Wednesday 2 June 2010

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)

Director: Joseph Green
Stars: Herb Evers, Virginia Leith and Leslie Daniels
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.
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
'Let me die!' a woman's voice repeatedly pleads before the title credits begin, in fact before we see anything. It's a disembodied voice out of nowhere that suggests a female version of Johnny Got His Gun, or at least that begins where that book and film ends. It's all very promising but sadly it's all downhill from there, which possibly explains why this was completed in 1959 under the title The Black Door but wasn't released until 1962 under its current more lurid title. It isn't without merit, as it does contain a number of memorable cult moments, not least one of the most abiding images of all sixties genre cinema, but it still can't live up to the title. It comes from the common mad scientist subgenre of horror/science fiction movies of the time but unlike their progenitor Frankenstein which remains as timeless as ever, this has already been superceded as the unholy transplantation of limbs and organs that it rages against is routinely beneficial today.

It's fascinating to watch these movies and see public opinion, as distilled through scriptwriters trying to please the largest audience possible, change over the decades. This film is only half a century old, but it already seems quaint and dated to those of us who have benefited from or know people who have benefited from the very transplant techniques that are derided by the characters as immoral, unethical and insane. Much of the problem is that the overtly schlocky characteristics of a mad scientist are so much easier to write than his more sophisticated drives, especially if you ignore the idea that science is constantly moving forward; and naturally scriptwriters of schlocky low budget genre movies from the fifties and sixties really couldn't give a transplanted rat's ass for anything sophisticated. They could happily start at 'Burn the witch!' and work backwards from there to generate a salacious heap of scientific gobbledygook.

Yes, that's what this one is, but it does make a token effort to explain where Dr Bill Cortner, our central character, is coming from. After the credits roll, we watch him assist in an operation that fails to save the life of the patient, which naturally doesn't make him happy and so he asks the lead doctor if he can try something new. 'He's dead. I can't do any harm,' he says, fed up with failing by the book. 'Very well, the corpse is yours,' says his superior. 'Do what you want to do.' Apparently the family don't care and medical ethics don't enter into it. So our rogue doctor, too polite to be either Henry Frankenstein or Herbert West, starts massaging the heart and applying electric current to the exposed brain. The corpse returns to life, with a steady pulse. 'Nothing's unbelievable if you have the nerve to experiment,' he tells the nurse. He's been working on this new technique for weeks. Yes, weeks. It really must be new!

In other words, Dr Bill Cortner is a visionary. He views the idea of being a surgeon as more than being a carpenter or a plumber and he dreams of transplants that can save the lives of many. 'It can be done!' he reiterates to his disbelieving superior, who isn't having any of it but tolerates Bill because he's his father. Yes, these folks are all tied together by far more than just a patient. The senior doctor is Dr Cortner too, Bill's father, and the nurse is Jan Compton, Bill's fiancée and dad's secretary as well. Dad's flying off to Denver for a medical convention but he leaves his son with a warning. 'The line between scientific genius and obsessive fanaticism is a thin one,' he points out. 'I want you on the right side!' While Bill's actions have been entirely appropriate thus far you know that's a revelation trigger. 'Sure, I've made a few mistakes,' replies Bill, as he's been stealing limbs from amputee victims to perform wild transplant experiments on people.

It only takes a scene or so of mild sexual innuendo to find out what sort of mistakes and how wild the experiments. A nurse brings the news: a man named Kurt rang for Bill, from the country place where he struts his experimental stuff, and he says something terrible has happened. So they race off to see what's up, just a little too fast. We see the warning signs, literally because writer/director Joseph Green makes sure of it. Bill makes it past 'winding road', 'stop' and 'curve' before he crashes horribly. He's thrown free and lands heavily on soft ground but Jan doesn't get so lucky, as we discover from a great exploitation shot from inside the burning wreck of the car with only her hand grasping up for help to show us that she's in there. He reaches down inside to retrieve something with his jacket and then runs for the country place, his eyes wide like Johnny Rotten's. It's a long run too, so much so that it becomes a stumble by the time he gets there.
Oh, the scenery chewing is outstanding and there's so much of it. I'm not sure if actor Jason Evers pictured himself as an American football player weaving through invisible opponents as he flounders through the woods and up the long steps, or whether he was looking around eagerly for more scenery to chew. He falls, he stumbles, he rests. It's all almost beyond him. It's less a pinnacle of suspense and more us wondering just how long the detached body part that he must surely have wrapped up in his jacket is going to survive and where the inevitable gouts of blood have all vanished to. He can't even open the door when he gets there, just knocks for Kurt to do it for him. Get a move on, Bill! We've come to like Virginia Leith as Jan Compton just a little and we want to see what you're going to do to bring her back from fiery death and dismemberment. It's only when Kurt tries to warn him about what's in the closet that he gets serious about time.

Kurt is Leslie Daniels, an even more unashamed chewer of scenery than Evers. Evers reserves his most outrageous chewing for the most outrageous scenes, but Daniels lets rip from moment one and never looks back. Perhaps he'd picked up his emotional acting style on the continent given that most of his eight films were shot in Italy. He only acted in one further film before specialising in directing the dubbing of Italian movies into English dialogue that he wrote. Evers appeared in a number of movies, including The Green Berets and The Illustrated Man but was better known on television where he guested on what may be every American show ever made. Virginia Leith steals this entire film though, from the twenty minute mark when she becomes something more than nurse and fiancée Jan Compton. She had acted for Kubrick in Fear and Desire and was decent in Violent Saturday but Jan in the Pan is what she'll always be known for.

Jan in the Pan is what we find after a long sequence of Bill hooking up tubes and vials and other scientific gadgetry. It seems to take an inordinate amount of time to complete given how little is hooked up once he's finished but this film has a lot of filler like that. What matters isn't how good Bill would be with a set of Meccano but what we see when he's finally finished. Eventually the camera pans over to show us the unharmed albeit severed head of Jan Compton all wrapped up in a rubber swimming cap and sitting in a pan of Bill's special compound. It's a great cult shot and it just gets better because Jan remains the most important character in the entire film but never gets out of the pan. She hasn't a scar or a blemish, just no body. It would be easy to joke about how this could be the only way Bill was going to get a little head without having to marry her, but he plans to restore her body as before, or someone's body at least.

Now, here's where we find out how inconsistent Bill is. He's obviously something entirely beyond a surgeon, more akin to a magician given that Jan in the Pan can talk, even though she doesn't have lungs or a throat or any other way of generating sound. Yet he doesn't seem to have much of a track record. There's a monster in the closet that gibbers away in some maniacal tongue, so horrible that we aren't even allowed to see it. Even Kurt has a withered and deformed left arm because Bill can't seem to keep it healthy, however many times he tries. In this world, grafting a replacement arm must be a gazillion times tougher than running the gauntlet on an invisible field for ten minutes with a severed head under your arm, then miraculously bringing it back to life without a body. Either that or he just can't be bothered to return to his early failure now that he has AdrenoSerum™ to bring to bear. It's all about how much you care, I guess. Sorry, Kurt.

What Bill cares about is a body for Jan, especially as he has fifty hours to perform the surgery, tops. Where would he find a body worthy of his bride to be? How about the local burlesque joint where the sultry strippers dance to sultry saxophone music and some guy sings 'jiggy jiggy' at odd moments. We get to see two of them: the blonde looks seriously curvacious but the brunette looks like a guy in drag. Perhaps they really were strippers, given that this was blonde Bonnie Sharie's only movie and brunette Paula Maurice had one prior credit as the proprietress of the Kooch Club in The Dead One a year earlier. Bill pulls the blonde, not that it takes much. She plants herself next to him, summons him into her dressing room, plays with his tie, strokes his chest, perpetrates every unsubtle come on in the book. All this makes her perfect: he can just dump her brain and transplant in Jan's to end up as a match made in heaven.
We keep switching back to Jan in the Pan even though she isn't doing anything interesting but after the catfight she becomes the focus. Yes, there's a catfight, albeit a tame one. In walks the brunette stripper with her prominent nipples to get changed for her act and she feels more than a little slighted by her blonde competition. Just in case we hadn't worked out why these strippers start tearing at each other on the floor, we're treated to a shot of two calendar cats on a wall and a very human meow. Oh, good grief! Fortunately we're distracted by Jan in the Pan developing supernatural powers, conversing with the monster in the closet (Jan with a questioning rasp, the monster with one knock for yes and two for no) and playing telekinetic tricks on Kurt. You can't help but admire a movie where the leading lady is reduced to being an almost immobile head but is tasked with acting through body language. The admirable Virginia Leith dominates too.

This is also the period of the film with the most memorable dialogue. It hinted at classic B movie lines early on but in Bill's absence, the country place starts rocking with awesome dialogue. The newly empowered Jan in the Pan hates Bill for what he's done to her and with the monster she can get revenge. 'Together we're both more than things,' she tells it, 'we're a power as hideous as our deformities. Together we'll rake our revenge. I shall create power and you will enforce it! You're the thing outside and I'm the thing in here.' Already a cult character, here she thrives, utterly dominant as she laughs madly at Kurt, who has great lines of his own. What's in the closet? 'Horror no normal mind could imagine, something even more terrible than you,' he says. 'Parts of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculation and often lose themselves in error and darkness. Behind that door is the sum total of Dr Cortner's mistakes.'

He keeps it up as the film runs on, so over the top that I can never tell if Leslie Daniels is being serious or not. At one point he flounces into the room and poses in the distance. 'I have come to feed your friend,' he says with presumably deliberate Bela Lugosi intonation. 'While you feed yourself with hate, it prefers food.' Thankfully, Jan in the Pan persuades the monster in the closet to rip off Kurt's good arm, so he can drag the bloody mess over every wall in the house and she can laugh hysterically as he contorts and collapses before her eyes. It's an outrageous death scene to rival Pee Wee Herman's in the Buffy movie, merely thirty years earlier. Bill doesn't see any of it because he's driving around, following gorgeous women and attending a Miss Body Beautiful contest. The humour is that he really is shopping for bodies, but he doesn't choose one, not even finalist number four who's so beautiful that finalist number five vanishes.

What's most hilarious is the fact that he's entirely honest about his intentions. Back at the strip club he tells the blonde bimbo that he's just looking around, and once he's done looking around he'll operate. When the brunette asks him to come back later because she'll remember him, he points out that that's what he's afraid of. When he finds an old friend called Donna on the street, he calls her just what the doctor ordered and promises not to hurt her friend. By the time his quest leads him to the nicest body Donna has ever seen, which it patently isn't, given that it belongs to short and scrawny actress Adele Lamont, he tells her that he'll cut her face off and give her body away. 'Do I look like a maniac who goes around killing girls?' he asks her back at the house. She hates all men but she'll do anything to get her acid scarred face fixed and he's counting on that. 'Here's to your future,' he tells her, giving her a sedative. 'Whatever it may be.'

What he doesn't realise is that his severed head of a fiancée has been developing acute psychic powers and she's been tuned into his thoughts throughout his search. She doesn't want Doris's undernourished five foot frame, perhaps as she believes it'll wither away like Kurt's left arm and it was pretty withered to begin with. 'I want you as a complete woman not part of one,' he tells her but has to finally face the truth that she doesn't want it the way he does. 'Can't stop me,' she tells him, though he responds in the most outrageously male fashion imaginable and tapes her mouth shut. This 1959 doctor merely applies the old rule that 'if it moves, WD40; if it doesn't move, duct tape,' but there really is nothing in the annals of testosterone fuelled action film that can truly compete with this moment for sheer chauvinism. What's she going to do? Push it off with her tongue? So much for leaving it until marriage, huh?

What she can do is summon the monster out of the closet for a final reel that was supposed to be shot in gloriously gory colour, but presumably ended up too expensive to be viable. Shot over less than a fortnight, mostly in the basement of a New York hotel, there's no doubt that the film would have benefited from a longer finalé. In fact, had it been shot as intended, it would have beaten out Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast as the progenitor of the modern gore movie by a year, even accounting for its three year wait in limbo because of legal issues and problems with the censors. So there's no poetic justice in Bill's head being severed and menaced by rats. Instead we just watch Eddie Carmel, a 7' 6¾" giant, chomp on his shoulder and stumble away. The only good thing about this underwhelming ending is that it leaves things open for a sequel. Virginia Leith is still alive, 77 years young and so I'm still holding out hope after half a century.

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