Monday, October 25, 2021

Killing Bill: Female Vengeance in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962)

Long before Uma Thurman's relentless Bride swore to kill Bill in the Quentin Tarantino movies, Jan in the Pan killed her own treacherous Bill in the low-budget horror classic, The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962). Despite its B-horror status and sleazy male gaze, The Brain That Wouldn't Die turns out to be a surprisingly effective iteration of the women's revenge plot, in which the wronged female protagonist metes out bloody justice to those who harmed her. It also raises more serious issues than its cheap production and shock value climax might lead viewers to expect, chiefly the very real problems of women's agency and bodily autonomy in a dangerously patriarchal society.

The women's revenge narrative often hinges on rape as an obvious expression of masculine violence and misogyny, although mutilation and other forms of physical harm are also depicted. Hannie Caulder (1971), a Western that partly inspired Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, is one significant example of the first, while Gloria Grahame's disfigured moll in The Big Heat (1953) provides an example of the second. In The Brain That Wouldn't Die, Jan (Virginia Leith) is actually deprived of her entire body by her fiance's mad obsession. After he causes a car crash by driving recklessly toward his remote medical laboratory, Bill (Jason Evers) retrieves Jan's head from the wreckage and keeps it alive with his unethical experimental treatments. Jan has previously been shown as a woman who lives very much in her body; she can't wait to marry Bill and have children, and she demonstrates her physical desire for him very clearly. The loss of her body deprives her of these expected pleasures while also revealing to her the true nature of the man she planned to marry. Bill's scheme to acquire a new body for Jan offers her no comfort, since she realizes that he intends to murder an innocent woman to get it, and she feels very strongly that the transplanted body would be an unnatural horror.

Before the crash, Jan is fully alive and eager to marry.

We often talk about women's consent in sexual terms, in both fiction and real life situations, but medical consent is another component of women's bodily experience, especially when we look at the frequency with which women were denied medical autonomy in the past (and still are today, especially where their reproductive care is concerned). Bill assumes/usurps the right to make medical decisions for Jan. He keeps her head alive against her will, even when she begs for death. He intends to put her head on a stolen body of his choosing - one selected for his own prurient enjoyment - despite her objections. When Jan protests, Bill tapes her mouth. He feels that his authority as a man/surgeon/fiance gives him the right to violate Jan's wishes again and again, not to mention those of Peggy (Marilyn Hanold), the artist's model whose body Bill has decided to claim for Jan. While Bill provides an extreme example, there is plenty of real life history behind it. Well into the 20th century husbands, fathers, and other male relatives made medical decisions for women without their consent and often even without their knowledge. Women were considered too fragile or emotional to be in charge of their own medical care, and many dying women weren't told about their prognosis by "caring" men. Rex Harrison, for example, knew that his lover and then wife Kay Kendall was dying of leukemia, but he and her doctor told her it was just an iron deficiency. That took place from 1957 to 1959, so Jan's plight in the 1962 film is by no means outdated.

Jan hates Bill for keeping her alive as a head in a pan.

Deprived of her body and her ability to make her own decisions, Jan seems like a helpless victim, and Bill certainly thinks he has all the power, but Jan realizes that the experimental chemicals give her an uncanny ability to communicate with one of Bill's previous victims, a mutated captive made of amputated limbs and grafted tissue. She and the nameless prisoner plot their revenge against Bill and his complicit assistant, which they eventually accomplish in appropriately bloody fashion. Jan's hysterical laughter, existence as a disembodied head, and yearning for revenge present her as a monster, which is how she sees herself, too, but it's worth noting that Jan's moral compass is never compromised. Bill, the real monster, lacks empathy and see other people as his playthings, but Jan is determined to save Peggy while also punishing Bill. In the last scene of the movie, the mutant carries Peggy to safety while Jan remains in the burning lab with Bill's corpse, content with death and the justice she has wrought. This finale is also in keeping with the women's revenge narrative, although Jan has much more reason than most of her fellow avenging angels for being satisfied with her own death as the conclusion. Unlike the protagonist of Promising Young Woman (2020), for example, Jan is really already dead, and her release is what she herself has wanted all along.

Bill plans to get a "perfect" body for Jan by killing Peggy.

When we look at it from Jan's point of view, The Brain That Wouldn't Die becomes a fascinating variation on the women's revenge story, one that addresses some very real horrors for women in a pervasively misogynist culture that denies women bodily autonomy and free will. Jan is not a monster, despite her extreme physical condition; she's a heroine who overcomes disability and an abusive relationship to assert her right to dictate the terms of her own existence. She stops a madman's sadistic, ego-driven rampage and prevents him from claiming more victims. She liberates Bill's tortured captive, saves Peggy from being murdered, and unknowingly gets revenge for all of the other women Bill tried to abduct. The movie might be best known today as an example of cheap "schlock" horror, but there's a lot more going on in the tortured mind of The Brain That Wouldn't Die than one might at first expect. We just have to see it from the perspective in the pan.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Five Favorite Directors: Classic Horror

Even people who don't care for classic horror movies have probably heard of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price, but behind every horror classic there's also a director asking for heavier fog, more menacing closeups, and louder screams. Alfred Hitchcock, although not primarily a horror director, might be the most familiar to modern viewers thanks to Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), and more recent masters of the genre include George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, but my personal favorites tend to be the earlier icons whose work influenced everyone after them. Most of the films from these directors are light on gore and heavy on atmosphere, which is how I like my creepy midnight thrills, and many worthy contenders aren't listed here only because I limit myself to five. These are the directors I most often turn to when I want something spooky to send a shiver down my cinematic spine.

Tod Browning

Browning is best remembered today for two horror classics, Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), but his directorial career started with silent shorts in 1915, and he helmed a number of notable silent horror pictures before his date with Dracula. Browning's movies with Lon Chaney, "the man of a thousand faces" and a master of silent horror, are especially good; try The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), and West of Zanzibar (1928) for a sense of Browning's work before Dracula.

James Whale

Like Browning, James Whale is best remembered today for his iconic Universal monster movies, including Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale's work combines the usual elements of horror with a very dark sense of humor that sometimes tips right over into black comedy, especially with Claude Rains in the lead role for The Invisible Man. In between these more famous films Whale also directed The Old Dark House (1932), a wonderful spooky house picture with his usual flair for mixing giggles with screams.

Jacques Tourneur

As the son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur grew up in the movie making business in both France and the US; his career really took off when he teamed up with RKO horror boss Val Lewton for films like Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). Later Tourneur would make memorable pictures in a number of genres, but he returned to horror for Night of the Demon (1957) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Cat People is justly celebrated today for its moody ambience and loaded subtext, but I'm also very fond of I Walked with a Zombie for its imaginative revision of Jane Eyre.

Robert Wise

Like Tourneur, Robert Wise enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Val Lewton early in his career, even though he later became more famous as the Oscar-winning director of musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). His work in horror remains an important part of his oeuvre and the genre as a whole, with early Lewton projects like The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) laying the foundation for the horror masterpiece, The Haunting (1963), which is so good that it alone justifies Wise's place in this list. Watch it with the lights out and the sound turned up, and you won't sleep a wink.

Roger Corman

Roger Corman directed more than 50 movies, many of them low-budget shockers and now cult classics, and Corman has lived long enough to see himself become a true Hollywood legend. As much as I enjoy a really ridiculous B-movie romp like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), my favorite Corman horror films are the Poe adaptations he made with Vincent Price, some of them more faithful than others but all of them very entertaining. House of Usher (1960) kicked off the series, but two later entries, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) are probably my top picks for being less campy and more evocative of Edgar Allan Poe's works than a picture like The Raven (1963), even though that one is also a lot of fun.

Looking for even more classic horror directors? Try F.W. Murnau, Mario Bava, Mark Robson, and Terence Fisher for additional thrills and chills. 

See also: "The Kiss That is the Kill: Sex and Death in Three Classic Vampire Movies"

Friday, October 8, 2021

Five Favorite Films: Halloween Treats

Halloween is my favorite holiday, even though I'm too old for trick-or-treating and don't have a little one now to take around the neighborhood. It's an especially good time of year to revisit the movie monsters and film phantoms of Golden Age Hollywood, but there's a lot more to enjoy than the obvious Universal pictures. I love classic horror in general, but I especially love the funnier, less scary Halloween treats of the spooky season, with goofy ghosts and wacky witches and some of the great stars of classic Hollywood dressing up for the occasion. Here are five of my favorite Halloween appropriate comedies to go with your candy corn and caramel apples as you savor the season.

The Ghost Goes West (1935)

This British production is probably the least well-known entry in this list, but it's absolutely worth tracking down. It has a number of plot points in common with the later picture, The Canterville Ghost (1944), but in this story the haunted castle gets moved to the United States by a wealthy American businessman (Eugene Pallette), and the ghost (Robert Donat) is forced to come along. Donat plays a double role here as both the ghost and his modern day descendant, which is handy for leading lady Jean Parker. More romantic comedy than ghost story, this is such fun that it deserves to be seen by more people, which is why I include it here. It also features the marvelous Elsa Lanchester in a supporting role.

I Married a Witch (1942)

Veronica Lake stars as Jennifer, the witch in question in this hilarious screwball comedy with a supernatural twist, and Fredric March is the cursed descendant of the man who burned her and her father (Cecil Kellaway) at the stake many centuries ago. When their spirits awaken from a long slumber, Jennifer and her dad intend to resume their persecution of the stuffy, wealthy Wooley family, but love upsets the plans for revenge. Fun special effects, a wicked sense of humor, and a fantastic cast make this a perfect pick for the season.

 Arsenic and Old Lace (1943)

Cary Grant might not have liked his work in this adaptation of the darkly hilarious stage play, but audiences loved him and it so much that it has been a perennial favorite for decades. Frank Capra directs a pitch perfect cast, many of them reprising their roles from the stage production, and Jean Adair and Josephine Hull run away with every scene as the dotty old aunts whose "charity work" involves poisoning elderly men. Although there's nothing supernatural about the characters, the story takes place on Halloween and costars horror regular Peter Lorre; Raymond Massey plays the murderous brother whose role in the original play had been filled by Boris Karloff, but Karloff wasn't able to to reprise the role in this film. 

The Canterville Ghost (1944)

Loosely adapted from the story by Oscar Wilde, this is a ghostly comedy with lots of laughs and a surprisingly sweet heart, thanks to charming performances by Charles Laughton, Robert Young, and Margaret O'Brien. Laughton stars as the ghost, Sir Simon, who hopes to break the curse of his long, lonely existence by demonstrating the courage that eluded him in life. When a group of American soldiers are stationed at the Canterville family castle during World War II, Sir Simon meets Cully (Young), who might be able to help him. O'Brien's role as a central character and the themes of courage and friendship make this movie a great choice for younger viewers.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Universal was happy to transform its iconic monsters into comedy stars for this wonderful installment in the Abbott and Costello series of pictures, in which the duo play Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello), two hapless freight handlers who unwittingly get tangled up with Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), and Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange). Hilarious antics ensue as the monsters scheme to remove Wilbur's brain and use it to restore Frankenstein's creature. Even if kids haven't seen the original Universal movies starring these characters, they'll recognize the monsters and get a kick out of this delightful film, but it's a must-see for classic horror fans of all ages.

For even more fun Halloween classics, try Topper (1937) and its sequels, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Bell Book and Candle (1958), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963).