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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Atomic Brain

Yet another low-grade mix of horror and sci-fi, The Atomic Brain (TAB) was the lower half of the bill with The Beach Girls and the Monster. As a drive-in set, the bar was set pretty low to begin with. Even then, TAB is a jumbled mixture of pre-existing tropes, patched together with some pretty blatant exploitation. Yet, buried within all that low-brow pulp fiction approach and low production value, are the kernels of some thought. The work was originally titled "Monstrosity."

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Otto Frank is experimenting in the basement of a mansion. His goal is to transplant brains into different bodies. He robs nearby graves (taking dead pretty women) to experiment on. Most of his experiments have failed. He wants live bodies. His financial backer is a rich old woman. She wants Frank to succeed so she can transplant her brain into the body of a healthy young woman, then have her estate willed to her new self. Three foreign girls are interviewed for a housekeeper's job, but old Ms Marsh is just sizing up their bodies. She rejects the Mexican girl, Anita, because of a birthmark. Dr. Frank uses Anita to test a live brain transplant between her and his cat. This succeeds. Anita-cat catches and eats a mouse. Nina and Bea discover Anita's disappearance, so plan to leave. Bea tries to sweet talk Victor (Mrs. March's gigolo) to get the car keys. While alone in the gardens, Anita-cat scratches out one of Bea's eyes. This clinches Nina as the body replacement. Mrs. March makes the legal arrangements. Nina convinces Victor to help her escape, knowing that his usefulness is ended. Mrs. March discovers his disloyalty and stabs him. Dr. Frank prepares for the final transfer, but also realizes that after it's done, his funding will be gone. He transfers Mrs. March's 'brain' into the cat's body. When Dr. Frank goes into his atomic chamber the March-cat locks him in and turns on the rays. Frank is reduced to a skeleton. In the chaos, Bea awakens. She helps Nina get free. Bea reaches for the jar with her severed eye, but touches high voltage and dies. Nina flees the house just before it is engulfed in flames. She now inherits Mrs. March's wealth. March-cat follows her, thinking to get revenge eventually. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The plot and flood of subplots of TAB are so odd an eclectic, that there is a fascination there. A couple of the plot threads would have made decent movies on their own, in more capable hands. Marjorie Eaton is amusing as the greedy old crone.

Cold War Angle
This was the older dangers-of-science theme, and the traditional noir badness-of-mankind theme. There was little Cold War involved.

Notes
Beyond Frankenstein -- Dr. Frank does what all misguided surgeons have done since Victor Frankenstein: try to transplant human parts to make a better human. Like Victor, he monologued about how he thought his work would be a benefit to mankind. Dr. Frank tries working with dead bodies (as did Victor), using the magical/mythical properties of "atomic power" to reanimate them. This produces only zombies, so he has to work from living specimens. Dr. Frank produces his monsters. Hans the dog-man, Anita the cat-girl, Margie the zombie girl and Mrs.March, the evil cat-woman.

Too Many Cooks? -- TAB is a patchwork of themes and plots. It is part exploitation (scantily-clad young women). It is part sleaze and noir. There is a strain of zombie-horror and a dash of gore-horror. There is just enough sci-fi (with the atomic angle) to qualify for this study. One reason for all this "diversity" may be that the movie had four writers who were also the producer team. Jack Pollexten was the more experienced of the four, with over 20 movies to his credit. None of them were big league, but he did do the screenplay for Captive Women ('52) (originally titled "1000 Years from Now") He also directed The Indestructible Man ('56). It was on that film that he worked with co-writers Sue Dwiggins and Vy Russell. Jack, Sue and Vy added Hollywood outsider Dean Dillman Jr. (more of an investor who insisted on dabbling?). All four are listed as producers (or associates) and writers. This may explain the scattered themes. Pollexten was not credited as a writer (didn't want his name on it?) so he may have aided the other three with technical help rather than content.

New & Improved! -- The trope of installing an existing brain (person) into a fresh new body was particularly new by 1964. In The Brain That Wouldn't Die ('62), Dr. Bill looks for a hot bod onto which he can install his fiancee's head. The Madmen of Mandoras ('63) were presumably looking for a young body onto which to transplant the head/brain of Hitler. In Creation of the Humanoids ('62) people would "save" their consciousness so that upon death, they could be transferred to a fresh new body. A variation on the trope was in She Demons ('58) in which the sinister Dr. Osler was extracting the 'beauty' hormones from young women to restore his wife to beauty. Yet, while TAB was not breaking new ground, it did give the trope a starkly carnal spin. The idea would get spun a few more times in the future too.

Brainless -- Despite the later title, and script use of the word "brain", we don't get to see any brains. In fact, no physical surgery is even implied. A dog's brain might fit into a man's skull, but a woman's brain would not fit inside a cat's skull. Instead, Dr. Frank's magical process seemed to transfer the consciousness of the victims. The writers did not seem troubled by physical facts, but focused on memory-personality as the transferrable element.

Pulp Noir -- Written in the style of cheap pulp detective stories, TAB teems with bad people behaving badly. Mrs. March is the alpha baddie -- greedy and ruthless. Dr. Frank robs graves and does anything to fund his monomaniacal work. Victor is the opportunistic old gigolo with lust for the babes. Bea is a shallow-headed bimbo. Hans is the killer dog-man. Poor Anita becomes the nasty cat-woman. The zombie girl is mild, but, well, dead. Only Nina comes off as not-bad, but a curse of being pursued by the vengeful Mrs.March (as a cat) puts a dark cloud over her too. The lines scripted for the narrator suggest the low-life nature of the characters, such as when Victor learns of the pretty zombie Dr. Frank made, the narrator says "...not having a brain might have its advantages..."

Bottom line? TAB will bother people not tolerant of low-production values. Fans of evil scientist flicks or even noir fans, will have an easier time. The complicated fragments of what could have been interesting stories unto themselves, does make for some entertainment.

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