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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Brain that Wouldn't Die

This is one of those films which developed a reputation as being "so bad it's good." The Brain That Wouldn't Die (BTWD) is certainly a low-budget example of B-grade sci-fi / horror movie. Despite its release in 1962, it's also a solid product of the 50s, being filmed in 1959. (note the '59 Mercury and '58 Ford) There are blatant lowbrow elements where the producer and director (also the co-writers) dabbled in cheap exploitation gimmicks. Yet, there is also a more earnest attempt by the script to re-explore the classic Frankenstein story with more from the monster's point of view. There is also a noir-like quality in which no one seems noble.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Bill Cortner is a rogue surgeon who experiments in techniques to bring dead people (or limbs) back to life. His surgeon father berates him for his reckless and a-moral approach to science, but Bill is supremely confident in himself. En route to a weekend getaway with his fiancee, Jan, Bill drives too fast and crashes. He is thrown clear, but Jan is killed. He takes her head on to the country laboratory. There, he does more science-magic and keeps Jan's head alive on a lab table. She can only last for a couple days this way, so Bill goes shopping for a new body for Jan's head. He tries a strip club. Two strippers get into a tawdry cat fight over him, but he leaves, realizing he'll be recognized. He picks up a blond acquaintance, Donna, but she has a friend nearby too. They go to a swimsuit contest for no good reason. Donna recalls a mutual acquaintance, Doris has "the perfect body" but a big burn scar on side of her face. She's bitter against all men because of it. Bill promises her breakthrough plastic surgery. She goes with him to his country lab. Meanwhile, Jan's head awakens. She finds she has a psychic link with a misshapen creature locked in a closet. She argues with Kurt, Bill's embittered assistant about ethics. She summons the creature to kill Kurt. He is incautious near the creature's door and it grabs him, ripping off his good arm. He eventually dies. Bill comes home with Doris and dopes her drink. Bill takes unconscious Doris to his lab. Jan lectures him on ethics. Bill scoffs. He, too, is incautious near the creature's door, gets grabbed and killed. In the struggle, a fire starts. Jan directs the creature to take Doris to safety. She laughs maniacally in the flames. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is much that might annoy a film snob, but the audacity of the script keeps it interesting. The remix of traditional Frankenstein themes is interesting.

Cold War Angle
BTWD is more of a classic science-gone-wrong tale. There is no political undertone.

Brain Power -- A recurring meme in 50s sci-fi was that the human brain, freed from the burden of a human body, would find amazing powers. We saw this in Donovan's Brain ('53) that developed ESP control over people. We saw it again in Colossus of New York ('58), in which Jeremy's brain, inside the robot body, developed special vision powers. Jan, via Bill's special serum, develops mind-communication powers with the creature in the closet.

Brains Gone Bad -- Hand in hand with the free-brain power meme is the notion that brains (intellect) freed from the restraint of the body (matter) will tend to drift into the Dark Side. Donovan's brain was never kindly, but it went really bad without his body. Jeremy's brain turned from kindly altruist to selfish maniac. Jan, similarly, went from loving fiancee, to vengeful banshee.

MonsterView -- Unlike the mute monster which Victor Frankenstein created (in the 1931 classic), Bill's monsters (Kurt and Jan) do a fair amount of talking about how they feel. Jan is full of hate for being kept alive in her inhuman condition. She and Kurt argue about ends justifying means. Kurt defends Bill's playing God. He's a monster who hopes his maker can finish/improve the work.

Gang o'Noir -- In the flim noir model, none of the characters in BTWD are noble. They all have very human failings and flaws. Bill is, of course, the oversexed, over confident evil scientist. Jan becomes the hateful monster master. Kurt is the selfish minion. Even Doris, who might be seen as the victim of the picture, is a man-hater for what one did to her. The two strippers are obviously base material. Bill's father isn't all that innocent either, as he turns a blind eye to his son's inhuman experiments.

Build-A-Babe -- In a sort of extreme extension of a male fantasy, Bill goes shopping for the 'best' female body. It's for Jan's head to live on, of course, but for HIM to enjoy mostly. The real Jan was, apparently, was apparently just a body to him -- maybe just a pretty face. Bill's tastes in women are pretty low and libidinal. He shops first at a strip club? Then prowls the streets?

Cheap Teasecake -- Viewers are 'treated' to a lite burlesque dance by the blonde stripper in her meshy costume. There's the cat fight with near spillover moments. There is the pointless bathing suit contest to parade some more babes before the camera. Little of these scenes adds to the plot. They're just teaser visuals for the (perhaps) mentally-light male viewer who could not keep up with the science-and-ethics dialogue.

Cat Fight! -- In an almost crass display of exploitation filmography, producer Rex Carlton and director Joseph Green have the two strippers slap, pull hair and roll around wrestling on the floor (with much of their ample assets exposed). This does nothing to advance the plot at all. It's a pure bit of pandering to the male ticket-buyers. A tip that the producer/director knows this, is the brief shot of two cat paintings on the wall, with a little "meow" overdubbed.

Bottom line? BTWD can be watched as a typical "bad" old movie and laughed at for all its overwrought (or just bad) acting. It can also be enjoyed for its noir flavoring and dabbling in the old Frankenstein theme closet.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard of the films of Christopher R. Mihm? The guy makes some pretty authentic classically-styled sci-fi and horror movies that are gaining a pretty nice little cult following. Judging by your awesome blog, you might want to check them out! His website is http://www.sainteuphoria.com. I'd bet if you'd be open to reviewing them he'd send you some copies for free.

P.S. The Angry Red Planet is my absolute favorite 1950s/60s sci-fi film. The pink "Mars effect" is cheesy but the movie looks unlike anything before or since -- notwithstanding Rocketship X-M's pinkish sepia-toned Mars. Not QUITE the same thing...

Nightowl said...

Thanks for the comments. I checked out Mihm's site. Looks like he already has plenty of reviews of his work. Doesn't need one more.

Angry Red Planet -is- pretty cool.

Nightowl said...

From Aquarius:
Bill's tastes in women are pretty low and libidinal. He shops first at a strip club? Then prowls the streets?

It's actually a smart move, because marginalized women are less likely to be missed in society than, say, a minister's daughter. Picking women in the shadows kept his psychopathic behavior there as well.

Paul G. said...

The film is asking us what is sexier to you? The body or the brain? Too bad it could not have been added to the film at that time but I wonder what the doctor would have done if Jan had looked over to him and said 'Hey honey come on over and get some real head'. Would he see the err of his ways? By the way I love this movie too. Leith is over and beyond in her performance of this character.