MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955)
After the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1946, the public had itself a brand new source of boundless awe and wonder—the ATOM. To capitalize on this, filmmakers began to work the concept into their science fiction films (usually of the B-variety). By the mid-1950s, there were so many films that had worked atoms and ATOMIC RAYS into their plot, it seemed the nasty little buggers could do pretty much anything.
Need a monster for your movie? No problem—ATOMIC RAYS can morph the most mild mannered of men into any manner of maniacal mutant! Looking for a super huge version of something small? ATOMIC RAYS can make giants of men, women, ants, lizards, tarantulas, preying mantises and much, much more! All out of gypsy curses? Fret not, because believe it or not, those wonderful ATOMIC RAYS can make werewolves too. And lest you think that’s the only classic monster the Atom Age can reproduce, think again!
New for 1955… here comes the ATOMIC ZOMBIE!
But enough of that…
CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN was directed by world-class budget stretcher, Edward L. Cahn—a man who would go on to be responsible for such schlocky “classics” as THE SHE-CREATURE (1956), INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) and the voodoo-fabulous, THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959).
The movie begins with a simple heartbeat. For a few seconds we hear it beat until the picture fades onto a darkened street, where a distant silhouette of a man, shambles toward us. And, with a blare of brass and swagger, the title card slams us in the face.: CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN!
As the credits roll, the shamble-man marches toward closer to the camera. He moves slowly, with all the majestic gate of an emperor penguin—until at last, a face is brought into view. The expression is a blank. Hollow, devoid of emotion and still he comes. The shamble-man stares through the glassy, unseeing eyes of a somnambulist, leaving little doubt that something is undeniably rotten in the state of Denmark.
Arriving in the very next scene, the man pauses before a great, sprawling mansion. The house is neither old nor dark, but rather the swanky sort of joint where gamblers are want to gamble in pinstripe suits. Again, the camera shows us the face of the shamble-man as he stares blankly at the mansion. Now we can see something we couldn’t before. There is a most peculiar line of stitches going across the man’s forehead, horizontally bisecting his skull.
Inside the mansion, an important-looking man by the name of Hennessy accepts a leather bag full of what is apparently “the night’s take”—20 large, according to a second, subordinate man. Looking moderately pleased, Hennessy accepts the bag and proceeds to transfer the haul to a hidden wall safe. Back outside, the shamble-man has started moving again. Shuffling ever closer to the mansion’s nearest window—but that’s not the really strange bit. What’s REALLY odd are the two men in the knock-off Frankenstein lab who appear to be watching a live feed of what the guy is seeing!
ATOMS, man. They are the MOST.
Lab Guy #1 lifts a microphone to his lips, but the camera cuts away before we hear him speak. But that’s okay, because back at the mansion, all heck is breaking loose! Bars of an iron fence bend as if they were mere props! Then our shambling buddy makes short work of the window via a fierce double-high-five!
“I told you I’d come back.” Drones the shamble-man as he moves the final handful of steps towards his prey.
Understandably shaken up, Hennessy scrambles to figure out what’s going on. Then, producing a pistol, he fires! Again and again at the shambling interloper, hitting him at point blank range! That’s when Hennessey’s eyes go wide with terrible understanding. Bullets aren’t going to save him. Not this time.
Despite just being shot multiple times, the shamble-man lifts Hennessey up into the air, then snaps his spine like a raw carrot! We only glimpse the act via silhouettes on a far wall, though it is no less gruesome. Almost at once, Hennessey’s men appear, firing on all cylinders—but they are too late. His work done, the shamble-man turns to leave, as hot bullets assault his backside. Bullets he seems to notice about as much as those Hennessey fired himself. Once outside, we are get our second glimpse of the two creeps in the Frankenstein lab. Pleased with another success, they order their ATOMIC ZOMBIE home.
We learn that Lab Guy #1 is Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger THE BIG HEAT, 1953) a gangster-type who’s heck-bent on getting revenge on a bunch of stoolies that sent him up the river. Frank was the one holding the microphone and clearly it was his soulful tones we heard pass the shamble-man’s lips in the previous scene.
Maybe they installed a speaker, too?
Lab Guy #2 is an older, mad-scientist sort—German because, is there any other kind? The thing about Dr. Steigg (Gregory Gaye) is, he seems to be toiling under protest. He clearly isn’t happy about gangster Frank warping his life’s work for his own dark purposes—although, to be fair, he doesn’t appear to be losing any sleep over the whole mess, either. Here’s where we get a healthy dose of exposition, explaining most of what is really going on.
For those not paying attention, what is going on is ATOMIC ZOMBIES.
Apparently, Dr. Steigg has discovered a way of creating unstoppable “creatures.” Creatures with “atom brains,” whatever that means. Fortunately for the sociopathic Frank Buchanan, though, these undead gofers work cheap and never sleep. But they only live for a couple of days before going profoundly to pot. Thank goodness there happens to be a morgue nearby—one ripe for the plundering.
Back at the scene of the crime, Hennessey’s mansion is crawling with coppers! Chief among them is the hero of the picture, Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, 1954). Dr. Chet seems more than a little puzzled at first, but there’s a reason he’s a doctor AND a cop. Having spotted something, he asks that the lights be turned out. And no sooner is the odd request acquiesced to, than do Chet’s motives become plain. There are fingerprints on the window sill—glowing fingerprints. Fingerprints that we will later learn are, make no mistake, RADIOACTIVE!
As the film goes on, Dr. Chet uncovers more strange clues which take him step by step, closer to uncovering the truth. About gangster Frank Buchanan’s secret return from Europe and his new hobby of knocking off his old friends via ATOMIC ZOMBIE. Everything builds pretty steadily and predictably—that is, until the tragic death of a major character causes all expectations to be thrown out the window!
I have to say, I have seen a lot of these kinds of movies over the years and it is pretty rare that a member of the principle cast would actually get knocked off. When it happened here, I admit to being not only shocked, but legitimately sad about it.
Silly? Probably, but I still think it was worth mentioning. After all, caring about the character’s well-being (even a little) means the creators of said characters knew what they were doing.
Overall… CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN is a fun little picture. Its science is extra pseudoey, but that’s half the fun. I look at it this way… B-pictures can be many things: bizarre, goofy, cheap-looking, inanely plotted, poorly acted, etc. In order for them to be entertaining, though, the one thing a B-picture must never be is dull.
Any movie that’s climax features a twelve-piece ATOMIC ZOMBIE BRAWL can rest easy on that score.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson