The fifties and sixties were a fertile time for B-movies, and everyone with a half-decent story idea and a little money could make a film that, little did they know, would be kept alive by cult followers and public domain archives. Written by producer Rex Carlton and director Joseph Green, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is one of these films, a movie so bad that it’s amazing, and, much like the brain in the title, just won’t die.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die stars television character actor Jason Evers (billed as Herb Evers) as Dr. Bill Cortner, a brilliant but crazy surgeon who has some interesting theories about limb and organ transplants. After a risky but successful operation in which he saves a patient’s life, he gets a phone message from his assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels from Johnny Yuma) asking him to come immediately to the country home where he does his experiments. He gathers up his fiancée, Jan (Virginia Leith from A Kiss Before Dying), and the two take off in a hurry, Bill recklessly driving their convertible through the countryside. On the way, the couple gets into a car accident, and Jan is decapitated. Desperately planning a full-body transplant, Bill retrieves her head and takes it to his cabin, hooking it up to a bunch of science-y machines to keep it alive until he can find a suitable body for it. Before Bill starts scouring strip clubs and beauty pageants looking for an unsuspecting female donor, he is reminded of his past failures by Kurt’s arm and a grunting monster in a closet, both unsuccessful experiments. While Bill is out, Jan’s head begins to communicate with the mutant in the closet (played by the “Jewish Giant,” Eddie Carmel). Bill struggles to find a new body for Jan, while Jan makes friends with the thing in the closet to help stop him and so she can just die.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is the classic sci-fi/horror B-movie that just won’t go away. It’s been parodied on “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” and “The Simpsons.” It’s been made into more than one stage play. Scenes from it have been re-enacted on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and MTV’s “Scream Queens.” So, why does this film keep hanging around? Easy – it’s unforgettable.
Low-budget filmmaking at its finest, the film is the epitome of the cheesy fifties sci-fi film. Even though it is indicative of the era, Carlton and Green manage to avoid the boring conventions while keeping the die-hard ones. Compared to the overdone mission to space movies and creature features that were plentiful in the B-movie genre, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die has a great, unique storyline that still encompasses all of the archetypical ingredients that movie buffs demand. There’s still a mad scientist (with an assistant), a bevy of beautiful women and a misunderstood monster. They’ve just got a much more fun and interesting storyline in which to play around. In a genre ripe with clichés and stereotypes, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a breath of fresh air.
Although films like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die are made with the director’s tongue firmly in his cheek, there are a few things in the movie that are truly scary. The very first sound that the viewer hears is Jan’s disembodied voice moaning “let me die! Let me die!” That sound alone is enough to inspire nightmares. The mysterious closet is another good, scary element, and in one memorable scene, Jan talks with the monster and he communicates back by knocking on the door. The two plot together against Bill, one having the brain and the other the brawn. The reveal of the monster is perfect, as it is saved for the climax of the film and the creature looks exactly as it should in a movie like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.
The visuals really show off the budget, or lack thereof, in the film. From Jan’s head on the table, to the awesomely bad monster makeup, Green made the most of his slim resources. For example, during the surprisingly suspenseful car crash scene, the sequence cuts between road signs, guard rails, Bill’s foot on the gas pedal, and, finally, Bill being thrown from the car. The filmmakers shot a car wreck without actually wrecking a car. These low budget film techniques are how films like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die were born, and the results are sometimes more effective than those in their more expensive counterparts.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die lives on in the memories of B-movie fans who love the campy, humorous side of science fiction and horror. Rex Carlton and Joseph Green have made their mark on the world, and they owe it all to a silly woman’s head on a table.