LIST CANDIDATE: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Green

FEATURING: Jason Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels

PLOT: Against her wishes, a surgeon keeps his fiancée’s severed head alive while he searches for a new body for her.

Still from The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Brain that Wouldn’t Die bypasses the rational portion of the frontal cortex and directly stimulates the part of the brain that responds to misogynist daydreams and deformed mutants in closets. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a cheesy, sleazy 1960s b-movie, but Brain shows a shameless and deranged imagination that pushes it into the realm of the genuinely strange.

COMMENTS:”The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculation and often lose themselves in error and darkness,” says an assistant mad scientist by way of explaining a mutant to a detached head. “Behind that door is the sum total of Dr. Cortner’s mistakes.” Now, substitute “filmmaking” for “experimentation, “in this movie” for “behind that door” and “director Joseph Green” for “Dr. Cortner” and you have a perfect description of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. This simple story of Bill, a surgeon who tries to find a new body for the decapitated fiancée whose head he is keeping alive in a pan in his lab, could have made a forgettable matinee monster movie, but the tale takes so many illogical and ill-advised turns that it wanders off into a cinematic no-man’s land and winds up in a perversely fascinating sewer. Forget about the fact that the head—who is so chatty that Bill eventually has to put surgical tape over her mouth (!)—couldn’t talk without lungs; that’s only the most obvious of this movie’s many problems. People in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die act according to an alternative psychology that is bizarrely consistent with the movie’s need for sleaze, but in no way natural for human beings. When Bill’s beloved Jan loses her head, he demonstrates the movie’s theory that the first stage of grief is lust as he’s immediately off picking up strippers, cruising the streets leering at female pedestrians, and lurking around figure modeling studios looking for a suitable replacement body. He’s not just interested in finding just any body to save his love’s life as expeditiously as possible; he has to find a donor who’s stacked. It’s the perfect chance to upgrade! Fortunately for him, most of the women he meets are unconsciously eager to accommodate his sick plans. Trying to lure the recently eligible bachelor to take her on a date to a beauty contest, one pickup promises him “plenty of females on the hoof.” It’s like she’s read his mind! Speaking of reading minds, back at home decapitation seems to have given the lovely Jan telepathy, as she senses the presence of the monster in the closet and enlists him to help her with her revenge. You see, she resents being kept alive as “just a head” and wants to die. Just like Dr. Cortner’s father and mentor, who’s outraged when his son saves a patient’s life on the operating table because he’s “playing God,” she’s staunchly opposed to having her life saved on moral grounds: “to be joined to flesh not your own—what’s human in this?” To a 1960s playboy, Jan and Bill have an ideal domestic arrangement: she stays at home and stews, while he leaves and goes out cruising for chicks. But he’s out going to meat markets and playing the field for her sake; her irrational resentment is typical female behavior that will eventually destroy their happy home. That unintentionally twisted matrimonial parody/wish fulfillment fantasy would have made for a singularly strange monster movie, but Brain just won’t stop pouring on the oddity. There’s the offscreen voice that whispers “meow” as two strippers catfight for the right to be sacrificed to Bill. There’s the mutant in the closet, who against all odds is a genuinely scary boogeyman, especially when he’s just heard gibbering incoherently or ominously knocking on his cell door. And there’s the unexpected gore of the finale, including the lab assistant’s three minute (!) death scene when his arm is ripped out of its socket. His reaction is to slam his bloody stump repeatedly against the basement wall, then drag it up the stairs so he leaves a trail of blood. If I had a limb ripped off I think grinding the wound against the wall is about the last thing I’d want to do, but then no one in this movie acts quite the way you’d expect them to. This nonsense is all held together by some of the purplest b-movie prose ever composed for a motion picture, delivered by overacting thespians at their melodramatic peaks: “Like all quantities, horror has its ultimate; and I am that,” says Virginia Leith, with a straight face. And, of course, there’s Jan’s classic rallying cry, “I’m just a head—and you’re whatever you are—but together, we’re strong!” That improbable declaration alone probably would have been enough to earn the movie consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time, but this movie offers much more unintended madness.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die was prominently featured on the movie-mocking TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” as the first episode hosted by Mike Nelson when he replaced departing series creator Joel Hodgson. “Jan in the Pan” even shows up in the final skit to catch the ship’s crew up on how her life has been going since the movie ended (“when my head was first lopped off, it was kind of a difficult time for me,” she confesses). The episode is quite funny, but its focus on the ridiculous and risible elements of the movie distracts from Brain‘s absurd and disturbing psychosexual subtexts. Fortunately, the Rhino DVD contains the uncut version of the film for comparison: both Brains are recommended. The movie is also in the public domain, so if you don’t care for the comic commentary you can simply watch or download it from the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a really strange movie, and it contains so many outlandish, peculiar, grotesque, and incongruous moments that it becomes downright surreal.”–TV Guide

2 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)”

  1. I only saw this recently, and by a hilarious quirk of fate which is either an omen, or simply down to the computer at the DVD rental company assuming that I wanted a similarly-themed double bill but not actually being sentient, it arrived in the same envelope as Head (starring the Monkees).

    And I have to say that Head is weirder. Especially the bit where they turn into Victor Mature’s dandruff. Incidentally, if you watch Head and Inception back-to-back, parallels emerge which are surely unintentional, but nonetheless hilarious. (Tell people about this now! – start a meme! You know you want to!)

    The thing is, TBTWD is in almost all respects a standard schlock horror movie from the period – it just goes a little bit further, so it’s the one you remember. Mad scientists hunting nubile women in search of body-parts because they need to repair a female they’re close to who has been horribly injured, usually through their own negligence? There are so many I don’t need to list them. Brains and/or heads surviving bodily death? Ditto. And as for: “uncontrollable stitched-together failed-experiment monster that breaks free and wrecks everything”, a certain Doctor Frankenstein would have sued if only he was real!

    Really, the only thing that distinguishes this film from numerous others with very similar ideas, apart from the surprisingly effective closet monster, is how much the director fears and hates women while trying to kid himself that he likes them (maybe all that stuff about the monster trying to burst out of the closet wasn’t entirely without significance).

    This in itself, while taken to such lengths that it’s undoubtedly weird by normal standards, is not Weird with a capital W. Also, it has to be said that, although it has a certain novelty value, this one black joke which isn’t actually funny starts to grate very quickly. And it’s painfully obvious – again, this is hardly an original feature – that the many lengthy scenes in which our “hero” fails to abduct the gorgeous women he somehow encounters every few minutes are blatant padding. And there’s nothing weird about a skid-row director deciding that having various women do various things whilst wearing as little as possible for as long as possible is cheaper than providing the epic monster action promised in the trailer, but at least half the audience will be watching pretty closely all the same.

    So: an extreme example within its own genre? Undoubtedly yes. Weird by the standards required by this site? Undoubtedly no. Also, it’s a classic example of one of those movies with a couple of good bits which you remember, but if you watch it all the way through, it’s actually kinda boring.

    Seriously, if you want a genuinely weird movie that takes obsessive misogyny much further than this, and in much more interesting directions, by a much better director, cast, and crew, watch Peeping Tom instead – the total absence of horror-movie cliches like brains in jars and monsters in closets actually makes it much, much weirder. And if you just want a random weird movie that’s actually fun, watch Head.

  2. This was one weird movie. I remember watching it as a kid and getting really scared. Now it just seems dumb and cheesy. They need to do a remake of this film.

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