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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

Director: Nathan Hertz
Stars: John Agar, Joyce Meadows and Robert Fuller
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Beyond sporting a title as outrageously inviting as The Brain from Planet Arous, surely a gift to any pornographic spoofer, this film opens with what appears to be Tinkerbell dancing around the Mesa of Lost Women. No wonder director Nathan Juran insisted on having his credit changed to Nathan Hertz, though Hertz is his middle name rather than a description of the reaction his own brain had to the finished picture. It can't be good when the director is embarrassed of a feature he made, even one that kicks off with an explosion and has make up by Jack Pierce, Universal's monster maker. We soon see why: we're about to be subjected to John Agar, who married Shirley Temple and debuted opposite John Wayne and Henry Fonda in John Ford's Fort Apache, but went consistently downhill from there. This is a bad film and yet it's only partway down the ski slope of quality that ended with him in Larry Buchanan movies like Zontar: The Thing from Venus.

He's Steve March and he's saddled with opening dialogue that nobody could really do anything with. 'I don't understand it,' he says. 'It doesn't make any sense.' He sounds like he's trying not to trip over his tongue, even when it isn't attempting words like 'nucleometer'. He's a nuclear scientist, you see, though any credibility he and his Geiger counter might have is unfortunately soon lost. The intermittent blasts of gamma radiation he's trying to figure out are coming from the base of a mountain, or perhaps inside the mountain itself. It's not just its name, it's the way Steve tells his friend and colleague Dan Murphy. 'Something going on over at Mystery Mountain,' he suggests and if anyone watching today doesn't immediately get a strong visual of Scooby Doo and the gang, I'll buy them a five foot tall sandwich. 'Got to be spooks,' replies Dan. Don't they realise it's always the janitor who'd have got away with it too if it wasn't for you pesky kids?

Mystery Mountain is the most godforsaken spot on the desert, Steve tells us. By the way, I should reiterate that Steve is John Agar's character, just in case you'd forgotten. Apparently the people who made this film were in fear of you forgetting his name because everyone keeps calling him Steve, over and over. If we had to take a shot of something every time someone mentions the name Steve, we'd be soused before we ever got to Ro-Man's cave from Robot Monster. Yes, this film was shot in Bronson Canyon, like an amazing number of others, so Mystery Mountain turns out to be the most recognisable heap of rock in California that doesn't have a Hollywood sign on it. Everyone who's seen a B movie knows Bronson Canyon, but here we're supposed to believe that nobody goes there. 'Hasn't seen a human being since 1900, when the prospectors gave it up,' Dan tells Steve's fiancée, Sally Fallon, who's only in the picture to make everyone lunch.

Unfortunately nobody checked the script for consistency because it turns out that everyone and their dog hangs out at Mystery Mountain. Even Steve finds Ro-Man's cave because he notices a stack of rocks that wasn't there last winter. How would he know? To recognise heaps of rocks in the middle of a desert he must spend half his life at Mystery Mountain, taking pictures of heaps of rocks. Steve and Dan wander into this new cave to take a look around. Steve has a flashlight and a hairdryer. Dan has a flashlight and a Geiger counter. And a rifle. He'll need that when they notice a strange radioactive light. 'We don't want any trouble but we're armed in case you are,' warns Steve as the pair promptly trap themselves down one of the passages. No, the light isn't Ro-Man's bubble machine, it's a huge transparent floating brain with languorous eyes, so they shoot it. Then they drop their guns and fall to the ground in pain while the brain looks at them.

Given that Steve is an utterly generic all American man masquerading as a nuclear scientist, the brain gets to be both the film's character and comic relief by descending into Steve's body. Yes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers had been made the year before and scriptwriter Ray Buffum was paying attention, but he went to uninentional comic lengths with his version. The brain turns out to be Gor, not just an extra-terrestrial but also a criminal, a terrorist and a lecherous lunatic. Why a disembodied alien intelligence lusts after a human female the moment it acquires testicles, I have no clue, but once Steve's body gets back to Sally's house, he slaps a kiss on her like she's never experienced before. A few more of those and he starts ripping off her clothes. We'd be in for a rape scene if this wasn't 1957 and Sally's dog didn't interrupt. If this was Japanese, it would be called Alien Brain Rape Complex and we'd have cute Gor action figures to play with.
Fortunately Sally is played by Canadian actress Joyce Meadows, because she combines Lauren Bacall's set jaw with Elizabeth Montgomery's pixie nose and so can appear at once rather happy with the new vigorous Steve but indignant when she feels he's gone too far. Unfortunately Steve is still played by John Agar so we're not surprised when he bends over with stomach cramps and pretends it's a toothache. He storms indoors because he's been home for five minutes but hasn't got any, and Gor promptly emerges from his body for no apparent reason other than to explain his character motivation, because you know, disembodied intelligences can pout and gloat just like any James Bond supervillain. He wants Steve because he's a nuclear scientist and so can go to the places Gor wants to go and do the things Gor wants to do. But enough of that. Who cares about global domination when you can hold a man powerless while you lech after his girl?

'I chose your body very carefully,' he tells Steve, even though we remember a choice of precisely two guys in a cave, adding, 'even before I knew about Sally, a very exciting female.' Gor sounds like Cleveland in Family Guy, as played by Patrick MacNee, but with words more suited to Glenn Quagmire. I waited for a 'giggety giggety' but it never came. 'Why?' he leches. 'She appeals to me.' He calls Steve 'savage' like it's the Arous equivalent of 'boy' and relishes tormenting him. 'It is you who were touching her!' he reminds him. 'She'll do very nicely!' Now, while Gor is wasting time like a twelve year old bully, Sally and her father have decided to do something about the situation. They head out to Mystery Mountain, quickly finding Ro-Man's cave because even Sally knows this godforsaken place that hasn't seen a human being since 1900. 'I've been out here with Steve before and I know that cave wasn't here,' she tells her dad. Vol wasn't there either.

Vol is another brain, who looks precisely like Gor, probably because it's exactly the same footage but the Fallons don't feel afraid when he materialises, even though they've just discovered the radiation scarred corpse of Dan Murphy in the cave. 'Do not be afraid. I am a friend.' says Vol. He's a mild mannered cop who's chased Gor all the way to Earth to bring him to extra-terrestrial justice, but apparently chose to do so by hanging around in the middle of the desert until the Fallons showed up. He's so in tune with human nature that he expects them to keep quiet about the Earth becoming a battleground for two disembodied alien intelligences. Of course nobody would tell anyone that they talked with a floating brain. Nobody would invite Geraldo Rivera to film the thing when it arrives as promised back at their house the next night. Nobody would let The Weekly World News know about it possessing Sally's dog, George. Nah, Vol's a nice guy.

Gor isn't nice in the slightest. 'I will enjoy being you tonight,' Gor tells Steve, because he can't resist leaving his body just to gloat at him all the time. 'She gives me a very strange, very new elation,' he raves about Sally because such is the mindset of one of the greatest intellects in a world where intelligence is all. Never mind the fact that he can blow up planes with his magic eyes, which are suitably freaky through Agar wearing contact lenses lined with metal foil. Ouch. Never mind Gor's ability to travel to other planets and possessing bodies, let's concentrate on how much he can lech after the Earth women and laugh at their boyfriends. What is this? Wish fulfilment fantasies of ten year old boys? Next he'll be promising untold power for collaboration. Yep, that's next on Gor's checklist. 'Through me you shall have powers such as no man has even seen before in the history of your planet,' he promises, 'the power of pure intellect.'

Vol has already explained that Gor is insane for power and sure enough, he soon demonstrates how he's going to get it. Steve finagles his way into some atomic tests at Indian Springs and sets off a nuclear blast without using any of the bombs they have on site. He just pops in his metal foil contacts and looks out of the window. They shoot him when he gets overtly megalomaniacal but he just carries on regardless, decreeing that he wants representatives there in person that evening from each of the major countries. Anyone who doesn't show up will forfeit their capital city, he tells them, and so everyone naturally gets there in time. There's some serious trust here, because this sort of thing didn't work in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Klaatu didn't escalate the way Gor does. It works here because we're already in the last fifteen minutes and we need to find out his demands and then work out how Vol is going to save the day.
The demands are utterly outrageous. I've always wondered about the demands of supervillains because there has to be a line across which nobody will cross. A million dollars? Sure. A billion dollars? Maybe. It's only money, right? Sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads? I could even believe something that wild over what we get in this picture! Gor wants everything. All the world's supplies of uranium and plutonium. All the factories and industrial facilities. The railroads and shipping. The workers too to build the most powerful invasion force ever gathered anywhere in the universe. He even wants the UN Building. He wants to build interplanetary rockets so that he can invade Arous and become the master of the universe. He's He-Man! Somehow he forgot to ask for Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Bettie Page or maybe the Playboy Mansion, given how lecherous he's supposed to be in human form, but time is short in a 70 minute picture.

We do at least get some megalomaniacal laughter, which is long overdue, but John Agar really isn't one of the great megalomaniacs of the screen and his laughter is pretty pathetic. Gor's is a little better because his laugh doesn't belong to Agar, it belongs to Dale Tate. Tate was one of the producers on the film but he also provided the voices of both Gor and Vol as well as briefly playing a professor who carries his name. Agar is far better pretending he's Orson Welles in The Third Man, because he's pretty good at that. At one point the local sheriff arrives with news that he's discovered Dan Murphy's body in Ro-Man's cave, even though it hasn't seen a human being since 1900, and Gor, in Steve's body, just plays with him, exuding that self-satisfied confidence that Welles was so iconically good at. In fact these are the best scenes Agar gets, except maybe an odd shot where he stands up behind a huge jar so he looks like a circus freak.

For some reason The Brain from Planet Arous has become a popular reference point, probably because of the finalé which pops out of nowhere with astonishing convenience to combine a whole movie's worth of bad all in one blistering scene. Steve's flailing axework on Gor's fissure of Rolando even got sampled into the opening credits of Malcolm in the Middle. It even throws in an outrageously sexist last line just so the few women in the audience can look daggers at their boyfriends. Perhaps the only actual positive note to the ending is that it's so jarring that the rest of the film almost vanishes from our memory in shock and with it all the gaping plot holes that we've been wondering about all along. My favourite was how nobody has any problem with the whole extra-terrestrial concept. No, the downed plane with its strange metal couldn't be secret Russian technology two years after the signing of the Warsaw Pact. Nah, alien brains, of course.

Maybe its initial success came through a coincidence almost as large as the one that generates the film's finalé. The Brain from Planet Arous, with its distinctly good guy and bad guy brains and villainous demands for infrastructure to build interplanetary rockets, was released to cinemas on 1st October, 1957. Three days later, the Russians launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite that would go on to orbit the planet 1,440 times. To Americans this was a punch to the gut and to the sort of Americans who were thriving on pulp scifi movies it must have seemed like the end of the world, unavoidable proof of Russian dominance at the worst possible time. In his horror memoir, Danse Macabre, Stephen King revealed that he was in a movie theater watching Earth vs the Flying Saucers when the manager stopped the film to announce that Sputnik 1 was in orbit. Given that that film was a year old, he could easily have been watching this instead.

Today, there's no context unless we look for it. We could enthuse about the very idea of a cop chasing a crook, who both just happen to be disembodied alien brains, but it's no action piece. Gor is more of a pulp supervillain than a crook and Vol really doesn't do anything. He doesn't even get to make George do tricks. We could comment on yet another awful film in John Agar's outrageously bad filmography, but however bad it gets it's a few layers of quality over anything he made for Larry Buchanan. Beyond Agar, nobody is really worthy of mention, as they aren't given any opportunity either to shine or to earn undying ridicule. They're just the other guys in the movie. The real stars are the brains, but they're just visual effects all the way through to that overly convenient finale where Gor bounces around Steve's lab as if he's a brain balloon on a brain stem string and Vol just disappears. It's hardly the sort of iconic memory it really needs.

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