Sam Katzman got his start in the movies working as a stage laborer in the early 1920s. He moved up quickly becoming an assistant director at Fox and then a producer in the 1930s. He became one of the most prolific producers in early Hollywood history. IMDB lists some 239 films under his name as a producer. Unless you are an enormous film buff, you probably haven’t heard of any of them. He specialized in low-budget genre pictures – westerns, sci-fi films, horror movies, Superman shorts, etc. But he had a gift for making money. His films didn’t win a lot of awards, but he had his finger on the pulse. He knew what would sell and he made them well for very little money. Arrow Video has just released a lovely little boxed set of four of his sci-fi/horror films aptly titled Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman and it is fantastic.
While watching these movies, I kept thinking about how if similar movies were made today in 2021 with similarly low budgets, ridiculous plot lines, and less than stellar acting I most likely would hate the films. Yet I absolutely adored these movies. The question, then, is why? Certainly part of the answer is the time frame. It is easier to forgive a film’s shortcoming when it was made some 70 years ago. This is especially true of creature features from the 1950s. You expect those films to be a little creaky around the edges. But I’d argue that the craftsmanship of these films is actually quite good. I won’t argue these films were made by artists or auteurs, but there is still skill aplenty to be had in the making of them.
Take the giant, alien bird with an anti-matter shield that shows up in The Giant Claw (1957) for example. It does not in any way, shape, form, or fashion look realistic. There is nobody, no matter the age of intelligence, that watches that bird in that film and believes it to be anything other than a puppet made in a workshop. You can see the seams, and the literal strings. But that doesn’t matter in the least. It is still a cool-looking prop and you can tell that it was made by someone who knew what they were doing and took their time to make the best damn bird they could with the limited supplies and budget they had before them.
The Giant Claw makes great use of that giant bird, giving us several wonderful scenes of it attacking planes and gobbling up men as they try to parachute to safety. All of which goes a long way into making it my favorite film out of this collection. Even my least favorite, The Werewolf (1956) has its moments. The wolf makeup is pretty wild and the transition from man to wolf is well done. Unlike most werewolf films in which a man becomes the howling beast through being bitten by another werewolf here the explanation is purely scientific – the man is injected with an experimental irradiated serum by a couple of mad scientists.
There is more to these films than basic technical proficiency. Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) creates a creepy atmosphere with shadows and light, and a terrific set. These are pre-Romero zombies so they aren’t mindlessly looking for brains to eat but are rather filled with super strength and much like the ghosts in haunted house films became the walking dead because their spirits are at unrest. Strangely, that unrest comes from people trying to steal their diamonds.
Radiation, atomic power, anti-matter, and other such scientific hokum are at the heart of most of these films. It is well known that fears stemming from the end of World War II, the beginning of the Nuclear Age, and the rise of communism fueled horror and science fiction films all through the 1950s. So it is in these films, especially Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) in which the recently deceased have their brains implanted with electrodes and are charged by atomic energy. The mad scientist in this one is a Nazi and in cahoots with a gangster who controls the atomic zombies by remote control sending them out on revenge missions. That’s a plot only the 1950s could create.
I admit I laughed a little when the Zombies of Mora Tau showed up and were literally just dudes walking a little stiffly with some seaweed thrown on them, or how the Creatures with the atom brains were just regular people with a little scar make-up added to their scalps. At least the Werewolf was covered in fur. But for the most part, these films were made by people who knew what they were doing. I think that’s a major part of the difference between a bad-bad movie and a good-bad movie. When you watch a film by Ed Wood or Uwe Boll, you know you’re watching a terrible film from just about every conceivable standpoint. But films like the ones in this set are clearly not great cinema, but they are competently made and lots of fun.
Sam Katzman once said, “Lord knows I’ll never make an Academy Award movie, but then I am just so happy to get my achievement plaques from the bank every year.” and that feels about right for these films. The four films included in this set will not be mistaken for the greatest films of all time, they won’t be recognized for their artistic achievement. But they are well crafted, made with love, and a whole lot of fun to watch.
Arrow Video has once again done a wonderful job with this set. The four films come inside a beautiful-looking cardboard box. They each come with recreated lobby cards, and a double-sided poster. There is a 60-page illustrated book with essays on each of the films plus another 80-page book filled with artwork and stills from the movies. Each film comes with (a rather wordy) introduction from Kim Newman, audio commentaries, visual essays, trailers and image galleries. It is a treasure trove of extras making this set a must-buy.