Friday, May 30, 2014

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) – MST3K Review

Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a brilliant surgeon who saves lives with his daring and innovative techniques. But this skill comes at a cost. He is obsessed with full limb transplantation, and experiments with cadavers and his hapless assistant Kurt (Anthony La Penna) in his spare time. He is very close to being able to transplant a dead arm to a living body with no nasty side effects. He’s about to show his girlfriend Jan (Verginia Leith) his secret laboratory when the moron goes and crashes his car. Bill is thrown clear, and so is Jan… well her head anyway.

Bill races with Jan’s head back to his hidden lab and using his secret serum he manages to resurrect Jan’s head! Now all he needs is a body. Bill figures it is time for an upgrade so he starts looking for all the smokin’ hot girls he can find, and decide which one he will decapitate and bring back to his lair. In the meantime, Jan is not pleased with her fate. But she discovers that the serum has given her telepathic abilities. She can communicate with one of Bill’s mistakes hidden in a closet. Will Jan cause havoc before Bill can find a body, or will he end up facing his former love: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

Movie Review:
"So he's a scientist you see."
Take your basic mad scientist concept right from Frankenstein, throw in a healthy dose of ogling women’s bodies, and cap it off with a mutated creature ripping a man’s arm off and you’ve got this fine film. But let’s be honest here, anyone who loves black and white drive-in monster flicks has at least seen still images of Jan’s severed head in the pan. This classic horror image has gone on to inspire imagery in films like Reanimator and The Man with Two Brains. Is the concept kind dumb? Sure it is, but it is also a lot of fun.

I’ve actually seen a tamer edit of this film, which moves a bit better in the pacing department. Gone are all the scenes with Bill attempting to pick up sleazy women. Instead it is much leaner and meaner approach. But the crew of Mystery Science Theater went for the longer cut of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and I have to say it was a wise choice.

Visually the film has some interesting moments. When Bill retrieves Jan’s head, the whole scene is filmed with a frantic hand held approach. Surprising to see in a black and white B film. We also get lots of point of view shots, usually as Bill sizes up his victims. But we get a few shots from Jan’s severed head angle.

"I hate ALL MEN!" Yes, yes, you've said it
three times already.
But there are also a bunch of odd insert shots, usually of Bill staring into space, or looking smug. They seem to be thrown into the film at random, maybe to break up the two shots or something. I’m not sure. But it is very reminiscent of Coleman Francis work in Red Zone Cuba or Skydivers.

Overall the special effects are low budget fun. Jan’s head in the pan is pretty nifty. The make up effects for the mutant, and the bloody violence as Kurt and Bill get attacked are handled pretty well. I was surprised by the amount of gore in the film. Didn’t know we were getting into that much blood letting until the later 60s. On the flip side, the operation that opens the film is pretty laughable, especially the patients vinyl skull.

The sound effects work well enough. But the music in The Brain and Wouldn’t Die is a curiosity. When Bill is cruising for a new body, the score kicks into some saxophone heavy jazz. I’m not sure what they are trying to imply here, but I kept waiting for a 90s Skin-a-max movie to kick in. The music used for the creepy moments is stock stuff. If you’ve seen enough of these movies you’ll probably recognize it. Most of it works fairly well actually.

Kurt does his Johnny Tremain one man show.
The acting tends toward over the top. Evers goes in full mad scientist mode: arrogant, cocky, superior and prone to lines with double meanings. It is the perfect performance for this kind of movie. Right along with him is the La Penna as Kurt the assistant. He gets more and more panicky and loud as the film continues. I love his ranting tirades at Jan as she goads and manipulates him. Kurt is pretty much an idiot (who else would let Bill cut off his hand and replace it with a corpse hand).

In the ladies corner you have Leith as Jan. It must have been a tough shoot for her, and I admire her dedication to this very silly movie. She has to talk in a raspy voice for about 85% of her dialogue. But she has the angry stare down pat. When she declares vengeance on Bill, you believe it. There is also Adele Lamont as Doris Powell. Doris is the unfortunate gal who Bill brings home to be the new body for Jan. Doris has a great body, but an angry boyfriend cut up her face. As a result she hates all men! She declares this on several occasions. Bill manages to convince her that he can help, but of course his help is just chopping off her head and tossing it away. Lamont plays the whole thing very broadly, and it is a bit of as shame since the character is supposed to be one you feel bad for. Most of the time I was just wondering how annoying she could really get.

As for the script… do I really need to discuss it? With a title like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die you pretty much get what you expect. The plot is ridiculous; the dialogue is extremely ripe and filled with great lines. It lacks the clumsiness of Ed Wood’s script work, but gives Bill plenty of dialogue with sinister alternate meanings. In it’s basic form, the script fits the title.

The 1962 model Floozy!
But the execution is where things get dicey. The 70-minute version moves along pretty well. But the 82-minute version fills time with Bill hitting on any floozy he can find. It’s a mixed bag, because these scenes don’t have much tension to them, but they also feature some of the funniest dialogue. When it comes to scares, the movie also doesn’t quite click. Jan’s severed head isn’t very scary at all, but the way the movie is filmed, I think we are supposed to think she is. Director Joseph Green does a better job building up some tension with the mutant in the closet and around Bill’s murderous plot. But the scenes with Kurt and Jan bickering feel like padding. But then again, the dialogue is hilarious and I wouldn’t want to loose that.

Is the movie an effective scare machine? Not really. But The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is a fun monster flick with a lot of riffing potential. It was the perfect first flick for Mike to tackle as the new host of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Episode Review:
Jan in the Pan! Neck juice not included, some
disassembly required.
For fans of MST3K, the shift from Joel to Mike was a game changer. Things have mellowed over the years, but when this happened – man, it was brutal. Some people rejected Mike completely and never gave him a chance. Others immediately loved what he brought to the riffing and declared they were happier now that Joel was gone. Both of these groups are nuts! The show changed, but it gave us a new style of riffing and took things in unexpected and fun directions.

With Joel leaving, the crew at Best Brains decided to give the show a bit of a facelift. First off they had to create new opening credits (since the originals featured Joel in the visuals and in the song). They kept the same tune for the opening credits, but changed the lyrics to reflect Mike’s misadventures as they occurred in the episode Mitchell. These include Mike getting hit on the head with a clown hammer and shot into space. The new opening credits even feature a clip from this episode: The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.

Doris is not buying Mel Blanc's pick up lines.
The other visual change was tunnel sequence used in the series to show Cambot’s journey into the theater. A new tunnel was created and all the little puppets, bubbles and sliding doors were timed for the single shot. This new sequence would be used for the rest of the Comedy Central years of the series.

This was actually a great selection of movie for a transition episode. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die falls in the familiar territory for the writers. It’s black and white, a monster movie, it’s got a goofy mad scientist, silly music and ridiculous dialogue. Let’s keep in mind that Mike had been head writer for years, and had performed in front of the camera numerous times playing characters like Gamera, The Amazing Colossal Man and of course Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate. The big difference here is that Mike would be taking a center stage role. And he handles himself well.

"The road is attacking me!!!!"
The movie offers several sequences of visual fuel for the fire. One of my favorites is during the drive Bill and Jan take to the “country place”. A random bit of ADR declares “I have to hurry!” I’m assuming it is Bill, but it is really hard to tell, and is unrelated to the rest of the dialogue that you can’t help but laugh. The boys join in and then start commenting on editing of the car racing down the road, the assortment of street signs, and close ups of Bill’s face. Tom gets off some great timing lines with the signs “Stop? What stop? Curve? What curve?” Use these lines during your own road trip and see how your passengers react. When the crash occurs and Bill discovers Jan’s body, Mike says, “Oh no, honey roasted!” Bill then scoops up Jan’s head, wraps it in his coat and runs off with it, clutched under his arm. He looks like he’s going for a touchdown, and Mike can’t help but yell, “He’s at the forty, the thirty, no one can stop him!”

Of course with the title The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, things really get cooking when Jan’s head is placed in her pan with neck juice (Mike and Bots words, not mine), and she comes back to life. They dub her “Jan in the Pan” and they get a big kick out of her constant lamenting her fate. When Bill reveals Jan to his assistant Kurt, he says, “What you see is real.” Mike adds, “What you smell is unfortunate.” Later, when Jan and Kurt are verbally sparring, and Kurt is losing badly Tom imitates his bluster with a “Shut up you stupid little pan woman!” When Jan bemoans “Why did he let me die?” for the millionth time, Crow bursts out, “You still on about that? Well we got problems too lady!”

Awww, it's true love.
Meanwhile Bill is on the prowl for a sexy body, and the slimy saxophone music is in high gear. Tom declares that Bill must have his radio tuned to “K-PORN, sleezy slutty music all day long”. When Bill heads off to a bathing suit competition Mike and bots riff on just about everyone on stage. Bill then heads off to, what I think is supposed to be burlesque club, but it seems so small and cramped, it makes the club in The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies look like the Smithsonian. The dancer is doing her thing, and Mike and bots figure she is actually presenting the menu using interpretive dance, “This dance represents that there are no baked potatoes after five.”

The finale, in which Bill brings Jan her new body and Jan unleashes her final retribution features wall to wall riffing fun. As Doris is laying under a sheet, and her prominent chest is jutting forth, Mike asks as Bill “But honey, can you say no to these?” Her answer is to bring forth a monster that Crow declares “looks like Boo Radley!” The creature manages to grab Bill through a tiny hole in a door (don’t ask, just watch the movie. It actually makes some sense). The boys offer helpful hints to the monster, “You know just pull the door away and beat him to death with it.” At this point, Bill is no longer our wacky protagonist, but a grade A jerk. As the film ends with everyone trapped in a burning laboratory, we hear Jan laughing. Mike says, “Oh, it was a comedy!” Well Mike and the bots certainly made it funny.

Mike an the bots are proud of their hats for
Jan in the Pan
The host segments for The Brain that Wouldn’t Die are pretty good. Most of them deal with Mike attempting to adjust to his new surroundings. Things start off with Mike being trained by the bots. Tom: “Mark Singer walks out in a loin cloth, what do you say?” Mike: “Now I know why the show was called V.” For the invention exchange the Mad scientists have a device that can pop a kid’s balloons from a distance. Frank bursts into tears when his balloons pop. Mike shows off his umbrella with a gutter system attached, so your feet don’t get wet. At the first break, Mike tries to obtain control of the Satellite of Love from panels in the floor. All he ends up doing is squirting cheese everywhere. At least, he thinks its cheese. When they come back for the next break Mike and bots have created various hats for Jan. I love the lazy Susan hat that makes her the centerpiece at any party. When we come back, Mike and bots are discussing trust. It ends up with Mike sharing an embarrassing story, and the bots proceeding to ridicule him. After the movie ends, Jan in the Pan visits the satellite (courtesy of Mary Jo Pehl), and Mike ends up insulting her. Dr. Forrester decides to try to remove Frank’s head and keep it alive in a pan. Quoth Frank, “Here we go again!”

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is a fun episode. The riffing is solid, the movie is ridiculously watchable and it makes for a great transition episode for the hosts. In the scheme of things, it sits in the middle of Season Five, but it is well worth seeking out.

I give it three heads in pans out of five.

Even Jan has to smile at this episode.

This episode is available on the single DVD from Rhino, but was also included on a disc with Mitchell in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 25th Anniversary Edition boxset.


  1. For its day this movie was perverse, debauched, and decadent, all of which I mean as compliments. I like the way the fellow thinks: “What body should I get for my fiancée …hmmm, a stripper would be nice.” More for him, really, isn’t it? I’ve seen this flick a few times unvarnished. I didn’t know there was a short version, and I never saw the MST3K treatment, but I’m sure they made the right decision by keeping the full length with the sleaze-for-its-own-sake scenes.

    This is the sort of bad movie I can’t help but enjoy. Why does a severed head get psychic powers? I guess it just does. I’m sure Mike and the ‘bots had fun with the movie.

    1. Yeah this is just a fun bad movie: period. With riffing, without riffing. It's just so silly and debauched it all clicks. But Bill the mad scientist is really a character. Such or jerk and he gets worse as the movie goes along! You start cheering for Jan and the monster to take him out.

  2. Great write up. It makes me want to buy it, get some popcorn and watch it on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Great coverage here.