One of my favourite purchases of recent weeks is a three-disc DVD set of "Sci-Fi Flicks": non-classic 1950's drive-in "B" quickies with titles like The Brain That Wouldn't Die or Teenagers From Outer Space.
They're not as bad as I feared they might be, actually. "Amateurish" is a better word to describe them than "bad". The ideas are not bad (for idiot 50's science fiction -- there's a lot of "radiation causes fearsome mutants" and "my serum restores life to dead tissue" here), and the stories move along at a great clip, with a minimum of pointless "filler", which was what I was really worried about.
The big problem with cheapo movies made by hacks isn't that they look terrible, or have crappy acting, or lame special effects. It's that they're often dull and plodding and lack any story tension -- nobody's trying to do anything, and they're full of scenes where people stand around saying things without advancing the story. They're tedious.
Nobody could accuse The Brain That Wouldn't Die of tedium. It moves so fast you actually have to pay attention (I should send a screener to Michael Bay). I'll offer a quick plot summary since I'm sure most of my readers (all four of you) aren't familiar with it.
We're introduced to a cheery family gathering: Surgeon Dad assisted by Surgeon Son while Girlfriend Nurse mops brows and supplies forceps. Surgeon Dad fails to keep the patient alive, at which point Surgeon Son overrules Father's objections and steps forward to administer his "unconventional" treatment.
The patient recovers, but Surgeon Dad admonishes Surgeon Son for tampering with forces beyond man's ken. Dr. Frankenstein (I mean, Surgeon Son), scoffs, and he and Girlfriend Nurse head up to his secret hideaway.
Tragedy ensues, and Surgeon Son reveals hitherto unsuspected moral laxity as he seeks to restore his beloved to life. She lingers on as a decapitated head with ill-defined powers of mental communication, and while Surgeon Son is gallivanting about with catfighting strippers, looking for a suitable "transplant" for Girlfriend Nurse, her desire for revenge slowly bakes in the slow-roasted flavour.
Yes, Surgeon Son intends to perform an "entire body" transplant. If that doesn't work for you, you'll probably want to sit this one out.
Anyway, far from displaying gratitude, Girlfriend Nurse becomes an implacable engine of revenge. As much as a decapitated head sitting in an cake pan is capable of being, at any rate. She enlists the help of Savage Beast Chained Behind Solid Door and her revenge is savage indeed. And graphic -- there's plenty of gore spilled when Resentful Assistant has his arm pulled off (it's not super-convincing as you can clearly tell he's just got his arm tucked under his coat, but the blood is liberally spent and there's fun stump-painting on the walls).
It all ends in flames and cackling laughter, of course.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die is about as far from A Zed and Two Noughts as a film can be. There's not much here other than the story -- the performances are, to be kind, acceptable (the catfighting strippers were especially convincing), the design and cinematography lack much oomph, and the dialogue is without memorability. But the story, now, the story is what we're watching for. It roars along nice and speedy-like, throwing plot twists at you without losing track of the central tension: the rising horror of that decapitated head (both its situation and its fiendish reaction). This is a campfire tale of a movie; stripped-down, unpolished and not only lacking in but disdainful of subtlety.
Stephen King's lovely book Danse Macabre offers as its primary thesis that horror is about identifying and casting out the "mutant". We watch horror films to participate vicariously in Shirley Jackson-esque rituals of defilement and cleansing. To confront that which is different and excise it from our world.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die is obviously a Frankenstein story: egotistical doctor over-reaches the limits of man's authority and is punished thereby. The mutant here is the decapitated head, an abomination that flaunts God's laws by which man is meant to live. Of course we're sympathetic to the plight of Girlfried Nurse Transformed Into Hideous Undead Thing; she didn't ask to have this done to her and pleads with Surgeon Son to let her die as she obviously is meant to. He refuses, and so she undergoes another transformation: into the instrument of divine punishment. The mutant is punished less than the "normal" who creates it. Who betrays the status quo by nurturing, tolerating the mutant.
King notes that the horror movie is by its very nature deeply, reactionarily, conservative. The message of horror is one of intolerance, conformity and judgement. That which does not conform must be destroyed. But I think there's a another, maybe deeper reading; what REALLY needs punishing isn't the mutant but those who tolerate its existence. The conservatism of the horror film runs even deeper than it at first appears, for not only is physical imperfection not to be tolerated, but neither is even the slightest relaxing of moral purity.
The foolish authorities who refuse to take the kids seriously about the UFOs, the lustful couple who scoff at reports of a madman running about, the kindly old nearsighted lady who suggests the ravening alien come in for tea: these are the true victims and their deaths are inevitable in ANY horror film. From Friday the 13th to Vampyr to Night of the Living Dead. With a brief, fond stop at The Brain That Wouldn't Die.