The Film: 3/5
First Manos, The Hands of Fate, now another oddity of psychotronic cinema made infamous by Mystery Science Theater 3000 surprisingly makes its Blu-ray debut. This time around, the lucky winner is none other than The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, the film chosen for Mike Nelson’s trial by fire as the new host of MST3K midway through the fifth season.
Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a promising young surgeon making remarkable progress in groundbreaking transplant techniques. He has the respect of his peers – with the exception of his aloof father and fellow surgeon (Bruce Brighton) – and the love of his beautiful girlfriend Jan (Virginia Leith). But Cortner’s wonderful life goes straight to Hell one gorgeous afternoon when he and Jan get into a devastating automobile accident. Bill survives without a scratch, but Jan is decapitated. The surgeon sees no other alternative but to salvage his beloved’s severed noggin and spirit back to the laboratory in the cellar of his house where he can keep the head alive in a pan with the use of electrodes until he can figure out a solution to this unusual dilemma. With less than two days to spare before Jan completely dies, Bill’s only option is to find a new body onto which he can graft her head. These developments understandably unnerve his loyal but cautious assistant Kurt (Anthony La Penna), who has to mind the lab and tend to Jan while Bill takes off to scout the local strip clubs and beauty pageants for a suitable replacement body. He finds the perfect unsuspecting candidate in his ex-girlfriend Doris (Adele Lamont), but she thinks the invitation back to his place is so he can possibly perform some much-needed plastic surgery on her scarred face. Meanwhile, Jan is growing increasingly depressed and furious with Bill for not allowing her to simply die in the first place. In retaliation, she develops a bond with the strange creature (Eddie Carmel) the not-so-good doctor keeps locked away in the lab and intends to use this limb-ripping brute in a diabolical revenge plot.
Released theatrically in 1962 by American-International Pictures, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die has long been a staple of late night television airings and a favorite title of budget video labels since it fell into the public domain ages ago. Like many a cheesy B-movie staple of its time, Brain was given renewed life thanks to its selection as the latest subject of mockery by the Best Brains crew in 1993. But when you remove the film from its place as the centerpiece of a better-than-average episode of MST3K and allow it to stand on its own, it becomes an oddly compelling little fable of twisted love with disturbing psychosexual undertones. The era of erotic repression that birthed this strange flick from Joseph Green (a low-rent distributor who briefly dabbled behind the camera on other forgettable projects), who wrote the screenplay from a story he concocted with Rex Carlton (Al Adamson’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle), is practically aching to explode from every frame of celluloid. The character of Dr. Bill Cortner uses Jan’s near-tragic mangling as an opportunity to finally create his perfect woman even though it would entail turning the woman he loves into something she isn’t. He could have let Jan perish, but instead he decides to go for it all, and naturally he has to pay the ultimate price. If you have ever seen Re-Animator, Frankenhooker, or Boxing Helena, you might look at The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and wonder how influential it was on those films.
The entirety of Brain is set indoors; most scenes take place in Cortner’s lab, while his quest for a new body for Jan takes him to a sleazy strip club where the smoke is thick enough to obscure the sexy dancers, and later to a photographer’s studio where he finds Doris. Not one scene was set outdoors, a strange creative choice that gives the film a claustrophobic intensity capable of putting the viewer in the mindset of the imprisoned Jan, aided by average cinematography from Stephen Hajnal (his only screen credit) that gives us no stylistic relief. Virginia Leith (Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire) is the standout of the cast as Jan, spending the majority of her screen time as “Jan in the Pan” while creating a sympathetic character through effectively portraying her inner torment at being reduced to a remnant of her former self. Jason Evers (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) puts in a decent performance as the gifted surgeon whose perverse nature becomes clearer over the course of the film. Probably best known for his work as an English language voiceover artist for the Italian cinema, Anthony La Penna is convincingly tortured and terrified as the besieged lab assistant, and Adele Lamont provides some fetching beauty in her sole movie role. Green’s direction is solid and keeps the pacing lively and fun by throwing in a stripper cat fight and some third act gore – including an arm ripped bloodily from its socket – that was mostly shorn by censors at the time, but can now be enjoyed in all their uncut splendor.
MGM prepared the 1080p high-definition transfer of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die using the original camera negative (which features the alternate title The Head That Wouldn’t Die on its ending card, for some confusing reason unbeknownst to me) as their primary source. The elements appear to have been in solid condition since only a moderate amount of print damage was unable to be removed digitally, but though those lingering stains and grit are noticeable, they are hardly a distraction. The 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio is true to the framing preferred by the filmmakers and the transfer is overall solid and clean, with a grain structure that is kept to a minimum and remains consistent from start to finish. Since the entire movie was shot on interior sets, the lighting could be controlled and adjusted to suit the needs of each scene, so there is no murkiness present even in the darker moments. Since the film was released with mono sound, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track provided by Scream Factory is able to do its job just fine. Dialogue and sound effects are audible and mixed well without creating intelligibility, and the dramatic music score credited to Abe Baker and Tony Restaino is given a strong spotlight in the mix. There are a few traces of permanent damage in the sound that no amount of restoration could repair, but you may or may not notice. English subtitles have also been included.
The supplements begin with an audio commentary with author and film historian Steve Haberman and author Tony Sasso. The latter supposedly wrote a book about the making of The Brain, but damn if I can find any information pertaining to its existence. Both gentlemen get along well and have more than their fair portion of trivia and observations regarding the film, though Haberman is often amused by how deeply Sasso reads into what he considers the deeper thematic elements in the story. It’s not the most dynamic and entertaining commentary, but you might get some enjoyment out of it.
The best bonus feature of the lot is the inclusion of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode spotlighting The Brain (92 minutes) that first aired the day before Halloween in 1993 – the first time this particular show has been available on home video since Rhino’s currently out-of-print DVD from 2000. It’s presented in standard-definition and looks about as good as its original broadcast condition. Also, it’s hilarious as the episode opens with Crow and Tom Servo putting newcomer Mike through bad movie boot camp before his first “movie sign”. They also namecheck Frankenhooker during the riffing, so I guess I’m not the only who spotted the influence The Brain could have had on Henenlotter’s classic horror-comedy.
A 90-second alternate version of the scene where Doris poses for leering photographers has been included. It features more breast and rear nudity from Adele Lamont and was filmed for versions of The Brain released in overseas markets. The extras close out with a full-motion photo gallery (4 minutes) containing a modest wealth of poster art, production stills, and behind-the-scenes pics, and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes).
I enjoyed The Brain That Wouldn’t Die more as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but on its own it works well as a twisted little sci-fi B-flick with more going on under the surface thematically than one might suspect. Scream Factory has done right by this fascinating cult oddity on Blu-ray with its excellent new video and audio transfer and fine extra features. Recommended if you’re feeling adventurous.