Creature with the Atom Brain /
It Came from Beneath the Sea /
20 Million Miles to Earth /
The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 21, 2023/MILL CREEK ENTERTAINMENT
The massive octopus tentacle comes down and uncurls, culminating with a huge, ground-rattling thud! A lobotomized homicidal corpse smashes through a window, crash! A rampaging reptile monster from Venus pushes an elephant onto a couple of rifle-toting guys, shmoosh! A supercomputer works to problem-solve the plight of a thirty-foot-tall woman- whirrrrrrr!
All these telltale sounds, and more, can be heard emanating from that big, radioactive, and sometimes absurd film vault housed out in space. Specifically, they’re the sounds of Sci-Fi from the Vault– as explored by Mill Creek Entertainment! While there’s a lot that is encouraging about this release, it is not without technical shortcomings. In this piece, I’ll review each of the four included films, as well as all the bonus features that Mill Creek has provided. Venture forth, curious one…
Creature with the Atom Brain
DIRECTED BY EDWARD L. CAHN/1955
A question for the experts… if the creatures in a movie are just normal looking guys with only scars across their foreheads, is it still a “creature feature?” Because that’s exactly the case with the ominous walking dead minions of 1955’s bargain-basement cheapie, Creature with the Atom Brain.
Well, technically speaking, fresh stitching holes are also visible, running above and below the span of the scars. But still, this is a movie that dares to brand its few lumbering, rather ordinary looking zombie killers as “creatures”. The good news is that it absolutely gets away with it. Director Edward L. Cahn, utilizing a screenplay by the great Curt Siodmak, ekes out a darn fine little 1950s monster movie, ludicrous concept, and all.
Cahn (Invisible Invaders) demonstrates throughout that he’s as good with a subtle accentuating camera move as he is with stock footage insertion. Which is perhaps to be expected, considering his background as a prominent cutter in the silent era. (On his editing resume: 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front and 1928’s The Man Who Laughs). Cahn somehow manages to cultivate a surprisingly effective thriller, going to some real anxiety-generating places. A lot can get messy when the story hinges on a vengeance-obsessed madman and his retained ex-Nazi scientist re-animating the dead to do their dastardly bidding. And rest assured, it does.
Beyond the obligatory freakish craziness of the plot, another notable aspect of this film is the surprisingly randy relationship depicted between our lead character (Richard Denning) and his dotingly domestic wife (Angela Stevens). Although everything around them is totally Leave it to Beaver 1950s suburban (a nice little daughter, a perfect lawn, nothing out of place ever in any way), there they are considering having loud relations in their bedroom with Denning’s single male work partner waiting in the other room. Well!
According to the knowledgeable scholarly sources found elsewhere on this Blu-ray, Creature with the Atom Brain was released as part of a theatrical double feature with It Came from Beneath the Sea; a pairing resumed on disc one of this very set. Of the two, I have to give the nod to this clunky-titled macabre morsel. But don’t just take my word for it! Check the film’s official tagline… “Terror true to science, based on laboratory experiments described in national magazines!” Oooooo!
It Came from Beneath the Sea
DIRECTED BY ROBERT GORDON/1955
Sentimentality runs high for anything bearing the name “Ray Harryhausen” in the credits. This is for good reason, as Harryhausen was the preeminent stop-motion effects man-turned-magician for generations of wide-eyed moviegoers. In too many instances, it’s for his work and his work alone that movies like It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) will always live on.
Which is to put a positive spin on the fact that all too often, the rest of the movies in and around the nifty Harryhausen moments are usually… not good. Lots of blank, so-so actors (sorry, Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue) going through the motions of transparent drama and monster-related problem solving. This is entirely true of It Came from Beneath the Sea, as directed in straightforward “Git’er done!” mode by Robert Gordon. Gordon, like any reasonable director of a film hinging on Harryhausen effects, understood that it’s ultimately all about the creature(s). In this case, it’s a giant octopus, albeit one with only six tentacles. (So then… a hexapus?) Thank producer Sam Katzman’s budgetary restrictions for that.
Anyhow, it’s the 1950s, so if a giant creature is discovered, it must be destroyed. That’s the whole purpose of all the film’s characters, side characters, and random Navy extras alike. In their defense, the creature is working its way towards a full-on San Francisco Bay rampage. I remember when I was little, I asked my mom if she liked monster movies. “Oh, no”, she said. (And this me paraphrasing the story…) “When I was a child, I remember being taken to some movie where a giant octopus came up out of the water, wrapped its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge, and yanked it down into the water. It was terrifying.” I imagined some sort of horror incarnate. I guess you had to be there? Anyhow, my mom’s seen It Came from Beneath the Sea. That’s weirder than anything in the movie itself.
20 Million Miles to Earth
DIRECTED BY NATHAN JURAN/1957
Greater in every way is 1957’s 20 Million Miles to Earth, the other Ray Harryhausen classic to be included in this set. The story once again is no great shakes, but if you’re watching a Harryhausen films for the story, you’re going about it all wrong. To get this aspect covered and out of the way: the U.S. has secretly sent a really cool-looking manned rocket to planet Venus and back. Unfortunately, of the seventeen-member crew, only the captain (William Hopper) survives the crash landing in the ocean near Italy.
Also survived is the ship’s living souvenir, a ferocious, scaly creature that walks upright and is none too thrilled to wake up on another planet. It gets its revenge when Earth’s atmosphere enables it to grow to multiple times its original size. There are two phenomenal stop-motion Harryhausen set pieces/creature confrontations, one in a barn and the other in the Rome Zoo. In the latter sequence, the beast from space does battle with an irate elephant. (Spoiler/sensitivity alert: whenever the monster squares off with an Earth animal, the animal doesn’t do so well. Poor elephant; poor doggie).
Director Nathan Juran clearly “gets it” and is obviously far more simpatico with Harryhausen than It Came from Beneath the Sea’s director, Robert Gordon. This is evidenced not only by the level of care put into the live-action interaction with the animated maquettes, but also in how the film doesn’t drop dead in its tracks wherever there isn’t any stop-motion going on.
One doesn’t need to look to look too closely to see that here, Harryhausen was able to imbue our reptilian star with personality- something the hexapus of It Came From Beneath the Sea was never able to demonstrate. Body language and facial expression go a long way, and here, even in this relatively early phase, we see why Harryhausen was the master in his time. It’s true that the creature’s personality isn’t exact complex. But then, (to kinda reiterate) if it’s complexity you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong place. Still, the King Kong-esque finale, in which the army finds itself in an armed showdown with the beast who’s atop the Colosseum, resonates. Notions of the aggressions of the modern day blasting away at the ancient gathering ground of executions and gladiatorial spectacle in an effort to kill something that is different might not be simple coincidence. All the while, 20 Million Miles to Earth, even with its misleading and inaccurate title (the whole story is Earthbound, and Venus, even at its closest, is always quite further than 20 million miles away), is an absolutely ideal weekend afternoon movie.
The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock
DIRECTED BY SIDNEY MILLER/1959
Whoever chose the four films that make up this fairly odd program of sci-fi seems to understand the progression of any popular genre ends in parody. Consequently, we go out with 1959’s giant lady comedy, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock– the first and only film starring a solo comedian Lou Costello, following his breakup with Bud Abbott.
In it, Costello plays garbage collector and aspiring scientific genius Artie Pinsetter. Artie is a simple man, living alone with his dog, his truck, and his self-aware whirring portable supercomputer, Max the Machine. Artie’s also fixed to marry his sweetheart, Emmy Lou (Dorothy Provine), who also can’t wait to marry him. (Guess she likes older men). Only two problems, one boring, one wacky: Problem #1: Emmy Lou’s uncle is a harrumphing local politician (Gale Gordon, fully committed) who can’t stand frumpy ‘ol Artie. But who cares about that! … (which brings us to Problem #2…) Due to very contrived circumstances, Emmy Lou has somehow grown to thirty feet tall!!! Hubba-hubba, that’s a whole lotta woman!!
The good news is that even in her present form, Artie and Emmy Lou are officially pronounced man and wife. She even manages to fashion a wedding dress out of a parachute that Artie rustles up. The bad news is that the Army discovers her hiding out in the Candy Rock hills. And by now, we know how things go in these Atomic Age sci-fi movies when the Army stumbles onto something abnormal…! Sure enough, it’s up to Artie, with a little help from the quantum-defying Max the Machine.
Like several of the later Abbott and Costello movies, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock is pretty blatant kiddie fare. The weird part is that the poster and whatnot promote the film with saucy illustrations playing up the fact that when Dorothy Provine initially grows big, she’s also nekkid!! (The Candy Rock hills conveniently protect her modesty on screen). The humor, though, is all spastic and overplayed throughout. It’s strange to think that anyone had high hopes for this movie. Inevitably, it did not do well, and director Sidney Miller ended up doing a lot of voice work for animation. As for Lou Costello, he sadly was dead from a heart attack before the movie ever opened.
Being a comedy rooted in a bygone trend in science fiction, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock is, unsurprisingly, the most glaringly dated film of Sci-Fi from the Vault. That’s not a knock, merely a fact. It’s neat to have something this niche preserved here; too bad the movie itself isn’t better. There’s something strained about this film, and I don’t mean the obvious matte effects. The whole thing registers as stranger that it does funny, and I doubt it was much funnier in 1959. It’s Lou Costello in his final film running himself ragged to do right by his giant wife. And if you think him having to give her a shower with a fire hose is something, just wait until she gets hungry…! Nyaaaahh!!!
In service of this somewhat disparate quartet of mid-to-late ‘50s monstrous mashups, Mill Creek has gone the extra mile in terms of bonus features. There are two short, nicely put together mini documentaries, and three of the four films get feature-length audio commentaries by experts. (The best film of the bunch, 20 Million Miles to Earth, is, bewilderingly, the one that hasn’t been given a commentary).
The career of producer Sam Katzman is nicely covered in They Came from Beyond, a new twenty-five-minute documentary put together by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. It features wall-to-wall informative interviews with honest-to-gosh film historians C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Schlesinger, and Tom Weaver, as well as a load of clips and promotional art of the movies being discussed. It’s a minor irritant that Ballyhoo overuses a flashy transitional device (film liter flickering, in negative) throughout; otherwise, this is a great little piece that we’re fortunate to get.
Also great is Fantastical Features, a fifteen-minute focus on the nomadic career of 20 Million Miles to Earth director Nathan Juran. Although it’s another Ballyhoo effort with C. Courtney Joyner (this time going solo), the style of the piece is not at all the same. What is consistent is its commitment to craftsmanship and a fine flow of information you’re unlikely to come across many other places.
Following the popular lead of Kino Lorber and so many other boutique labels these days, Mill Creek has tapped some interesting talent to provide optional audio commentaries. For Creature with the Atom Brain, we have Phoef Sutton and Mark Jordan Legan enjoyably riffing and razzing the film. Sutton and Legan bring a bit of showmanship to their energetic track, which isn’t necessary but can be fun. Discussing It Came from Beneath the Sea we have Justin Humphreys and C. Courtney Joyner. This pair get along nicely even as one frequently interrupts (“Sorry to interrupt, but I just want to comment on what’s on screen…”) the other throughout. Humphreys and Joyner have found more ways into appreciating It Came from Beneath the Sea than I did, and I value that.
Finally, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock is commented on by Shawn Sheridan, James Gonis, Larry Strothe, and Matt Weinhold of the Monster Party Podcast. While this crew clearly worked hard to divvy up all the standard bios and trivia amongst the participants, it doesn’t come off as much of a party. Early on, this facts-recitation fest veers away from the movie at hand and into all sorts of other directions. It takes quite a while to get back to Candy Rock. The podcasters do a good job of avoiding the chaos of too many people trying to talk at the same time, though the opposite extreme that we end up with could just as easily be a single-person commentary.
While the effort put forth here by Mill Creek to up its game in the today’s competitive and relatively robust physical media collector’s market is admirable, I cannot fully sign off on this Sci-Fi from the Vault collection. The four films are split evenly across two Blu-ray discs, with visible compromises to the picture quality. The two Harryhausen films are rife with compression artifacts and baked-in picture noise, largely rendering any gains of the Blu-ray format moot. Creature with the Atom Brain looks even worse. The one that looks the best is the square peg of the set, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock. Go figure.
On the plus side, the cover art is wonderful, and nicely duplicated on the set’s slipcover. Personally, I’d love to see Mill Creek release more classic genre-themed releases such as this one, providing that the company can get the transfers in order. In any case, Sci-Fi from the Vault has crashed down on Earth! How we choose to approach this handsomely packaged but flawed assortment is a choice each of us, in these tenuous and irradiated of times, must make for ourselves.
In the meantime,… Look out! Thud! Crash!! Shmoosh!!! Whirrrrrrr!!!!