Thursday 11 February 2010

They Saved Hitler's Brain (1976)

Director: David Bradley
Stars: Audrey Caire, Walter Stocker and Carlos Rivas

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.

They Saved Hitler's Brain is one of the greatest movie titles in existence, one that just exudes badness in the most awesome way. I've wanted to see it for years but hadn't realised that it would highlight to me a whole new subset of bad movies that I didn't even know existed, the precise opposite of something that plagued me in England growing up. It's not difficult to see why some movies being shown on television would be cut for content, especially exploitation films. However I saw films on TV like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home that were cut too, films that contained absolutely nothing that might warrant censorship.

Eventually I realised that the real reason was to allow a film to fit into a slightly shorter scheduling slot than its running time would allow. What I never dreamed of was that the opposite might exist too, that there might be films that were padded out to fill a broadcast slot that was too long. How could they possibly do such a thing? Well in the States in the seventies many films were broadcast in a regular two hour slot, of which a quarter was devoted to commercial breaks. This was fine for regular ninety minute movies, but some distributors had shorter product on their books that they wanted to sell to TV. One great example is a 1963 film called The Madmen of Mandoras, owned by distributor Crown International.

When Crown started licensing their product to TV, its mere 64 minute running time wasn't anywhere near long enough, so they hired Donald Hulette, a composer and director at Paragon Films, to shoot extra footage to splice into the picture they already had, by then over a decade old. He did this by adding subplots with utterly unknown actors from UCLA whose names are mostly lost to posterity and so bulked it up to 91 minutes, calling the new picture They Saved Hitler's Brain, a bastard child that popped out around 1976. Hulette did this for (or should I say 'to'?) many movies around this time and got rather ingenious about how he did it. However, as I'm sure you can imagine, this had a tendency to just make bad material worse and that's certainly the case here. Bad movies breed drinking games and this one could work on the introduction of new characters, because they never quit coming.

In fact, in They Saved Hitler's Brain it takes what seems like forever to work out who we're actually supposed to be watching. For a while it feels like a twelve part movie serial compressed into a mere fraction of its length so we effectively get to see the Cliff Notes version in a succession of cliffhangers. Initially we think the focus is Dr Barnard, a chemist at the El Camino Technological Institute, who's about to bring the formula of the only known antidote to G Gas to Russ Van Pelt at CID Headquarters. But no! Staring straight at the camera to enforce that he's a sinister government agent is a man looking suspiciously like Ron Jeremy auditioning for Men in Black, and sure enough, he and his colleague, who together rather closely resemble the Blues Brothers, promptly plant a bomb in Barnard's car and that's the end of him.

Barnard's mistake was to not realise that Van Pelt is really a villain who is out to destroy the only copy of the formula in existence, and sure enough his techs are truly amazing people who are able to confirm his success. Somehow they can prove not only that the formula was with Barnard in his vehicle when it exploded in the forecourt of a gas station but also that he hadn't made another copy beforehand. These techs are so disconnected from reality that they must work for CSI: Miami. Even Vic Gilbert, the man conveniently sitting opposite Van Pelt in his office when he explains this to him, knows that Barnard copied it from the work of Prof John Coleman. So off go Gilbert and a chunky young investigator called Toni Gordon on some wild goose chase or other while we get some explanations.

What is G Gas, you ask? Well it's to humans what DDT is to flies and we get to see what it can do by watching some random stock footage of an elephant lying down. Apparently many nations have the gas but only the Americans have the antidote. Coleman knows the formula and he explains to some VIP types that he's only one of a few, but he'll be shortly presenting it at the International Chemical Warfare Conference in Washington. I didn't know there was such a thing but it sounds pretty groovy, especially when it's apparently all about spilling secrets. Villainous Van Pelt has to eliminate him, of course, before he can pass his formula on to the world, so he calls Coleman over to his daughter's apartment so he and his ​trusty Blues Brothers can kidnap him.

But wait! Gordon has smelt a rat (or a red herring) and is right there outside the apartment in her VW Bug when it happens. She follows them to their lair and crouches outside the window to hear them spill about a secret Nazi plot in a South American country called Mandoras. Unfortunately she's a little big boned and rather clumsy with it so they hear her too, chase her down and shoot her dead in a public phone box, apparently petrified to the spot. So, with Barnard dead, Gordon dead and Coleman kidnapped, our hero must be Vic Gilbert, right? Toni manages to ring him just before she dies and passes on to him the address to the villain's lair. Unfortunately while Gilbert may know things he's a pretty useless tough guy. He turns up only to discover Van Pelt's true colours and be shot dead.

But no! He's rescued by Toni Gordon, who is mysteriously resurrected just long enough to save his life, kill Van Pelt, tell Gilbert to get out of the house, even though she's the one who invited him, and then drop dead on the floor. What a girl! So off goes Gilbert, with the Blues Brothers in hot pursuit. Gilbert is such a bad hero that he even falls asleep at the wheel during a car chase, probably because the film just isn't exciting enough. He runs off the road, and rolls his car into an electrical substation in stock footage from Thunder Road. That's the end of him and we wonder just who the heck we're supposed to be watching because everyone's dead.

Well, what we've been watching all this time is all that extra footage that Donald Hulette shot and it really has nothing to do with our real story. It's all distraction, meaning that we've just spent 25 minutes trying to fathom out what's going on when instead we should have closed our eyes and ignored the whole thing. I wish I had! The only major character from The Madmen of Mandoras we've actually seen thus far is Prof Coleman, with a few others briefly introduced in the background. Coleman's assistant is Frank Dvorak, his daughter is Suzanne and her artist fiancé, who we found knocked senseless on her apartment floor, is David Garrick. Also popping up at odd points and looking suspicious is some nervous Hispanic guy called Teo Padua.

So which one do you think the hero is? I'll bet you a million bucks you haven't worked it out. Wanna try me? Well, he's Phil Day. Yep, Phil Day. We haven't met him yet. He's Coleman's son-in-law, having married Suzanne's elder sister Kathy, who goes by KC even though those aren't her initials any more. We haven't met her yet either. You see why this film is confusing now?

Once they finally turn up, Phil and KC are thrown right into the intrigue, by being kidnapped by Teo who begins to explain things to them as they drive, only to be promptly shot dead at the next stop sign by the Blues Brothers who were conveniently right behind them. Somehow the Days don't see or hear the shot even though it comes from the only other vehicle on the road which is a mere foot or so away from them, so they leave the corpse in a phone booth and fly out to Mandoras. Yeah, there are leaps here. Somehow the chief of police in Mandoras knows to be there to welcome them too, apparently without their knowledge. Nothing here remotely makes sense so the only thing to do is to back away carefully from They Saved Hitler's Brain and go back to the original material.

The Madmen of Mandoras begins with that presentation of Prof Coleman, the one with the elephant. It's a good place to start and without all that extra material it even makes sense. In fact the plot is pretty straight forward: G Gas is stupendously dangerous, Coleman has come up with an antidote and that makes him a man much in demand. The bad guys kidnap him and his daughter Suzanne and whisk them away to Mandoras. Teo Padua is a good guy from Mandoras who has tried to reach Coleman before this happens without luck, so after the professor's kidnapping tries to enlist the help of his other daughter Kathy and her husband, Phil Day the CID agent. Teo is shot dead before he can tell them much, so off they fly to Mandoras to investigate. It almost seems like a real film.

There are still problems, of course, it's just that, unlike They Saved Hitler's Brain, continuity isn't one of them. There are wild and overblown claims, Coleman explaining that 'the loss or destruction of the formula for this antidote would mean complete annihilation of the world.' There are little but highly noticeable goofs, like the antidote Coleman has pefected which is 'more powerful, with almost positive results.' Almost positive, huh? The dialogue is predictable but capable, as is the camerawork, courtesy of Stanley Cortez whose career veered wildly between high profile pictures like The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter to outrageous material like The Navy vs The Night Monsters and Dinosaurus!

There's bad acting, certainly, but I've seen a lot worse, and the actors are hindered by the fact that most of the characters are transparently either good or bad. There's not a lot here that fits anywhere between wholesome and heroic all American on one side and sinister and villainous Nazi on the other. Only Police Chief Alaniz has vague allegiances, in a very Sidney Greenstreet manner, but actor Nestor Paiva is hardly up to Greenstreet's standards. He meets the Days at the airport to take them to the Hotel Mandoras, which is like having a Hotel United States or a Hotel England. Maybe the country is so small that it's the only hotel they have. Maybe that's why I've never heard of it.

Alaniz is one of a few secondary characters introduced when the Days arrive in Mandoras, who are a mixed bunch. Suzanne Coleman is a painfully embarrassing hepcat they find dancing the night away in a bar, seeming like she's really in a different movie. I wish that she had been. Keith Dahle is almost as embarrassing as a stereotypical Texas mining exec who is the only other passenger on the plane and ends up pouting about not getting his own way. Quite why he thought he'd be able to when he's working for Adolf Hitler I have no clue. Carlos Rivas is better in his double role as both Teo Padua and his brother Camino, the sons of Juan, the president of Mandoras, though his sincerity does get grating.

It's Camino who provides the real background to our story, after sneaking into the Days' hotel room to tell them. It began on 1 May 1945, with the announcement of Hitler's death. Dönitz takes over, but was Hitler really dead? That's what everyone was asking, apparently. Teo was a lab tech in Hitler's bunker, which apparently the Führer rarely left, probably on account of the size of his schnozz which makes him appear more than a little Jewish. All those other Hitlers, the ones with charisma enough to sway a nation at great events, were apparently just bad doubles. Camino explains how Mr H (he's on great terms apparently) is not dead, though he's not really alive either. How could that be? Well the filmmakers do try to build suspense here as to the how of it but they were a little more successful when the film wasn't called They Saved Hitler's Brain, which is about as much of a giveaway as could comfortably be imagined.

It also isn't just his brain they saved, it's his whole head and it's being kept in a glass jar, just like the Futurama Nixon, alive and hooked up to some sort of machine. Matt Groening obviously paid attention which makes me wonder if there should be an umlaut on his name somewhere. What does he have hiding in his basement? Ever seen him with a canister of G Gas? Anyway, you might expect that the Nazis might keep the head of their Führer, from their point of view the only hope for their particular brand of future, in a vast hall that looks something like a grand Aryan shrine, but no. Here he's kept on a plinth in the junction of two corridors with a vastly distorted swastika above his head. Not only that but it looks like the precise same junction of two corridors that was used in the flashbacks to Hitler's bunker in Berlin.

The sets aren't exactly ambitious here, even when the lighting is good. Generally the lighting is highly capable but there are exceptions, notably in the scene where we first see a swastika. It's on an armband wrapped around a headless, three armed, three legged Nazi monster waiting outside the door to a cell where Prof Coleman has been bombarded with light and sound in much the same way as your random German nightclub. It turns out to be David Garrick and Frank Dvorak, the sinister villains who we're supposed to recognise as such only now with swastikas on their arms. Really we knew they were Nazis from moment one just as we recognise Hitler when we meet him, though with that huge nose he's more like a Mel Brooks Hitler and I kept waiting for the Jewish accent Brooks used for the Indian Chief in Blazing Saddles.

The Madmen of Mandoras is not a good film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not as stunningly awful as you might expect. Sure, there are magic grenades that obviously explode in front of things only for follow up shots to show complete devastation; there's the twitchy Hitler head that gets carried around on the back seat of a car, without even a seatbelt, and never speaks; there's the way palace escapees stand around outside talking while the sirens wail and the bad guys must be chasing after them. But I can't quite resist a film that ends with the severed head of Adolf Hitler melting in the flames in something of a slow motion precursor to Major Toht's notable face melt during the unveiling of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

However They Saved Hitler's Brain is far worse. It's truly awful because even the good parts of The Madmen of Mandoras are submerged into a morass of confusion. I can admire David Hulette's ingenuity but his extra footage is horrible. While he did shoot in black and white, this material was obviously made many years later without any real attempt to match styles. One black Lincoln continental just doesn't count. What's worst though is the fact that the extra stuff comes at the very beginning of the film. If it had been spliced into the middle, perhaps it would have been easier to ignore, but it's the first thing we see and so naturally pay close attention to in an attempt to fathom out what's going on. The end result is that for half its running time They Saved Hitler's Brain has to be the most annoyingly confusing mess of a picture I've ever seen. Only when Mr H turns up do we start having some muted fun.

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