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.

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