Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Sep 13, 2021
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Various

Release Date(s)

Various (September 14, 2021)

Studio(s)

Columbia Pictures (Arrow Video)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A-

Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

During the 1950s, producer Sam Katzman was involved in a number of films, from horror to Westerns to science fiction. Four of these films made for Columbia Pictures reflected the Cold War era and the paranoia that it spawned—not unlike many other genre films of the time. Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman collects these films together in a single release. Directed by Edward L. Cahn and Fred F. Sears and released between 1955 and 1957, these low budget creature features by no means reinvent the wheel, but often contain peculiar, even refreshing attributes, and most are considered highlights of the era.

In Creature with the Atom Brain (originally double-billed with It Came from Beneath the Sea), a gangster named Frank gets revenge on the gang members who betrayed him by ratting on him to the police, forcing him to flee the country. While away, he discovers a scientist who has the ability to revive dead bodies with the use of electrical impulses and atomic energy. As such, Frank uses this technology to his advantage, sending superhuman-like corpses to kill those who’ve wronged him one by one. Though initially scoffed at, a police doctor discovers enough clues at the various crime scenes to help him determine exactly what is going on. And if Frank isn’t found and stopped soon, his collection of walking dead men will put more and more people in danger.

In The Werewolf (originally double-billed with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), a man with amnesia wanders into a small town, and after an unpleasant encounter, kills a man and makes for the woods nearby. Upon inspection of the body, the town’s sheriff and doctor conclude that their killer is somehow also a beast. Taking no chances, the sheriff closes the roads while he and his men search for him. Not far away, a scientist and his assistant overhear of what’s happened and head for the small town. Days before, they experimented on the man after pulling him from a car accident, transforming him into a werewolf. They hope to cover their tracks before the police find out, but the man’s wife and young son have also arrived, further complicating matters. Meanwhile, the sheriff is coming around to the idea that this man is not a beast by choice, and that capturing him without hurting him or him hurting anyone else is going to be a tough task.

In Zombies of Mora Tau (originally double-billed with The Man Who Turned to Stone), a group of deep sea divers head to Africa to find a stash of diamonds hidden somewhere under coastal waters. The diamonds were aboard a ship that sank many years before, and is now guarded by its undead crew, which kills anybody that attempts to take it away. One of the wives of the men, now an old woman, stays nearby with her young granddaughter. The divers arrive and learn that many men have come for the diamonds and many have died trying to recover them. Paying no heed, they continue on, but soon learn that the legend is true, facing the choice of either abandoning the diamonds and escaping with their lives, or dying while trying to retrieve them.

In The Giant Claw (originally double-billed with The Night the World Exploded), a radar engineer spots a U.F.O. during a test flight aboard a jet. Though its presumed to be a practical joke at first, the object turns out to be an oversized bird with an anti-matter field around it, presumably from another planet, flying the skies and destroying moving objects in its path. Superstitious locals believe it to be a mythical creature of death. Others are convinced that it comes from another world in order to nest and reproduce. Initial attacks against it are unsuccessful, giving little hope that it can actually be stopped. Scientists, engineers, and the military put their collective minds together in order to come up with a way of bringing the giant bird down before it kills more innocent people.

All of the films in this collection have been provided by Sony Pictures to Arrow Video, meaning that each transfer is not an in-house creation. That said, the preservation team at Sony is one of the best in the world, so what we have is likely the best there is to offer of these films on Blu-ray.

Creature with the Atom Brain is a spectacular black-and-white presentation. Moderate to heavy grain is on display, though it’s handled well. Solid blacks and shades of gray and white are distinct and sharply defined. The image is stable and mostly clean outside of a random scratch or minor bit of debris here or there. Softness from a transition or a really poor optical pops up occasionally, but the rest of the presentation is otherwise organic and clear.

The Werewolf appears to have been pieced together from different elements. At times, the presentation is clean and sharp with good delineation. At other times, it’s softer with crushed blacks, meaning that prints might have been sourced. There’s also frequent leftover damage, including streaking, lines, speckling, and flicker. However, it’s far from unwatchable. It’s certainly a step up from previous home video releases. The majority of the presentation is otherwise clear and stable.

Zombies of Mora Tau offers one of the best transfers thus far. Delineation is excellent, blacks are solid, and grayscale is near perfect. The only real visual flaws lie within the stock footage, of which there’s very little. There’s also a few faint lines running through certain shots, which are also infrequent. Moderate grain levels are even throughout and the image is stable and clean. Only transitional moments are soft. A beautiful presentation, overall.

The Giant Claw is also a nice presentation. It’s labored with a large amount of stock footage, which is obviously not up to par with the rest of the footage. However, the rest is solid with little to no visible flaws. Delineation is good and grain is managed well, a bit heavier in the stock footage, of course. Blacks are solid with good shadow detail and grayscale is excellent. Extremely mild speckling pops up from time to time, but it’s an otherwise nice representation of its source material.

All four films feature audio tracks in English mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. They’re not quite as flat as one might expect. The score and sound effects have a surprising amount of heft to them at times. Dialogue exchanges are clear and precise, though overdubbed lines do stand out on occasion. Outside of a minor bit of hiss, most of the tracks are clean and offer good fidelity.

CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/A-/B+
THE WEREWOLF (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B/B+
ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/A-/B+
THE GIANT CLAW (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D-/B+/B+

The following extras are included on each disc, all of them in HD:

DISC ONE: CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN

  • Optional Introduction by Kim Newman (8:33)
  • Audio Commentary with Russell Dyball
  • Sam Katzman: Before & Beyond the Cold War Creatures (73:57)
  • Super 8 Version (19:27)
  • Trailer (2:11)
  • Image Gallery (27 in all)

Kim Newman optionally introduces the film, giving us a brief background on the types of films that were made during the Cold War era. Pop culture historian Russell Dyball takes up audio commentary duties. As he watches the film, he discusses various facets, big and small, about the film’s cast, crew, story, and its pros and cons. He also analyzes the film’s visuals, its producer, and its place within the Cold War era of movies. It’s a solid track, entertaining and informative. In Before & Beyond the Cold War Creatures, film historian and critic Stephen R. Bissette provides an old-fashioned slideshow presentation and an extended talk about Sam Katzman, his career, and the films he produced right up until his death. It’s incredibly insightful as it’s loaded with information, but also showcases many posters, pressbooks, newspaper clippings, and various other pieces of promotion for various films and serials. The Super 8 version of the film is less than twenty minutes and speeds through the story pretty efficiently. Also included are the film’s trailer and an image gallery featuring 27 publicity photos. The disc is housed in a thin, clear amaray case with double-sided artwork, new artwork on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the reverse. Within the case is a double-sided poster featuring new artwork for this film on one side and new artwork for The Werewolf on the other, as well as three lobby card reproductions.

DISC TWO: THE WEREWOLF

  • Optional Introduction by Kim Newman (13:55)
  • Audio Commentary with Lee Gambin
  • Beyond Window Dressing (23:35)
  • Super 8 Version (7:33)
  • Trailer (1:57)
  • Image Gallery (14 in all)

Kim Newman optionally introduces the film, discussing director Fred F. Sears, his work in Westerns, and how he handled working on science fiction and horror films. In author and film historian Lee Gambin’s audio commentary, he delves into the film’s place within the werewolf genre, as well as its Cold War thematics. He also discusses various aspects of the film, including its choice of aesthetics and camera angles, and the assorted shades to the film’s characters. It’s definitely more of an intellectual commentary. In Beyond Window Dressing, critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a visual essay that delves into the gender politics of Sam Katzman’s films. The Super 8 version of the film is less than eight minutes long. Also included are the film’s trailer and an image gallery featuring 14 publicity photos. The disc is housed in a thin, clear amaray case with double-sided artwork featuring new artwork on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the reverse. Within the case is a double-sided poster featuring new artwork for Zombies of Mora Tau on one side and new artwork for The Giant Claw on the other, as well as three lobby card reproductions.

DISC THREE: ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU

  • Optional Introduction by Kim Newman (7:35)
  • Audio Commentary with Kat Ellinger
  • Atomic Terror: Genre in Transformation (19:48)
  • Trailer (1:55)
  • Image Gallery (29 in all)

Kim Newman optionally introduces the film, discussing the film’s place within zombie film lore. In the audio commentary with writer and critic Kat Ellinger, she discusses many of the film’s positive aspects, as well as its historical trappings within various genres. She also talks about members of the cast and crew, as well as Sam Katzman, and makes comparisons to American Gothic-laden works and other zombie films. Atomic Terror is a visual essay by Josh Hurtado in which he examines how horror films evolved in the 1950s, specifically the films produced under Sam Katzman. Also included are the film’s trailer and an image gallery featuring 29 publicity photos. The disc is housed in a thin, clear amaray case with double-sided artwork featuring new artwork on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the reverse. Within the case are three lobby card reproductions.

DISC FOUR: THE GIANT CLAW

  • Optional Introduction by Kim Newman (12:27)
  • Audio Commentary with Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard
  • Family Endangered! (12:51)
  • Super 8 Version (6:29)
  • Trailer (2:03)
  • Image Gallery (23 in all)

Kim Newman optionally introduces the film, speaking about the its varying positive and negative aspects, while also comparing it to other giant monster movies and why it’s generally shunned in the film community. In the audio commentary with author Emma Westwood and critic Cerise Howard, they lovingly and uproariously delve into the history of the film. They provide contextual information while discussing other similar monster movies and various other aspects of the film. Family Endangered! features a visual essay by film critic Mike White, which further examines Sam Katzman’s four films and the Cold War paranoia that influenced them. The Super 8 version of the film is less than seven minutes long. Also included are the film’s trailer and an image gallery featuring 23 publicity photos. The disc is housed in a thin, clear amaray case with double-sided artwork featuring new artwork on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the reverse. Within the case are three lobby card reproductions.

Also included within this package are two booklets. Cold War Creatures: Art is an 80-page booklet with introductions to each film by Stephen R. Bisette and a collection of press materials, including publicity photos, posters, and lobby cards. Cold War Creatures: The Essays is a 60-page booklet containing cast and crew information about each film, 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, Turkey in the Sky! The Appealing Legacy of The Giant Claw by Jackson Cooper, transfer information, and production credits. Everything is housed within sturdy slipcase packaging with new artwork by Matt Griffin, who is responsible for all of the new artworks associated with this release.

For monster movie fans who have yet delve into these films, these are four fascinating and entertaining slices of genre cinema. They are definitely not all created equal, but there’s something for everyone in this boxed set. In short, Cold War Creatures offers great presentations and excellent extras in an attractive package, making it a must for collectors.

- Tim Salmons

(You can follow Tim on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook. And be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel here.)

 

Tags

1955, 1956, 1957, Aaron Stell, Allison Hayes, Angela Stevens, Anthony Dimarco, Arrow Video, atomic radiation, Autumn Russell, Barry Forshaw, Benjamin H Kline, Bernard Gordon, black and white, black-and-white, Blu-ray, Blu-ray Disc, box set, boxed set, boxset, Cerise Howard, Charles Evans, Charles Horvath, Clark Howat, Clover Productions, Cold War, Cold War Creatures, Cold War Creatures Four Films from Sam Katzman, Columbia Pictures, Creature with the Atom Brain, Curt Siodmak, Don Megowan, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Edgar Barrier, Edward L Cahn, Edward Linden, Eleanore Tanin, Emma Westwood, Frank Griffin, Fred F Sears, Fred Jackman Jr, Gene Roth, George Cisar, George H Plympton, George Lynn, George Plympton, Gregg Palmer, Gregory Gay, Gregory Gaye, Harold White, Harry Lauter, horror, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Jack Ogilvie, Jackson Cooper, James B Gordon, James Gavin, Jeff Morrow, Joel Ashley, Jon Towlson, Josh Hurtado, Joyce Holden, Karl Davis, Karl Killer Davis, Kat Ellinger, Ken Christy, Kim Charney, Kim Newman, Lane Chandler, Larry J Blake, Laura Drazin Boyes, Lee Gambin, Leonard Geer, Leonard P Geer, Linda Bennett, Lou Merrill, Louis D Merrill, Mara Corday, Marjorie Eaton, Matt Griffin, Michael Granger, Mike White, monster, monster movie, monster movies, monsters, Morgan Jones, Morris Ankrum, Neil Mitchell, Paul Gangelin, Pierre Watkin, Raymond T Marcus, review, Richard Denning, Richard H Cutting, Robert E Kent, Robert Shayne, Ruell Shayne, Russell Dyball, S John Launer, Sam Katzman, Sam Katzman Productions, Samuel Newman, Saul A Goodkind, sci-fi, science fiction, Stephen R Bissette, Steven Ritch, The Dead That Walk, The Digital Bits, The Giant Claw, The Man Who Turned to Stone, The Mark of the Claw, The Night the World Exploded, Tim Salmons, Tristram Coffin, werewolf, werewolves, William Baskin, zombie, zombies, Zombies of Mora Tau

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