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Saturday, October 24, 2009

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE -- movie review by porfle


Some movies are so bad, they're good--we all know that. But then there are the ones that are bad in such interesting ways that they're endlessly fascinating. Which is why THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962) is one of the most-watched movies in my DVD collection.

It begins with a surgeon losing his patient in the operating room. The assisting surgeon, his son Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers), insists on trying some of his wild new methods on the corpse. Cortner, Sr. pantomines cutting into the patient's chest to perform a heart massage by poking the scalpel about six inches over it and making a cutting motion while we see Bill fiddling with a dummy head that has an exposed brain but apparently no skull. After the patient is revived, Pop grumpily admits his son's success, but warns him against persuing weird and untested methods, especially when his experiments include stealing amputated limbs from the hospital.

Bill poo-poos the old man's admonitions and whisks off with his amorous fiancee, nurse Jan Compton (Virginia Leith), to the country house where he performs his mysterious limb-grafting experiments. Having received a frantic phone call from his assistant, Kurt (Leslie Daniels), who says there's trouble a-brewing at the secluded house (something about a thing in a closet), leadfooted Bill gets in too much of a hurry and crashes the car, killing Jan.

But Bill isn't about to let a little thing like death stop him, so he grabs Jan's decapitated head out of the burning wreckage, wraps it in his jacket, and hoofs it cross-country toward the house like O.J. Simpson running for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. You almost expect him to spike Jan's head and do a victory dance when he gets there, but instead he places it in a pan in his basement laboratory, hooks it up to a bunch of low-budget scientific equipment, and brings it back to life.

Now Bill is all set to attempt his most daring transplant of all--to graft Jan's head onto another body. But to do that, he must prowl the local streets, nudie bars, and "body beautiful" contests in search of the perfect body--that is, one that turns him on--and lure its unfortunate owner into his dastardly clutches.

It's all so delightfully, unabashedly cheap and lurid that I just can't help loving every minute of it. The car crash is so economically done that we don't even see it--the camera lurches toward a guardrail and Herb Evers rolls down a hill. That's it! Then we see a car door in the foreground with a man's muscular, hairy arm sticking into the frame, and that's supposed to be Jan! Unbelievable.

Herb Evers was no great actor, but his "Bill Cortner" is a marvelous cad. This heartless bastard makes no bones about his intentions, skulking into a cheap dive called the "Moulin Rouge" to scope out the dancers and cruising the streets eyeballing babes as he searches for the body that he most wants to grope whilst making out with the new, improved Jan-thing. (All of this is accompanied by one of the sleaziest tunes ever written, aptly entitled "The Web.") The women he encounters are a bit on the homely side, but hilarious. They can't act, yet somehow they're so into their characters that their performances are strangely compelling.

Bonnie Sharie, who plays a blonde stripper at the Moulin Rouge, acts as though she were born for the part of a hardboiled doll on the make for a sugar daddy. Paula Maurice, as another stripper who barges into the dressing room while Bonnie's cozying up with Bill and starts firing off withering wisecracks at her, is a riot--she's actually very good, in fact. And when Bill decides three's a crowd and makes his exit, there's even a totally extraneous catfight for our amusement.

The best of these potential victims, though, is Adele Lamont as "Doris Powell", who hates men ("I hate ALL men for what ONE of them did to me ONCE!" she snarls) yet makes her living as a "photograph model" posing for drooling guys with cameras. (One of them is infamous Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo of BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA! What the hell's he doing in this?) Bill slithers into one of Doris' posing sessions and uses his charm to convince her that he's a nice, trustworthy guy who can restore her scarred face to its former beauty.

Their dialogue in this scene is priceless. Adele Lamont, who's actually quite a looker, spouts her lines as though she's trying to hammer nails with them. "See it ALL...MISTER?" she growls at Bill. "The SHOW'S OVER...next time bring a CAMERA and buy a TICKET! I'm not running a CHARITY!" When Bill tries to placate her, she retorts "Listen--GALAHAD! I trusted a man once...ALL THE WAY!" She's a terrible actress, but she's so intense that it doesn't matter. Ultimately, the smooth-talking Bill conquers the monumental task of gaining Doris' trust, which makes his leering, smirking betrayal of it later on even more disturbing.

Meanwhile, back at the country house, Bill's skittish assistant Kurt is on pins and needles. Not only does he have to contend with baby-sitting Jan's increasingly yakky head, but he's also freaking out about the dreaded thing in the closet. Yes, Bill's earlier experiments in limb-grafting have resulted in a horrifically-mutated monster that must be confined in a closet and fed through a tiny window in the door, and lately it's been getting restless. The thing in the closet is often referred to throughout the movie with such dread that it builds up a considerable amount of suspense--especially when Jan begins to form a telepathic connection with it and plans to use it to get revenge against Bill for what he's scheming to do.

Leslie Daniels plays Kurt with a wildly-theatrical style that might actually go over nicely if you were sitting in the back row of a theater, but up close he's like a character from a Jay Ward cartoon. Like so many of the other actors in this movie, he gives the part his all and performs as though the script were written by Shakespeare instead of guys named Rex Carlton and Joseph Green. He has some really entertaining dialogue scenes with Jan, and they're directed in a way that convinces us he's talking to a disembodied head.

His demise, after an unfortunate encounter with the thing in the closet, has to be seen to be believed. It's the quintessential death-scene cliche, as performed by every little kid who ever pretended to get stabbed with a sword while rehearsing for the school play, and it goes on for several minutes while Kurt staggers violently from one set to another and back, smearing blood all over the walls as he lurches about in his final throes. I've never seen anything like it.

Top acting honors, however, must go to Virginia Leith as Jan. If the critics thought Richard Dreyfuss' performance as a quadraplegic in WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? was impressive because he only acted from the neck up, then surely Virginia must get equal credit for acting only from the chin up. She does a marvelous job with her expressions, eye movements, and voice to convey her initial despair at being a disembodied head that should be "in its grave" (her plaintive cry, "Let me die...let me die" is haunting).

Later, her concern over Bill's hunt for a potential victim, which she senses telepathically due to the weird life-giving fluid coursing through her brain, and finally her burning hatred and lust for revenge are very convincingly done. She has the upper hand in her talks with Kurt, gradually goading and prodding him toward his doom. And since the monster in the closet--who also wants revenge in a big way--is now under her mental control, things are really coming to a head. So to speak.

When Bill lures Doris to the house and prepares to carry out the operation, director Joseph Green stages a grand finale in which the dreaded monster finally breaks out of the closet. And even after all the build-up, we're not disappointed. The seven-and-a-half foot tall Eddie Carmel, known as "The Jewish Giant", makes quite an impression even under a bad makeup job as he goes on his final, fiery rampage.

The scene is surprisingly gory, too, for a pre-BLOOD FEAST film--with this and the earlier blood-splattered death scene of Kurt, I'm still amazed that I got to see it uncut on TV when I was a kid. It scared the hell out of me then, its squalid and lurid atmosphere merely adding to the overall effect, and to this day, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE remains one of my favorite low-budget horror movies ever.

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