Archive for Donovan’s Brain

Under the Microscope

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on July 23, 2019 by dcairns

Since Felix E. Feist started his career, kind of, with the spectacular DELUGE, and later made DONOVAN’S BRAIN, which I must say doesn’t capture the brilliance of Curt Siodmak’s source novel (I always thought of Curt as a classic “idiot brother” figure until I read this one), I became curious as to whether he had a third science fiction movie under his belt. “One should always talk about doing trilogies,” as Terry Gilliam once said.

Well, he doesn’t, but if you turn to his TV work, you get several episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which I immediately discounted as unworthy of my, or indeed his, attention, but you also get a single episode of The Outer Limits.

I’m not a huge OL fan — I’ve never seen an episode that wouldn’t be better with a half-hour runtime. But the combination of Feist and Stefano’s anthology show seemed worth exploring.

In The Probe, a plane crashes in a hurricane, and we immediately get stock shots of model huts being blown away — maybe from Ford’s THE HURRICANE? At any rate, this harkens back cheerily to the miniature apocalypse of DELUGE, making this definite trilogy material.

It’s also crap material. The various human figures presented are just as stock as the disaster movie footage, indeed no attempt whatever to distinguish them is made. I kept expecting more of them to die, so at least they’d be individualised by manner of demise, but the show is oddly tender-hearted towards its worthless populace. Even Peggy Ann Garner, an Oscar-winner for A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, evinces a difficulty in saying basic English words.

The dialogue is the worst and best thing about the episode. Worst, in that it ruins suspense by having the characters figure stuff out with impossible ease. Trapped in an alien craft, they hear a whine. “Powerful engines?” suggests one. “Atomic?” suggests another.

On the other hand, the dialogue is terrible in a much more entertaining way. The show’s best moment is when the characters, at sea in a life raft, suddenly find they’re indoors. But while the notice that their tiny craft is resting on a metallic floor, they never react to the walls, and don’t seem to notice or consider the implications of being inside an artificial structure until long minutes later. It’s as if visual decisions were made without regard to the script, and nobody considered tweaking the lines to ensure that the characters didn’t come off as mad or blind or simply acting in a different show.

There’s a shit monster. Almost literally.

“Take a step towards that thing,” the square-jawed commander says to his square-jawed subordinate at one point, which somehow fails to elicit the normal response, “Fuck off, YOU take a step towards it.”

Foreground miniature!

Feist blocks the action well, but there’s little of the appeal of his noirs. A really creative adaptation of DONOVAN’S BRAIN, which is a kind of noir or at least crime book, could have exploited his shadowy talents to fine effect. But since Feist is credited as a screenwriter on the resulting brainfest, we have to hold him responsible and admit that he didn’t have a lot of feeling for sci-fi.

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Empties

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by dcairns

I love empty sets. They would take these stills for continuity reasons, but, like security camera footage, they always have an atmospheric quality. A little bleak, a little scary.

You may notice that the film is called DESTINY and the director is Siodmak (Robert). And you may know that no such film exists. What they were shooting was released as SON OF DRACULA, though in fact the main character is Dracula, not his son. He has no son.

It’s fun to imagine that Dracula might be as invisible to photography as he is to mirrors and shadows. So Universal, trying to record his exploits on celluloid, ended up with footage of a lot of empty rooms. They had to get John P. Fulton to put Drac in afterwards.

Or maybe it was just that Lon Chaney Jr. was off getting drunk somewheres.

My first thought on the trivial mystery of the non-existent movie DESTINY was, Of course! Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, the idiot brother, wanted a classier title and thought he might persuade Universal that DESTINY would be boffo box-office. What a maroon!

But I have a new-found respect for Curt after reading Donovan’s Brain. So I was pleased to find another explanation, or perhaps a deepening of the mystery.

This set photo is from HOUSE OF DRACULA, a much later entry in the Universal monster series (the last, in fact, not counting ABBOT & COSTELLO). I like how the bat-signal is apparently considered part of the set.

But look! This movie is also called DESTINY, according to the slate. Though it would be amusing to imagine Curt S. still gamely trying to get an evocative, poetic title accepted by the front office years later, he had nothing to do with this film, apart from having created Lawrence Talbot, the wolf man. So it seems like Universal always shot their horror sequels under this false title, maybe to control the publicity until they were ready for it, or something? I know there are a lot of people who know WAY more about this stuff than me, so maybe they can help solve the puzzle.

I have a lot more of these, if you like them.

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns

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I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

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Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

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Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

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Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

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Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.