Monday, October 7, 2013

Creature with the Atom Brain

Before the start of October, TCM had been running some of those B-level science fiction movies from the 1950s and early 1960s just before whatever movie series they were going through at the end of Saturday mornings: the scifi would come on around 9:00 or 9:30, with the series usually being a 10:45 AM movie designed to let the afternoon lineup begin right at noon. In October TCM is putting in some more Hammer horror films in the late morning Saturday slot. It's not quite my thing, but it is October, and I'm sure there are a lot of folks out there who do like Hammer horror films more than I do. Anyhow, the last of the 1950s sci-fi movies in September was Creature With the Atom Brain, which is available on DVD.

The movie starts off with a man shuffling along a tree-lined street, eventually coming up to the window of a house. Inside, a gangster is talking with one of his underlings, and counting out the night's winnings. The man on the outside breaks the window, and climbs right into the house! He then says that he's "from Buchanan", which is supposed to mean something to the gangster who is obviously in mortal danger, before using his new-found superhuman strength -- bullets don't even affect him -- to break the gangster in two. It's not quite Zachary Scott getting shot at the beginning of Mildred Pierce, but it's still a fun way to open a movie.

But there's more to the opening than that. We also see that somebody is watching all of the above murder on a TV screen someplace, and has been speaking into one of those intercom-type microphones that are a staple of the police in movies back in those days, telling the murderer where to go and what to do! This guy is Buchanan (Michael Granger), and he's got a Dr. Steigg (Gregory Gay), a German doctor whose relationship with the Nazis is never fully explained, with him. What are they doing?

Well, let's go back to the crime scene. The police are brought in to investigate, in the form of forensic scientist Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning), who has a wife Joyce (Angela Stevens) and daughter Penny, but he's really more married to his job. He's constantally being called upon at hom by Captain Dave Harris (John Launer), to the point that Penny refers to the captain as Uncle Dave. Anyhow, they go off and investigate the crime scene, and one clue is a radioactive fingerprint left on the window sill. Surprisingly, when the run the fingerprint check, they find it was left by a man who's been dead for three weeks!

Things get more interesting when there's a second murder, of a former assistand DA, and the investigators find things in common between the two murders. Eventually, it leads Dr. Walker to an astounding conclusion: the murders are being committed by people who are technically dead, but are being kept alive by some sort of electric stimulation that involves radioactivity in some way. (Being shown stock footage of a dog with electrodes attached to its brain doing what its master tells it to do will help you come to that conclusion.) Or to put it in a way the general public can understand, an army of murderous zombies mught be on the loose!

It's amazing to think that the cops' first hypothesis might be right, but then the movie only runs about 70 minutes so there's not much time for them to get things wrong. It turns out that Buchanan and Steigg are taking dead bodies and using a combination of radiation and electrodes to the brain to turn the dead bodies into these zombified contract killers. Of course, we viewers already sort of knew this, since we've been shown scenes of Dr. Steigg doing his experiments in one of those laboratories that looks like it could have come out of a 1930s horror movie what with all those dials and the massive amount of electricity required.

That's about all you really need to know of the plot to get what this movie is about, even though I've only gotten through about the first half of the movie. The second half is a race between the police and the bad guys using an increasing number of zombie killers, climaxing in a scene outside the house turned into a laboratory with several zombies who are bulletproof, and an army of cops/military. You'd think the zombies would actually kill several of the cops in this climax, based on the way the fight is staged, but that doesn't seem to happen.

Creature With the Atom Brain has a lot of problems such as the lack of continuity in the climax, as well as a bunch of nonsense science. In order to find the source of the radiation, Dr. Walker gets a bunch of jets from the nearby military base scrambled to do a quick search overhead, which is obviously done only so the filmmakers could use more stock footage to pad out the plot. There's also no reason to panic the people by referring to these radioactive zombie killers. Especially since the cops have good reason to believe (rightly, as it turns out), that there's a set of specific nameable murder targets, not the general population. But really -- jets flying that fast can find a pinpoint source? At least use helicopters. To be honest though, in a movie like this, you're not supposed to worry about all the continuity problems and the bad science. Just sit back and be entertained. And this movie is very successful in that regard. In addition to the previously mentioned stock footage, there's also a great scene in which Penny realizes there's something wrong with "Uncle" Dave, who responds by tearing her little dolly to smithereens.

Creature With the Atom Brain may be dumb, but damn if it isn't a hell of a lot of fun. As I said at the beginning, it's available on DVD, and still in print, since you can get it from the TCM Shop too.

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