There are levels to shlock. And inside many a terrible movie, there are seeds of interest and enjoyment. The Brain is, by most metrics, a terrible movie. Mediocre acting, a rather inert story, a screenplay that does not add up. But it has, at least for its first hour before it runs out of ideas, an assured craziness that makes it worth a watch.
It is not a subtle film – we see the titular Brain in the first couple of shots, sitting in a vat of unidentifiable goo. Then we get the traditional horror movie opener: the shock death of the first victim. In a suburban home, sad girl Becky is asked by her mother to watch a TV program with her, “Independent Thinking”, starring the girl’s own psychiatrist, Dr. Blakely. Becky’s had enough of him, and goes up to her room where she begins to have terrifying visions. Within minutes, hands are ripping through the walls, a tentacle is grabbing at her neck, stuffed animals are bleeding and the walls themselves are closing in. As actual technical effects, the visuals aren’t that convincing, but they pile up with aplomb, right up to where Becky stabs her mother to death with scissors and then is propelled out the window to plummet to her death.
She’s a friend of the The Brain‘s protagonist, Jim Majelewski, who we are soon informed has the highest IQ in class, but uses it to play stupid grade school pranks like throwing sodium chloride into the toilet. This antisocial behavior gets him sent to Dr. Blakely, whom the school district has trusted with many other problem cases. Blakely is played by David Gale, best known to horror fans as the scheming neurosurgeon and nemesis of Herbert West in Stuart Gordons’ Re-Animator. He plays a similarly sinister character here, whom Jim distrusts immediately. Dr. Blakely runs some tests on Jim, which consist of watching a television monitor with the doctor’s comely blonde nurse on it, and telling Blakely what he sees.
Unbeknownst to poor dumb high IQ Jim, the test consists of being fed projections of mental power from the Brain who is in the next room, sitting in his vat. Besides the hot blonde nurse, Blakely has another assistant: a tubby mustachioed male nurse, Verna. The hot blonde eventually objects to the experiments, but before she can quit the Brain decides to retire her permanently…by growing an enormous mouth and, despite being about a third her size, swallowing her whole.
Jim runs off, and after hallucinating about tentacles reaching out of his steering wheel and crashing his car, he finds his girlfriend and disposable other friends for help. But the Brain and its minions are too powerful, so he gets quickly recaptured… and then escapes again very quickly, because while The Brain has some things going for it, clever plotting is not among them. On the run in town with his girlfriend in tow, Jim has to figure out how to defeat this alien menace, while also hiding out: Dr. Gale, using the mesmerizing, hypnotic powers of the Brain, has convinced the entire town Jim is a dangerous multiple murderer to be shot on sight.
The Brain‘s special effects are sometimes okay before they get too ambitious, then they become awful… and then they push to the other side of awful and become fun for their badness. The Brain creature at the beginning actually resembles the organ in question, but as it grows it becomes more spherical, and grows a nonsensical face on the front – all the better for devouring victims.
This is all great, ridiculous fun for the hour or so of running time when the film is working. Unfortunately, it bogs down at the end when the action devolves into Jim running up and down stairs to get away from the male nurse, Verna. It would be hard for the role of frightening henchman to have been more miscast than Verna, played by character actor George Buza. Every second of their cat and mouse game one expects the big, out of shape nurse to collapse onto the floor in a wheezing fit.
But what takes away from the tension adds to the “so bad it’s good” entertainment value. Before it runs out of steam, The Brain has everything you want from a cheap ’80s sci-fi horror – a weird premise (essentially a low-rent Videodrome) with a creature that isn’t just some guy in a suit, a bunch of crazy deaths, a synthesized soundtrack and a smattering of nudity for good measure. It’s cheap, it’s weird, and it’s fun. That’s all it has to be.
The Brain has been released by Scream Factory on Blu-ray. Extras include three commentaries: one with director Ed Hunt, one with lead actor Tom Bresnahan, and one with score composer Paul Zaza. There are also a number of video extras: an 11-minute appreciation of the film by a fan called “Love Letter to The Brain“, and interviews with the actress who played Jim’s girlfriend, Cynthia Preston, the aforementioned George Buza, and assistant Art Director Michael Borthwick, which are about 12 minutes long a piece.