Friday, March 23, 2012

The Brain Machine (1977)

Let’s dive into an actual sci-fi story from the 100 Sci-fi Classics boxset. This one comes from the 1970’s and stars that guy from Simon and Simon. It also features a government conspiracy. Hey, wasn’t this the same plot as an X-Files episode?

Dr. Portland (Barbara Burgess) and Dr. Morris (Gil Peterson) have created an amazing new computer. Feed enough information into it and it can predict what a person will do, and figure out what secrets they are hiding. To test their device, they bring in four test patients with several skeletons in the closet. Reverend Neill (James Best) obviously has serious issues, but Willie West (Gerald McRaney) seems to be the most normal of the group. Unfortunately none of them are aware of a government plot to not only control the test itself, but figure out a way to use the computer for nefarious purposes.

Good Points:
  • Interesting core story
  • Some of the acting isn’t too bad
  • Hey, I know that mansion…

Bad Points:
  • The direction is really bad
  • Some of the acting is laughable
  • Your eyes might roll out of your head when you see the ending

You know, they could have had something interesting going here. Sure the main story is a bit hackneyed, but the ‘70s paranoia could work well. Instead director Joy Houck Jr. has no idea how to pace the movie. This sucker drags, and with poor editing, a million establishing shots, and boom mics all over the place, the end result is a pretty boring film with some average riffing potential.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 2
Sound: 3
Acting: 2
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 1
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

In Depth Review

This movie is nearly impossible to get through as a straight viewing experience. The biggest issues all fall on the director’s shoulders. I already mentioned the snails pace, but what really kills this are the numerous establishing shots. Every time (and I’m not exaggerating here) we switch from one local to the other, we get a shot of the building. Most of the time, it’s the same shot. The testing facility got lucky with two angles, but it doesn’t help. Who thought all these shots were necessary? The interiors of the buildings look completely different. Did Houck Jr. think his audience would get confused?

The movie also spends an extremely long time setting up the whole government conspiracy angle. It’s not terribly interesting, and the key figure, “The General”, played with absolutely zero skill or interest by Thomas Hal Phillips. His performance is so lackluster that he manages to slow all his scenes down even more. He has some extended phone conversations (always good to throw these in your thriller), and they are just painful to sit through. While the conspiracy delivers a payoff at the end, they did not need to spend so much time on this.

Honestly the best scenes are the ones where the scientist and the computer quiz the test subjects. Here is where the acting really shines. Some folks aren’t too bad, and actually deliver a solid performance (McRaney). But other just go over the top (Best) chewing scenery with gusto and providing lots of unintentional humor.

It isn’t a spoiler to say at the end of the film the computer goes out of control (any sci-fi movie about artificial intelligence is required by movie law to do so!). When this actually happens, the film really becomes entertaining as the doctors and the test subjects attempt to escape. The histrionics go into overtime and you can’t help but laugh. The ending is your classic 1970s sci-fi film finale. If you’ve seen Parts: The Clonus Horror you may have an idea of what I’m talking about.

One thing that was pretty funny about the production (other than the numerous boom mic shots) is that the huge mansion featured in the film has also appeared in another bad 1970s flick – Angels Revenge. It was the home of the evil crime lord played by Peter Lawford in that fine flick. Not only do we get to see the extended driveway, but also the pool area and backyard. It’s a lovely mansion, but having been featured in two moronic movies, I wonder who kept renting it out?

With that said the film might make for a bit of fun on bad movie night. You may need to have some skilled jokesters around for the dull scenes with the General, but the test subject scenes provide plenty of riffing gold. But avoid it if you’re not in the riffing mood.


  1. I have a number of those multi-packs: mystery, comedy, sci-fi, etc. They are good values in the sense that, for the price of one typical DVD, you get all those films, but wow are some of the offerings dreadful.

    I actually haven't been brave enough to watch every film in any of the packs -- though I've often already seen many of the ones made before 1965 because late night and weekend TV used to air that stuff when I was growing up. I've somewhat arbitrarily adopted the regimen of watching at least one movie per side (there usually are four on each side) of each DVD in a pack, picking and choosing according to the summaries. I've encountered some unexpectedly good movies this way, but sometimes even the best one out of four is painful.

    I'm not sure if The Brain Machine is in one of my packs or not. If so, it wasn't one of my selections to watch. I think that now it won't be in the future. Thanks for the warning.

  2. You are welcome sir. My wife and I did a little marathon of these movies and had some fun with them. But after three of these we needed to watch an actual well made film. So that's why we went with "Deathrace 2000". :)

  3. Great and well written review, I'm just writting the intro for this for me horror hosting it and it was proving hard many thanks its givin me the right tone to do with

  4. Glad it was helpful Bunny. Hope your hosting goes well!