Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Brain that Wouldn't Die (USA, 1959)

 
"Oh, come on now, Doris. Do I look like a maniac who goes around killing girls?"
Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers)



One of the more famous public domain cult titles around, this classic Golden Turkey is surprisingly fun and entertaining and nicely sleazy in a nostalgic kind of way. Filmed over 13 days in 1959 as The Black Door in Tarrytown, New York, the movie was finally released on May 3, 1962, as The Brain that Wouldn't Die. (In Great Britain, it was submitted to the film board as The Head that Wouldn't Die; it was promptly rejected and, unbelievably enough, only finally certified for UK release in 2006.) Under whatever title, the movie is a perversely and oddly enthralling cheapie that keeps the viewer interested and that manages to generate not just laughs, but even an occasional shock.
As far as we here at A Wasted Life could find out, The Brain that Wouldn't Die was the directorial début of film distributor Joseph Green, who went on later to shoot unnecessary inserts for the US release of Japanese art-house exploitation masterpiece Day Dream (1964 / Japanese trailer) and then, years later, make one last film,  The Perils of P.K. (1986), the appalling and now unavailable "comeback" vehicle for the unknown actress Naura Hayden in which she plays a washed-up actress working as a stripper in Vegas. (Hayden's only true credit of note, by the way, is The Angry Red Planet [1959 / trailer], so she hardly had a career to comeback to anyway.) Green co-wrote The Brain that Wouldn't Die with Rex Carlton, an exploitation film producer and writer — he went on to co-script and produce Nightmare in Wax (1969) and Al Adamson's Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969), among other things — who supposedly killed himself in Los Angeles, CA, on May 6, 1968, because he was unable to pay the mob back the money he had borrowed to finance his latest project. 
The Brain that Wouldn't Die kicks off with one of the greatest operation scenes in film history. A head and chest is cut open, but there is no blood anywhere: not on the while coats of the operating doctors, the cotton swabs used to swab the wounds, or even the gloves of the head surgeon Dr. Cortner (Bruce Brighton) — despite the fact that throughout most of the operation he supposedly has his hand in the patient's chest to massage the dead man's heart and thus help bring him back to life. During and immediately after the operation, we learn that the other surgeon is Dr. Cortner's own son, Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers, whose last film appearance was in Basket Case 2 [1990 / trailer]); that they have different ideas of how far a doctor might go to make great discoveries for mankind; that body parts have been disappearing from the hospital; that Dr. Bill Cortner is engaged to the nurse Jan Compton (Virginia Leith); and that the two seem to waiting until they get married to have sex despite the fact that Jan has itchy pants. (Virginia Leith, by the way, was a former model who made her acting début in Kubrick's disowned directorial début Fear and Desire [1953 / trailer]; her career started out promisingly in films such as  Violent Saturday [1955] and A Kiss Before Dying [1956 / trailer], but after this film here she made but few TV appearances and even less films, her last supposedly being Curtains [1983 / trailer].) But after Daddy Cortner leaves for a medical convention, Bill decides it's time to show Jan what he has been doing up at his lonely house in the hills...
The opening scenario just described really does little to indicate just how bizarre The Brain that Wouldn't Die is. Anyone who has ever seen the film's famous poster doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to realize what is to come: Jan the fiancée becomes "Jan in the Pan" and the film zooms off into mad scientist and science gone wrong horror. Science always goes wrong in films like this, but in The Brain that Wouldn't Die the tried and tired story line has so many odd embellishments, so many curve balls, that the movie sometimes becomes as surreal as it is cheap and sleazy. And more than one directorial touch reveals a certain level of creativity and/or irony that is not normally expected of a low class flick like this. The car-driving scene preceding the car accident in which Jan dies is handled rather well, the tension rising not just because one waits for what one knows is going to happen but also because Green actually manages to film and cut the scene effectively — at least until the accident itself, which is shown in part simply by having Bill suddenly rolling down a hill. But as cheesy as that is, the shot from within the flaming car looking past Jan's manly (and hairy) twitching arm as Bill approaches is rather shocking — at least, that is, until Bill simply throws in his jacket and pulls it back out as a wrapped bundle. Gee, what do you think he has in it?

The song at the strip joint — The Web, by Abie "Available" Baker:

Bill jogs the rest of the way to his private laboratory, where his faithful Igor, a former surgeon named Kurt (Leslie Daniels, aka Tony La Penna, who later narrated the "documentaries" Playgirls International [1963], from the great Doris Wishman;  The History of the Erotic Cinema [1982], from the under-appreciated Dick Randall; and the English-language release of Savage Zone [1984 / German credit sequences], from the forgotten Italo mondo documentary director Mario Morra) awaits. Kurt wants so to show Bill what's in the closet — namely, the last experiment gone wrong (played by Eddie Carmel, the huge son in Diane Arbus's famous photo A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, whose only other film credit is 50,000 B.C. (Before Clothing) [1963 / NSFW trailer]), but Bill has no time for monsters in the closet. Instead, he puts Jan in the pan, shoots her up with his magic "adreno serum" and decides to go shopping for a new body beautiful to go with Jan's head — which is how he spends much of the rest of the film.
Duded out, Bill first goes to a strip joint where two strippers (Bonnie Sharie and Paula Maurice, the latter who also appeared in The Dead One [1961 / trailer]) end up getting in a cat fight over him (to the sound of a cat's meow, no less) and later, after conspicuously following a babe he happens to know, finally ends up at a beauty pageant. Indeed, much of The Brain that Wouldn't Die is spent with a decidedly lascivious eye cast on the pulchritude of the curvaceous babe — but then, that might be expected seeing that the man is shopping for the body of his planned future wife. (It is not at all surprising that at least one of the gals Bill eyes, Peggy Howard [Marlyn Hanold], was in real life a former Playboy Playmate of the Month [June 1959].) Jan, in the meantime, slowly regains consciousness and finds herself with only the bitter, taunting Kurt and the monster in the closet to talk to... 
But as anyone who has ever seen The Lady and the Monster (1944 / scene) or its later inferior remakes Donovan's Brain (1953 / trailer) and The Brain (1962 / German trailer) knows, brains disconnected from their bodies tend to develop telepathic powers, and Jan in the Pan is no different. As angry at Bill for not letting her die as she is disgusted by his insane obsessiveness, Jan and the monster in the closet begin to make plans, even as she and Kurt develop a deep dislike for one another. When Bill finally shows up with his chosen body, a former acquaintance and "artist's model" with a scared face named Doris Powell (Adele Lamont), the shit hits the fan... 
Some of the asides of the film are truly ironic if not sleazy. Aside for the cat's meow at the strip joint, Kurt's end, for example, drips as much from irony as it does leave the walls smeared with blood. For that matter, for all the vitriol Kurt tends to spit, he often talks like Shakespeare — hardly typical of a gutter film like this one. And if Bill initially simply seems to be an obsessed if amoral scientist, by the end of the film he comes across as a truly repulsive person — and one with an obviously long history of being so. Are we the only ones to have ever noticed the subtext implied by Doris's face when Bill mentions that he helped her once before and can help her again? (Backstreet abortion, anyone?) 
The Brain that Wouldn't Die is a cheap and sordid Z-film that has moments of brilliance that actually don't belong in a film of its level, but not enough to make it a truly good film in the traditional sense. But as a "Golden Turkey" or even simply as a classic low budget exploitation film of yesterday, these rare moments along with its far greater number of outrageous twists and bizarre developments shoves the film straight into psychotronic territory. Look at one of the most-laughable monsters in the world almost loose his face! Be fascinated by the unattractive stripper's hard headlights as Bill lights her cigarette — and laugh at how quickly he drops her when the enticing blonde stripper decides to give him her attention! Enjoy the twisted and hate-filled conversations between Jan in the Pan and Kurt, or giggle at just how unperturbed Bill remains no matter what he is confronted with! Marvel at Jan in the Pan's perfect make-up, and feed your eyes on all those prime curves from the day and age when the ideal body was not that of an anorexic! And dig that groovy soundtrack! (Anyone know who Abie "Available" Baker was?) 
The Brain that Wouldn't Die is well worth watching – and you can do so directly below!
Full film:

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