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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Brain Movies

Let's face it—of all the weird movie subgenres out there, "brain" movies are among the goofiest. They even fall into sub-subcategories—evil alien brains; flying murderous brains; and, of course, human brains as foodstuffs.

1957's The Brain from Planet Arous is a good example of the evil alien brain. Starring ex-Mr. Shirley Temple John Agar (who already had a slew of Universal sci-fi features under his belt, including Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula and The Mole People), this film, independently produced and distributed by no-budget Howco International Pictures, makes the others look like A-list spectaculars. Agar plays Steve March, a scientist whose body becomes possessed by the criminal Gor, a malevolent brain from Arous. Gor/March goes wild, assaulting his fiancee, Sally (Joyce Meadows), blowing stuff up and plotting world domination.

Whenever Gor exerts his telepathic abilities, March's eyes become shiny silver, which is actually pretty creepy looking. Considering Agar had a round, babyish face, the effect is even more bizarre. When I met Agar at a collector's show in 2000, we talked about the contact lenses he wore for the effect. Not surprisingly, he said they hurt like hell and the flaking of the silver paint caused him permanent vision problems.

Gor must exit March's body every 24 hours to "re-assimilate oxygen," and when he (it?) does, he appears as a giant floating brain with glowing eyes (see picture at the top of the post), and March regains control of his faculties. When Sally meets Vol, a law enforcement brain from Arous, shows up and tells Sally that he's come to earth to take Gor into custody. He looks the same as Gor—a giant, floating brain with glowing eyes. It would have been hilarious if he'd had a big sheriff's badge pinned to his cerebellum. Oh—and he inhabits Sally's dog, George, from time to time, to keep his eye on things.

He tells Sally about Gor's vulnerable spot, and she leaves sleeping Steve a note and a diagram of the brain so that he can kill the alien despot and save the world...when he wakes up. The exciting climax involves Agar attacking a giant, bouncing brain on strings while Sally and George look on.

A happy childhood memory of mine is 1958's Fiend without a Face. It was a television staple when I was growing up, and I loved its explicit, squishy climax. It's an English film (with American actors) about a group of scientists at a Canadian military base who've been experimenting with nuclear energy to track enemies at long distances. Unfortunately, a nearby mad scientist is tapping into the same energy to create an invisible creature from his own subconscious that sucks out its victims' brains and spines.

Most of the film is played out as a mystery—who or what is committing these murders? American actor Marshall Thompson plays Major Cummings, the scientist who's trying to figure it all out. But it's the last 15 minutes of the film that it seemed to take forever to get to but was always worth waiting for—the attack of the brain monsters. Getting closer to the nuclear source, the invisible monster becomes visible, and soon there are dozens of leaping, flying brains with spinal cords attached, attacking their victims by wrapping said cords around their throats. When the brains are shot, they emit a viscous black fluid as well as an appropriate gurgling sound as they deflate. So effective were these effects that a neighbor friend with whom I was watching it one time ran to the bathroom to vomit.

Fiend
is one of those movies that would really have worked as a 400' (18 minute) super 8mm condensation, and I can't believe it was never available that way. It'd be so easy to put together—spend three minutes quickly describing the plot, and then include the last 15 minutes of the brain attack unedited.

Another insane entry that bears repeat viewing is the Mexican El Baron del Terror, which was imported into the United States in 1962 by the legendary K. Gordon Murray and given the unforgettable new title The Brainiac.

Abel Salazar, who made a lot of south-of-the-border thrillers, stars as the Baron Vitelius d'Esteria, who, in a 1661 prologue, swears vengeance on the descendants of his accusers when he is sentenced to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. A comet passes overhead (well, actually kind of a sparkler), and I guess his soul "hitchhikes" a ride on it.

300 years later, the sparkler returns, bringing the reincarnation of the Baron back to the village to wreak his revenge. Appearing in human form as Ricky Ricardo—I mean a slick and stylish continental gentleman—he can transform into a batlike creature with a throbbing, hairy face and a long tongue with which to suck out his victims' brains. And when he gets hungry for a between-meal snack, he has a silver chalice filled with human brains in the living room from which he nibbles.

Fans of this film love the super-cheap sets; the strange, pulsating monster make-up; the wooden dialogue and dubbing; and Salazar himself, playing the suave gentleman bit for all it's worth as he throws lavish dinner parties for his victims before he changes into the Brainiac and sucks out their brains. Too hilarious—and too bad the MST3K gang never got their hands on it.

A much more contemporary entry into the genre is Frank Henenlotter's 1988 Brain Damage. It's a sick one, full of jet-black comedy. Soap opera star Rick Herbst stars as Brian, a twenty-something New Yorker who wakes up one morning to discover that he's sharing his bed with a parasitic creature—known as an Aylmer—that injects a euphoria-inducing fluid directly into his spinal column.

Brian quickly becomes hooked on Aylmer's juice," but the creature expects something in return. He needs Brian to help him acquire human brains on which to feast. Soon Brian's tripping through the streets of New York, with Aylmer in tow, in search of victims. Sickened by what he's done, Brian tries to withdraw from Aylmer, and tragedy results, of course.

This is a "drug scare" film as insane as 1972's Blood Freak—except with intentional humor and a more complicated plot. As written and directed by the individualistic Henenlotter, whose other films include the classic Basket Case and Frankenhooker, it's a wild trip. And considering its tiny budget, it's really quite well-made.

Aylmer is voiced by the legendary horror host Zacherly, and it' a hilarious juxtaposition that such a warm, reassuring voice comes out of this creature. But Aylmer is merciless—while Brian is writhing in full withdrawal on a grubby hotel room floor, he's bobbing back and forth in a nearby sink, merrily singing Glenn Miller's "Elmer's Tune." And in the film's most notorious scene, Brian takes a clubgirl into an alley where she kneels to perform oral sex on him, only to find Aylmer waiting behind his zipper!

I first saw this film on a Paramount Home Video release with the oral sex scene cut as well as some other gore. Synapse Video released a nice uncut DVD version of it in 2003, which is still available. I love the scene in which Brian is riding the subway when Basket Case's own Kevin Van Hentenryck gets on, still carrying the basket containing his "brother," sits across the aisle from Brian and stares at him nervously.

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