Creature With The Atom Brain directed by Edward L. CahnCreature With The Atom Brain: It should certainly stimulate YOUR amygdalae

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsPerhaps no other actor of the late 1940s throughout the ‘50s squared off against as many sci-fi monstrosities on screen as Poughkeepsie, NY-born Richard Denning. In 1948’s Unknown Island, Denning battled a T. rex and other prehistoric nightmares; in Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), he grappled with the most famous amphibian in cinema history; in Target Earth (also from ’54), his problem was invading aliens and a humongous, lumbering robot; in The Day the World Ended (1955), it was a marauding mutant; and in 1957’s The Black Scorpion, it was giant arachnids in a Mexican volcano. But 1954’s “Gillman” was not the only title “creature” that Denning had to face, of course. In 1955’s Creature With the Atom Brain (released in July of that year as part of a truly awesome double feature, paired with It Came From Beneath the Sea), the handsome, blonde, sci-fi stalwart was faced with one of his most bizarre menaces yet: remote-controlled cadavers, animated by atomic energies, that are being used by an ex-crime boss to eliminate his old enemies; a menace that almost makes dinosaurs and giant bugs seem pedestrian!

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In the film, Denning plays Dr. Chet Walker, the head of the police lab in a large metropolitan city. Chet’s latest case is a baffling one: a string of murders perpetrated by a killer who leaves luminous fingerprints, whose blood traces show no hemoglobin content, who is seemingly impervious to bullets and who deposits a radioactive residue wherever he walks. His investigation turns even more baffling when a fingerprint analysis reveals the killers (yes, there are apparently more than one!) to be dead men; corpses that had disappeared from the local morgue! Meanwhile, in a lead-shielded house on the outskirts of the city, the viewer is allowed to see just what is going on: Deported criminal Frank Buchanan (nicely portrayed by Michael Granger) has snuck back into the country, bringing with him a new accomplice, German scientist Dr. Willhelm Steigg (Gregory Gaye). Using Steigg’s remote-controlled, atomic-activated corpses (“You may be a crackpot but you’re also a genius,” the mobster tells him), Buchanan is systematically eliminating all his old enemies… and some new ones, as well. And Chet, it would seem, has just risen to the top of that list…

An “entertainingly preposterous concoction,” says Glenn Kay, writing about the film in his wonderful reference guide Zombie Movies, and that certainly is the case here. But the film is also surprisingly intelligent and well acted, at times coming off like a film noirish policier crossed with a way-out, Saturday matinée sci-fi thriller. In truth, the film reminds this viewer of one of those old Emma Peel/Avengers episodes — such as “The Cybernauts,” “From Venus With Love,” “The Winged Avenger” and “The Positive Negative Man” — in which a madman concocts some diabolical means of offing his foes, and we see a series of attacks that take up the bulk of the hour (in the film’s case, 69 minutes). Creature tries hard to make its outrageous premise more plausible via the use of scientific chatter; hence, we get a statement such as “a dilated solution of hematin; two absorption bands between the Fraunhofer lines,” and references to “somatomotor and visceromotor effects,” “selen cells” and “amygdala stimuli.”

The film is taut and compact, often suspenseful, and builds to a memorable conclusion, as Walker and the police do battle with a horde of the reanimated dead. The zombies here are not of the flesh-eating George A. Romero/Lucio Fulci variety, of course; they are more like remote-controlled robots than gut munchers. Still, they do look pretty impressive, with their suture-stitched foreheads (did I fail to mention the receiving gizmos that Steigg has implanted in their noggins?) and automaton gait. The film also features any number of standout sequences. I love the initial attack, in which we see one of the creatures kill somebody by breaking his back; a scene shown only in shadowed silhouette. Also memorable is the section where Chet’s friend and fellow policeman Capt. Dave Harris (S. John Launer), having been turned into one of the atomic creatures by Buchanan and Steigg, arrives at Chet’s house and talks with his unsuspecting wife (yummy Angela Stevens) and young daughter. And speaking of Chet’s wife, nice to see the two of them enjoying a refreshingly randy and frankly sexual relationship … especially for a ’50s couple!

Other things to admire in the film: some crackerjack direction by Edward L. Cahn (who, over the next four years, would go on to helm such sci-fi and horror favorites as The She-Creature, Zombies of Mora Tau, Voodoo Woman, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Curse of the Faceless Man AND Invisible Invaders, that last boasting a plot similar to Creature’s, with aliens taking over the bodies of the dead), a no-nonsense script from Curt Siodmak, and noirish cinematography by DOP Fred Jackman, Jr. Sadly, the film falters a bit in its final minutes, and for the life of me, after two recent viewings, I cannot figure out how the zombified Harris turns on Buchanan at the end, or what happens to Buchanan during the final melee. And that’s a shame, because for the first 65 minutes or so, the film had been quite lucid and fairly gripping. Still, these two quibbles are hardly reason to dismiss such a fun picture. For the most part, the film is aces, and should prove as stimulating to your cerebellum as a nice jolt of atomic energy…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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