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Virginia Leith is Jan in the Pan

From the DVD case: A mad scientist accidentally decapitates his pretty fiancée in a car accident and then rushes her head to his secret laboratory to keep it alive. Needing a replacement body for his beloved, the doctor visits various strip-clubs and girlie shows in order to pick just the right body for his needs. Meanwhile, the revived head is conspiring with a grunting thing that is locked away in the doctor’s closet, seeking revenge on her boyfriend. (1962, b&w)

Mark says: If you’ve ever bought a compilation horror DVD, you probably already own a copy of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. It’s one of those films that is included in almost all “classic horror/cult” collections. I own several copies of the movie myself, but the one I most often refer to is produced by Diamond Entertainment and comes as a duel pack with The Amazing Transparent Man. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die was filmed in 13 days during 1959, but was not released until 1962.

As a child, this movie terrified me. The opening sequence where Virginia Leith whispers the words, “Let me die,” inspired genuine chills. I was also horrified by the image of a human head detached from its body, speaking, blinking, and undeniably angry. Add to that a mystery monster in the closet and you have a frightening movie experience for a pre-adolescent boy.

As an adult, though, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die strikes me differently. It just looks cheap. The sets are cramped and depressing, the storyline is depraved, and the acting is atrocious. Don’t get me wrong; cheap sets, depravity, and bad acting are what great B movies are all about. However, there’s something amiss in the mixture here that leaves me cold, too much of one thing, and not enough of the other. The film does stand out for a few shockingly bloody scenes, and there is enough camp dialogue to keep schlock fans entertained, but overall, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die leaves a bad taste in your mouth and a muculent film on your retinas.

Better days. The Brain that Wouldn’t DieJason Evers (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The Illustrated Man) is Dr. Bill Cortner, a young surgeon who believes that science must progress even if it means performing unethical experiments. Putting his money where his mouth is, Dr. Cortner has been stealing body parts for use in his personal experiments at his mountain home. He is primarily concerned with surgical transplants, but we learn that he has also used the discarded limbs and torsos to create a hideous creature. Bill Cortner is your modern day Dr. Frankenstein, but with a sleazy twist. More on this later.

Bruce Brighton portrays Bill’s father, a “voice of reason” in the film. He constantly lectures his son about “playing God,” and other horror genre clichés. Luckily, he only has scenes in the early portion of the film, as he wears on our nerves quickly.

Virginia Leith (A Kiss Before Dying, On the Threshold of Space) is Jan Compton, Bill’s fiancée. She is later reduced (through a car accident) to a talking head in a pan. The visual effect of Jan’s severed head in a developing tray of fluid is absurd. Often noted is the fact that Jan would not be able to speak without lungs or vocal cords, but speak she does (just try getting her to shut up.) Jan is perfectly charming before the accident, but afterwards, she is as evil and vengeful a woman as you’re ever likely to meet. I suppose having your head severed from your body would put you in a bad mood.

This brings us to one of the film’s major flaws, the lack of likable characters. Even Dr. Cortner’s maimed assistant, Kurt (Leslie Daniels), who shows promise as a reluctant hero, turns into a grade-A jerk. His death scene, by the way, is one of the high camp watermarks of the film. After his arm is torn off by the monster, Kurt stumbles dramatically around the lab smearing his meaty, bloody stub all over the walls. It’s a ridiculously long scene, and Daniels’ hammy acting doesn’t help matters.

Monster Brain That Wouldn’t DieEddie Carmel portrays the monster, which, for most of the film, only grunts and gurgles through the closet door. The monster is Dr. Cortner’s greatest failure, a deformed creature pieced together and brought to life by a miracle serum. When we finally see the brute we discover he looks like a mangled member of the Conehead family. The make-up job is laughable, to say the least, and nearly comes apart in the final reel. Unlike the Frankenstein monster, this creature is not portrayed sympathetically, leaving us apathetic about its fate.

An element of this movie which was unnoticed by me as a child, is blatantly apparent to me as an adult. That is, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die has a genuinely sleazy quality to it. As Dr. Cortner searches for a new body for Jan he cruises the streets, following young women slowly in his car and sizing up their “attributes.” He visits a strip club and a “body beautiful” contest where he leers at the women crassly. Finally he meets a model (Adele Lamont) with a scarred face but a “perfect body,” and cons her into visiting his lab. He promises to restore her face to normal, but of course his intent is to lob off her head and replace it with his fiancée’s.

For me, the sordid atmosphere of the film is a little too genuine; it negates the kitsch appeal. A scene featuring two strippers engaged in a “cat fight” is particularly unseemly. As the women wrestle each other, the camera pans to some wall prints of cats, and then we hear a feline yowl just as the scene ends. This juvenile attempt at humor only enhances the squalid feel of the movie.

I will give Director Joseph Green some credit, though. The low-budget car crash at the beginning of the film is adequately done. He also manages to pull off an effective point of view shot from the drugged model. And, if he wanted his audience to walk away feeling icky, he certainly achieves that.

I would be remiss not to mention a particular climatic scene. As the creature bursts from behind the closet door, he bites a chunk from Dr. Cortner’s neck. He pauses long enough to dangle the slab of flesh for the camera before throwing it to the ground. This must have been an appalling sight for drive-in goers in 1962. It’s an appropriate coda for such a tasteless little film.

As a final note, I have to disagree with reviewers who compare The Brain that Wouldn’t Die to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Sure, both films are “bad movies,” but Plan 9 possesses a lot more charm and simply rates much higher on the schlock scale. You may laugh at portions of both movies, but after watching The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, you’ll also want to take a long shower.

Scene to watch for: Tired of listening to Jan’s head whine about how she just wants to die, Dr. Cortner tapes her mouth shut.

Line to listen for: “Oh, come on now, Doris. Do I look like a maniac who goes around killing girls?”

Bonus: Watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die for free at the Internet Archive.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

4 Comments

  1. Nice to see a new review Mark. Love the new blue/black look of the site.

  2. As I recall my last viewing of this film, four things come to mind. 1) Bill sure has a way with the ladies. 2) Sloth from “The Goonies” has a long lost relative. 3) The assistant with his badger claw thing could have been portrayed by a monkey. 4) It’s SO great to see a fresh review from Exclamation Mark! I too have this film on a compilation. My copy however, is not on a dual disc but rather a quad disc. Yes sir, I was blessed enough to find a copy of “Brain Taht Wouldn’t Die” along with such other campy classics as “The Atomic Brain”, “Carnival of souls” and “Night Tide”! Lucky me, eh? Now for a question Mark, (hehe)… does your copy show the line, “The Head That Wouldn’t Die” during the closing credits?

  3. Taliesin: Thanks. It’s amazing how rusty I felt writing a new review. I hope it doesn’t show too much, but I really struggled with this one. I also like the new black and blue motif. It seems to complement the black and white images, while making the color images even more stark.

    Clay: You are absolutely correct on all accounts. I’ve seen the “Sloth” reference before, and so I tried to avoid the comparison myself. The best I could come up with was “a mangled member of the Conehead family.” A bit lame, perhaps, but I’ve been out of the review business for awhile now.

    Yes, my copy has “The Head that Wouldn’t Die” as a closing title shot, too. The movie was originally titled “The Black Door,” but later changed to “The Head that Wouldn’t Die,” which is actually more accurate. However, a decision was made to change the title to “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die” before release, but that final title card was never changed.

    I think I own the “quad pack” you speak of, too. Reportedly (and I’m getting this from other online sources, so it can be taken with a grain of salt), the MST3K treatment of this movie helped spawn interest in the film again and it started showing up everywhere. Some versions are actually edited, and the bloody stuff at the end isn’t there. If you have the full version, it should be approximately 82 minutes long.

  4. cat fight!


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] I found a great source online for movie ideas called Exclamations Mark’s SciFi/Horror Review. He’s recommending ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die‘ this year. [...]

  2. [...] For me, the sordid atmosphere of the film is a little too genuine; it negates the kitsch appeal. A scene featuring two strippers engaged in a “cat fight” is particularly unseemly. As the women wrestle each other, the camera pans to some wall prints of cats, and then we hear a feline yowl just as the scene ends. This juvenile attempt at humor only enhances the squalid feel of the movie. Exclamation Mark [...]

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