Thursday 18 March 2010

The Brainiac (1962)

Director: Chano Urueta
Stars: Abel Salazar, Ariadne Welter, David Silva and Germán Robles
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.

One of the most annoying things about living in west Phoenix with its large Hispanic population is discovering that the cheap and plentiful supply of bizarre Mexican films in stores around the valley never come with subtitles. It's like being a child in a world of candy but being forbidden to eat anything. One day I'm going to need to learn Spanish just to be able to understand what's going on in bad Mexican wrestling and horror movies. So to me, K Gordon Murray is a godsend. He was a American film producer, often known as 'the King of the Kiddie Matinee' and what he did was to take these Mexican films, give them outrageous new titles and dub them into English so we single language speakers can understand them.

Unfortunately for him but fortunately for us, the IRS seized his back catalogue because of tax issues he was going through but before he could contest the situation in court he died of a heart attack, leaving them in the public domain. I think I picked up my copy of The Brainiac at a dollar store somewhere, hardly a worthy price for such a delightful piece of Hispanic insanity. Murray, as his nickname suggests, mostly went for children's fairy tales, including many adaptations of the works of the Brothers Grimm and a series of Little Red Riding Hood movies. Yet even these are often strange gems, such as the notorious Santa Claus, possibly his biggest success, given that this Santa is an alien who battles a demon sent by Lucifer while visiting Earth on his mechanical reindeer. How can you go wrong with that?

This one is far from a fairy tale, being a low budget horror movie originally titled The Baron of Terror and released in 1962. It's a tale of legend, about a cruel sorcerer called Baron Vitelius d'Estera who has run afoul of the Spanish Inquisition. They're a rather ineffectual Spanish Inquisition though, one who have apparently not heard of fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, as we find out in the early scenes. 'We the grand inquistors,' begin the Grand Inquisitors, promptly yammering on about a charge of heresy against the Baron in some secret chamber before finally picking up a scroll to start actually reading. Spanish must be a really economical language and there's no way the rapid fire English dubbing can cover it all in time, but thankfully we don't have to worry about lip synching because they're all wearing hoods.

This is New Spain in 1661 and the Holy Inquisition doesn't like things like sorcery, conjuring or necromancy, as you might expect. They don't like people telling the future through use of corpses either, even though that sounds rather intriguing. What's more the Baron even seduces married women! And maidens! Yes, those are two separate charges, seducing maidens being apparently more wildly inappropriate than married women. Perhaps they're underage. And so these inquisitors sentence him to be subjected to torment, as far as is justified. Yes, these guys are all about ruthless torture, but only as far as is justified, presumably stopping after two eyes or ten fingers or something.

Naturally he'll be proved guilty if such torture results in his being maimed or his blood being drawn. I'd suggest that if his blood wasn't drawn during torture they really need a lot more practice, but Baron Vitelius is apparently a rather powerful man, so much so that he laughs with disdain at their tortures. He welcomes their torment, in fact he eggs them on because he thoroughly enjoys it, but all we see is his startlingly unharmed body relaxing in this mediaeval torture chamber like it was a tiki bar and he was Dean Martin waiting for a drink. No wonder the hooded inquisitors are pissed off, so much so that when a mysterious Portuguese man turns up to speak in the Baron's defence, they ask him to be honest and then give him two hundred lashes for disagreeing with them. Pretty tough, huh? Nobody expects... etc etc.

Anyway, Baron Vitelius makes the chains that bind him vanish into thin air to reappear instead on the legs on his inquisitors, not because he wants to escape but just through some quirky sense of humour or something. Those wacky mediaeval sorcerers! So rather than using his vast powers to kill them all and escape, he decides to let them dress him in the clothes of shame, which strangely makes him look like the Pope, and then burn him alive in a field. Perhaps, as a student of astronomy, he knew that his earthly demise would coincide with someone holding up to the screen a badly drawn comet so that he could hitch a magical ride three hundred years into the future. And that's what he does, after pledging to return and wipe the bloodlines of his four tormentors from the face of the Earth.

That means swinging 1961 where a young couple of comet following astronomers are kicking up their heels but decide to wander off to visit Prof Millán at the observatory on the very night that the Baron's comet is due to return. Sometimes bad writing just thrives on coincidence, like the fact that their professor doesn't even tell them about it until they get there. He has a stack of old books that talk about the Baron's comet in detail. 'Comet seen,' they say, which means that it'll be visible at 2.36am precisely. In other words, about now. He tells us that time, by the way, I didn't just make it up, but even with such accuracy he keeps it all secret until 2.35am. Nonetheless, it isn't there. 'It's not possible,' the Professor says when Ronnie Miranda can't find it in a full ten seconds. 'I think something's gone wrong.' With the cosmos. Yeah!
Fortunately Ronnie's fiancée Maria isn't as much of a complete idiot. 'How beautiful it is,' she says, as it turns into a firework, flashing sparks off the screen. It turns into much more than that too, descending in the form of a chunk of rock slowly to the ground, to then magically turn into a weirdly growling werewolf monster with the inevitable accompanying swirl of mist. I'm sure you want an explanation here but I'm a little hard pressed to come up with one. It can only seem that the Baron is powerful enough to survive being burned alive, hitch a ride on a comet, thrive for three hundred years without air or food and get back to the precise spot he left at the precise time he promised, yet just forget to stay human in the process. To do that he needs to suck brains.

So he finds a convenient victim seemingly waiting for him, so he can rape his brain by sticking a long forked tongue into the back of his head to slurp out his brains. If this wasn't a black and white film, we just know he'd be wearing a red shirt. Then he finds a drunk bar girl for dessert. 'You're sweet,' she says, because he's the only other person in the bar. 'I'm afraid,' she adds, probably because he just stands there looking at her, but she buys him a drink anyway and plants a kiss on his lips. Presumably she's looking for something more animalistic than just conversation, the little slut, but that's what she gets, because he promptly turns into the weird furball with a pulsating head, a pair of lobster claws and a huge forked tongue. You'd think that a huge forked tongue might be dream material but it wasn't to be. He just sucks out her brain.

You know that there has to be a little more to things than this and sure enough the Baron isn't just some brain slurping version of Jason Voorhees. He's suave and sophisticated, at least when he hasn't been kissed by a young lady, and he has a weird hypnotic technique that involves him doing precisely nothing while someone flashes a light on and off in front of his eyes. In the form of veteran Mexican actor Abel Salazar he's also something of a dish and women just throw themselves at him. One asks him for a match in the street, presumably some sort of Mexican prostitute code, and starts sucking on his face, so he returns the favour by sucking on her brains. It's like he's living in an all you can eat buffet and the food keeps screaming, 'Pick me!'

Beyond the magical powers he possesses, which I should add include the ability to turn invisible at will, he also has the benefit that Federico Curiel and Adolfo López Portillo, who wrote the script, haven't a clue how to write anything except conveniences and plot holes. Nobody has a clue who the Baron is because he hasn't been around for three hundred years but somehow they know his reputation as a gentleman. Bodies start turning up with the brains sucked out at precisely the same time he did but the cops don't connect the two. 'It probably was some maniac who thought he was cracking a safe!' says one of them. The Baron can also invite all his targets to the castle he promptly acquires and look them over, then bump them off one family at a time without anyone noticing the coincidence.

This party seems to be there entirely so we can see who the descendants are, inquisitor faces superimposed over those of their descendants even though they're played by precisely the same actors. To be fair two are now women but the names already gave it away. So Luis Meneses looks precisely the same as his ancestor Baltasar de Meneses, because they're both René Cardona; and Prof Indalecio Pantoja looks precisely the same as Sebastian Pantoja, because they're both Mexican horror legend Germán Robles. Ana Luisa Vivar doesn't look at all like Erlindo a Vivar because she's a girl but they superimpose her ancestor's face anyway just so we can't confuse her for anyone else.

That leaves Victoria Contreras, descendant of Alvaro Contreras, and here's where the Baron gets caught up in a quandary. She must die because he's pledged to purge the bloodlines of the inquisitors who put him to death, but she's engaged to Ronald Miranda, who you will be dumbstruck in surprise to find is the descendant of that Portuguese witness, Marcos Miranda, who took a hundred lashes for the Baron back in 1661. What's a poor revenge crazed, brain sucking monster to do? Well naturally he just has to ignore such a problem until he's disposed of everyone else first and added to his secret stash of brains that he keeps in a jar in a locked cabinet and sups from whenever nobody's looking. That's 'his medicine,' you know, because he 'once had a very strange disease.' I so need to use that line next time someone offers me a drink. 'It so happens liquor does me damage. I once had a very strange disease.' Then I can flash a light in my eyes and suck out their brains.

He has so much fun disposing of his victims too. Prof Pantoja has a daughter, Maria Pantoja, a smouldering beauty with a father who gets scarily bug eyed when the Baron hypnotises him into paralysis. He only gets more bug eyed as he seduces his daughter in front of him just to prove he can and then sucks both their brains out. Then it's Luis Meneses and his wife and the same goes here. He seduces the wife then sucks out her brains even though he attacks her from the front. His tongue is longer than that of Gene Simmons but apparently just as versatile. Ana Luisa Vivar doesn't get to be seduced in front of her boyfriend because she faints clear away and that boyfriend is already doing a handstand in the bathtub with his head underwater. Apparently in the magical world of Baron Vitelius, even corpses don't obey the laws of gravity.

This is amazing stuff and there's so much here to love. I haven't even mentioned the cops yet, of which there are two because that's apparently the entire local police force, one detective inspector and a sidekick detective for comic relief. Oh, and there's a coroner too. Perhaps there are only two cops because they have so little budget that they have to take odd jobs like policing the Baron's party of carefully selected guests in case jewel thieves turn up. The rest of the budget obviously went on their sixties Mexican ghostbuster costumes, which come out of nowhere and stun us into disbelief. Who you gonna call?

The detective inspector is David Silva, who is bald headed and big enough to be a wrestler. Naturally they dub him with a soft voice, laid back and dreamy. 'I wish they'd find some way to control the subjects a man studies,' he says because the coroner believes the killer knows about anatomy. 'A maniac with a lot of knowledge is a threat.' He should move to Texas. His sidekick Danny is played by Federico Curiel who looks like a bad American businessman but through dubbing sounds more like Ted Raimi. 'Right, chief?' he says a lot, because he's never sure of anything. 'Make sure you tag the bones well,' he tells a cleanup crew at one point, 'because if you miss one I might get mixed up.' He's a scream, and I wish he would.

What's so magical about this film is that it's so cool but any time you attempt to analyse it the whole thing falls apart like a house of cards because it's glued together with distraction. For instance our young heroes, Ronnie Miranda and Veronica Contreras, are budding young astronomers who leave a party to go see the Baron's comet even though they have no idea it's there. Yet later on, they decide to ignore the perplexing conundrum of science tied to this comet apparently disappearing into thin air to go to a different party, even dragging the Professor along for a lark. At one point the Baron visits the museum that stands where the Inquisitors' crematorium used to be purely so that we know what it is when the cops decide to go hang out there later, because hey, maybe the serial killer who's been sucking out brains all over town might be tied in to the Spanish Inquisition or something. Like, huh?

As an introduction to bad Mexican horror, you simply can't go wrong with The Brainiac. It has everything you could possibly want except zombies. The monster is memorably freakish, with its snapping lobster claws and that huge flopping forked tongue that is frequently taunting and deliciously pornographic. It's like the filmmakers weren't sure at all what they wanted to create so decided to combine a vampire, a werewolf and a sea monster all together, with plenty of hobgoblin to boot. Perhaps their confusion ties to the fact that there's precisely no reason for there to even be a monster in the first place, just a sorcerer bent on centuried vengeance. Abel Salazar certainly isn't too cool to play less hairy monsters, given that he was Dr Enrique Saldivar in a couple of vampire movies a few years earlier, The Vampire and The Vampire's Coffin.

Many of the actors here have pedigrees in horror, though Salazar came to it late in his eclectic career. After sixty or so dramas, adventures and romances, he found a niche with The Vampire and promptly followed up with The Man and the Monster, The Living Head and The Curse of the Crying Woman, all made for Cinematográfica ABSA, which also made The Brainiac. Germán Robles is the most famous genre actor, playing two generations of Pantojas here, both inquisitor and eventual victim. He debuted in those two Abel Salazar vampire movies and is still making films today, including a string of movies as an aristocratic vampire called Nostradamus, the Jess Franco/Soledad Miranda movie She Killed in Ecstasy and Albert Zugsmith films like The Chinese Room and The Phantom Gunslinger.

I so have to find a Germán Robles movie called Neutron Battles the Karate Assassins because a film with a title like that deserves to be reviewed for Cinema Head Cheese. Watch this space. Perhaps I'll get diverted into other films by director Chano Urueta though. He made over a hundred movies from 1928 to 1974, many of which seem to involve outrageous genre material. The earliest seems to be The Sign of Death in 1939, which is about a wizard trying to invoke the ancient Aztec god Quetzalcoatl by sacrificing a quartet of virgins. And Gone with the Wind won the Best Picture that year? I wonder why.

Urueta's most flamboyant titles come later in his career, not just with The Witch's Mirror, The Brainiac and The Living Head but with a string of movies about luchador heroes like Blue Demon beginning in 1965. If only I could find one of these with subtitles, perhaps Blue Demon Versus the Satanic Power, Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains or The Wrestling Women Versus the Mafia. Maybe I'll just have to go back to good old K Gordon Murray who took El Santo movies and dubbed them into Samson movies for an American audience. Now, which dollar store has those?


jervaise brooke hamster said...

Hal, could you try to reveiw more films of this type (bizarre, cult, science fiction, horror) because the reveiws themselves are much more interesting and entertaining to read than the reveiws of dramas which often seem so out-moded, old-fashioned, uneventful and tedious in comparison, thanks.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

There are plenty here already and plenty more to come. I'm really enjoying working the lists and while next year will likely be the AFI Top 100, given that I'll have done most of them already as part of the IMDb Top 250, and the films that have become Top 250 movies since I grabbed the list in 2004. A bunch of those are already done too.

2012 may well be the Top 100 Cult Films list, which is far better than the more obvious 50 film lists done by Entertainment Weekly and 5 Minutes to Live. It looks like no longer exists, but a few people have preserved the list online. Here's a list with IMDb links: