« I Vinti | Main | Grindhouse »

April 05, 2007

The Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-a-thon: The Brain that wouldn't Die


Joseph Green - 1962
Genius Entertainment Region 1 DVD

There are at least a couple of reasons to re-evaluate The Brain that wouldn't Die. One of those reasons is that it was a groundbreaking film in terms of on-screen horror. Made in 1959, but not released until 1963, the graphic horror was considered extreme for its time. Made before Herschell Gordon Lewis showed how to cook an Egyptian feast, and George Romero unleashed zombies in Pittsburgh, Joseph Green horrified the censors, and some in the audience that bothered to see his film. Stuart Gordon has stated that The Brain that wouldn't Die was influential on his own Reanimator. Time has proven that with several DVD and a downloadable version available, this is "The Film that wouldn't Die".

For those unfamiliar with the story, Dr. Bill Cortner proves to his surgeon father that he can revive the dead with a serum he has created. Cortner also hints that he has been working on experiments with this serum at the family's country home. Driving a bit to fast to his weekend getaway with his fiancee, Jan, Cortner crashes into a guard rail. While he is tossed out of the convertable, Jan is burnt in the flaming car. Cortner wraps her head in his jacket, and runs to his country home, actually a small castle, where he places Jan's head in a pan, connected with tubes with the special serum. The basement laboratory is maintained by Kurt, a former surgeon with one bad arm, a failed transplant attempt by Cortner. Also in the basement is a monster in the closet, a collection of body parts pieced together and made alive with the serum. Cortner has no more than forty-eight hours to take Jan's stil living head, and place it on a new body. In an attempt at one-stop shopping, Cortner looks for Jan's replacement body at a strip club. Meanwhile, Jan not only wishes she had been left to die, but additionally starts communicating with the monster in the closet.

There is a small bit of visual wit. Most obvious is a scene of two strippers fighting over Cortner, the camera tilts up to two pictures of cats, with the sound of fighting cats literalizing the action on the floor. Overlooked is the inclusion of a bust in Cortner's house, the sculpture of a head, that prefigures Jan's fate. While I have no way of knowing Green's intentions, the scenes of horror could be appreciated for their black humor. The monster in the closet tears off Kurt's good arm, leaving the loyal assistant to smear his blood-soaked smock against the laboratory walls. The monster bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Potato-Head, particularly as seen in Toy Story when he declares that he's "a Picasso". There is also shot after shot of Cortner interviewing possible victims, frequently with his hands around their necks.

The most famous line uttered by Herb Evers as Bill Cortner is, "Do I look like a maniac who goes around killing girls?" Part of Jan was played by former Fox contract player Virginia Leith. Leith was the step-mother of filmmaker Mary Harron. One could argue that the seedlings of Harron's feature films could be found in The Brain that would't Die. Certainly Cortner's words could have been easily said by American Pyscho's Patrick Bateman. The strip club scenes recall the milieu of The Notorious Bettie Page. And what to make of the facially scarred model, Doris, a self-declared "man-hater", perhaps not too distant in attitude from Valerie Solanas of I Shot Andy Warhol. Cortner is somewhat like Harron's male characters, self-absorbed and transgressive, while the female characters are objectified by men, sometimes by choice.

The Brain that would't Die may not be a good film in the conventional sense, but it should not be mistaken for a bad film, or so bad it's good, or camp. Bad films are never as perpetually entertaining as this. Can it be taken seriously as an examination of mad science or sexism? Somethings are better left at the surface. Be that as it may, The Brain that would't Die is the results of an idiosyncratic imagination that deserves to be valued for its shamelessness and audacity. In other words, this is truly what should be meant when one discusses an independent film.

Links to other entries in this blog-a-thon can be found at The Bleeding Tree.

Posted by peter at April 5, 2007 12:21 PM


Great post! Thanks so much for participating.

I went ahead and started early just to link you up. It looks a little lonely just this second, but it's OK. I'm looking forward to a fun weekend.


Posted by: Neil at April 5, 2007 11:10 PM

The Brain That Wouldn't Die is a great movie! I haven't seen it in years, but your post has inspired me to see it again. I didn't know that Virginia Leith (who I thought was great in the movie) was Mary Harron's stepmom. I really like Harron and find the connection fascinating.

Posted by: Kimberly at April 9, 2007 01:37 AM

The conviction and intensity of Virginia Leith's performance as "Jan in the Pan" goes a long way toward lifting this film above the average and making it a sleaze classic. Leith, a fine actress, made her debut in Kubrick's "Fear and Desire." Who knew that she was Mary Harron's stepmother?

Posted by: c. jerry kutner at April 9, 2007 02:34 PM

What a great film. Frank Henenlotter's Frankenhooker is a loving and surprisingly stylish hommage, with a leading actor who closely resembles Jason/Herb Evers. I love Jan's overripe, post-reanimation dialogue - some of her lines, particularly her back-and-forth with the deformed lab assistant, are straight out of a Stan Lee Marvel comic. "The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculations and often lose themselves in error and darkness!"

Posted by: Paul at April 11, 2007 10:40 AM