1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Brain Eaters

Ed Nelson produced and starred as Dr. Paul Kettering in this very low-budget alien takeover movie. Somewhat loosely based on Robert Heinlein's 1951 novel "The Puppet Masters," as was the more famous Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956. The Brain Eaters (TBE) is yet another tale of aliens who take over the minds of people in an attempt to invade the earth. This was hardly a fresh theme by 1958, yet TBE manages to be an interesting retelling just the same. There are a few twists and surprises amid the usual who-can-you-trust atmosphere.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A 50 foot metal cone appears just outside of Riverdale, Illinois. The mayor's son, Glenn, and Dr. Paul Kettering are joined by Senator Powers in trying to discover where it came from. The cone reveals nothing. The mayor has disappeared and there are unexplained deaths in town. The mayor reappears days later, acting strangely. He pulls a gun on the sheriff and is shot dead. They find a parasite at the base of his neck. A policeman is infected with a parasite by two other infectee-zombies. Thus, the invasion spreads. Telephone, telegraph and radio communications are compromised by infectees. Back at the cone, an old scientist is found who was lost five years earlier. His parasite left him. He gasps out about the invasion and creatures from the Carboniferous Era, before dying. The cone came from inside the earth, not outer space. Meanwhile, infectees put a parasite into Paul's girlfriend's bedroom. She becomes possessed. Paul and Glenn climb into the cone again. In the now foggy interior, they are addressed by a zeus-like man with a long white beard. He tells of the invasion as a good thing for mankind. Glenn and Paul blast away with their guns and flee. Outside, Paul has a plan to drape a wire from the power lines to the cone and electrocute the parasites. Just as he planned to fire the harpoon gun at the power lines, zombie-Alice emerges. Paul tries to talk her off the scaffolding, but she shoots him. Paul tells Glenn to fire the harpoon. He does. Thousands of volts pass through the cone and scaffolding. All the critters die, as do Paul and zombie-Alice. Senator Powers rushes off to deal with the remaining infectees in town. Glenn and Elaine walk away. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
It's a very low budget retelling of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with distinct parasites. At just 60 minutes long, things seldom drag. Some of the camera work and directing are interesting -- especially the parasite-cam view of the critter sneaking up on sleeping Alice.

Cold War Angle
Like it's more well-known trope-mate, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the paranoia about people being taken over -- particularly people in authority or communications -- was not a tough sell in the 50s. The purportedly benign intentions of the invader parasites mimics communist propaganda.

Good ol' Electricity -- Once again, high voltage electricity proves to be the savior of mankind. When bullets won't stop the aliens and all seems lost, we have always been able to count on kilawatts to kill the aliens.

Neck Ties -- TBE shares ties with two earlier sci-fi films in that the mark of having been compromised by the alien was a mark on the neck. Invaders From Mars ('53) had a small X shaped scar on the back of the neck. It Conquered The Earth ('56) had the alien bat-things implant a small electrode into the base of the neck, a small antenna protruding. It's possible the various writers had some medical knowledge about the brain stem. It's also possible they were simply repeating the mode used by Robert Heinlein in his 1951 novel "The Puppet Masters" which laid the foundation for many of the aliens-take-over-humans stories. Heinlein's "slugs" attached themselves to the base of the back of the neck.

New Direction -- Bruno VeSota had acted in small parts in over twenty films before trying his hand at directing. He was not a particularly experienced director, but manages a fair effort, despite some quirks. He keeps things moving, avoiding long strings of fixed-camera exposition or overuse of stock footage. VeSota does manage a few bold moves for a directorial neophyte. One was his use of tilted camera angles for the confrontation on the mayor's office. The most memorable is the critter-cam parasite's eye view in Alice's bedroom as it trundled along the carpet, climbed the bedspread and slowly stalked up on sleeping Alice. Visually interesting.

Conflicted -- Unlike most alien-take-over victims, DeVosta shows the take-over victims as conflicted. Their human half trying to resist the mind control of the parasites. The scene in the mayor's office does this rather well as he fumbles with the pistol, attempting suicide rather than be taken over. Even the stoic sheriff manages some visible conflict. Most, however, are complacent in their zombie role.

Forced Nirvana -- Leonard Nimoy, as the Zeus-like spokesman for the parasites explains their purpose. "We are in complete harmony. We are inseparable. There is no conflict of purpose here, as there is among mankind. We will not engage in combat. No violence of any kind. Why should we? When we can scatter like seeds in the wind." (like a plague, says Paul). "Our social order is pure, innocent. It has the exactitude of mathematics. We shall force upon man a life free from strife and turmoil. Ironic, that man should obtain his life long goal as a gift instead of something earned." Many an earthly invading force liked to imagine that they were bringing improvement to those they invaded.

Bottom line? TBE is a bit rough in production quality, and lacks the ambiguity (who has been compromised and who hasn't?) of its more famous predecessor. Yes, the special effects are minimal. Yes, the parasites look more like big steel wool pads with curly pipe cleaner antennae, but low-budget movies need to be cut some slack. It is still an entertaining tale with some visual interest too. Fans of the alien-take-over sub-genre should not miss it.

No comments: