Film Review: The Brain That Wouldn't Die

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is one of the most memorably bad movies ever made - a camp classic that is truly entertaining in a very disreputable way. As awful as it may be, the film is (in its own weird, perverse way) interesting to watch — it’s not good by any reasonably definition, but neither is it boring. There is a certain undeniable effectiveness to the unpleasant proceedings; if the intention was to horrify, then the filmmakers certainly succeeded — although “appalling” might be the better word to describe their achievement.

The plot is rife with absurdities, yet at the same time the script seems eager to say something about the ethics of science and experimentation, and the cast is more than eager to dig into the high-minded speeches they are given. For all the alleged seriousness, however, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die takes a right turn when the mad scientist rescues his girlfriend’s head from the burning wreckage of a car crash and sets about finding her a new body.

brainthatwouldntdieAt this point The Brain That Wouldn't Die descends to the level of soft-core porn, as the doctor visits a photography session with some buxom models and later checks out a strip club. The film almost endorses the character’s point of view: as he casts an appraising eye over each new potential body-donor, examining female characters only as potential sources for a replacement, the camera never grows tired of ogling the prospects, while the cheezy jazz score, redolent of sordid sexual longings, encourages us to enjoy the show.

“Sleazy and lurid” only begin to describe the effect, and the image of the revenge-crazed head (as ridiculous as it is) is certainly disgusting. Combined with some rather graphic (for ther time) moments (the thing in the closet rips off one character’s arm and bites a piece off the mad doctor’s neck), this imagery packs a punch. Not enough to redeem the film or even make it a guilty pleasure, but enough to hold your attention so that you’re not just sitting bored while imagining what the cast of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 would be saying.

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 Version

click to purchase DVD
click to purchase DVD

Actually, you do not have to imagine what Mike Nelson and his robot pals would say. The Brain That Wouldn't Die is one of the more memorable episodes of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, and it was one of the first released on DVD.

The jokes fly fast and furious aboard the Satellite of Love, resulting in one of MST3K's funnier outings. There’s the inevitable football take-off when the hapless fiancé races through the woods with the titular head wrapped in his jacket: “He’s at the twenty, the ten…nothing can stop him!” (Of course, real audiences at bad movie marathons have been using this joke for decades, but it always works, so why not let the MST3K preserve it on disc?)

Even more amusing is a running gag regarding the film’s sloppy use of insert close-ups, which are shot against a neutral, non-descript background illuminated by vague lighting patterns (presumably because they were filmed later, after the real sets had been struck). The actor’s expression never match up with the establishing shots, and the effect has a hazy, almost Twilight Zone quality to it, provoking the SOL crew to yell at every opportunity, “I’m in another dimension!”

This was Mike Nelson’s first time in charge of the Satellite of Love. For fans of Joel Hodgson, Nelson took some getting used to. He didn’t have that same laid-back persona that lent Joel his charm and kept him from sounding smug, but Nelson did a good job of delivering the acerbic one-liners. Of course, this particular episode offers an opportunity for humor based on his “new kid on the block status,” which is fully exploited.

The DVD offers both the MST3K version and the original version. There are some cool graphics for the menu (backed up by music from the film, rather than the show’s theme song), including film clips, but no added features. There is a “Special Features” button. This just takes you to a screen with a button that gives you the distributor’s URL (Rhino.com) and another button that brings you to a display of other MST3K titles on tape and disc.

It’s a nice touch to include the complete version of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, in case there are any purists or completists out there who believe the movie should not be completely supplanted by the MST3K version.

CONCLUSION

What can you say about The Brain That Wouldn't Die that hasn't been said already? The film is almost guaranteed to render you speechless (when it isn't provoking you into laughter).

What is most remarkable all these years later is the film's the aura of gravitas. The script is thick with pretentious dialogue about science, morality, and power, which the actors deliver as if they are making their bid for Oscar nominations.

One could read weird sexist and/or feminist undertones into the story. The disembodied Jan (Virginia Leith) is the ultimate dis-empowered woman, helpless to prevent her fiance's mad plan to transplant her head onto a new, nubile body. At least, that's the way it seems initially, until the strange scientific goo keeping her alive bestows telepathic side-effects, allowing Jan to communicate with a previous experiment kept locked in a closet (yes, a literal monster in the closet). When Jan takes her revenge, it is a sight to behold.

brainthatwouldntdiemissingarmMost spectacularly, Leslie Daniels gives some kind of tour-de-force death scene when his character Kurt loses his arm. Instead of passing out immediately from shock, he runs around the basement for awhile, climbs the stairs, runs around some more, stumbles back down the stairs, and then runs around even a little more before finally expiring. Viewers are left gaping in gob-smacked wonder at the ridiculous extension of a death scene to an unbelievable length of time. Why did writer-director Joseph Green allow the actor to run loose like this, or did he in fact encourage it? And wasn't there anyone in the editing room to ask, "Do we really need him to go upstairs and then back down again?"

The film ends on an almost equally bizarre note when, at Jan's psychic urging, the monster (Eddie Carmel) finally breaks out of the closet, setting the isolated cabin ablaze and killing the Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers). It's straightforward, to a certain extent: the mad doctor gets what he deserves, and the fire will presumably put Jan out of her body-less misery.

brain_that_wouldnt_die-monsterWhat is not so straightforward is that Dr. Crotner had an unconscious victim on the operating table. The monster sweeps her up and carries her out the door - which could charitably be read as a rescue. However, the final fade-out leaves the matter unresolved. Where is he taking her? And what will he do with her once he is no longer under Jan's mental control?

The questions are just too depressing to even consider. Best to just sit back and laugh long and loud, hoping to eclipse the mental stench lingering in the air as the credits roll.* But there is a hollow ring to the laughter, a feeling that we have wandered to close to something truly repulsive, a sordid shadow world that will leave us tainted long after the screen fades.

All the more reason to watch the MST3K version: Never elsewhere was the closing wrap-up so welcome - the final jokes and the closing credits, with their soothing background music, serving as a metaphorical shower that might - just might - make you feel clean again.

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962). Directed by Joseph Green. Written by Joseph Green from a story by Gree and Rex Carlton. Cast: Jason Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels, Adele Lamont, Bonnie Sharie, Paula Maurice, Marilyn Hanold, Bruce Brighton, Amy Freeman.

FOOTNOTE:

  • *Erroneously identifying the film as "The Head That Wouldn't Die," by the way.
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