The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1959)

Joseph Green's screenplay, developed from an original story by Green and Rex Carlton, is an achievement of vast imagination. We are in the arena of Camp, but there are degrees. Camp is defined as making fun of something you take seriously, and is thus a sophisticated comic mode. To say The Brain that Wouldn't Die has a low degree of Camp is to say its seriousness is not as overtly undermined as it could be, seen mostly in the character of the severed head, which seems a little too intense in its sermons against Doctor Courtner for keeping it alive without a body.  The head strangely does not appreciate that Doctor Courtner is ushering in a new, more hopeful world, a world where decapitation is no longer the certain end of life. Mr. Guillotine, meet your counterpoint, Mr. Bill Courtner. In The Brain that Wouldn't Die, the still-debated Cartesian mind-body duality problem is finally solved -- we're all brain, and thus can survive without a body. Hilariously, with Dr. Courtner's hopes of a full head transplant, the body becomes interchangable! That Dr. Courtner goes "shopping" for a new body for his decapitated girlfriend at strip clubs and swimsuit modeling competitions is one of the most comically ingenious scenarios in cinema.

The Brain that Wouldn't Die centers around a philosophical dispute between a father and son team of surgeons. The son, as we see humorously in the long first scene, is a bold, nervy experimenter, a handsome, fairly suave, yet still robotic Dr. Frankenstein, who is not afraid, unlike his morally diligent, traditional father, to open up a chest cavity. Father thinks experimenting directly on humans is wrong, dangerous voodoo. By film's end we see what side the plot has taken in this dispute - the Father's. The plot, a magnificent creation, teaches that all experimentation must be guided by a system of morals. One does not experiment on humans, or challenge fate, and if one should need a body, one does not choose a voluptuous one. One chooses one best suited to the situation. Don't be ruled by fetish or lust. You will end up chomped in the neck to death by a monster of your own creation, and left to burn in the fires of your wasted laboratory. But applying the formula of camp, we could infer where the real sympathies lie -- with the Doctor. Is Bill Courtner the hero of this film, which it treats, following camp rules, with mock suspicion from beginning to end? Is the man of science what The Brain that Would't Die takes seriously, and thus mocks?

From the beginning Bill's dialogue is a gold mine of classic lines like "I'll handle the brain area," great lines that can be applied in any social situation like "I'm about finished with the cerebral area." Though overtly presented as the villain, we have the conflicting evidence in the opening scene of his behavior -- he has restored life to the dead, something Jesus would do. Following that miraculous act Bill's behavior comes into line with his villain billing. Driving fiancee Jane to his house in the country Bill suddenly floors the pedal and despite "Winding Road" signs and numerous other indications of danger, he refuses to slow down. The climactic wreck is ineptly filmed. We wonder with a grin how the car's seemingly minor connection with a guard rail could result in the complete separation of Jane's head, which Bill returns to the car to fish out like a hot potato out of a mixing bowl.

Back at the lab, Bill, using sophisticated telephone tubing connected to a voltmeter, restores life to his fiancee's severed head. He promises her that he will find her a body and make her whole again. The head is positioned in a tray of Bill's breathing serum in the center of the laboratory table, stabilized between two large temple-pressed suction cups. With Bill off in search of a body, the head recovers its speech capabilities. We learn her miraculously restoration is an unhappy one. "How could he keep me alive like this? He doesn't know what it's like..." The living head has a very strong death wish, in aid of which she enlists, with her newly discovered telekinetic powers (a side-effect of the magic serum), the mysterious grunting monster behind the closet door, an imprisoned guinea pig of Bill's transplantation experiments grown into a dangerous Frankenstein monster. Courtner's assistant attempts to explain to the head how grateful it should be for Bill's miraculous touch. Look, you're just a head, but you're alive! It's amazing! But the head rejects all hope. It suddenly has, perhaps with the aid of the serum, scientific knowledge enough to disprove the possiblity of a successful head transplant. The head's blood antibodies will interpret the new body as invading matter and attack. The head will reject a new body because it is a simple matter of science that it will not work. But, we think, perhaps the head should take note of its present body-less condition. Bill's breathing serum is no respecter of scientific law. The assistant counters the head's skepticism with news of an even newer serum which tagets the lymphoid tissues, which are located, luckily for the head, in the neck. This new serum may neutralize the effects of the warring antibodies. Maybe the transplant will take. The head laughs its ever more sinister laugh. The head understands what the new serum really does -- provides telekinetic power to the brain.

Meanwhile Bill heads to some seedy strip clubs to find a body. He checks out some candidates, taking part in some really bad euphemistic dialogue in a smoky back room, but the situation is too risky. Bill next takes to cruising the streets in his flashy convertible browsing the sidewalks, which are only used by pretty young women. The soundtrack turns to the best kind of raw sex scene jazz, a highlight of the film. He does too well, he picks up two. Oddly there happens to be a swimsuit modeling competition going on just down the road, but that proves fruitless as well (but some key conventions of the late night drive-in movie have been fulfilled, including a gratuitous stripper-on-stripper wrestling scene).

The counterpointalism becomes a little too heavy-handed with the introduction of Doris, a man-hating supermodel with a perfect body but with a grotesque facial scar she hides behind a drape of hair. She's perfect, and Bill uses her scar vulnerability to perfection. "You have a lovely body," he says to her in his characteristic droid cadence. "And a face that could be made beautiful again also." Bill gives her a line a mile long about how he can fix her scar, reporting to her on "ice" treatment, on the new method of "sanding away" damaged skin tissues. Bill's wild miracle promises, expressed in his dispassionate doctor's voice, are too much for Doris. "What's in it for you?" she asks. And Bill answers with astonishing frankness:

I'm going to make your face beautiful again,
                      cut it off, and give your body away.

Bill, a master manipulator with "the kind of face a girl doesn't mind looking at," knows that his stark honesty regarding his intentions will necessarily be misinterpreted by Doris as humor -- daring, imaginative humor. Like the head, she laughs but she really shouldn't. She should know a fanatical man of science like Bill Courtner does not traffick in humor, daring or otherwise. Meanwhile the head, still frozen between the probes in a shallow pool of serum, is communicating with the grunting thing behind the closet door. "I need to see your hideousness!" In rushes the assistant to shut her up. But don't get too close to that closet door. And don't call the head a "freak of life," or a "freak of death," or "a miserable fool." But he does. Suddenly a large arm springs through the closet door window, grabbing the assistant around the neck with the head whispering "Get him! Get him!" The head's powers of mind control are fevered with extra-development, maniacal. "Kill him!" she wispers. "Kill him." The monster, only semi-literate, interprets this instruction as "disarm him" and promptly tears off the assistant's one good arm. The head, now fully psychotic, cackles maniacally at the spectacle of the bleeding assistant's drawn out death wobble. Now as the plot begins to resolve every minute action is unnecessarily drawn out apparently to lengthen the film. We now need two minutes of Bill unfolding a sheet to cover his dead assistant. He has arrived at the house with Doris and steals off to the lab only to find his assistant dead in a pool of blood, but he still has the presence of mind to spike Doris's cocktail with some pre-modern rophynol. After two sips she starts taking off her clothes, cued presumably by the renewed strains of the sex scene jazz. She gets her sweater off and zonks out.

Bill, with Doris knocked out, prepares for the head transplant, taping the mouth of the nagging head as a precaution. The head now must manage, without the aid of limbs, to work the tape off in order to direct the still-closeted monster to break through the door and attack. And suddenly he's out! Now we finally see the much wondered-about monster. He has an extra story of bald cranium on one side and a sharp descent to the other side which is rutted and pocked with dried-up, diagonally-mounted eye-ball sockets. In the ensuing struggle, the monster leans down and chomps into Bill's neck and spits out a slender chunk of bloody flesh onto the laboratory floor. The lymphoid tissues? Chemical concoctions overturned, the lab is quickly engulfed in flames. Finally the knowing head is content. Her rightful death is not far away. The monster saves slumbering Doris from the fire, leaving the cackling head behind. He won't mind the scar. The end.

Most would focus too much on the obvious fact that The Brain that Wouldn't Die is poorly made, cheap and almost unapologetically amateur in its production quality. For a musical equivalent, think the Trogg's Wild Thing. Ignoring special effects tricks, which were quite sophisticated by 1959, Green thinks he can just plop a plastic brain from a toy store down behind a couple rags and call it a surgery scene. These "B" movies were churned out in factory fashion, and Green lacks the resources to maintain an illusion. Green ever so smartly reacts by spurning all technicians, and championing the comedic possibilities of under-making. He gracefully drifts into Camp, and in The Brain that Wouldn't Die, confidently masters the intriguing ambiguities and delightful perversions of the Camp mode. A must-see.

copyright 2006, by Christopher Duckett