The Brain That Wouldn't Die
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With the growing popularity of post-Freudian psychoanalysis and atomic-age science breakthroughs in the 1950s, the popularity of disembodied heads and super-powered brains wreaking havoc perfectly encapsulated social anxieties of the decade. Pulp novels got plenty of mileage from the concept, and filmmakers grappled with severed heads and floating brains terrorizing the populace in projects that turned out classy (1953's Donovan's Brain), creepy (1957's The Brain from Planet Arous), grisly (1958's Fiend without a Face), and, ahem, Teutonic (1959's The Head). However, for sheer absurdity, the prize easily goes to The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962), an independent, low-budget mish-mash of a mad scientist, a deformed monster in a closet, sleazy women, and a constantly complaining female cranium with diabolical powers.
Comprised mostly of television bit players, the film follows the misadventures of struggling young scientist Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason "Herb" Evers), whose experiments involving the transplantation of body parts have resulted in some unsavory secrets in his basement at a secret country house. When he wrecks his car and accidentally dismembers his fiancée, fellow scientist Jan (Virginia Leith), he decides to abscond with her severed head and find it a new, super-stacked body to revive his love life. While the doc spends his spare time cruising strip joints and cheap beauty pageants for the perfect female vessel, the reanimated head of Jan sits in a medical pan and develops a peculiar telepathic connection with Bill's most monstrous creation, which lurks unseen behind a nearby locked door...
Though filmed in 1959, the film (originally filmed as The Head that Wouldn't Die) didn't see the light of drive-in projectors until 1962 (barely beating out the almost-as-ridiculous The Madmen from Mandoras (1963), later re-edited into the tacky They Saved Hitler's Brain), where it delighted horror fans with its eccentricities and secured its cult reputation for all time. Though its quality obviously can't compare, the film also ties with Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face (1960) as the first modern graphic gore film thanks to its imagery of chunks of torn shoulder flesh and amputated, wall-spraying arm stumps (often edited out of TV prints and several video editions). In an odd shortcut around the demands of creating an imposing monster, the film instead utilizes 7.6-foot-tall Israeli-born, Bronx-bred Eddie Carmel (born Edward Carmeli), a stand-up comedian, singer and circus performer most famous for his Diane Arbus portrait, "Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents." His only other credited film appearance came in 1963 with a caveman nudie, 50,000 B.C. (Before Clothing), which makes The Brain that Wouldn't Die look opulent in comparison.
Financed by Rex Carlton Productions (whose only other contribution to American cinema was the rather more sedate The Devil's Hand the same year), The Brain that Wouldn't Die was theatrically released by American-International Pictures, whose failure to add copyright information to the new title card resulted in the film quickly falling into the public domain. This proved to be a blessing as numerous video companies issued their own versions from the early 1980s, though its most notorious incarnation is easily its adaptation into one of the most popular episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, in this case, the experience is just as entertaining and outrageous if not even more so without the presence of wisecracking robots. Watch it with someone you love... or at least what's left of them.
Producer: Rex Carlton, Mort Landberg
Director: Joseph Green
Screenplay: Rex Carlton (story), Joseph Green
Cinematography: Stephen Hajnal
Film Editing: Leonard Anderson, Marc Anderson
Art Direction: Paul Fanning
Music: Abe Baker, Tony Restaino
Cast: Jason Evers (Dr. Bill Cortner), Virginia Leith (Jan Compton), Leslie Daniels (Kurt), Adele Lamont (Doris Powell), Marilyn Hanold (Peggy Howard), Bruce Brighton (Dr. Cortner).
by Nathaniel Thompson