There Ain’t Nothing Like a Brain: Some Favorite Brain Movies

What are Brain movies? A perfectly legitimate question, since you’re reading a post about them. By Brain movies we don’t mean movies made by smart people, if by ‘brain’ you think ‘smart.’ (Do smart people make movies? You might wonder after you finish this post.) And we don’t mean movies about smart people either. Movies about smart people bring up the Hollywood biographical film, or ‘biopic,’ which are movies about very smart people who lived in the 19th century and used their brains to invent things, and which always seem to feature Paul Muni in a beard. Paul Muni, and his beard, made several biopics about brainy people; he even won an Oscar for one, for which, no doubt, his beard deserved much credit. We haven’t anything against Paul Muni in a beard; we haven’t anything against Paul Muni not in a beard; but Paul Muni, bearded or not, is not what Brain movies are about. (And Brains don’t have beards anyway, so the whole point is moot to begin with.)

Brainy Guy: Paul Muni and Beard

But, to get back to our original question, how would we define Brain movies? Brains are not as rare in movies as you might think (maybe we should rephrase that…). What we mean is that Brains—that is, Brains physically present in the skull (or not)—pop up in films in all sorts of ways. In Universal’s Frankenstein saga, for example, the core issue connecting the Monster’s appearances in the series is the search for the right Brain. The ill-fated ramifications of Dwight Frye neglecting to wipe the butter off his fingers echo, like that actor’s manic giggle, through the studio’s many sequels to its 1931 masterpiece, culminating in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, for reasons best known to the distant gods of demented cinema, wants to dump Lou Costello’s brain into Monster Glenn Strange’s skull. Our hearts (if not our brains) go out to the poor fella.

If He Only Had A Brain: Boris Karloff (bandaged), Colin Clive, and Dwight Frye in Frankenstein (1931)

However, for our purposes we define as Brain movies a film in which a Brain is an actual character. It’s the star, its name prominently featured in the movie title (The Brain of Something, or Someone’s Brain, is a typical formation). And it’s also prominently displayed, like a trophy, sometimes in a skull, but often in a more creative receptacle, like a jar, bottle, pan, or glass tank. We rather like that image, of a brain stored in a jar or a pan—it adds such a homey touch, like an industrious housewife preparing her winter canning. Who says weird science has to be sterile and high-tech? It can be cozy and domestic, an integral part of every well-regulated home. In fact, in most of the films we’re about to look at, science is actually done right in the home, with do-it-yourself mad scientists setting up laboratories in their dens or basements, using whatever available equipment—baking pans, fish tanks, Mason jars—at hand. Don’t laugh; recently a Swedish man was arrested for trying to split the atom in his kitchen, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that could have come right out of 1950s sci-fi films. Mad science might be closer to home than we think.

In another sense, though, Brain films tread far away from home territory, venturing into the realm of the uncanny. What Stephen King notes in Danse Macabre, his excellent analysis of cinematic and literary horror, about the novel Donovan’s Brain—that it “moves from a scientific basis to outright horror”—can be applied to Brain movies as a whole. The horror arises from the Brain’s presentation as a discrete entity, separate, visible, and ominous. We might laugh at seeing a Brain in a jar, but we will also feel unease. To see a part of our body detached and existing outside ourselves, as a living, independent creature, can be, in the deepest sense, an alienating experience. (A similar disturbing example is the 1946 horror film The Beast With Five Fingers, in which a severed hand scuttles like a deformed spider across furniture and floors, seemingly with a life of its own.) Moreover, the human Brain represents the processes of thought and volition; it’s the seat of personality as well as of intelligence. It can think; therefore, even though plopped into a jar or propped up on a tray, it can plan and control. That’s why the Evil Brain (and it’s almost always evil) impels the narrative in Brain films (and why there are no Evil Stomach movies). Most of the events that happen in a Brain film happen because the Brain wills it. The Brain is like Mr. Big (or in one case below, Ms. Big): The mysterious, behind-the-scenes power that never physically does anything, but somehow makes things get done. And those things are never good for the rest of us.

Would You Buy A Used Car From This Brain?: A malevolent Brain lurks in its tank

Still, these movie images of Brains—portraying them as malevolent control freaks, lurking in their jars while they plot to take over the world—does raise an issue. Such films purvey a negative, one-sided stereotype of these misunderstood Cerebella. After all, Brains are—well, if not exactly people, they at least have their own point of view. We’re curious to know what actions, if any, Brains might be taking to counter this kind of unfair and damaging cinematic representation. Perhaps there’s a Brain Interest Group out there, organized to promote a more positive, enhancing picture of Brain life. If that’s so, then we’d like to hear from you. You may contact us care of this blog, and we’ll do our best to get your side of the story out there. Rest assured, all inquiries will be kept strictly confidential. (Just put “Paul Muni’s Beard” in the subject line, and we’ll know who you are.)

What follows is a look at some of our favorite Brain Movies:

Donovan’s Brain (1953)

Originally a 1942 cult novel by Curt Siodmak (best known for scripting 1941’s The Wolf Man), this story about a dead millionaire’s Evil Brain mentally possessing the scientist experimenting on it had already been adapted in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster (and would again be adapted in 1962 as The Brain). The more colorfully titled ‘44 version featured Erich von Stroheim, one of the most compelling actors in cinema, and probably one of the few performers who could upstage an Evil Brain on the Rampage. The ‘53 version starred Lew Ayres, a far less showy actor, as an obsessed scientist experimenting on keeping monkey brains alive outside the body (why he’s doing so is never quite explained, but it’s taken as a given that his bizarre researches will benefit mankind). The film does gives Lew a chance to play, in effect, a dual role, switching between the scientist’s reserved disposition and that of the Brain’s owner, Donovan, who never appears in the film, but whose personality, we are assured, is loathsome enough that we wouldn’t care to be like him. Donovan is so rich he can afford his own plane, which he conveniently crashes right next to Lew’s house, giving Lew a prime opportunity to swipe the title character for his researches, even though brain-snatching is illegal. Never let a crisis go to waste, they say, and Lew wastes no time in popping the still-living Brain into a fish tank (in a fish tank?), attaching wires and electrodes to its wrinkled surface, and monitoring its alpha wave transmissions to track its mental activity. And then things start to get complicated…

Marital Quartet: Nancy Davis(Reagan), Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, and Brain in a Tank

What’s surprising about DB is how its sci-fi premise is rooted in 1950s suburban marital drama, with such stock figures and subject matter as the workaholic husband, the lonely, childless wife, the marriage with underlying tensions, and the opposing values of work and family. Science and Suburbia are strange bedfellows here, with Lew’s lab set up right behind the living room, and his devoted wife, played by Nancy Davis (mariée Reagan), serving as both lab assistant and housekeeper. So dedicated is Lew to his work that he neglects Nancy, forgetting to eat the stew she cooked specially for his supper. “Darling, what about the stew?” she asks. But Lew has too much to do to bother about stew, which leaves Nancy feeling blue; but bravely she stiffens the upper lip and stays true. “Believe in me, Baby, will ya?” Lew urges her—he has an annoying habit of addressing his wife as “Baby” (but will he give her one? But nooooo!). The dipso surgeon sidekick Frank (Gene Evans) chides Lew for his negligence. “Your wife is terrific,” Frank tells him; “So are you,” coos Lew, and then abruptly drops the subject and returns to the lab. “You’re brilliant but not normal,” grouses Frank. Hmm, just what could be going on between these two? Only post-modern film theory could say for sure.

Blue Serge Suit: Lew Ayres assumes Donovan’s nasty persona and wardrobe

Anyway, now that, courtesy of the late Donovan, he has a human Brain to work on, Lew fusses with it, boosting the Brain’s electrical voltage, attaching a radio to ‘hear’ its thoughts, and even attempting telepathic communication. As anyone who’s seen enough of these movies could have foretold, Lew gradually comes under the control of Donovan’s Brain, its extremely repellent persona taking over the scientist’s almost-as-disagreeable one. We know that Lew is turning into Donovan because he stops calling his wife “Baby,” reads Financial World magazine, and orders Donovan’s favored attire to wear, six custom-made blue serge suits with a thin pin stripe. Meanwhile, the Brain gets bigger and more powerful, huffing and puffing in its tank like a demonic soufflé as it takes over more of Lew’s life. Indeed, the Brain seems to take over everyone’s life: “Call me whenever the Brain goes to sleep,” Nancy tells Frank, scheduling their plotting-to-get-rid-of-the-damned-nuisance activities around the Brain’s nap times. Lew and Crew are certainly in a stew; but fortunately a bolt from the blue puts the hoodoo on the brain’s voodoo, leading to the (qualified) happy denouement. Nancy, of course, remains loyal to the end, even when Lew is hauled away by Johnny Law to face ethics and various other charges: “Well, they do know it was [his] plan to end this thing by hooking the lightning rod into the power supply, they know that, don’t they?” she babbles in Lew’s defense. Let’s hope for Lew’s sake that an understanding judge watched these kinds of movies, too.

“It strikes like a thunderbolt!” The trailer for Donovan’s Brain gives you an idea just how mean this Mind is. “Satanic vibrations of evil!”

The Brain From Planet Arous (1957)

Described by the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film as the “ultimate John Agar film,” and we have no reason to doubt that trustworthy volume. Agar, the ex-Mr. Shirley Temple, was a stalwart of 1950s cheap (very cheap) sci-fi thrillers, usually playing the steady, unassuming, take-charge character that the plots of these films (The Mole People, Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula, Attack of the Puppet People) required. Although classic-horror film buffs often treat him as a joke, Agar was an agreeable actor, a kind of poor-man’s Joel McCrea, lanky and likable. As with Lew Ayres’s role in DB, Agar’s part in TBFPA gave him a chance to play against his usual projected affability. He alternates between genial Steve March, a nuclear scientist who keeps a laboratory in his living room (don’t these guys have a lab to go to?), and Gor, an intergalactic Evil Brain from Arous that ‘possesses’ Steve, using his body as a vehicle to conquer, first Earth, then the Universe. Under Gor’s control, Steve becomes quite the unpleasant fellow, cackling gleefully whenever he does something nasty, such as exploding a plane in mid-flight or mauling his comely fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows) during amatory encounters (“Goodness, you’ve turned into a regular caveman,” the offended lady complains). Gor’s ‘entering’ and ‘exiting’ Steve’s body also gives Agar a chance to writhe, as if trying to scratch his back without a back-scratcher, registering fear, pain, and agony on the Method scale. It’s not the kind of performance that attracts attention when Oscar time swings round, but actors in Hollywood’s lesser-B-movie universe had to take their chances as they got them. (Maybe Agar should have grown a beard.)

Arousian Visitor: Gor (or maybe it’s Vol) as a Floating Brain

If TBFPA gives us, as it were, two John Agars, it also gives us two Brains, the second one being Vol, an Arousian cop hot on Gor’s trail. Like Gor, Vol also ‘possesses’ an earthly host, in this case George, Sally’s pet dog, so he can keep an eye on Steve/Gor. (If George comes across as the most intelligent creature in the film, we’ve no doubt that that’s due to George’s own sterling qualities and not to the acquisition of another Brain.) Though the film gives no information about Gor and Vol’s home planet Arous, according to our astronomy charts it’s the planet where Bad Special Effects come from. Much of the time Gor and Vol appear as weirdly translucent superimpositions of giant Brains with glowing eyes (imagine if this had been a porn film). Our big Brains don’t actually do anything when they do appear, except drift hither and yon across the screen, like jellyfish of the deep. It’s almost hypnotically soothing to watch. The film’s only other notable effect (and its best) is how Steve/Gor’s eyes become black and luminous whenever he does something wicked (which is often), achieved by the use of foil-lined contact lenses. The lenses must have been dreadfully uncomfortable; during each close-up when they’re used, Agar’s eyes can be seen brimming with tears. What actors will do for their art.

John Agar eyes an axe as Gor materializes on the end of a wire

Of course, the film does give us a climatic battle, and it’s a pippin. Vol, you see, whose mission is to stop Gor at all costs from carrying out his fiendish scheme to subjugate helpless humankind (or, as Vol puts it, “You can help me save the earth from a terrible experience”), has informed Sally that Gor’s vulnerable part lies in a section of his cranial anatomy called the Fissure of Rolando. Sally obligingly leaves instructions for Steve (consisting of an anatomical drawing of a brain, with an arrow pointing to the sensitive spot and “Gor’s Achilles Heel” written next to it), which he finds just at the moment Gor manifests in the material world. Steve seizes his chance by grabbing a handy axe, while an attacking Gor flies across the room—or rather, wobbles, the wires holding up the object plainly visible onscreen (a detail that does detract somewhat from the ferocity of combat). All is resolved happily, though, with Steve beaning the Brain on its bull’s-eye and then falling into Sally’s arms. “How did you happen to know about the Fissure of Rolando?” he wonderingly asks. Too bad for DB‘s Lew that he didn’t get to view this film when battling Donovan.

“These are the eyes of a man possessed!” Note how the trailer for The Brain From Planet Arous highlights Agar’s contact-lens special effect. 

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (c. 1959, 1962)

In 1975 the noted British film scholar Laura Mulvey published a groundbreaking essay in feminist film theory, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she analyzed—excoriated, really—what she labeled “scopophilia”: The “pleasure” in mainstream movie narratives that is derived from the dominance of the inscribed “Male Gaze,” which, directed against Woman, denies her subjectivity and reduces her to the status of a fetishized Object. We’ve no idea if Ms. Mulvey ever saw The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Mulvey focused much of her scathing prose on harmless Joseph von Sternberg), but it’s a textbook illustration of her argument, albeit in a manner that perhaps wouldn’t pass muster in an academic film journal. For the rest of us, TBTWD is one of those so-bad-it’s-too-good-to-be-missed horror classics that we keep hidden behind the rows of ‘respectable’ movies in our DVD library. And if perchance you don’t have a copy, not to worry; this public-domain opus can be found everywhere, including the Internet. Never underestimate the power of great junk.

Virginia Leith (in pan) skeptically eyes Jason Evers and his Male Gaze

Like so many demented films, TBTWD had a tangled distribution history. It was originally made in 1959 but not released until 1962, taking “three years,” says The Psychotronic Encyclopedia, “to reach an appalled world.” The appalling story focuses on the extremely flawed hero, Dr. Bill Kortner, played by Jason (billed as Herb) Evers, who’s been experimenting with radical limb transplants. “Nothing’s unbelievable if you have the nerve to experiment,” he exclaims to his objecting surgeon father (Bruce Brighton). Soon enough, Bill gets the chance to test his nerve when his fiancée Jan (Virginia Leith) is decapitated in a car accident. Wrapping her head in his jacket—which, as everyone knows, is the proper medical procedure when dealing with loss of head—Bill hies on down to his basement lab, and there keeps the Head alive with state-of-the-art technology, which in this case means attaching wires to the artifact and placing it in a shallow baking pan filled with water. Who says do-it-yourselfers can’t do it themselves!

Visual Pleasures: Male Gazers and their Object (in a bikini) whom Evers chooses as a Body Donor

Undaunted by what would normally be perceived as an obstacle to wedded bliss—i.e., for all intents and purposes he no longer has a viable fiancée—Bill intends to find a new body for Jan, so he can still marry her. Film scholars, get your notepads out; here’s where the scopophilia comes in. In the spirit of scientific research, Bill homes in on the nearest strip joint to ogle the medical specimens on view. “Just looking around,” Bill replies to one bonny young stripper’s inquiry as to what he’s doing; “You may be just what I’m looking for.” Bill next heads in his car for the open road, leering at every curvaceous young female body that waggles its derriere past him. Few more memorable scenes exist in schlock cinema than that of our intrepid medical pioneer cruising down the street, casing ass. Meanwhile, back at the lab, Jan (or “Jan in the Pan,” as the MST3K crowd dubbed her) discovers she can communicate telepathically with The Thing In The Closet, a creature made up of rotted body parts from failed transplant experiments. (“Do have a look in that closet,” implores Leslie Daniels as Bill’s crippled assistant Kurt, before his boss leaves on his booty-chasing mission. “Keep it locked,” is Bill’s curt response.) When Bill finally returns with a, ah, body donor, Jan decides things have gone far enough and sends a telepathic message to her buddy in the cupboard to get going. As the requisite fire breaks out, the Thing busts out of the Closet, kills Bill, and escapes with the unconscious donor, while the Head maniacally laughs (is there any other way for a Head to laugh?). The screen goes black as “The End” appears, and not a moment too soon.

Is Something Lacking Here?: Jan in a Pan

In the spirit of film scholarship, what are we to make of all this? Feminist theory points out that Woman in patriarchal culture signifies Lack; and, no doubt, in a scene featuring a woman’s bodiless Head, Lack is significantly present (although the real lack here may be that of scientific knowledge). Then we have the Gaze and Man’s use of it to objectify Woman, such as Bill using visual response (his own) to find a choice Object for his next experiment. Queer theory could be summoned to explain the hidden Thing in the Closet, though Theory itself may just stop short and gape in scopophiliac disbelief once it gets a load of just what Bill has stashed there. But all theory aside, perhaps we should be heartened by the positive spin given to male/female relations in Bill’s still wanting to marry Jan in spite of all obstacles—after all, doesn’t that mean that he really loves her for her mind alone?

“A woman defying society’s conventions!” You can’t get more unconventional than living in a pan—here’s the trailer for The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Not to mention the unconventional doctor whose “mad ambitions and desires threaten every woman possessing an attractive body!” As the trailer states, “You’ll only believe it when you see it!”!”

They Saved Hitler’s Brain (c. 1963, 1970s)

Monty Python’s Flying Circus once did a brilliant, satirical sketch on the Return-of-the-Nazis narrative, in which a “Mr. Hilter” lives quietly in a British backwater town, denying that he ever was in Germany as he goes pub-hopping with several shady companions (“Mr. Ribbentrop” is one), and conducting a shabby election campaign, complete with tour on bicycle. As hysterically funny as that routine was, it pales besides They Saved Hitler’s Brain, a famously sleazy schlock classic, whose title says it all. Escaped Nazis, hiding in the fictional South American country of Mandoras, keep der Fuhrer’s head alive in a bottle while plotting world domination. They (presumably the “They” of the title) kidnap a scientist who’s invented a lethal chemical called G Gas, as well as its antidote. The Nazis’ plan, at least as much as we could understand it, is to force the antidote’s formula from the scientist and destroy it; then they can conquer the world with the Gas and start the Fourth Reich. Fortunately, the scientist’s daughters and son-in-law show up and, with the help of a couple of other guys, defeat the Nazis and destroy the Brain, leaving the world safe for The Boys From Brazil.

TSHB has a history as confusing as its narrative. Apparently it started out as a 1963 film called Madmen of Mandoras, with its basic plot of South American Nazis rescuing Hitler’s Brain—actually the entire head—from the wreckage of his bunker. According to both IMDB and Wikipedia, the distributor wanted more footage so as to sell the film to television (to fill commercial time slots), and asked UCLA film students to shoot another twenty minutes. This extra footage appears at the film’s beginning, something about two CID agents tracking someone who’s stolen the antidote’s formula, and then encountering two mysterious Bad Guys who look like the Blues Brothers on a bad hair day. None of this footage makes sense—the entire film doesn’t make sense, but the tacked-on story makes even less sense, as there’s no need for it (though in films like this, concepts like “unnecessary” are, well, unnecessary). What’s even more baffling is that no one seems to know when the new footage was shot (the IMDB message board has some amusing speculations on hair, clothing, and automobile fashion timelines), but the consensus seems to be the early 1970s. The students’ own directing style—such as cuts in a chase scene alternating between bright sunlight and deep night—indicates a distinctly Ed Woodian influence, but we’ll leave that to future film scholars to hammer out.

“Hitler, We Have A Problem”: A loyal Nazi addresses his leader

Bad as the amateur footage is, the ‘professional’ part is even more hilarious. Little details are wrong—a backward swastika appears on a banner; the Hitlerian mustache is more bushy Chester Conklin than toothbrush Charlie Chaplin. The actor playing Hitler shrieks made-up German gibberish in the flashback scenes; later, when he’s in his jar (in his jar?), his eyes slide back and forth in that paranoid manner reminiscent of Richard Nixon impersonators. The plotting and characterization are incoherent (a look at our notes shows phrases like, “who is Pablo?” and “who’s been shot?” and “what IS this place?”); the acting, accents, and dialogue are in the basement (where, coincidentally, the Brain is stored); and when we tell you that the film’s best-known actor is Nestor Paiva, that should give you an idea of how cheap it is. In short, the whole thing is priceless. Our favorite scenes are when the head Nazi—not to be confused with the Nazi Head—respectfully addresses his bottled leader: “There’s been a change in plans, mein Fuhrer,” he says when things start going badly. And why shouldn’t they? TSHB is a one-of-a-kind lousy movie, mixing mad history, mad science, and even madder movie-making in a delirious brew of half-remembered film plots, desperate ideas, and a kind of gallant, Custer’s-Last-Stand bravado in its straight-faced presentation of its loony story. It’s so bad that it’s become legendary, and watching it won’t disappoint you; it lives up to that legend. We don’t know what kinds of brains cooked up this film, but we’re forced to admit—we’re kinda glad they did.

Bottled Fuhrer: Hitler in a jar

Other Brain Films Recommended For Your Cerebral Pleasure:

The Atomic Brain, AKA Monstrosity (1964): An elderly widow wants to have her brain transplanted into the body of a beautiful young woman. An obliging doctor tries to help, while he also conducts experiments in creating zombies (DON’T ask). The best part of this movie is the ending, when the widow’s brain is transplanted into the skull of a cat(!), who then decides to take revenge. Probably the best piece of acting you will ever see by a feline in a film.

The Brainiac (1962): Must-see great/bad Mexican horror. A resurrected warlock turns into a monster that feeds on brains for nourishment, sucking up the gray matter through a long rubber tongue. Sometimes the warlock consumes his brains more conventionally, spooning them, like cereal, from a large bowl, which we thought would make a great cover for the Wheaties box. However, we don’t think this will become the Breakfast of Champions any time soon.

Creature With the Atom Brain (1955): The busy Curt Siodmak penned this tale of a scientist creating zombie killers by reanimating their brains with atomic energy. In an unusual twist, a gangster wants to take advantage of the scientist’s experiment to control the South Side. This may be the only film that combines zombies, gangsters, atomic radiation, and ex-Nazi scientists.

Fiend Without a Face (1958): Brains are materializing out of thin air and attacking the inhabitants of a town near a military base. The Brains, with their spinal cords still attached, which make them look like meat patties with tails, fly through the air and attach themselves to the heads of their victims. It’s all the fault of military mind experiments. If you like gross special effects, this Brain’s for you.

The Head (1959): A French-West German co-production made the same year as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, to which it bears many similarities. A young doctor works for an elderly scientist who’s invented a serum for keeping body parts alive. The doc falls in love with a hunchbacked nurse and wants to cure her, but the scientist conks off before the doc can learn his secret. What to do? What the doc does is to cut off the scientist’s head, stick it in a pan, and bring it back to life with the serum. Oh yes, and there’s a visit to a strip joint, to case out a new body for the nurse. Next time you hear someone gassing off about the superiority of European cinema, direct them to this movie.

The Screaming Skull (1958): OK, it’s a Skull, not a Brain, but it’s a lot of schlocky fun anyway. A scheming man murdered his first wife for her money; now he wants the dough of his second, well-to-do wife, and plans to drive her crazy by making her think she’s seeing the first wife’s skull. Only problem is that the Skull has a vengeful mind of its own. An unbelievable finish, with hubby pursued by Skull wearing a hat and dress as it flies through the air. Is it us, or are these movies really crazy?

BONUS CLIP: The trailer for The Screaming Skull, which promised a free burial for any audience member who did not survive its terrors. “Be sure to bring someone with you who can identify you!” 

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