Filmed in 1959 but not released until AIP picked it up in ’62, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a weird little treasure that deserved to be saved from the wreckage. It surpasses all yardsticks of measurement such as taste or talent, and instead floats to the surface on sheer strangeness and a stringent commitment to sleaze. Man cannot live on refinement alone.
Released in May after AIP purchased it and thrown to the wolves on a double feature with Invasion of the Star Creatures, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (AKA The Head That Wouldn’t Die) came and went like the patrons at a Dusk to Dawn bill by the local drive-in. Mass production on the public domain line ensured faded memories and dimmed shocks until Mystery Science Theater 3000 gave it new life. Regardless of how you’ve come to it, Brain still retains the title of best Mad Scientist and the Burlesque Dancers Who Loved Him film. (It’s a small category, but a proud one.)
Meet Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers, listed here as Herb – The Green Berets), a brilliant surgeon who specializes in under-the-operating-table transplants back at his remote lodge/sparsely equipped lab. Along for support is his loving fiancé Jan (Virginia Leith – A Kiss Before Dying), who even agrees to go with Bill to see what he’s been up to at the lab; unfortunately, said trip results in the worst filmed car crash in movie history, which further results in Bill wrapping up Jan’s decapitated head in his jacket and heading to the Transplant Inn.
While Jan sits in a turkey roaster precariously attached to tubes and such, Bill vows to find a body to restore his fiancé to her former glory. But make no mistake, it has to be the perfect body; and that means wooing strippers, curbside ogling, stalking beauty pageants, and visiting nude models (at least in foreign versions of the film). He’s very thorough, Bill is, and while he’s doing that, Lab Jan gabs with Bill’s assistant Kurt (Anthony La Penna, here as Leslie Daniel – Jesus, is everyone in this movie working under the Witness Protection Program?), himself the recipient of a withered arm due to Bill’s previous experiments. Have I mentioned the monster in the locked closet that Jan telepathically communicates with? Well she does, and she plans on using her new friend to take down Bill, his philandering ways, and gift herself sweet relief from her heady hell. (Sorry. That even hurt me to type.)
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die offers up a very clear protagonist in short order; while Bill starts off as our hero, once the car crash occurs, all of our sympathies quickly turn to Jan as Bill’s lecherous ways come to a boil. He’s clearly looking for a way to make a better Jan than the one he started with, and her spineless senses can tell; I’m amazed that Bill manages to keep his Mad Scientist licence with the utter lack of sciencing (or madness) past the opening surgical scene.
However, the unrated version does give you limb removal and flesh eating, and if you were seeing it with the sophisticates overseas, a pair of breasts in an alternate version of nude model Doris (Adele Lamont – The Tall Man)’s first encounter with Bill. But alas, Brain was cut to shreds for domestic consumption; luckily, the lurid survives any trims the editors imposed on the final product. Man cannot live on flesh eating and breasts alone.
How lurid is lurid? Well, it’s all about Bill’s journey for the perfect body. There’s a lot of leering on display, doubled down with ludicrous dialogue dribbled out by ingénues, C-list actors, and I think, people who may have accidentally wandered into the frame. But there’s a certain innocence to the sleaze that’s sort of charming while still being wildly misogynistic – if it weren’t for Jan, that is. Because this is really her story, and by proxy, every woman catcalled or eyed up just for her assets.
Sure, it’s a small measure of proto-feminism; there’s still a tussle between two strippers vying for a piece of Dr. Bill, and Doris isn’t developed beyond a sour disposition – but all the justifiable rage is there in Jan’s besmocked cranium. And Leith really sells it; hell she’s the only one who truly registers, as one will when your performance is built around nothing but head shots. She hisses, rasps, scowls, and does everything in her power to convince us that anything worth watching is happening – and it works! The lab has a sparsity (read: no budget) that at least sets it apart from Frankie’s or Jekyll’s workshops, allowing us to fully ingest Jan’s mind games with Kurt and The Thing Behind The Door (and don’t worry, it does eventually get out in a fiery finale).
You certainly don’t need an ironic sheen or laugh-alongs to enjoy The Brain That Wouldn’t Die; a cynical view isn’t necessary for director Joseph Green’s magnum opus. I’m sure when Carl Reiner and Steve Martin made The Man with Two Brains (1983), or Stuart Gordon made Re-Animator (’85), they reveled in the absurdity minus any detached stance. Is it good? It’s good to me because it brings me joy. And in an age of uncertainty and overwhelming scepticism, it’s nice to know that a girl, a roaster, and a misunderstood monster can put a smile on my face and a song in my heart.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE SENTINEL (1977)