**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniel
screenplay by Joseph Green
directed by Joseph Green
by Bryant Frazer "I remember fire," murmurs Jan Compton, a disembodied head resting in a surgical pan, at the end of the first act of The Brain That Wouldn't Die. The moment comes about 20 minutes into a movie that's conspicuous in its cheapness (stiff performances, unconvincing sets, that particular lethargic pace that pads a Z-grade feature out to a bookable running time), and still it's chilling. There's a kind of poetry in the words--which refer to a car accident in the previous reel--that generates the shiver. "Burning," she whispers to the mad scientist (her lover) who has preserved and reanimated her head. "Let me die. Let me die." Naturally, he ignores her plea. And it's the tension between her wishes and his actions that generates the horror in this technically inept but effectively weird fright show.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die stars Jason Evers (billed as Herb Evers), a little-known actor who would go on to a busy career in television, as Dr. Bill Cortner, the kind of surgeon who gets scolded in the film's opening scene for his experimental approach in the operating theatre. Yet Evers's habits in the O.R. pale in comparison to what he gets up to in the family's country cottage, where he experiments by sewing together leftover body parts stolen from the hospital. Oddly, when Bill gets word that "something terrible" has happened at the country place, he decides it's the perfect opportunity to show girlfriend Jan (Virginia Leith) the lab where he conducts his illicit research. But he drives recklessly and sends the car skidding off the road; Bill is thrown free, but Jan is killed and decapitated. He wraps her head up in his jacket and makes his way to the laboratory, where he begins working from the Dr. Frankenstein playbook, with plans to keep her head alive long enough to procure a body to graft it onto.
Bill's professed motivation is his love for Jan, but it becomes immediately clear that he isn't the doting boyfriend he claims to be. It's bad enough that he seems not to even hear Jan begging for mercy. From the moment he sets foot in a dingy nightclub, he engages comfortably in conversation with the gal slinking her way around the place in enormous feathered sleeves and not much else, showing that he's no stranger to flirtation. A little smug and completely at ease, he comes off as a player--or to get right to it, considering his plans for the women he chats up, a sexual predator. It's one of several scenes that veer towards sexploitation in the film's midsection, including a "body beautiful" contest the doctor's old wannabe girlfriend invites him to ("Your eyes'll have a field day," she promises), a catfight between two showgirls at the local Moulin Rouge, and Bill's meet-up with another old acquaintance, Doris Powell (Adele Lamont), now working as, ahem, a figure model. Though director Joseph Green no doubt incorporated this stuff to pump up the picture's commercial prospects, he presents the material in a way that emphasizes scopophilia, either by cutting from an image of a woman on display to a reverse-angle close-up of someone looking at her, or by staging an amusing tableau of a girl in a bikini striking a series of poses for leering, overexcited shutterbugs. Yes, it's all meant to be titillating, but there's an odd self-consciousness to it that somehow thickens the sleazy atmosphere.
While all this is going on, Jan is back at the cottage, conversing intelligently with Bill's lab assistant, Kurt (Leslie Daniel, née Anthony La Penna), about Bill's research, her own degradation, and the thing making noise behind a heavy wooden door in the corner of the room--a living victim of Cortner's botched transplant experiments. Jan is sharp, knowledgeable, and miserable--easily the most sympathetic character on screen. In a striking exchange, Kurt tells her the creature in the closet is "even more terrible than you." And she responds, unhappily, "Like all quantities, horror has its ultimate, and I am that." That said, when he finally appears, the monster is pretty scary. The bad latex mask may be risible, but the actor beneath it is Eddie Carmel, the so-called "Jewish Giant" immortalized in a photograph by Diane Arbus. The smothering scale of his right mitt when it eventually wraps around Cortner's face is the movie's most terrifying special effect.
A film like The Brain That Wouldn't Die takes a lot of guff from cinephiles not only because it's cheap but also because it doesn't exhibit the default values of mainstream narrative cinema--the stuff we mean when we talk about production values, compelling performances, three-dimensional characters, and the like. Well, those aren't the only things that are valuable. The Brain That Wouldn't Die hasn't endured for 65 years because it's "so bad it's good," it's endured because some of its imagery is genuinely compelling and memorable. While I don't mean to make outsized claims for what's clearly an exploitation programmer, the neat thing about horror movies is that even the most ramshackle, bargain-basement cheapies can tap the human limbic system and generate little frissons of distress. For example, the film's severed-head effect isn't much of a magic act. There are no mirrors or optical trickery, so actress Virginia Leith's body, either seated or crouching beneath the laboratory table, is simply cropped out of the frame. That's the most fundamental illusion the movies offer. (Wider shots replace Leith with a dummy head.) The image is unforgettable, though, especially with the bandages wrapped around her scalp and chin to hide her hair from view and starkly emphasize her facial features. It's a pretty chic look, and remains striking half a century later.
I was so surprised to see so much gore in one character's death scene that I snatched up the Blu-ray box to double-check the release date--1962. OK, I thought, that's a year before Blood Feast opened the floodgates, but still a couple of years after Psycho, so I guess that helps explain the graphic display of blood. But it turns out Blood Feast was actually completed in 1959, making it an even earlier precursor of the splatter film. And The Brain That Wouldn't Die's sexual subtext has, if anything, grown more relevant as society's ideas about consent have evolved. It's disturbing enough that Bill doesn't appreciate that Jan's "no" means "no" (at one point, he finally silences her by putting a piece of tape over her mouth, a loaded image from a feminist standpoint if ever there was one!)--worse, he convinces a skeptical, wary woman to come back to the lab (on the pretense that plastic surgery could fix a scar on her face) with the intention of drugging and violating her. "You put something in my drink, didn't you?" she asks, angry and frightened, as her vision blurs and she passes out. Decades later, it reads as even more despicable than it must have at the time. Point and laugh at The Brain That Wouldn't Die if you want, but it's hard to think of other films from its era that are so cognizant (not to mention sharply critical) of the male gaze, institutionalized sexism, and the moral bankruptcy of the pick-up artist.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Brain That Wouldn't Die looks pretty great on Blu-ray--probably too great, as this is one of those low-budget titles that benefits from having some of its ugly details hidden in the grainy corners of a battered film print. The monochrome picture here seems lovingly restored from original materials and is pillarboxed to the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Contrast looks right for the era, with the image living mostly in midrange greys rather than veering off into blown-out highlights or crushed blacks. Grain is pretty chunky but feels natural at full speed, though light artifacting is apparent in step-frame mode. (The video bitrate is just under 28 Mbps.) Stepping through certain shots also reveals that some heavy-duty automatic noise-reduction work was done to reduce visible print damage, especially near reel-change markers--though obvious care was taken to leave the grain mostly in place.
Speaking of those cue markers, I'm at a loss to identify the source of this new transfer. The box claims it comes "from the negative," but we're definitely not talking about the camera negative if cigarette burns are visible. My best guess is that Scream Factory is referring imprecisely to an internegative, partly as a way to assure purchasers that this transfer comes from an unedited print. However, reviews of a 2002 Synapse DVD indicate that their version runs a full 85 minutes. Although the back cover of this Shout! release lists the running time as 81 minutes, the film clocks in at 82 minutes and 34 seconds. Sorry, I'm not enough of a Joseph Green scholar to sort all of this out. This Blu-ray does offer a minute-long "alternate scene" in which Lamont does her pin-up girl routine in the altogether, presumably for European audiences. (The footage is in HD and looks about as good as the rest of the feature, but is presented without sound.) Audio is delivered in DTS-HD MA 2.0 (monaural), and sounds quite good. Although there's not much high-frequency sound, the mid-range is solid, and the music-library score boasts surprisingly rich detail. In the film's quieter moments, you can just hear remnants of the noise that's been attenuated for easy listening.
This Blu-ray is so complete that it additionally contains the most notable alternate version of the picture: the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" variant, with the soundtrack bowdlerized by the MST3K gang's usual heckles, one-liners, and stray observations. (Notably, they saddled Bill's girl with the appellation "Jan in the pan.") The MST3K approach has always bugged me on some level--a movie like The Brain That Wouldn't Die deserves a fair shake before the viewing party devolves into hysterical laughter--but I can't deny that this is a pants-wettingly funny piece of work. This was the first episode after head writer Mike Nelson replaced Joel Hodgson as host, so the cast must have been getting their bearings, but it's a good one. It's also interesting to look at in order to see how many of the film's obvious flaws, like the transparently fake stand-in head used for wide shots of Jan, were a lot less distracting in lower-res presentations. Naturally, the ep is presented windowboxed to 1.33:1; the original standard-def image has been upscaled to 1080i and its video bitrate averages 26 Mbps.
Audio commentary is provided by writer Steve Haberman and someone named Tony Sasso, billed as the author of A Head of Its Time: The Making of The Brain That Wouldn't Die. I was really looking forward to this, but it's...not great. In the early going, it plays as parody, with Sasso seeming to mock the film by making grand claims for its importance and profundity. Later on, as Sasso unspools a theory that Dr. Bill is a repressed homosexual in love with his lab assistant, it's hard to figure out whether he's still making fun or at last getting serious. (Only after the fact did I figure that Tony Sasso probably doesn't have a book on the making of this film at all.) It doesn't help that, in their eagerness to point out continuity flaws in the production, both Haberman and Sasso get specific details wrong, like mistaking a car that appears late in the film for the completely different one that was crashed near the beginning, or getting confused about the circumstances of Doris's facial disfigurement. They do identify the hotel basement in Manhattan where interiors were shot, which is neat trivia, but they also propagate the myth that the exteriors were filmed in Tarrytown, NY. (I live in Tarrytown and I'm pretty certain that's not true. Dr. Bill does, however, drive by the Fort Lee Animal Hospital, suggesting that part of The Brain That Wouldn't Die may well have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey.) Later on, Haberman suggests that The Brain That Wouldn't Die is a direct descendant of Hammer Studios' The Curse of Frankenstein, which he believes emboldened Green to make his outré variant on the Frankenstein story--a nice observation about the state of genre filmmaking at the time and the inevitable influence of the Hammer pictures on American filmmakers.
Finally, there's a short "photo gallery" running just over three-and-a-half minutes. The assembled production and publicity stills, all in black-and-white except for a few two-tone posters and lobby cards, feature plenty of cheesecake, including nifty shots of Eddie Carmel posed with female cast members in various states of deshabille.