NOT ALTOGETHER OOKY

Boxed-up B-movie 'classics'

Sam Katzman: Icons of Horror Collection / Fox Horror Classics
Studio: Sony / Fox
WorkNameSort: Sam Katzman: Icons of Horror Collection / Fox Horror Classics

B movies always get a worse rap than they deserve from the film intelligentsia. Not B movies like Edgar G. Ulmer’s brilliant shoestring noirs or Budd Boetticher’s visionary Westerns; I’m talking about those “it’s a giant rug but it’s supposed to be a monster” horrors. They’re generally viewed as lowbrow, beneath contempt and ripe for an MST3K revival, but hardly worth a postmodern re-evaluation of their hidden meanings. Sometimes a crude puppet demolishing a model train set is just a crude puppet demolishing a model train set. In truth, B movies are like most “A” pictures – some kick ass, some suck and most are mediocre.

Released just in time for Halloween, the four-film Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman wouldn’t scare a squirrel but does provide laughs and jeers in equal measure. The set proves that not all B pictures are patently trashy while acknowledging that many do live up to their dubious stature.

Even the better ones in the set, Creature With the Atom Brain (1955) and, being generous, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), overstay their welcome, which is kind of pathetic given that none of them runs more than 80 minutes. Still, though many of the films’ pleasures are risible, they are pleasurable nonetheless.

The prolific Katzman, who produced more than 200 movies and serials in his time, had to be aware of the hilarity of Zombies, a supposed horror film that will make you laugh more than most comedies produced today. It’s about a group of selfish scavengers out to steal long-lost diamonds from a cursed island who clash with the zombiefied protectors that watch over the undersea jewels. The cheapness of the special effects makes Roger Corman look like George Lucas, and the disregard for science and nature is interesting to behold: I bet you never knew blowtorches work like a charm underwater!

Creature With the Atom Brain is a step up, creepily justifying with near scientific feasibility its plot of a mad ex-Nazi doctor who rejuvenates and controls corpses by implanting them with atomic brains. It’s the most suspenseful of the collection and the most profoundly sexist, ranking as a fascinating cultural barometer of the time.

The Werewolf (1956), on the other hand, is the pits, a boring and unimaginative police thriller–turned-melodrama that takes itself much too seriously to be enjoyed. The Giant Claw (1957) rounds out the set. The film opens with a great voice-over bellow: “Once the world was big!” The villain, anticipating Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent, is a giant otherworldly bird, wreaking havoc on the world while hoping to colonize Earth by laying eggs. The beast first shows up as a murky black mass spotted out of the windows of jets but unseen on radar screens, leaving our clueless heroes to piece together the mystery. The film is more laugh-inducing than doom-laden; the scenes with the monster are terrific, but less scientific and romantic babble between the human actors would have gone a long way toward maintaining excitement.

In all four films, the acting is uniformly flat; if you’re looking for acting worthy of prestigious theaters, you might want to try the Fox Horror Classics collection instead.

Fox Horror Classics is really a box set of three of director John Brahm’s 1940s films, but he’s not a name that will move units by himself. He was an underrated filmmaker whose German Expressionist background casts glorious chiaroscuro shadows over the included titles, which also provide a showcase for the exacting talents of the short-lived and little-employed actor Laird Cregar.

In his remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Brahm provides Cregar’s imposing form with his most memorable role, as Jack the Ripper, complete with the maniacal heterosexual urges and even a subtle homosexual implication. The director and star re-teamed a couple of years later for Cregar’s final film, Hangover Square, a haunting psychological chiller with Cregar as a composer whose homicidal urges are triggered by dissonant sounds. A virtuosic score by none other than Bernard Herrmann carries this highly original psychological horror film to its infernal, unforgettable end.

It’s the third and earliest film in the collection, The Undying Monster, that best illustrates Brahm’s genius. The title is more sensational than the movie’s intentions. It’s smarter and funnier than most classic horror films; we don’t even see the titular monster until the final five minutes. In the tradition of vintage radio plays, it’s up to the viewer to fill in the gaps in the terror. (It’s no surprise that The Lodger and Hangover Square were turned into radio plays themselves, both of which are available here as special features.) There’s also some camera work that’s still innovative today, like a shot that appears to be planted just behind a fireplace and another using a gaudy lamp to divide two of its characters.

Terrific featurettes on the lives of Brahm and Cregar, and another on the making of The Lodger, make this set a keeper.

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