Pardon my Cerebellum – By Philip Smolen

When I was in sixth grade, Sister Terenia (or Terenia the Terrible as we used to call her) loved to play the Spanish Inquisition game. She would line up every student around the entire room (girl, boy, girl, boy, of course, to prevent “cheating”) and proceed to randomly ask us questions from every subject we had been studying. You could not sit down unless you failed to answer a question correctly. Those that sat down then had to immediately write a 200 word essay of why they were not prepared for school while the rest of us struggled on. Now this game was supposed to help us review for upcoming exams, but she really just liked to see us all sweat and squirm.

One time I actually was one of the final two students. I was up against the nerdy brain of the class, an uncouth jerk who lauded his brain power over everyone else. This nimrod thought he was hot stuff, and luckily for him, was smart enough to run all the way home after school so he wouldn’t get pounded by half the class. He wound up beating me on a question about the Gettysburg Address. Afterwards, he shot me that “I’m so superior look” and I swore revenge on him. Since that day, I was always wary of extremely brainy guys.

Sci-fi film producers must have felt the same way I did because the idea of a super intelligent sentient brain as an evil force was developed into a number of movies during the 1950s. This idea stemmed from the 1942 publication of the Curt Sidomark’s novel Donovan’s Brain. Sidomark, a successful author and screen writer, (who contributed much to the mythology of the original Universal monsters) saw his idea adapted a number of times by others. But his novel was the first time that a bodiless, exposed brain was shown to be evil. The inherent problem with most evil brains is that they don’t have any appendages for locomotion, so they must control the behavior of others in order to get their way. But even with that limitation, brains made unique villains in the era of the radioactive monster. So here’s a look at some films where the bad guy is an evil, exposed brain.

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1. DONOVAN’S BRAIN (United Artists, 1953) Director: Felix Feist, Jr.

Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) is a research scientist who studies the function of the human brain in his isolated desert home. One day a small plane crashes nearby and Cory brings the body of the pilot, wealthy and unscrupulous millionaire Warren Donovan, to his home. Cory removes the brain from the body, hides this fact from the police, and keeps the brain alive in a small tank. Unfortunately, Donovan’s brain is still quite active and begins exerting its influence on Cory. Can the earnest scientist regain control of his mind before Donovan completely takes over?

Donovan’s Brain is a quaint sci-fi relic from the 1950s. It holds your interest but doesn’t really sparkle and come to life. Back when it was released, the idea that a part of the body could be kept alive by itself was pretty unique, but in this day of modern medical transplants, the idea has lost some of its luster. The cast is surprisingly good. Lew Ayres, Gene Evans and Nancy Davis (later Nancy Reagan) all turn in fine performances, but the problem with the film is that nothing much happens. The brain never really makes Cory do anything truly evil (although the film ends just as Cory is about to strangle his wife). But up to that point, the brain makes Cory carry out the dead millionaire’s scheme against taxation. I mean in this day and age of tax scams and corporate evil that just makes Donovan seem like one of boys! While Donovan’s Brain is the best adaptation of Curt Sidomark’s novel (the other two versions, 1944’s The Lady and the Monster and 1962’s The Brain are just awful), the film remains static. For all the hoopla over the topic, this film really needs a lot more intelligence.

Quotable Movie Line: “But this brain contains all the knowledge and experience of Warren Donovan’s entire life. In other words, all his thoughts must still be alive.”

2. THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (Howco, 1958) Director: Nathan Hertz (Juran)

When scientist Steve March (John Agar) and his friend Dan (Robert Fuller) go up to investigate strange radioactive readings from Mystery Mountain, they are assaulted by a giant evil brain named Gor who fries Dan with a bolt of energy and enters Steve’s body forcing him to do the brain’s evil bidding. Later when they return home, Gor is excited by the appearance of Steve’s girlfriend Sally (Joyce Meadows). Once a day Gor must leave Steve’s body to recharge itself, and during these moments, Gor carries on conversations with Steve. The brain plans on taking over the world. He’s also got plans for Sally as well. Luckily for her, she’s met up with a counterpart to Gor, a nice policeman brain from the planet Arous called Vol. He has taken over Sally’s dog. Together, the duo plots a way for Steve to destroy Gor without being harmed.

Any way you slice it, The Brain from Planet Arous is a ripe stinky piece of 1950s cheese. But the film’s sheer outrageousness is what makes this cheese fun to sniff. The wild ideas that screenwriter Ray Buffum presents in the film are too grandiose to be accomplished properly on the film’s ridiculously low budget (around $58,000). But that didn’t matter to producer Jacques Marquette. He simply decided that they would present all of Buffum’s ideas and it didn’t matter if it looked credible or not. So model airplanes are destroyed while pieces remain on their obvious wires after exploding. The evil brain is basically a big silly balloon which reduces viewers to fits of laughter. And at the beginning of the film, the landing of Gor’s ship is represented by a sparkler! Through all of this, all the actors give it their best shot. John Agar tries really hard as the possessed scientist, and Joyce Meadows is fine as Agar’s concerned girlfriend. But the best performance has to go to Dale Tate who turns in a lively performance as the evil Gor. Director Nathan Juran (here slumming as Nathan Hertz) does what he can, but even he is hampered by the film’s low budget. So he decides to play up Gor’s obvious sexual interest in Sally to keep the plot percolating along. The Brain from Planet Arous is a bad film, but it throws so many ideas out in its brief 71 minutes, that the film winds up a fun guilty pleasure for many sci-fi fans.

Quotable Movie Line: “I can’t be destroyed and any attempt by any means to do so will bring forth reprisals that will shock the world.”

3. FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (Amalgamated [UK] – MGM [US], 1958) Director: Arthur Crabtree

The Canadian town of Winthrop, Manitoba is a quaint, sleepy community whose main problem seems to be that the nearby American air base’s jet fighters are causing the local cattle to stop giving milk. However, there are suddenly a lot of strange deaths in the area. Local folks are turning up dead with their brains and spinal columns missing. The locals thinks there’s a maniac from the nearby base on the loose, but Air Force Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) thinks it has something to do with the experiments of Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) who’s been trying to move objects through telekinesis. It seems that the kindly professor has been draining power from the air base’s atomic reactor for his experiments. He finally succeeds in moving an object, but then he finds that he’s also done something far worse. He’s created a colony of invisible thought creatures who feed on brains and spinal columns. It’s up to Thompson and a few others to stop the meningial munching menaces before everyone is consumed.

Fiend without a Face is pretty tough going for the first 40 minutes or so. It’s dull and tedious as the squared-jawed Thompson goes from point A to point B trying to find out who the murderer is. But once it’s discovered that the killers are sentient creatures that look like brains and spinal cords, the film really comes to life. The monsters are created via stop motion, and the men credited with bringing them to life (Florenz von Nordhoff and K.L. Ruppel) do a wonderful job of it. The monsters have such life and vigor that it’s easy to forget the film’s slow buildup. Another plus is that the film’s climax, set in Dr. Walgate’s home, takes a page right out of Howard Hawk’s The Thing from another World as a small group of survivors must fight for their life against an army of deadly creatures.  This lively and exciting finish helps elevate Fiend without a Face into an enjoyable 1950s sci-fi monster flick.

Quotable Movie Line: “Well, at least they’re mortal!”

4. THE SPACE CHILDREN (Paramount, 1958) Director: Jack Arnold

At a top secret military base along the California coast, research is continuing on the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “The Thunderer.” An assorted group of children, whose fathers work on the project, gather each day to play. One day this group is walking along the beach when they see a bright shaft of light come out of the sky. They follow the beam which leads them to a nearby cave. They go inside and find a glowing pulsating brain. At first frightened, they soon come to realize that the alien brain means them no harm. They decide to protect it and listen to the thought waves that emanate from the alien.  It seems that the ever expanding brain has a keen interest in the new ICBM…

The Space Children was the last sci-fi film directed by the great Jack Arnold. It was his first film for Paramount, so he really wanted to try and say something important. Arnold juxtaposes the power of the children’s innocence and love with the destructive power of The Thunderer. It’s a delicate balance, and the director manages to pull it off. The Space Children is a sweet film about love winning out over hate. The children carry out the alien’s will and help sabotage the missile while the alien protects the children and gives them special powers. Arnold uses the California coastal scenes to emphasize the loneliness of the base in much the same way as he used the desert in his earlier films for Universal. This really adds to the eeriness of the film. Another plus is the alien brain which was brought to life by Paramount technician Ivyl Burks. It’s weird and wonderful all at the same time. All of the young actors give earnest performances which help sell the fantastic aspects of the film. While not his best sci-fi film, The Space Children remains Jack Arnold’s sincere farewell to the field of sci-fi cinema.

Quotable Movie Line: “Why are you siding with it against us? We’re your parents. We love you!”

5. JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (American International, 1961) Director: Sidney Pink

In the year 2001 a team of UN astronauts travel to Uranus (no cheap jokes, please) to discover the source of a strange signal intercepted by earth scientists. There they find a giant evil brain which probes their minds and uses their deepest desires and fears against them. The brain’s ultimate goal is to leave his frozen world behind and live on the tranquil blue planet where our astronauts come from. What can our stalwart heroes (including John Agar and Carl Ottosen) do to prevent this from happening?

Wow, does this film stink. If there ever was an overused sci-fi film idea, it has to be where people’s fears and desires are used against them. And Journey to the Seventh Planet is one of the poorest attempts to use this idea. There is nothing to recommend here. Sidney Pink’s screenplay is hopelessly banal and he presents the astronauts as the biggest bunch of dopes who ever flew in a rocket. None of them can seem to recognize the situation they’re in before it’s too late. In the right hands this could have been an interesting take on the fear and desire theme like Solaris (1972), but instead Pink trots out a bunch of overused monster ideas. The movie also suffers from some terrible special effects. Legend has it that Sam Arkoff of American International was so horrified by the film’s original effects that he had his editors cut in effects from other AI films (including Bert I. Gordon’s Earth vs. the Spider). But one effect Arkoff couldn’t overcome was Sid Pink’s awful brain prop (which has a blinking automobile headlight for an eye!). Journey to the Seventh Planet is a terrible sci-fi film whose ineptitude reaches legendary proportions.

Quotable Movie Line: “You have come to me, feeble stupid men, armed only with courage and foolish weapons. But my weapons are more powerful than yours. Your own fears create the means of your destruction.”

So there’s a quick look at some films that used brains as a menace. It seems to me, however, that if some of these producers had used more of their own cranial power, film fans could have been spared from some real celluloid migraines. Oh and as for the jerk in sixth grade – one day we got into a scuffle on the playground during lunch time. I wound up pushing him to the ground, and he fell in a nice fresh pile of dog poo. It was a hilarious watching him rub his butt up against a tree trying to remove the poo without using his hands. He freaked out and ran home to change his pants. Sister Terenia made me apologize to him, of course. But I had the last laugh – I kept my fingers crossed the whole time.

 

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Selected References:

Schoell, William. Creature Features. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2008.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1982 and 1986.
Weaver, Tom. Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1988.
Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994.