D: Joseph Green / 82m
Cast: Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniel, Adele Lamont, Bonnie Sharie, Paula Maurice, Bruce Brighton
Dr Bill Cortner (Evers) is assisting his father (Brighton) in an operation on a man whose life is slipping away. Cortner Sr is prepared to accept the man’s passing, but Bill persuades his father to let him try something experimental. By a combination of heart massage and brain cortex manipulation, Bill’s efforts prove successful and the man’s life is saved. Afterwards, Bill tells his father about the experiments he’s been carrying out, experiments that involve limb and organ transplants from deceased patients. Cortner Sr voices his concerns but his son remains adamant that his experiments will lead to a time when illness and disease can be conquered by the use of transplanted organs and tissue.
The Cortners are joined by Bill’s fianceé, Jan Compton (Leith). They have a weekend trip planned to the Cortners’ country house (also where Bill has been conducting his research). An urgent call from the house sees Bill rushing to get there, and in the process, causing the car to go off the road. The ensuing crash sees Bill thrown clear but Jan is decapitated and killed. However, Bill flees the scene and heads for the house – with Jan’s head wrapped in his jacket. At the house he’s met by his assistant, Kurt (Daniel), and he quickly arranges Jan’s head in a tray of rejuvenating serum that he’s developed. Once Jan’s consciousness is revived, Bill tells Kurt his plan next is to find a body he can attach Jan’s head to.
Kurt manages to tell Bill about the reason for the urgent call: one of Bill’s experiments in limb transplantation has gone awry, and the “patient” is currently locked away in a room in the cellar where Bill works. Bill dismisses Kurt’s fears and goes in search of a “donor” body for Jan. While he’s gone, Jan wakes up and is horrified at what’s happened to her; she also finds she can communicate with Bill’s previous “patient”. Determined to make Bill pay for what he’s done to her, Jan plans her revenge. Meanwhile, Bill’s search for a woman with an appropriately attractive body proves unsuccessful. He returns to the house to find Kurt even more anxious than before and Jan threatening to stop him. He continues to ignore any warnings, and leaves again to find a suitable woman. Through an old flame he’s reminded of someone they used to know who’s suffered a facial disfigurement. Bill visits the woman, Doris Powell (Lamont), and on the pretext of correcting her scarring, convinces her to come with him to the house. But when they get there, not everything is as Bill left it…
Confusingly (or mistakenly) titled The Head That Wouldn’t Die at the very end of the movie, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a semi-exploitation movie that surprisingly spends several occasions questioning the lengths to which medical science should go in order to save lives. This philosophical and ethical approach serves to ground the movie more effectively than the standard mad-scientist-playing-at-God scenario it otherwise plays with. That Bill Cortner experiments with dead tissue in his efforts to perfect his transplants – a predictable nod to Frankenstein – it’s ironic that if he’d used live tissue (however unethically), he’d likely be regarded as a true saviour of people’s lives (he even mentions the “recent eye cornea transplants” that have been carried out). Ironic, but not quite as lurid as required.
Scientific discussions aside, there’s a marked prurience on display here, with Bill’s first search for a donor body taking him to a strip club. Cue a scene where a blonde “exotic” dancer (Sharie) moves around with all the flair of a barely animated mannequin, and a follow-on scene where another stripper (Maurice) removes her dress for no other reason than because the script requires her to. And as if that wasn’t enough for early Sixties audiences, there’s a swimsuit contest, and Bill’s eventual intended victim, Doris, is shown in her part-time role as a photographer’s model, dressed only in a bikini. It’s all quaint enough by today’s standards but back then would have been considered quite racy, and in terms of the narrative it’s probably as lurid as the producers could get away with.
As with most “creature features” from the Fifties and Sixties, the movie holds off on revealing its monster until the end. Usually the build-up is more impressive than the actual monster itself, but here that’s not the case. Played by Eddie Carmel, who was 7′ 6¾” tall and suffered from acromegaly, the make-up applied to his face and head is suitably horrific, even if it is reminiscent of The Monster from Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). When he’s first seen it’s a real jolt, and even afterwards, he commands the viewer’s attention, despite whatever else is going on in the frame.
As the increasingly megalomaniacal Bill, Evers is a poor choice for the committed doctor, his acting skills ranging from cursory to absent, often within the same scene. It’s a struggle to listen to him expound on Bill’s medical theories; even he doesn’t sound that convinced by them. Forced to act with her head through a table for most of the movie, Leith is at least able to provide two separate characterisations for Jan. First, and briefly, there’s the happy-go-lucky bride-to-be, and then there’s the embittered head in a tray. She’s asked to laugh and cackle a little too much but her performance is still the nearest to satisfactory that the movie manages to achieve. Daniel gives the impression that the conversations he has with Jan are all happening in his head, and chews so much of the scenery it’s amazing there’s any left by the movie’s end.
The script, written by Green, is unnecessarily padded out by both its dissertations on medical ethics (they could have been gone over in half the time), and Bill’s tour of places filled with scantily clad females. Once it enters the last ten minutes the movie picks up speed, but the final shot prompts more questions than it can answer. The production values are predictably low – Bill apparently has the use of just a table and a few tubes and beakers for his experiments – and Stephen Hajnal’s camerawork is particularly awkward when asked to provide something more than a standard medium shot. Green directs competently enough but doesn’t have the experience – this was his first movie – to make it visually interesting (despite all the heaving bosoms) and to avoid things becoming too melodramatic. And the uncredited score is as derivative as they come for this type of movie, and in that era.
Rating: 4/10 – filmed in 1959, and regarded by some as a cult classic, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is only occasionally diverting, and only occasionally satisfying; with the look and feel of a movie assembled from rehearsal footage, this is still worth seeking out, if only to see just how badly an exploitation movie can turn out when there’s so little exploitation actually included.