Movie: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

1955’s Creature with the Atom Brain is a curiosity.  I thought I was just getting a typical 1950’s sci-fi b-movie.  Instead, I got a weird mix of horror, sci-fi and noir.  It especially feels like the last of those, as much of its focus is on police detectives investigating crimes committed by a gang leader who had been deported.  Maybe the creative team behind this just wanted to cover as many b-movie genres as they could, while still being unable to work in “western”.

I seriously and unironically liked this movie, though it is really easy to take potshots at it.  I mean, just look at that title.  “Atomic Brain” would have been OK, but “atom” makes it sound like the creature has a very tiny brain.

Michael Granger plays a deported gangster who has snuck back into the country.  He’s brought with him a German doctor played by Gregory Gaye.  Naturally, in this type of movie, you can assume “German” means “Nazi in hiding”.

These two use radiation to reanimate corpses.  They can then remotely control these radioactive zombies to kill the many nemeses of Granger.  On a monitor, they can see through the remote-controlled assassin’s eyes.  They can also talk through a speaker implanted in the zombie’s throat.

So each victim is shocked to see somebody they don’t know clumsily approaching them, usually by breaking through a window.  Then, before their death, the victim is told this is to avenge Granger’s deportation.  One creepy line that made me pay attention: “I said I would live to see you die.  I am watching you now.”  But none of the zombies burst through a wall like Kool-Aid Man, while the speaker in their throat goes, “OH YEAH!!!”  So that was a missed opportunity.

The first zombie does, however, take numerous gunshots to the back as he is going back out through the window.  I was very surprised to see squibs used for this.  IMDB says this is the first feature to do so, and I’m going to take their word for it.

When the mission is complete, Granger barks orders into the CB handset he uses to talk to, and talk through, the zombies.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the undead minion keeps repeating what the villain says, even when it is only directions, like “GO TO THE CAR!  GO TO THE CAR!”.  I like the think the minion is stuck repeating anything Granger says, so you have somebody stumbling around like a toddler and yelling, “GO TO THE CAR!”  It would be like an actor accidentally reading stage directions as dialog.

Richard Denning and S. John Launer play the detectives on the case.  After the first murder, they discover the fingerprints are blood drops left behind by the attacker are luminous.  Lab analysis shows there isn’t any hemoglobin in the highly-radioactive “blood”.  Doing a fingerprint search reveals they belong to a man who died 24 days earlier.

Pretty soon, bodies are disappearing from the morgue and more of these seemingly unrelated killings are happening all over the city.  As Denning notes after the second murder, the victims so far have been a crime lord and a district attorney, two people who are enemies by profession.

I liked the premise of this movie, but what I enjoyed most in it is the interaction between the characters.  There’s a rapport between the detectives that makes them enjoyable to watch whenever they’re on screen.  Even the other characters observe the close friendship of the men.  When Denning’s daughter asks Launer why he never married, Angela Stevens (playing Denning’s wife) says “That would make him a bigamist.  He’s already married to your father.”

There’s some surprisingly funny dialog between Denning and Stevens.  Nothing that will one day be chronicled in Bartlett’s, but it is better than what this type of fare requires.  Such as when he says of the zombies, “I don’t think they’ve gotten around to indiscriminate killings yet” and she says, “YET?!” 

I was surprised by how disappointed I was when Launer gets killed and reanimated.  Even more surprising is this bit of humor when he shows up his partner’s house talking robotically and Stevens chides him.  “Why so formal? [robot voice] ‘I am Captain Davis, homicide’.”

One aspect of this plot development that is deeply ridiculous is nobody notices a huge horizonal scar across undead Launer’s forehead.  Even with a hat on, it is an inch or two before the brim.  Denning must not be much of a detective, if he doesn’t have the observational skills to notice that scar. 

Launer ends up providing an unexpected benefit for Denning’s investigation when the zombie starts back to return to the villain’s lab.  I’m not sure how he gets there in one piece, as he makes his exit from a room via a window that appears to be several stories up.  But it is awfully convenient to be able to simply follow what is essentially a homing zombie.

And now a quick round-up of random elements I liked in this.  The X-rays of Launer’s head showing a circuit diagram covering his brain.  I found these images to be weirdly beautiful.  Also, there was a lot of intriguing and unexpected artwork in the office of the first guy who gets killed.  I covet all of it, including an Easter Island head statuette.

Creature with the Atom Brain is fun and interesting throughout its brief runtime.  It is solid proof there can be more pure enjoyment found in some B-movies than most fare produced on a significantly larger budget.

Dir: Edward L. Cahn

Starring Richard Denning, S. John Launer, Angela Stevens

Watched as part of Arrow Video’s Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman blu-ray box set