Believe it or not, I hadn’t seen “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” in its entirety until just recently.
It is, after all, one of those classic schlocky horror movies, those cult drive-in classics, that everybody is familiar with even if you haven’t seen it. It was the first Mike Nelson “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” for pete’s sake.
Yet I managed to never see more than random clips until I sat down to watch it on DVD the other day.
And what a treat.
Filmed in 1959 but not released until 1962, the movie’s original title was “The Head That Wouldn’t Die,” who was probably more accurate.
The movie stars Jason Evers – a familiar face from the “Star Trek” series episode “Wink of an Eye” – as Dr. Cortner, an arrogant surgeon who is secretly experimenting, Frankenstein-style, on creating life after death. He’s been saving random body parts and assembling a creature that’s kept in the laboratory closet downstairs in his family’s summer home.
Early in the movie, even Cortner’s surgeon father criticizes his lack of humility and unpleasant ambitions.
Then Cortner and girlfriend Jan are in a auto accident and Jan is decapitated. Jan is beheaded in the kind of car crash that is usually found in low-budget movies: Lots of shots of the car careening along a country road, then quickly approaching a guard rail. The crash itself isn’t seen. Neither is Jan’s head, which Cortner wraps up in his sportcoat and rushes from the scene (with as much footage of him running, bunched up jacket in his arms, as there are shots of the car speeding down the road).
So Cortner put’s Jan … in a pan … at least her head … in his basement lab. Then he begins scouting out a replacement body.
The movie certainly seems to have inspired scenes in “The Re-Animator,” with its head in a pan motif. And “Jan in the Pan” is apparently the nickname for the female lead once she’s … in a pan.
Every cheap horror movie needs a monster and a woman’s head in a pan just wasn’t going to cut it. Hence … the stitched-together monster in the closet.
The creature, the result of Cortner’s previous experiments, is played by seven-foot, six inch Eddie Carmel, subject of a photo by renowned photographer Diane Arbus that depicts Carmel as “The Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents.”
As Cortner goes to a burlesque house to pick out a new body for Jan, he doesn’t seem like a tortured soul looking to save his girlfriend. He seems to be enjoying the view a little too much.
Adding to the overall aura of sleaze: Two dancers get into a catfight, boobs jiggling. Cut to drawings of two cats and a dubbed meow.
Jan, meanwhile, wakes up – well, her head wakes up – and she immediately begins talking to the still-unseen monster in the closet, talking up their mutual need for revenge.
There’s some choice dialogue:
“An operating room is no place to experiment.”
“Very well. The corpse is yours.”
Said during operation: “I’ve been working on something like this for weeks.” Well, tons of research then.
“I love her too much to let her stay like this.” Well, a disembodied head in a pan, yeah.
“The line between scientific genius and obsessive fanaticism is a thin one.”
“Horror has its ultimate … and I’m that.”
And cackling by Jan in the pan. Lots of cackling.
The end credit slide on the copy that I watched still had the original title: “The Head That Wouldn’t Die!”