Written by Rex Carlton & Joseph Green
Directed by Joseph Green
An American International Picture
Starring: Jason Evers (Dr. Bill Cortner); Virginia Leith (Jan Compton); Leslie Daniels (Kurt); Adele Lamont (Doris Powell); Bonnie Sharie (The Blonde Stripper); Marilyn Hanold (Peggy Howard); Bruce Brighton (Dr. Cortner, Sr.); Eddie Carmel (The Monster)
Could Halloween truly be complete if we didn’t take in the occasional B-picture, the occasional schlocky, badly-directed, cheaply acted, written-in-a-day, lit-by-a-bare-bulb, scored-by-a-friend-with-a-trumpet, completely bottom-of-the-barrel film? Sometimes, the lover of horror films has to trudge through the dreck in order to learn a thing or two about the genre he loves so much and, let’s face it, how can anyone truly appreciate art who hasn’t gotten a gander at real trash from time to time… and even learned to appreciate it. Anyone who wants to learn to appreciate any type of art form must learn to differentiate the good from the bad: not every painting is a work of art, not every Beatles’ song is worth unending praise, and too many (far too many) movies that can be thrown into the horror genre are worth even half a look with one eye open. Horror is a genre that unfortunately attracts a bevy of bottom-feeders, talentless numbskulls who believe that the quickest bucks can be made in the world that gave us Freddy and Jason (spurned on by the fact that so many of them are so often proved to be right). Because of this, horror fans must wade through the muck of bad films, hoping to find an emerald glinting away and hidden in piles of garbage that passes for mainstream entertainment. And it never ends: we may laugh at The Beast Of Yucca Flats (1961) and Bride Of The Monster (1955) today, but are they really any worse than Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or the remake of The Haunting (1999), two big-budget horror films with a big-name cast that could lose a contest with a common cockroach in a “pick-the-scarier-thing contest?” We horror fans have seen it all and have to learn to live with the films that have stolen precious hours of our time while reneging on their promises to frighten us.
But sometimes, a cheap, no-reason-to-notice-it film breaks through. All it wanted to was to get a few ticket buyers in seats long enough to make it impossible to ask for their money back, but sometimes it went just a little but further… just enough for lunatics like me to talk about it years later…
Sometimes we come across a film like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die…
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a schlock film, something made for the bottom-half of a double-bill back in the days when there was such a thing as a double-bill. It’s made on the cheap, with an idea that’s good enough to take it through to the end and there’s enough going on to keep the average audience (of the early 1960s) interested and entertained. Years later, it provided Joel, Servo and Crow fodder for a fantastic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is where it belonged. So why is it popping up in this list of mustn’t-miss horror films? Maybe because The Brain That Wouldn’t Die tried just a little bit harder than its grade-B peers, everyone involved seemed to have more than just a quick buck in mind when they decided to commit it to celluloid. Despite its flaws, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die has a shine on it that cannot be mistaken: the gleam of quality.
Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a dour, self-obsessed but brilliant surgeon. The film opens with him miraculously bringing a patient back from the dead, shaming his father (Bruce Brighton) – also a surgeon – who had given up on the poor man. A heated conversation takes place afterward where we learn that Bill has been sneaking off with discarded limbs and organs from other operations. “I’ve got to have them for my experiments,” he exclaims, “True… I’ve made some mistakes… but I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned!” He has, indeed, made a major mistake (locked behind a closet door, which we’ll get to later) and he makes another one when he takes his fiancé Jan (Virginia Leith) to the country house where he conducts his experiments and decides to speed his way there. An accident occurs and Bill can save only Jan’s head (!) from the burning car. Claiming to love her and wanting to make her “whole” again, Bill brings her head back to life, pumping his new serum into a pan in which her head sits. But that was the easy part; the next step is to find Jan a new body.
Before we get into its virtues (believe me, there are a few), it’s important to get the major detriments of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die out of the way. The film has a pacing problem, especially when Bill goes out on the prowl to find a body that Jan can hook up with. Bill initially goes to a strip club, and we’re supposed to be aroused while the story stops dead so some poor out-of-work dancer can strut her stuff for a few minutes (it’s also a bit creepy for Bill to be lusting after these girls just a few hours after he’s brought his fiancé’s head back to life; I mean, we know the reason why he’s there, but still…). These sequences, particularly the dressing room scene where Bill tries to proposition a stripper, are shot on sound stages with obviously no sound baffling, and minutes of dialog is impossible to hear amidst all the echo (the scenes at the country house work out much better). Of course, these scenes are necessary because otherwise we’d be stuck in the lab at the country house, and close-up shots of Jan’s head in the pan might get tedious after a while. And does a crashed, burnt-out car with a charred headless corpse inside just go undiscovered for an entire weekend? Maybe introducing an element of the police closing in on the country house might have saved us from boring boomy dialog and yet another close-up of Jan looking stern.
Now that that’s out of the way, there are reasons why The Brain That Wouldn’t Die shouldn’t be sentenced to die an ignoble death like so many of the other B-budget horror films that came both before and after it. For a start, the acting is actually… quite good. True, Jason Evers plays his part as stern and as serious as he can be, almost to the point where you could possibly wonder what any woman could see in such a humorless, obsessive tyrant, but Evers was giving the performance that the script called for and it works. Equally good is Virginia Leith, who adopts a raspy voice when her head is in the pan as if her vocal chords are being compromised by the fluid. Best of all is Leslie Daniels as the so-far-unmentioned Kurt, the mad doctor’s assistant. The writers took the time to sit down and write a real character for this modern-day Igor to play; he was once a brilliant surgeon himself until an accident destroyed his arm. He has accepted his lot in life, assisting Cortner in his dreadful experiments and feeding the thing behind the closet door because his greatest hope is to have his arm restored to functionality again. Kurt is one of the few truly sympathetic characters in the film (Jan turns vengeful too quickly to garner audience sympathy) and his conversations with Jan are the high points of the film (especially since he takes the time to actually talk with her since she must be bored out of her skull, the only thing that she can possibly be bored out of – hee-hee). Unfortunately, the only performance that doesn’t really work (of an important character) is Adele Lamont as Doris, which is really a shame. Lamont is given some good subtle scar-tissue makeup and some motivation for her character’s coldness, but she still can’t rise above her budget-level line-readings with Evers about why she can’t stand men. The script doesn’t help her that much (except for a wonderful moment when, just before she passes out, she realizes that Bill has drugged her and that she has, yet again, unwisely trusted a man), but then it doesn’t really help Evers or Leith either, but they are both able to give credible performances. Although we’re meant to care for Doris (and meant to feel relief when she’s saved from burning to death at the end of the film), she’s introduced far too late in the narrative to be able to truly invest any emotion in her and she’s played by an actress who was lucky to be working.
But getting away from the script (which wisely made Jan a nurse so that she could intelligently talk surgical procedures with Kurt) and the direction (which gives us a good montage of street signs leading up to the car crash and hilariously focuses on two decorative cats – with an off-screen “meow” – while two strippers roll around on the floor trying scratch each other’s eyes out), let’s talk about the violence. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die features some pretty impressive violence for its day, starting with a shot from inside the burning car as Jan’s dying hand reaches one last time for Bill. Although Bill’s trek through the woods goes on for a bit too long, it’s helped by the fact that he’s supposed to be clutching Jan’s head to his stomach. The few shots of Kurt’s withered hand are also good, but these are all a precursor for the eruption that the film is heading for. There is something hidden behind the closet door in the laboratory, a creature made up of the mistakes of Bill’s experiments that he spoke of earlier, that has been teasing the viewer for the entire film. It grunts, pounds at the door, and responds to Jan’s commands… and she’s not a happy head. When Kurt gets too close, it reaches out and yanks off his arm (his good arm, goddammit) and he smears blood all over the walls of the laboratory. This was only two since Psycho (and actually filmed before that masterpiece’s premiere) and we’re treated to smears of blood along the laboratory walls while Jan cackles with glee. When Bill finally arrives and tries to prepare Doris’s body for Jan’s head (and we’re treated to a man who will kill for his true love versus the woman who won’t let it happen), we’re given a fantastic reveal of the creature inside Cortner’s closet, a disgusting meld of surgical mishaps and mistakes, that is definitely worth the price of admission (much as Sam’s reveal many years later in Trick ‘r Treat (2007)). Cortner’s creature doesn’t disappoint, it is a hideous thing that erupts from its cage and bites a substantial chunk out of Cortner’s neck (the camera focuses on the glob of flesh as it lays on floor) and sets the lab on fire, allowing Jan to burn to death as she should have done seventy minutes earlier. The film unfortunately tries to cast this awful creature as a sympathetic Frankenstein’s monster by carrying the unconscious Doris to safety, but this ending leaves too many questions: what became of the monster and what happened to Doris after she woke up? As far as I can see, there was no sequel planned (nor should there be) and the film ends with the deaths of Bill and Jan, so Doris ends up as yet another of a bevy of damsels who, since the introduction of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, are saved by disfigured creatures who only want to gaze on beauty from afar. Makes you want to weep your heart out, doesn’t it?
Actually, what really engages the viewer is the sob-filled voice crying “Let me die,” before the opening credits. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die isn’t a great film by any standard, but it does try to engage its audience and there is a hint in the frames that those who created it might’ve wanted to do more than just give the audience a quick jump or two while they waited for the main feature. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die didn’t have the money or the talent to be a main feature, but it tried and sometimes (to quote R. Lee Ermy in Full Metal Jacket (1987)) guts is enough.