Ah, the distant, slightly faded memory of a momentous moment during my wasted youth. I can still recall perusing the shelves of the long-defunct Video Outlet in rural Janesville, CA one fateful day, setting my eyes upon a large Warner Home Video clamshell of a flick called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. It was like a call to arms for a young genre lover such as myself: a film that focused on the wild notion of a mad scientist keeping his freshly decapitated fiancée’s head alive in a pan while he ventures out to strip clubs to find a body to transplant his beloved’s noggin to. I mean honestly, how could anyone who would find such an outline enthralling in the first place ultimately wind up being disappointed?
Surely I wasn’t then, and I am proud to say that, all these years later, I am still in love with The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. In fact, the late Joseph Green’s magnum opus seems to have become some sort of a twisted gift that has just kept on giving to bad movie aficionados ever since it first hit screens in 1962 on the A-side of a double bill with the equally unbelievable (but less serious) Invasion of the Star Creatures. It amazed many a late-night television viewer who doubted their sanity in the 1970s. Following its introduction to home video in the 1980s, it reappeared in the 1990s in all of its uncut (and gory for the time) glory, shortly before it made its now-legendary appearance on cult favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000, inducting Michael J. Nelson as the show’s second host.
But The Brain didn’t die there. In the 2000s, an uncut DVD popped up from Synapse Films. An unearthing of the film’s historically sleazy jazz theme straight from a rare promotional 45 hit YouTube in the 2010s, which was in-turn followed by the discovery of a European print of the film featuring nudity. Now, thanks to the folks at Shout! Factory’s horror sublabel Scream Factory, we have a brand new High-Definition restoration of the film, culled from the original negative. Is it perhaps too much for a film most “mainstream” moviegoers would instantly dismiss as “trash”? Well, if they can keep shelling out hard-earned money to Disney on Star Wars items while getting weirdly excited about more installments of the Fast and Furious franchise, then I guess we who actually know what bad movies are, but how to properly appreciate them, can have this little tiny victory to ourselves.
As for the bizarre little movie itself, the story finds TV and B movie regular Jason Evers (when he still went by his birth name of Herb Evers ‒ something the 420 crowd will surely chuckle over) as a brilliant surgeon with a severe Frankenstein complex. Having spent countless hours experimenting on stolen body parts (and whole bodies, as well) from the hospital he works at, Dr. Bill Cortner (Evers) is on the verge of making a scientific breakthrough in the field of complete transplantations. Sadly for Dr. Bill, he’s a nutter ‒ something even his surgeon father (Bruce Brighton) senses before he is written out of the film at the beginning of the story. Receiving an urgent call from his assistant Kurt (Anthony La Penna, under the alias Leslie Daniels), the younger Dr. Cortner rushes up to his family’s countryside estate with his betrothed, Jan Compton (Virginia Leith).
Alas, Cortner’s fast driving results in a car crash which sends Dr. Cortner flying from the convertible and decapitates Jan. Scooping up her head from her burning body, Bill rushes to his laboratory and succeeds in keeping what’s left of his former future wife alive in a pan. Determined to make his beloved live once again, Cortner is soon out on the town visiting every strip joint and beauty contest he can gain access to in order to find the perfect body to graft Jan’s head onto. Meanwhile, Jan herself ‒ who is fully capable of speaking, despite having no lungs or vocal cords ‒ has discovered an unknown side-effect of Bill’s secret reanimating serum (which we can only guess is fluorescent green): telepathy. So, as the doctor who is out of his mind is out looking for a new partial girlfriend, Jan is communicating with the mysterious misshapen monster (Eddie Carmel) locked in the lab’s closet.
While every bit as brainless as it sounds, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die ultimately succeeds in being an enjoyable film. Nearly every aspect of the film is amateur at best; nevertheless, the dialogue is surprisingly good (or maybe I have just seen the movie too many damn times!), the moody photography is most effective, the actors who can actually act are fairly serious about the career killer they’re engaged in (everyone has to eat, right?), with Mr. Evers coming off as exceptionally convincingly creepy, while the jazz tune “The Web” by Abie Baker and Tony Restaino ‒ which is heard throughout the course of the film ‒ only helps paint the picture in a perpetual fog of impenetrable sleaze. In fact, with its unforgiving delivery of schlock for the pure sake of it, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die could very well be one of the first grindhouse films ever made.
But even more interesting than the terrible tale itself is some of the film’s lesser-known history. Presumably filmed in 1959 as a potential box office competitor for the similarly themed German film The Head, the shot-in-just-thirteen-days film wound up being shelved for a few years (reportedly due to legal and censorship problems) before being released by AIP in ’62, wherein its bloodier and sexier moments (both of which were quite shocking for even an independent B movie of the time) were cut away from the body of the film. In 1968 ‒ six years after The Brain That Wouldn’t Die was released ‒ the film’s co-writer, Rex Carlton, committed suicide (or so it was ruled) when he was unable to pay back the mobsters he had loaned money from in order to produce another film.
Carlton’s one-time collaborator, writer/director Joseph Green, lived to see a brand new day, however. He would start up his own self-named film distribution outfit in the ’70s, independently releasing (mostly low-budget) films to theaters. He also handled a few home video releases, becoming the first distributor of another cult TV series on VHS, The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan ‒ and I only know this because I found the very rare tapes in a lot one time!). Actor Anthony La Penna (or Leslie Daniel, if you will, as he was the only performer in the entire picture to wisely use an acting alias) also retired from movies, but only on one side of the camera ‒ becoming a prolific voice actor for various dubbed Italian movies in the ’70s and ’80s, including the infamous gut-muncher Cannibal Ferox.
Virginia Leith, who had previously appeared in A Kiss Before Dying and Violent Saturday, refused to return for some post-production recording, hence Jan’s voice and laugh occasionally change (actress Doris Brent, also in the film, completed the work). But it was already too late: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die ultimately ruined her career in film, and she only popped up in a few TV shows/movies before retiring from film in the early ’80s. Jason Evers, on the other hand, had already been established as a television actor prior to landing the lead here, and continued to pop up in one television show after another (most likely due to his changing his first name after making The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), as well as starring in two Jaws rip-offs in the late ’70s: Claws in 1977, and Barracuda in 1978.
But it was Evers’ final film appearance, that of Basket Case 2 from filmmaker Frank Henenlotter ‒ one of Brain‘s many admirers ‒ that would succeed in taking the cake. Cast as a lecherous tabloid newspaper editor (read: tabloid newspaper editor), his final moment in film is accompanied by a subtly framed rag headline reading “Woman’s Severed Head Lives” with a publicity still taken from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (thank you, Frank Henenlotter). Sadly, most of the film’s cast and crew have either passed on or are flat-out unavailable for comment about a movie that has only gone up within the pipes of the cinematic sewer; a sole exception being a recent interview by actress Marilyn (Hanold) Neilson featured on the Shout! Factory release of Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Collection.
While Ms. (Hanold) Neilson’s introduction to the MST3K episode are unavailable on this issue of the film, the actual episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is itself ‒ making this release of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die also the home video debut of MST3K on Blu-ray. Though, yes, the series was shot on video and the Standard Definition presentation here looks a bit darker than its DVD counterparts, it is still worth noting nevertheless. As for Scream Factory’s widescreen (1.66:1) HD presentation of the feature film ‒ the movie you’re actually here for ‒ it has never looked lovelier. The cheap sets throughout the course of the film stand out more than ever now, as do the pores on Jason Evers’ face, and the buxom charms of several, er, “supporting” actresses.
Speaking of “supporting” actresses, that previously referenced European footage ‒ which sports model Adele Lamont in the buff, thus answering how the young woman landed the part ‒ is included here in its silent glory. (Both versions feature comedian Sammy Petrillo, whom Jerry Lewis blackballed from the industry for impersonating him.) Seeing as how that footage debuted (and up until now has only been included on) a budget DVD release which crammed four flicks on one single-sided DVD-9, the upgrade in quality is worth it. Not to mention you can now see a naked Adele in 1080p. The film’s theatrical trailer, which has been included on almost every single trailer compilation ever made, also looks better than before here, and a still/artwork gallery (which has many of the same images seen on the old Synapse Films release) is also on-hand.
English subtitles accompany the cleaned-up DTS-HD 1.0 soundtrack, which is nothing short of glorious, though I detected at least one brief instance of clipped audio during a scene change in the beginning. New to any release of the film is an audio commentary from film historian/writer Steve Haberman and writer Tony Sasso. For me, it was a very awkward conversation to listen to: Haberman spends most of the time either mocking Sasso and the film or reading off cast and crew-members’ credits from then (fallible) IMDb, while Sasso ‒ who claims to be a big fan of the film, and whom Haberman introduces as the author of a book about the movie (which apparently does not exist) ‒ plunges too far into The Brain looking for hidden subtexts. Mind you, I’m a huge fan of the MST3Kriffing, but this audio commentary lacks any grace whatsoever.
While the records of time (and the Internet) show The Brain That Wouldn’t Die was shot under the title The Black Door, Haberman claims the movie’s very first shooting title (before The Black Door) was the dubious moniker of I Was a Teenage Brain Surgeon. I have no idea where he picked up such information. There was a Spike Jones song in 1959 called “Teenage Brain Surgeon,” but that’s about it. Frankly, the whole audio commentary is like listening to one very real life mad brain surgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, talking about his own undocumented, unprovable achievements: it stinks to high heaven and should not be taken as gospel by people who still have use of their brains.
Minor quibbles aside, Scream Factory’s all-new presentation of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a sheer joy to behold. The feature film has never looked or sounded better, and this truly is the definitive release of the film ‒ so don’t hesitate to treat yourself to a little severed head.