dogs in that flea-sized lab of yours in Europe…I made it possible for you to prove your theory with human beings…
STEIGG: That is true…but my theory was to use these creatures to help people live…by doing everything that was difficult and dangerous…you just want to see people die
BUCHANAN: Not just people, Steigg…particular people…and I’ll get ‘em…every single one of them
STEIGG: And after you do?  What?
BUCHANAN: There’ll be nothing we can’t do or have…nobody will be able to stop us…

So there you have it—perversion of science for evil instead of niceness, and the old standby megalomaniacal ambition to use that evil to further your own ends.  Several times in the course of this feature, Buchanan and Steigg have to dress up in beekeeper-type outfits and then negotiate what looks like one of those play tunnels with which kids have endless hours of fun.  I suppose it’s because the “atom rays” Professor Nazi uses to animate these dead bodies are highly radioactive, and the Hazmat suits are just a precaution.  There’s a short scene where the two of them examine two other men who are hooked up to some device; Steigg unhooks one of them as Buchanan inquires “Is he dead?”

“He never was alive,” the Professor intones seriously.  He also points out helpfully that with these creatures, “the brain always dies first.”

Well, now that we’ve acquainted ourselves with the villains of the piece…let’s meet the good guys.  The po-po have arrived at Casa del Hennessy, and the investigation is being handled by Captain Dave Harris (S. John Launer) with an assist from the director of the police crime laboratory, a pipe-smoking wanker named Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning).  Also in attendance is the District Attorney (Tristam Coffin), who informs the two men that he doesn’t think robbery was the motive since nearly sixty grand was left in the safe.  “Maybe he didn’t want to get into a higher bracket,” observes Harris, in an indication of things to come.

Walker’s investigation reveals that the killer left his fingerprints behind (in addition to a good deal of blood, as a result of being shot multiple times)…and they have a somewhat luminous appearance.

“Let’s take this back to the lab and make a test on it,” suggests Walker as he cuts up a portion of Mr. Hennessy’s nice shag rug to collect a footprint.  As Walker, Harris and McGraw exit the crime scene they’re swarmed by nosey reporters.

FIRST REPORTER: Doctor, how did anybody break through those bars in there?
WALKER: Maybe he ate all his vitamins…

The scene shifts to Walker’s laboratory, where we get to witness actual science being performed as our hero gets closer and closer to figuring out the solution to this baffling crime.

WALKER (peering through a microscope): Look…a diluted solution of hematin…two absorption bands between the Fraunhofer lines…
HARRIS: Oh, cut the double talk, Chet, and break it down into plain English…
WALKER: Take a look…this so-called blood is a chemical composition…
HARRIS (looking under the microscope): It looks like a bunch of crystals to me…
WALKER: Exactly!  There are crystals in that concoction…
McGRAW: Now, what do you mean, “concoction”?
WALKER: Here, I’ll show you…

As he pours various substances into a beaker—“Adrenaline…sodium hydroxide…and blood sugars”—Walker makes things even murkier by telling McGraw: “Throws the beam to the right dextrose…no hemoglobin traceable…”  This means that the substance isn’t blood, which the chemist proves by sticking the solution in the old centrifuge.  But he does determine this with the help of a Geiger counter:

WALKER: This so-called blood is highly radioactive!
HARRIS: Dangerously so?
WALKER: Plus nine!
HARRIS: Is that a lot?
WALKER: Enough to kill a man if he’s exposed to it long enough…

“So I hope the two of you didn’t have plans for children in the future…’cause that’s definitely not gonna happen.”  Walker announces that he’s done all he can do for the evening, and the three men are mobbed by the same reporters as they leave his office.  “According to the evidence,” Walker explains, “Hennessy was murdered by a creature with atom rays of superhuman strength…and a creature who cannot be killed by bullets!”

The press respond with that same skepticism we’ve come to know and love in old movies.  “Just for that I’ll misspell your name,” threatens one.  “I don’t blame them,” cracks Harris.  “I don’t believe it myself and I was with you.”

In science fiction films of the 1950s, one generally establishes the threat to normality caused by tampering with the Creator’s domain by showing the hero in his native habitat; a nice little suburban house, populated by the protagonist’s dutiful wife and their precocious little brat.  But the family scenario in Creature is a little…oh, let’s say interesting.  Take this scene, in which Capt. Harris stops by the Walker household to fill Chet in on the latest developments, and he’s greeted by the Walkers’ daughter Penny (Linda Bennett):

PENNY: Uncle Dave!  (She runs to him and he lifts her up in the air)
HARRIS: Well, how’s my little sweetheart this morning, huh?
PENNY: I feel fine, Uncle Dave!
JOYCE: There’s some coffee in there, Dave… (She heads upstairs to wake her husband)
HARRIS: Thanks…I could use it…well…Penny and me are going to have a little tête-a-tête, aren’t we, huh?

Um…okay.  Upstairs, Joyce (Angela Stevens) rouses Chet out of his slumber…and he seems to think it’s time for a little pre-breakfast nookie as well:

JOYCE: Chet…Chet, wake up… (Chet awakens, and immediately puts his arms around his wife, kissing her) Chet…not now!
CHET: Oh…name a better time…
JOYCE: Dave’s here!

“That’s okay—he can watch!”  Joyce tells Chet that Dave is here on an emergency, and that’s when he stops pawing his wife.  Dressed and downstairs, Chet learns from Dave that the guy who broke Hennessy in two with his bare hands has an interesting history:

HARRIS: I just came from the bureau…they checked the murderer’s fingerprints…his name is Willard Pearce—they let me have it from the files…
WALKER: Petty theft…fraud…three months in prison…tubercular…how could a tubercular man have strength enough to break those bars like that?

Oh, that’s not all, Chester: “How could a dead man have strength enough to do it?” Harris asks him.  It would appear that Willard Pearce is the late Willard Pearce, having snuffed it twenty four days before he tried to turn Hennessy into a pretzel.

WALKER: That doesn’t make sense!
HARRIS: You’re the smart one…if it doesn’t make sense to you, imagine how it sounds to me!

Since Pearce’s corpse was delivered to the morgue, Harris is having a couple of “his boys” check with the morgue to see about how Willard went for a little walk.  Asked if McGraw knows about this turn of events, Dave tells Chet that the D.A. is on his way to the office and he wants to see the two of them there.

D.A. McGraw will never make that appointment.  As McGraw starts to pull his car out of the garage, another zombie-looking fiend (Michael Ross) pops out from out of nowhere and he tells his prey in the same mechanical tone: “I’m from Buchanan…if you know that, you know why I’m here.”  McGraw tries to get away, but to no avail—the killer picks the D.A. up as if he were a rag doll, and breaks both McGraw’s jaw and neck.  Walker and Harris learn of the D.A.’s death as the two men are listening to the record from Hennessy’s Dictaphone for clues as to the person responsible for the murder.

The two men arrive at McGraw’s and a curious Walker pulls out the old Geiger counter to check the car for “radioactive emanations,” playing a hunch that the two murders might be somehow connected due to the similarity in the killings—even though he readily admits that’s not likely, given “McGraw’s enemies were usually friends of Hennessy’s.”  The reporters can’t help but notice Walker’s use of the Geiger, and they start to realize that he was on the level with the “atom ray” story he told them earlier.  Meanwhile, Harris gets the news from the morgue: eight bodies have mysterious disappeared.  There’s only one other course of action now: a boring talkfest with Walker and Harris, joined by Chief Camden (Charles Evans), Mayor Bremer (Pierre Watkin) and U.S. Army General Saunders (Lane Chandler).

MAYOR: I hope, Dr. Walker, you’ve called us here to assure us the stories about dead men walking our streets is only a hoax
WALKER: I wish they were…
CAMDEN (to Harris): What did you find out about those bodies stolen from the morgue?
HARRIS: Well, according to the records, they were to be cremated…they were placed in coffins and delivered to the city crematory…
SAUNDERS: May I ask how this concerns me?

The General has a good point, and Walker is only too happy to play the show-off by demonstrating the size of his big brain:

WALKER: Do you remember Faraday’s experiment with a frog’s leg?
CAMDEN: I flunked Chemistry One three times
SAUNDERS: I remember Faraday’s experiment…
WALKER: Good…then you’ll remember Faraday applied energy—in that case, electricity—to the leg which had been severed from its body…it moved!
MAYOR: Huh!  Frog legs…I don’t see the parallel…

That’s because you’re nothing but a humble wardheeler, your Honorship.  Walker’s theory—outlandish though it may be—is that these murders are being committed by dead men invigorated by radioactivity, and that’s why Saunders has been brought in on the case: he’s needed to coordinate the military in tracking down the source of those mysterious radioactive emanations.

Meanwhile, back at Steigg Labs, Buchanan and the doctor have programmed another assassin—this time to trail Walker, whom the doctor admires for his “Imagination” in doping out the cockamamie plot of this movie.  The would-be killer tracks Walker to the Army base, but for some reason doesn’t carry out his mission.  Instead, we’re back at Castle Walker—where a freshly delivered newspaper blares this headline:

JOYCE: That’s not true, Chet…is it…?
WALKER: You better hide it from Penny…
JOYCE: But how can I hide a thing like…
WALKER: Please, Joyce…I’m tired, and I’m hungry…and frankly, I don’t know how…

“That’s going to be your job in the parenting department.  Now get out in the kitchen and fix me a sammich.”  Okay, he’s not quite that bad—but Chet does request that his wife rustle up a “nice, cold martini.”  “Coming right up, Chet,” she says in a voice suggesting he should walk his ass over to the bar and fix his own damn martini.

JOYCE: Penny’s outside playing…
WALKER: Well, what about it?
JOYCE: Well, is it safe?
WALKER: There seems to be some sort of definite pattern…can't put my finger on it, but I do know that Hennessy and McGraw were killed for a reason
JOYCE: Well, it's all right then?
WALKER: Well, for a while…I don't think they've gotten around to indiscriminate killings yet…

I take it back…this guy is a douchebag.  Joyce and Chet lie to their daughter about both the newspaper (“It didn’t come today”) and the television set (“It’s broken”), and then Joyce brings the Master of the House his drink (“I’ve been looking forward to this all day”).  But just as he’s about to get his drink on, “Uncle” Dave comes by the house with more bad news:

HARRIS: Hennessy and McGraw helped convict Frank Buchanan…
WALKER: Buchanan…the name rings a bell, but not too clearly…
HARRIS: Buchanan was a top mobster around these parts…he practically ran the city…when McGraw became D.A. he took out after him…
WALKER: Well, where does Hennessy come in?
HARRIS: Well, Hennessy was Buchanan’s number-two man…he wanted the number-one slot, so he turned on him…

The thot plickens!  Buchanan wound up being deported to Europe thanks to McGraw’s rigorous prosecution, and though Walker doesn’t know it yet, that’s where Buchanan met up with Dr. Steigg in his flea-sized laboratory.  There were three other men involved in the Buchanan affair: assistant D.A. Lester Banning (Don C. Harvey), now in private practice; Jason Franchot (Edward Coch), Buchanan’s former accountant; and Tom Dunn (Paul Hoffman), described as Buchanan’s “gunsel.”  (I’m not sure if scriptwriter Curt Siodmak meant that in the same way as Dashiell Hammett did in The Maltese Falcon or not.)  Sensing that those individuals should be warned, Chet is set to be out the door with Dave just as Joyce has brought him another martini.  So she downs this one herself:

I thought to myself: “I bet she does a lot of that whenever that wanker isn’t around.”

Walker and Harris meet with the three men, and suggest that they offer themselves up in protective custody in the Greybar B-and-B as a precaution.  They nix the idea (reputations to protect, you understand), so Harris instructs his men to keep close tabs on the trio in the meantime.  After they leave, Dave gets a telegram informing him that during his sojourn in Europe, Buchanan made his casa Steigg’s casa as the authorities report find the remnants of a laboratory with dead dogs, cats, and monkeys scattered about.  “Dogs, cats, and monkeys,” ruminates Chet.  “That’s the way experimentation usually starts.”

Harris’ men do a pretty piss-poor job in the protection department: one of Steigg’s zombies (dressed as a patrolman) arrives at the house of Jason Franchot, and kills not only him but the uniformed guy he relieved on duty.  To compensate for the blunder, efforts to locate the “radioactive emanations” are stepped up with the help of the military, who fly planes overhead with “radium finders” to locate Buchanan’s hideout.  Conceivably, Buchanan and Steigg could continue their reign of terror on the city and escape detection because no one knows where their headquarters is located…and the town’s citizens are probably worked up in a proper frenzy with the increased military activity, thinking it’s Jade Helm 15 or something.  So Siodmak decides to help his characters out—he foolishly allows Steigg to go into town, where he winds up in a bar…

…the doctor later explains he had to go to town, to pick up a prescription because his hand has been throbbing.  (The effects of radiation?  Quien sabe?)  But for now, Steigg rushes out of the saloon when he sees the military outside—and some weekend warrior wanders in with a Geiger counter, which naturally sees a peg in the meter because Steigg has come and went. 

In a scene shift, Chet pays neurologist and ex-boxer Kenneth Norton (Nelson Leigh) a visit to get some more information on the elusive Dr. Steigg.

NORTON (reading from a book): “Wilhelm Steigg…born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1893…University of Berlin…Zurich…Milan…1948 Harmon Prize for his research in amygdala stimuli…”
WALKER: Amygdala stimuli…what’s that?
NORTON: Ultra-shortwave stimulations to specific parts of the brain…producing…involuntary movements of the body…
WALKER: That’s highly specialized stuff…
NORTON: Yeah…a number of stories have been published about amygdala stimulation of monkeys…here’s one of them (He hands Chet a magazine) Appropriations have been made for research and development…and there’s a doctor in Madrid who’s made great advances since this article was published…
WALKER: Have you…uh…been conducting any experiments here at the hospital?
NORTON: No…but I have a short film that I told you about…would you like me to run it?

I kind of lost it at this moment, because this scene reminds me of a similar sequence in Tarantula (1955), where the action involving the ginormous menace comes to a standstill just so Raymond Bailey can show John Agar a nature film.  Walker is quite impressive by the film featuring the doggie, and it prods him to query Norton as to whether the experiments Steigg was working on could be used on human beings.

NORTON: Are you trying to connect the experiments with animals with the mysterious events of our city?
WALKER: It would answer the riddle, wouldn't it?  Remote-controlled creatures…their brains powered by atomic energy…roaming the streets…directed from a central point…
NORTON: Utterly fantastic

Interesting if true!  Walker intercepts a phone call from Harris, who lets him know about the events concerning Steigg at the tavern.  The good doctor himself is getting a tongue-lashing from Buchanan, who berates Steigg for being so stupid as to walk around decent folk.  So Buchanan instructs his employee to “prepare” Franchot for a mission…one in which he will eliminate Walker once and for all.

Back in Camden’s office, the chief and the mayor learn from Harris and Walker that Banning and Dunn decided maybe it might be a good idea after all if they spent a day or two sampling the city’s hospitality in the pokey…thereby avoiding any potential death or other nastiness.  Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call, and Camden is put in contact with one of Buchanan’s zombie assassins (whom Buchanan speaks through):

ZOMBIE/BUCHANAN: You will stop all planes and trucks searching for radioactivity…I will give you until 3:00 this afternoon to do this…if you do not…many people will be killed exactly one hour later
CAMDEN: Who is this?  Who is this?
ZOMBIE/BUCHANAN: There will be no other warning

And the zombie hangs up.  (He does not, however, check the change slot.)

MAYOR: What do you think, Dr. Walker?  Could he…or they…or whatever these creatures are…could they do this thing?
WALKER: There’s no definite knowledge as to what they can or cannot do!
MAYOR: Then they must be stopped!
MAYOR: Well…

“Clearly I need to appoint a committee to look into the matter, and instruct them to release their findings after six months!”  No, that will take too long…and anyway—Buchanan is probably just bluffing.

Nope…he was not bluffing.  Over a montage of buses, trains, planes, buildings and other explodiating things a montage of scary newspaper headlines appear…prompting the Governor to make this pronouncement on television:

As Governor, I am declaring a state of emergency…all police facilities have been alerted to prevent any further crimes by so-called atomic creatures…the state militia will assist in patrolling all traffic…all scheduled transportation shall be cancelled until further notice…if you must go outside, have identification papers with you!  The radium-finding planes and trucks will continue to operate—since this is our best hope of locating the source of these beings…do not be alarmed, as we are confident that we will soon pinpoint the origin of these emanations…all possible measures for your safety are being taken…

This is exactly what Alex Jones has been warning us about all these years—wake up, sheeple!  Buchanan turns off the television set to put a halt to the Guv’s bloviating.  Steigg, having crapped his pants, is anxious to dismantle the laboratory and head for the hills…but Buchanan hasn’t quite satisfied his lust for revenge.  “There are two more yet…to say nothing of that bright boy, Dr. Walker,” he growls.  Steigg tries to tell him that it would be futile to put the snatch on Walker in an effort to learn the whereabouts of Banning and Dunn, but Buchanan waves him away and orders him to create another zombie.

Chet escapes being captured by the zombie—a revived Franchot dressed in military garb—only because he asks Harris to drive his car over to the lab so that “the boys” can adjust his Geiger counter.  This means that Dave makes the supreme sacrifice in this film by falling into the clutches of the villains, who zombify his ass and use him to find the two remaining men for which Buchanan is carrying a grudge.  To be honest, I don’t precisely know how an individual looking like this…

…doesn’t rouse the suspicion of the man guarding Banning and Dunn, but Harris slips through and dispatches both of them.  Harris becomes badly damaged during his mission—something to do with the especially constructed “neurons” being shot away by all the bullets—but he’s able to lead Walker and the rest to Buchanan’s hideout, where the ex-mobster is finally dealt with by being shot by the heroic Chet.  Go science.

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) has quite a following among sci-fi schlock fans.  Jeff Stafford describes it as “a superior B-horror film with sci-fi elements and a crime syndicate subplot,” and he’s half-right on that.  I found Creature to be outrageously goofy at times, its script by Curt Siodmak simply reworks elements of Curt’s best-known work, the novel Donovan’s Brain.  (Siodmak, brother of famed noir director Robert, was also famous in film circles for writing the screenplay of the classic horror movie The Wolf Man, as well as contributing to the likes of The Invisible Man Returns and I Walked with a Zombie.)

Still, I was attracted to poke fun at Creature after writing a profile on its leading man, actor Richard Denning.  Growing up, I knew Denning as the governor of the Aloha State on Hawaii Five-O (some people older than I might remember him as the “husband” on Lucille Ball’s proto-I Love Lucy series My Favorite Husband on radio) but the man graced a lot of science fiction programmers like Creature: Unknown Island (1948), Target Earth (1954), Day the World Ended (1955), and The Black Scorpion (1957).  Denning’s best-known sci-fi outing was Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), where he competed with dull scientist Richard Carlson for the attention of bodacious bathing suit-wearer Julia Adams.  (Technically, Denning was a third wheel—because the Gill-Man also had designs on Adams as well.)

Apart from Denning—unless you consider Tristam Coffin (a veteran of serials and B-westerns) and Pierre Watkin (also a cliffhanger-oater mainstay—though some might remember him as the guy giving W.C. Fields “hearty handclasps” in The Bank Dick) major movie players—Creature is pretty much populated with a lot of Columbia Studios contractees who never quite grabbed the brass ring of stardom.  Edward L. Cahn (who also did The She-Creature [1957] and Invasion of the Saucer Men [1957]) helmed this mess, and while some have singled out his economic direction as a plus (he forewent a lot of tedious talking-head shots to save time and money) it’s pretty obvious Cahn wasn’t ever going to move beyond anything other than journeyman status.  (Incidentally, Cahn also recycled the concept for Creature in another film, 1959’s Invisible Invaders—which features aliens inhabiting corpses.)  Creature originally played on a double-bill with the considerably better It Came from Beneath the Sea, and is available on DVD as part of the collection Sam Katzman: Icons of Horror.  (Really?  “Icons of Schlock” would be more accurate.)

Watching movies like Creature with the Atom Brain, you might wonder to yourself: is it really worth writing out a check on behalf of film preservation if this is the sort of thing to expect?  I say yay, yay and thrice yay—even though the merits of a movie like Creature are debatable, film itself is a recorded history of our times and our culture, and we need to concentrate on saving every foot of cinema that we can.  Please donate generously.

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