“You don’t explore on people.”

Well, folks were telling me THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE was a monsterpiece, and now we can see they were right. (Too bad this is the cut version though.)

With lines like the above-quoted, and “Very well, the corpse is yours,” and “The line between scientific genius and obsessive fanatacism is a thin one — I want you on the right side of it!” — all in the opening scene alone, the film has an Ed Wood feeling for demented speechifying that anticipates the current comedy work of Larry Blamire and more than justifies the credit for “Additional dialogue by Doris Brent.” (Doris also plays the terrifying whispery nurse in scene one.)

(Did I imagine it or does THE SOUND OF MUSIC feature an all-time classic grudging credit, something like, “With partial use of ideas by -“? It’s been a long time since I looked at it, so I can’t be sure I’m not making it up.)

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T, as I’m now calling it (for short), is one of those B-films where there’s a perfect balance of defects — lack of funds, lack of talent, lack of experience, lack of good sense — so that a kind of cockamamie artistic harmony is engendered, and everything seems VERY GOOD INDEED. The car crash is a perfectly fine no-budget smash-up, but what lifts it into the paranormally brilliant  is the way the arrogant doc then gets lingered over by the rubbernecking camera as he apparently suffers a painful attack of trapped wind, and by the time he gets through with that the stock music has run out of cacophonous melodrama and segued into a cavorting faun theme, which plays, with a sort of helpless shrug, as the heroine is incinerated in the wrecked vehicle. Just beautiful.

Moments later and our man is climbing a narrow flight of exterior stairs with his fiancee’s severed head wrapped in his jacket, and he takes a very long time to do it (be fair, he’s tired). It’s like the horror movie version of Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX. If he had dropped the head when he got to the top, and it rolled all the way back down, I believe I would have died a happy man.

I don’t intend in any way to be disparaging about TBTWD, because it can’t be easy to make a compulsively watchable film on a micro-budget without access to top-tier talent and without a lot of practice. The IMDb notes of writer-director Joseph Green, “Owned a small (he answered the phone himself) distribution company which distributed an eclectic mix of minor foreign films (such as Chabrol’s Une Partie de Plaisir) and kung fu/exploitation pictures.” So I picture him as a guy who was in it for the love. He only made one other picture — twenty four years after this one. That makes me sad.

What makes me happy? The line “How can you make of her an experiment of horror?” The gibbering THING IN THE CLOSET (you know you’re in zero-budget land when they can’t even afford an attic or cellar to imprison their failed experiments). When our obsessive fanatic scientific genius goes trolling for bodies we’re obviously looking at the inspiration for THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, only we’re looking at it for far longer than expected.

“You’re a freak of life — and of death!”

Where the film betrays some weak-mindedness is an eagerness to get to the point with Jan-in-the-pan, the severed head character. Somehow she KNOWS she’s a severed head, which robs us of a potentially very dramatic scene of her finding out, (reflection in shiny surface?) and somehow she knows that she now has a tremendous new power, without ever actually learning this, which again could have made for a good strong scene. However, as the story goes on and it becomes clear that she doesn’t have any tremendous new power at all, I came to appreciate the inverted wisdom of Green’s forbearance.

Instead we get many many shots of the withered hand guy looking pensive, which don’t achieve much since we don’t really know what he’s worried about — his shrivelled arm? The guy in the closet? The severed head lady? The fact that he’s missing the strip-shows? All good reasons for concern, but as Alexander Mackendrick says, ambiguity is a choice between two possible meanings, not countless.

“My hopes — shattering with each severed arm he grafted to me!”

Interesting how the scientific genius obsessed fanatic, having decided he needs a new body for his fiancee’s head, immediately decides that abduction and murder is the only possible course of action, and immediately resorts to visiting strip-shows and kerb-crawling and going to “body beautiful” contests. It’s hard not to form the conviction that he’d be doing all this anyway, even if he didn’t have his girlfriend’s cranium waiting in a dish.

“Posing bare for a bunch of neurotics.”

I liked the magnificent man-hating life-model with the scar — shades of PEEPING TOM. The movie’s assumption that being a man-hater with a scarred face makes you a prime full-body donor is bordering on the offensive, but the powerfully-built vixen is so impressive as she forcefully stresses every single syllable of dialogue, one can’t help but admire her magnificent froideur and hauteur. It’s kind of a shame when she mellows out.

“This kind of thing must be done.”

That’s a BIG HAND that reaches through the hatch from the evil closet. And it’s no fake monster hand, just a really enormous meaty man-paw. The mutant it’s attached to may be a bit overdone, but he’s still rather disturbing, and well worth the wait. It’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do — his gibbering was fun, but he falls curiously silent when he emerges from his prison-cupboard. A monologue about the dangers of science run amok would have been nice — everyone else has one. But fighting the mad scientist with his arm stuck through a door makes for an agreeably different action sequence. Perhaps if the monster had got a foot jammed in a waste-paper basket, that would have raised things to the next level.


“When she does come to, it will be your head consciously awakening for her.”

Wait — the monster gets the girl? Is that a first?

20 Responses to ““You don’t explore on people.””

  1. “I am far more a thing of horror than your arm of relative beauty”.

    Something about the dialogue in this film always puts me in mind of the speech balloons in Jack Kirby comics. These are lines that only Galactus could deliver convincingly.

  2. And something about the entire project suggests a truly demented rip-off of Les yeux sans visage</i.

  3. It’s as likely they saw The Head and thought they could do better. “Let’s get rid of Michel Simon and have a sexy girl instead!” Kinda works.

    I am actually planning my own head transplant movie. If it happens, you’ll see some stuff you probably never hoped to see.

    Yes, it’s very comic book, this one. One of my fave Z-thrillers is The Flesh Eaters, which actually has comic book credentials, as the Doom Patrol’s original artist storyboarded it. Gotta love any movie where the monster is a neg scratch. It Came from Decasia!

  4. Your previous entry, The Head w/ Michel Simon, mentioned the presence of strippers in its cast. There must have been a Golden Era of B filmmaking back then when, prior to the widespread emergence of hardcore pornography, there was a marketing strategy that involved inserting strippers to spice things up, be it a horror film, a crime film, whatever. And the idea that, of all things, our young surgeon/scientist decides that his bodiless beloved should have the body of a stripper. How many men have fantasized that? Actually, the whole dynamic between the young surgeon and the disfigured stripper brought to mind Joan Crawford and Melvin Douglas in Cukor’s A Woman’s Face, but of course Douglas had more benign intentions. I too watched it on Google last night, and yes, no catfight, no tearing off of the arm. I may have to try and catch up with the intact version just so I know my child’s mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. And I just realized, I saw the violence done to the arm but not the confrontation between strippers back then, which again posits the time-honored logic, sex is bad, but violence is okay.

  5. I saw producer Andrew MacDonald interviewed here yesterday, and he mused that he’d had little trouble with censors since he mainly dealt in violence rather than in sex. In Britain, Trainspotting has been cut to remove shots of needles penetrating skin (because that will show people how to take drugs!) whereas in the states a shot of Ewan McG removing a condom from his impressive sausage in silhouette was considered too much for the American moviegoer.

    The liven-it-up-with-a-stripper motif has been popular ever since, with a fleeting visit to a lapdancing establishment a time-honoured way to inject gratuitous nudity into the most unlikely films. Nearly always the sure sign of a BAD film.

  6. Bad as in naughty, or bad as in awful? Or both?

  7. Mainly awful.

    The Z-movies at least make the stripper-search part of the narrative, but action movies and comedies which throw in a scene in a strip bar for no reason are generally bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Two that spring to mind for some reason are Stir Crazy and the Brian Bosworth romp One Tough Bastard (which at least has an amusing title).

  8. Actually, I like the title One Tough Stir-Crazy Bastard.

  9. In the Henenlotter film, the hero tries to rebuild his girlfriend by using only the best body parts of various hookers. His solution to the problem of how to come up with sufficient body parts? Explosive crack cocaine! I realise I’m making this film sound trashy, but believe me, it’s trash taken to the point of becoming, er, really really very trashy indeed.

  10. Trash of the highest order.

  11. Don’t forget, please, about how Virginia Leith’s head makes an appearance in Nichols’ “Heartburn.” An allusion to it can be found here:


  12. It’s a much-travelled head!

    A song in her honour: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=CkorWr3M5Ms

  13. And another Leith connection:

  14. The dialog of ‘Jan in the Pan’ has obsessed me for some time. So I wrote an essay about it:

  15. Magnificent piece! The grammar has its own hypnotic quality in this film: it’s the language of dream.

  16. Responding to an old, OLD post, but…wow, you wrote about _this_ movie? I’ve got a big smile on my face.

    It was Bill Warren’s “Keep Watching the Skies!” that introduced me to this movie though it was “Mystery Science Theater 3000” where I first got a taste of the movie itself. A lot of cinephiles (among them Bill Warren if I correctly recall) loathe MST3K and accuse it of encouraging a snide and dismissive attitude toward old movies, but I credit the show for getting me to notice that even really incompetent movies can have unsuspected qualities. Also, from what I’ve seen, a lot of MST3K fans genuinely like the films themselves, or at least certain films or certain players. For example there are a lot of Beverly Garland fans in the MST3K fandom. Anyway…

    Having seen “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, or “The Head That Wouldn’t Die” rather (as the end credits inform us), a few times now I can’t help wondering whether Jason Evers and Leslie Daniels shouldn’t have switched roles. It’s Dr. Cortner who’s supposed to be the obsessive mad scientist but it’s Daniels’s lab assistant who’s _played_ as an obsessive mad scientist. He even gets the best mad-scientist line: “The alcoholic has his bottle; the dope addict his needle; I have my research.” Shouldn’t it be Dr. Cortner saying such things? Instead he’s spending most of the movie leering wordlessly at showgirls and propositioning them in the same monotone he uses to demean his father’s expertise. Even his lechery lacks enthusiasm.

    Daniels gives the lab-assistant part his all, though; he’s easily the best aspect of “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”. He’s also dignified, if that’s the word, with a much better death scene than Dr. Cortner gets.

  17. The film is enjoyable because it either transcends cliches or fall beneath their radar, and so transposed casting is a perfectly suitable method to prevent it from becoming a run-of-the-mill scifi horror. But yeah, more screen time for the better actors is usually a good idea…

  18. chris schneider Says:

    IMDb tells us, I discover, that Rex Carleton, who provided the (ahem) “original story” for BRAIN also was in on the writing of Al Adamson’s scatty THE BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE as well as John Krish’s quite decent THE UNEARTHLY STRANGER.

    That name Rex Carleton sounds, in any case, like an Alexander D’Arcy character — someone glossy who’s rejected, in the last reel, by Irene Dunne.

  19. chris schneider Says:

    Post-Script: turns out that the real Alexander D’Arcy was in BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE, along with John Carradine and Paula Raymond.

    “Gee, Paula Raymond was a pretty girl […] Funny she never became a star.”
    ~ the abortionist in the novel of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS.

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