Shot in the New York area, the independently made shocker THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE has become one of the inevitable cult movies carrying the “so bad it’s good” status to new levels of infamy. This one is known for its early gore and all-around raunchiness, so the word “sleaze” has often been used to describe the film, and that’s not too far off the mark. In fact, if it hadn’t been picked up for distribution by American International Pictures (AIP) as one of their typical monster movie matinee items, this might have been issued with a pre-ratings system “Adults Only” tag if it was released theatrically fully uncut.
Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers, here billed as “Herb Evers”) is a cocky young surgeon who is involved with unauthorized transplants on living people, despite the warnings of his fellow surgeon father (Bruce Brighton). When Bill is called to his getaway mansion on account of some urgent matter, driving with a led foot, he crashes the convertible with his beloved fiancee Jan Compton (Virginia Leith, A KISS BEFORE DYING) as a passenger: Bill safely comes rolling out of the car, but Jan is decapitated in the wreck, with the good doctor retrieving her head and wrapping it in his jacket to bring it back to his mansion’s lab. It is there that we are introduced to one of his experiments gone wrong; former surgeon Kurt (Anthony La Penna, here billed as “Leslie Daniel”) who had a new arm grafted on by Bill which is now a deformed and crippled mess (and of course, Bill's loyal assistant). There’s also a “thing” locked in the lab’s corner closet (with a square peephole there so that it could be opened and shut to feed it, or rather so the thing could stick its enormous hand out and do some damage). Bill quickly puts Jan’s head in a casserole baking dish filled with some liquid and attaches it to some tubes and clasps to keep it alive, but the poor extremity just wants to die, and now with a devilish laugh, also wants revenge (Jen telepathically communicates with the thing in the closet). Although Jan’s head is only about 50 hours away from expiring, Bill spends most of the weekend combing the area for a shapely babe as a replacement body, as he’s convinced a new serum he’s invented will make the transplant successful. So his exploits and encounters include a pair of cat-fighting strippers (Bonnie Sharie and Paul Maurice), judging a “body beautiful” competition and finally visiting old friend Doris Powell (Adele Lamont), a knock-out photographer’s model who works out of her apartment. As Doris has facial scarring that prevents her from wanting be seen in public, Bill scams her into coming back with him to the mansion with promises of fixing her face, but his real agenda is building a better Jan!
Shot entirely location and on threadbare sets (the most barren laboratory you’ll even see in an old horror picture), THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE is a fascinatingly bad film that's almost surreal, yet it never really fails to entertain, even when it drags. The image of the severed head in the tray attached to all those lab thingies (whatever was lying around) has become somewhat iconic in monster movie pop culture, and even though actress Leith, a former 20th Century-Fox contract player, apparently hated the film after completion (she refused to come back to do some post-dubbing) she gives a mesmerizing performance (either that or mind-numbing one) as a chatty, maddened, detached version of Jan’s former self. Evers (who would have a prominent career in television and movies, starring in such films as THE GREEN BERETS and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES) is also very watchable as the sly doc who seems more obsessed with transplanting the head for self-serving reasons rather than restoring the fate of the one he supposedly loves (Evers tends to get really hammy, at least during non-dialog scenes, as if he was acting in a silent-era movie, but that’s one of the many ingredients that makes this a hoot to watch). Shot in 1959 but not released theatrically until 1962, the film pre-dates all those 1960s surgical horror films, with some of those grotesque themes touched upon here, but it actually works best on a B monster movie level, albeit more outrageous and ultimately weirder than anything else that AIP was producing in-house at the time. Kurt’s deformed arm (and the extremely bloody and dragged-out sequence of the removal of the other arm) is one facet of the surgical horror motifs, but the “thing in the closet” mixes those disturbing motifs with classic movie monster showiness: a pinheaded, severely deformed (one eye is about three inches higher than the other one) brute played by 7’6” Eddie Carmel, an actor/circus performer who suffered from acromegaly and was known professionally as “The Jewish Giant”. Look quickly for Sammy Petrillo (BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA) as a photographer and Marilyn Hanold (the alien princess in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER) as a statuesque beauty contest winner.
Originally conceived as a “Mad Teenage Surgeon” piece (after the success of AIP’s “Teenage Werewolf” and “Teenage Frankenstein” films), the story for THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE was concocted by director Joseph Green and producer Rex Carlton (BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE, NIGHTMARE IN WAX). I along with Keith J. Crocker had the privilege of interviewing the late Green in his New York City back in 1993 for the fanzine The Exploitation Journal (by that time, Green had been mostly involved with his distribution company Joseph Green Pictures, releasing such exploitation favorites as Jess Franco’s KISS ME MONSTER and SADIST EROTICA). Green told us quite a few interesting stories behind the making of the film: “We concocted the story in about an hour, with me churning up the screenplay in three days. Carlton raised the money from private investors. It was made in New York City at a studio called De Lance, as well as in the basement of the Henry Hudson Hotel on 57th St. and 8th Ave. We shot the exteriors in Tarrytown, NY, the accident scene and what not”. Green also discussed the shooting schedule and release: “Thirteen days with a union crew with very little money in black & white and brought in on time, something I’m very proud of, and its total cost was $62,000. It was released in New York City where it played on a double bill with PT 109, the story of John F. Kennedy (more widely, AIP paired this with INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES). It played all over the country and was later sold in a series of American International films sold to TV”. As for the film’s generous amount of gore, which includes the monster biting a chunk out of someone’s neck and spitting it on the floor, Green exclaimed, “I plead guilty, I did it for the shock value”.
Although it’s been an Orion Pictures property which MGM holds "official" rights to, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE had fallen into the public domain, so numerous budget companies have released the film on DVD over the years in varying quality and running times. MGM themselves released it as part of their “Midnite Movies” series, but only on VHS, and when MGM recently licensed it to Shout! Factory, Shout! released it on DVD through Timeless Media on a “Movies 4 You” disc with three other chillers, and this version was missing some footage during the brain transplant scene at the beginning of the movie. Thankfully, Shout! has newly-transferred the film in HD, releasing it through Scream Factory and restoring that missing footage for this Blu-ray release. Presented here in 1080p HD in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE looks scrumptious with the elements used for the transfer being in great shape overall (just some fleeting debris and a slight jump cut in dialog at the 9:52 mark; a very minor quibble). Detail is extremely sharp throughout, gray scale is well modulated, and the black levels are nice and deep. The filmic grain is natural looking with no apparent signs of digital tampering. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has dialogue presented very clearly and cleanly, with no problems except for some occasional pops. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
There’s an audio commentary with film historian and author Steve Haberman and writer Tony Sasso, as the two share factoids about the film and its cast, read too much into the film’s characters at times, make a few good observations, point out the film’s flubs and don’t take things too seriously while staying amused throughout. The complete, original 1990s broadcast of the film on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 is also included (in standard definition of course), but the best extra is an alternate scene from the international cut of the photographer’s model (1:26) topless as she is photographed by a pack of eager men (this footage, which was previously included on the Timeless DVD, has no sound, as the audio has been lost). The original trailer and a nice photo gallery round out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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