Monday, November 2, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962)

A low-budget cult classic, The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962) offers all the twisted delights one could ask for in a science fiction horror movie of this type. It's sleazy, gruesome, and short, with a parade of scantily clad women and a mad surgeon hellbent on attaching his girlfriend's severed head to the best body he can find. Although its cut corners and abrupt ending keep it solidly in the realm of the B movie, The Brain that Wouldn't Die benefits from some surprisingly effective acting and several creative, if ghoulish, approaches to its material. Fans of drive-in horror won't need the popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment of this particular picture to appreciate its many macabre charms.

Jason Evers (billed as Herb) stars as transplant surgeon Dr. Bill Cortner, who attempts strange experiments to advance his science in spite of the warnings of his mentor father. When Bill's girlfriend, Jan (Virginia Leith), is conveniently decapitated in a car wreck caused by Bill, the obsessed surgeon grabs the head and revives it in his secret lab. Jan doesn't appreciate being kept alive in this state, but she finds she has gained telepathic powers from the serum Bill uses to sustain her, and she forms a bond with a hideous failed experiment that Bill keeps locked in the lab's closet. Bill, meanwhile, roams the town looking for an attractive body to go with Jan's head. He finds disfigured body model Peggy (Marilyn Hanold), whose scarred face and perfect figure make her a seemingly perfect fit for Bill's insane plans.

The film packs a wealth of provocative material into its 82 minute package, and its science fiction elements reflect both its era and its cinematic roots. Brain movies proved popular in the 1950s and 1960s, with pictures like Donovan's Brain (1953) and Fiend without a Face (1958) exploring different aspects of the theme. The Brain that Wouldn't Die definitely cashes in on that trend, but it also borrows heavily from the 1930s Frankenstein films. Bill's first creation is very like Frankenstein's creature, a menagerie of stolen parts grafted together and condemned to a tortured mockery of life, while Jan becomes the Bride, intended not for the monster but for Bill himself. The quickie B movie lacks the class of James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, but, given that director's very morbid sense of humor, it's not hard to imagine Whale loving the bizarre spectacle of "Jan in the Pan." The 1962 feature also has the freedom to go a lot farther with its gore, although later TV and video versions often cut the bloodiest scenes. The death of Bill's assistant, Kurt (played by Anthony La Penna under the name Leslie Daniel), revels in macabre irony, even if its effects elements seem simplistic by modern horror standards. The movie also reveals a prurient interest in women's bodies, with Bill cruising strip joints and city streets for potential donors to Jan's reconstruction. He looks them over carefully, the camera following his gaze as he assesses all the key parts of each woman's figure. Luckily, the plot also adopts a female revenge angle that justly punishes Bill for his lecherous hubris.

There are many glaring flaws in The Brain that Wouldn't Die, including a car accident that doesn't actually show a car, a head that can laugh without lungs, and an ending that leaves one particularly obvious thread dangling, but the performances themselves are much more energetic than one often finds in movies of this kind. Evers has just the right obsessive conviction as the crazed surgeon; we only wonder why Jan likes him in the first place, since he seems pretty far gone from the start. Even in the slower opening scenes, which lay out the medical explanations and ethical questions for the transplant experiments to follow, Evers gives Bill an intense, driven quality that also reveals his deep-rooted psychological need to rebel against and surpass his more cautious father. The creepy appeal of the picture, however, really depends on Virginia Leith's bodiless vengeance as Jan. When we first see her, she glows with adoration for Bill, but her conventional personality vanishes along with her limbs. As a head, she becomes something unnatural, powerful, and filled with seething hatred for the egomaniac who forces her to live. Leith's husky whispers and piercing laughter dominate every scene in the lab, and they're what the viewer will remember after the final shot ends.

For a freakish triple feature, follow up with The Man with Two Brains (1983) and Re-Animator (1985). Joseph Green, who directed The Brain that Wouldn't Die, was primarily a distributor of low-budget pictures rather than a filmmaker, but his one hit cult wonder has ensured his place in horror history. Jason Evers was primarily a television actor, but he turns up in The Green Berets (1968), The Illustrated Man (1969), and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Look for Virginia Leith in Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire (1953), Violent Saturday (1955), and A Kiss Before Dying (1956).

In February of 2015, Wired ran this interesting article about the reanimation genre of horror and The Lazarus Effect (2015); The Brain that Wouldn't Die gets plenty of credit for its influence on subsequent films.