Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Brain that Wouldn't Die!

The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1959/1962) is one of those 50's era sci-fi movies that gained greater notoriety through the lampooning it received on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In fact, this is one of my favorite MST3K episodes mainly because this movie seems tailor-made for that show. It was also the first MST3K episode in which I was already familiar with the movie, which probably made an impact on my enjoyment of the episode.

Taken on its own terms, though, The Brain that Wouldn't Die is still ridiculous and a load of fun.

It's also incredibly cheap looking, even by B-movie standards. In most scenes that would normally require special effects, the action takes place below frame. Even the car accident scene is done, amazingly, without a car. I firmly believe, with the tools I have at my disposal right now, I could go out and make a shot-for-shot remake of this film in two weeks.

But not this week--I've got too much going on.

The film opens with Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) and his father performing intense surgery on a patient. The elder Dr. Cortner declares the operation a failure and the patient dead, but young Bill is not ready to give in. "You've already lost your patient--I'm going to save mine!" Bill asserts, as he begins to go to work on the patient's brain while his father starts a heart massage in what is the most bloodless operation in film history.

It's unclear how Bill actually manages to access the brain here: the brain is exposed, and the scalp is peeled back, but the skull is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he used the "cranial screw-top method," though this film was made years before Dr. Hfuhruhurr invented the procedure. Quickly, however, the patient's hand is moving, and Bill's unorthodox methods lead to the patient's full recovery.

Once the surgery is completed, Bill, like all good doctors, proceeds to have a smoke in the operating room, awaiting the congratulations of his father and his fiance, Jan (Virginia Leith). Bill and Jan are clearly attracted to each other, yet, in the fashion of the day, they refuse to consummate their relationship until they are married. At this point in the movie, the audience's irony detector should be in the red zone.

Before the young lovers can begin their weekend plans, Bill receives a call from his assistant, Kurt, at the family's summer home that doubles as Bill's lab, where he can conduct his experiments in privacy. Kurt is in a panic, and Bill immediately rushes with Jan to find out what's wrong.

Bill races to get to the house, and as the music increases in tempo, we know exactly what's coming: an accident. We actually never see the accident happen, however. Instead, we see Bill roll on the grass as he's apparently thrown from the car, and then he approaches what appears to be the car's wreckage, but all we see in the foreground is a fire, some twisted metal, broken glass, and a hand raised up from below the frame.

Bill sticks his jacket into the burning wreckage and wraps it around an object, which we all can guess is Jan's disembodied head. Then, he begins what ends up being a long and exhausting run to his country estate. At least it seems long and exhausting. It also seems like Bill is taking his sweet time getting Jan's head to his lab. I'm sure he even takes a couple of cigarette breaks along the way.

When Bill makes it to his house, he is greeted by his assistant, Kurt, who, as we see, has a deformed arm. Bill rushes past Kurt to get Jan's head to the lab.

I love the scene in this movie where Bill is working to save the head. In a medium shot, we see Bill surrounded by beakers, test tubes, hoses, and other scientific paraphenalia, but none of it serves any apparent purpose. Instead, whatever Bill is doing takes place below the frame. When he is finished, we get what has to be the greatest image in film history:

Jan in the pan!

(Well, maybe not the greatest image in film history, but it sure beats the shit out of a sled getting tossed into a furnace.)

Jan discovers that her condition is not without benefits: she has developed psychic powers that allow her to communicate with an unseen creature--the victim of Bill's failed experiments--who is kept locked away in the laboratory closet. (Note: there is probably some evidence for this out there somewhere, but it seems likely that Mike Baron and Steve Rude got the idea for the psychically powered "Heads" in the Nexus comic series from this movie.)

As low-quality as this movie is throughout, one of its saving graces is Virginia Leith's near-method-style performance as Jan in the pan. She speaks through clenched teeth, and her voice becomes hoarse, as if her trachea were actually open-ended. This is exactly how I'd imagine someone would talk if he or she were a disembodied head. Her character is also vicious and unrelenting, and she steadfastly refuses to allow her condition to limit her determination to punish Bill for his various crimes.

While Jan plots her revenge, however, Bill is out trolling for her new body. As is only logical, Bill first looks in on a burlesque club called "The Moulin Rouge."

Clearly, he is looking to upgrade. However, Bill is finding it difficult to move his plan forward--he does not want to be the last person seen with a woman before she disappears. The next day, Bill continues his search, driving slowly throughout the town as he stalks various female pedestrians. In these scenes, the women are often framed from the neck down, as if the camera itself is implicating the viewer in Bill's plan and his overall objectification of women. This part of the plan, though, proves too successful when he manages to pick up not one, but two girls. Bill is disappointed in his embarrassment of riches, until one of the girls, Donna (apparently an old girlfriend of Bill's) provides him with an inadvertant solution: she invites him to serve as a judge for the "Miss Body Beautiful" Bathing Suit Contest!

Though this contest doesn't pan out, Donna gives Bill the idea that will move his plan forward when she mentions an old friend of theirs, Doris, who has a great body but doesn't go out much since her "accident."

Bill meets with Doris and manages to convince her that he and his father could help fix her scarred face with some special plastic surgery that they can give her in their private country estate. I can attest that from my own experience, at least in my college days, this pick-up line never actually worked, but it does work for Bill. He gets Doris to his country home, slips her a ruffie, and prepares her for the head transplant.

Meanwhile, Jan has convinced the closeted mutant to rip Kurt's arm off, and Kurt proceeds to die in a lengthy death scene that results in his blood being spread all over the lab. Now, I'm not a medical-type doctor, but I would guess that this would render the lab unsuitable for performing any kind of operation, let alone a head transplant.

Bill covers up Kurt's body and then begins the operation. Jan, however, protests, causing Bill to tape her mouth shut and also to give her a clear sense of what he would expect were they to be married. Jan is still able to use her psychic powers to encourage her mutant companion to break out of his closet and attack the doctor. When the mutant is finally revealed, he is really impressive, and it's clear that the entire budget for the film went into his make-up. This creature is meant to be made up of amputated limbs that Bill stole from his hospital. He kills Bill, sets the lab on fire, and rescues Doris from the inferno, while Jan, in her final moments, hisses, "I told you to let me die."

Atomic Monsters has a hilarious analysis of this movie that serves as a good companion to the MST3K episode.

Important Note: As I reported the other day, TCM is showing this film at 6:00 am on Friday morning. Unfortunately, TCM shows the edited 70-minute version of the film (which, I believe, is the version released in 1962 by AIP), and not the 82-minute version, which contains much more gore, including Kurt's extended death scene when the mutant rips off his arm and a shot of Bill getting his throat ripped out by the mutant's teeth. This version of the film is widely available, though, including on the DVD for the MST3K episode.

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