The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a staple of vintage bad sci-fi movie lists. It was the subject of an MST3K episode and clips from it appeared in It Came From Hollywood, a bad movie compendium that put this film in the schlock sci-fi pantheon along with other favorites like Robot Monster and Plan Nine From Outer Space. In fairness to its critics, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is filled with goofy science, wacked-out plot twists and overheated performances. That said, those elements coalesce into a movie that is lurid and offbeat in a way that a simple “bad movie” tag can’t capture.
The plot of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die splits the difference between Frankenstein and Eyes Without A Face, albeit on a tinier budget and with sleazier proclivities. Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is the story’s Dr. Frankenstein, a man obsessed with perfecting limb transplants. He gets an unexpected opportunity when his reckless driving leads to his loving fiancee Jan (Virginia Leith) being decapitated.
Working with his assistant, crippled ex-surgeon Kurt (Anthony La Penna), Bill uses a test serum to keep the head alive and begins prowling gentlemen’s clubs and figure contests to find a new body for her. Meanwhile, what’s left of Jan is going crazy and developing new psychic powers from her serum – and there’s also a mysterious failed experiment lurking behind a locked door that is essentially this film’s answer to Chekhov’s gun.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die delivers all the trashy kicks that bad film fans crave: it gleefully pushes the bounds of early ’60s film standards, weaving in decapitation, dismemberment, cat fights and a macabre human monster into its boilerplate mad scientist plot. It also has a horny, sleazy undertone, particularly the periodic stops to leer at lusty women as the good doctor hunts for another body.
The film benefits from having colorful performances that fit trashy comic-book material. Evers does amusing work as a calmly nasty mad doctor but the most interesting work comes from Leith, who goes battier by the moment as the titular character, and also La Penna as a tragic Igor-type who takes his pathos over-the-top. Leith and La Penna have the best dialogue exchanges in the film via a couple of scenes where they argue about the morality of Bill’s actions while lamenting their fates as societal outcasts.
However, the element that pushes The Brain That Wouldn’t Die into trash-flick greatness is a strange, noir-gone-nihlistic quality that makes it hypnotic. It’s the kind of film where all the major characters are willing to do awful things to get what they want and deceive and/or kill others to do it. Their actions lead to a grandly vicious finale that squares up the story in Old Testament style by punishing everyone caught up in the film’s vortex of sleazeball science.
In short, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere bad movie. This little quickie is also suffused with a mean-spirited sensibility and a bleak worldview that give it a real charge. Fans of grindhouse fare might appreciate its poke-you-in-the-eye approach to familiar mad scientist movie concepts.
Blu-Ray Notes: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die has been a public domain staple for years but it has gotten a grand upgrade via a new blu-ray from Scream Factory. It boasts a nice-looking transfer that makes it easier to appreciate the film’s surprisingly good black-and-white photography and the lossless mono audio presents its simple mix in a clear manner.
There’s also a generous package of extras here. They begin with the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that uses this film as its backbone. It was the first episode for host Mike Nelson and he and the ‘bots work their way through their usual array of wisecracks and references.
Better yet, there is a commentary track by genre film expert Steve Haberman and Tony Sasso, who penned an entire book about The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. They mix playful banter with plentiful facts about the cast, the crew and the production.
The extras are rounded out with a topless scene used for the international version of the film, a suitably lurid title and a photo gallery.