Brains. Most of us have one. But who among us has ever stopped to consider whether our brains are friends or foes? We don’t question the loyalty of our brains, which is a sign they are hiding the answer from us. Brains issue decrees with divine authority that we are powerless to deny. Your brain calls all the shots. If it were to rebel, you wouldn’t stand a chance. Resting in comfort and safety within your skull, a gelatinous nightmare throbs cunningly as it plots against you. (I don’t know that brains throb, but I assume they must. I mean, just look at them.)
Maniacs and Monsters strives to combat the major issues facing society today. It is our obligation to draw attention to the probable brain uprising in the sincere, if futile, hope that humankind’s complete cerebral subjugation can be prevented. Towards this end, I direct all potential freedom fighters to the three cautionary tales presented below. Though they may be draped in sci-fi nonsense and hidden under layers of Grade-A cheese, these films are veiled attempts to warn us of our potential future. If they happen to entertain along the way, so much the better.
Chapter the First – The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
The world owes an enormous debt of gratitude to John Agar. Whether against invisible invaders from space, giant tarantulas, mole people, swamp creatures, lagoon creatures, or things from Venus, Agar was always there to defend us. Even when possessed by an evil, alien brain in The Brain from Planet Arous, Agar struggles valiantly to protect the Earth. Agar portrays Dr. Steve March, a scientist studying nuclear fission. When he and his partner, Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller), investigate unusual radioactive readings around the aptly named Mystery Mountain, they make a startling discovery. The titular brain, named Gor, has carved out caves at the base of the mountain and taken up residence. Using intense radiation that he can direct with pinpoint accuracy, Gor kills Dan and incapacitates Steve.
Steve returns home under the control of Gor, whose talents include the ability to make himself incorporeal and the possession of other living beings. Gor claims that he carefully chose Steve to aid him in his plans for world domination. Given that Steve and Dan visited the mountain of their own volition and the mountain is described as not having seen a human being in over fifty years, this would seem more than a bit of an exaggeration on Gor’s part. Steve’s fiancée, Sally (Joyce Meadows), was not at all concerned that Steve was missing for three weeks in the desert without food and only one canteen of water. Now Steve’s behaviour, most notably a tendency to aggressively maul her every chance he gets, makes Joyce suspicious. She and her father (Thomas Browne Henry) take their own trip out to Mystery Mountain. As luck would have it, they meet up with Vol, the virtuous brain counterpart to Gor, who has arrived to apprehend Gor and return with him to planet Arous.
You would think that having a brain creature on our side would give us humans the upper hand against Gor or at least even the odds, but Vol turns out to be mostly useless. He spends the remainder of the movie observing and lamenting his inability to do anything to stop Gor. Meanwhile, Gor, from within Steve’s body, continues his lecherous advances on Sally, somehow makes Steve’s eyes occasionally glow, and threatens military bigwigs with his ability to remotely down planes and cause nuclear explosions. Vol’s only contribution is to reveal that Gor’s weak spot is the groove called the fissure of Rolando that separates the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. Sally, rather than use this information herself, passes it along to Steve by leaving out a picture of a brain with a large arrow pointing at the fissure. Fortunately, Gor does not see this obvious directive and, in a moment of distraction, releases Steve from his control. Steve instantly comprehends the message from Sally and uses it to his advantage. I guess.
Chapter the Second – Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Not all brain-related threats come from the stars, of course. Some come from…Canada. In Fiend Without a Face, the U.S. Air Force has set up a base in Manitoba, Canada as part of a joint study on using atomic power to extend radar coverage. The locals of the small, nearby town are not thrilled with an atomic reactor in their midst and already distrustful of the American military. When numerous townsfolk are found dead with their brains and spinal cords missing, the Air Force has a gruesome mystery to solve and a public relations nightmare to quell. Tasked with investigating the deaths and easing the fears of the citizens is Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson). Jeff’s attention, however, is focused on pretty Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), the mourning sister of the first victim. Fortunately for the plot, Ms. Griselle works for Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), who is more than a little involved in the strange goings-on.
Professor Walgate has been somehow siphoning off energy from the base’s nuclear reactor to power his telekinesis and thought materialization experiments. After considerable success moving objects with his mind, the professor “envisaged something akin to the human brain with life and mobility” in which thoughts detached from his consciousness could live as a separate entity. Why he thought this was a good idea is unclear, although the professor says it was with the benefit of all humanity in mind. In this endeavour, he also succeeded, although the resulting invisible being was, for no discernible reason, evil. Escaping from the professor’s lab, the fiend is responsible for the recent deaths as it “drain[s] the intellect to survive and multiply.” That’s correct, multiply. Invisible brain creatures that Jeff describes as “mental vampires” now overrun the landscape of Manitoba. Contradicting himself, Walgate also claims that the creatures live within the brains and nerve centres taken from the victims and feed on the radiation from the atomic plant. When confronted with this inconsistency, the professor dismissively responds, “We’re facing a new form of life that nobody understands.”
The revelation almost an hour in that the monsters are invisible may have you declaring the film to be a cheat. You would be justified in that assumption, as the only indicators of the fiends’ presence so far have been thumping noises and eerily rustling bushes. But hang in there a little longer. No sooner will you have these disappointed thoughts than Professor Walgate will speculate that an increase in available atomic radiation may make the creatures visible. And no sooner will the professor make this statement than the monsters will damage the reactor, causing it to run out of control and generate dangerous levels of radiation. Thus the fiends make a visible appearance, and what a wonderful appearance it is. Slightly oversized brains with spinal cord tails and snail-like eyestalks, they are gross and creepy and ridiculous all in one. Stop-motion animation is used to great effect depicting the inchworm-like movement of the creatures. The final fifteen minutes of the film are a triumph as the cast fights off a horde of fiends.
Chapter the Third – The Brain (1988)
Our final cerebral menace also comes from Canada. The Brain may make a half-hearted attempt to pretend it takes place in the United States, but I know this particular threat came from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Filming took place in the city I now live. I could even go as far as providing the exact address from which the evil emanated. The location for the Psychological Research Institute (PRI) is a short drive from my home and the high school is just around the corner.
Dr. Anthony Blakely (David Gale, better known as Dr. Hill in 1985’s Re-Animator) is the head of PRI and hosts Independent Thinkers, a local self-help program gaining popularity with plans to go nationwide. The institute and television program are merely a front, however. Dr. Gale’s ultimate goal is the enslavement of the human race via hypnosis and mind control. This is accomplished using a large brain resting in a giant petri dish of green goo. Whether it is Dr. Blakely or the brain that is really in charge is difficult to determine. This brain can transmit subliminal, hypnotic suggestions to viewers of Independent Thinkers and to patients at the institute. Unfortunately, there have been some side effects, mainly amongst teenagers. Subjects who have resisted the hypnotic brainwaves have suffered hallucinations and violent episodes leading to their deaths and the deaths of others. Dr. Blakely does not seem concerned.
The brain steadily grows more powerful and physically larger on a diet of white lab mice. How it eats is unclear, but that will be a moot point soon enough. One of Dr. Blakely’s assistants, Verna (George Buza), remarks on how long the brain’s tail has grown, only to be reprimanded by Blakely, “Spinal cord, Verna. It’s a brain, not an animal.” Blakely’s other assistant, Vivian (Christine Kossak), voices concerns that the brain is growing too strong and trying to control them in addition to the test subjects. She is also anxious over the growing number of deaths. The brain does not take well to criticism.
Having consumed Vivian, the brain immediately sprouts a fanged face, complete with a long, prehensile tongue. The practical effects used to bring the brain to life will enchant fans of classic monster movies. Its appearance is almost cartoonish while simultaneously managing to be pure nightmare fuel. Evolved and continuing to grow (it will be larger than a mid-size car by the end), the brain adds a physical element to its reign of terror. No longer content to rest in a dish of goo, it roams the institute devouring anyone who would oppose it or anyone happening to get in the way.
Astute readers will have noted that I have yet to mention the heroes of the piece. Unfortunately, the leads in The Brain are the generic, bland teenagers to be found in any number of horror films. Actors Tom Bresnahan and Cynthia Preston as the lead couple, Jim and Janet, are perfectly serviceable in the roles. It is the roles that are lacking. Likewise, the ending is a bit lackluster and abrupt. There is something about aliens, but it is never sufficiently expanded, as if the backstory was cut for time. But ultimately, who cares? I didn’t go into a picture titled The Brain for complex characters and a finely honed plot. I was there to see a monstrous brain terrorize a community. In that, The Brian delivers.
The brain uprising has already begun. I hope it is apparent that none of these films are of the highest calibre. What they are, however, is entertaining and enjoyable. More importantly, they offer urgent warnings for our species. Heed the lessons presented and remember that our brains are always watching. One final word of advice. These films are best watched with your brain shut off. I leave it to you to decide whether that allows the best viewing experience or whether it is to prevent revealing to your brain that you are on to it.
The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) Directed by Nathan Juran; Written by Ray Buffum; Starring John Agar, Joyce Meadows, Robert Fuller, & Thomas Browne Henry; Available on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective.
Fiend Without a Face (1958) Directed by Arthur Crabtree; Written by Herbert J. Leder; Based on a story by Amelia Reynolds Long; Starring Marshall Thompson, Terry Kilburn, Kynaston Reeves, Stanley Maxted, & Kim Parker; Available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. (Seriously, Criterion? No Blu-Ray release?)
The Brain (1988) Directed by Ed Hunt; Written by Barry Pearson; Starring Tom Bresnahan, Cynthia Preston, David Gale, Christine Kossak, & George Buza; Available on Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory.
This is my contribution to the fifth annual So Bad It’s Good Blogathon. The evil, disembodied intellect that I cohabit this site with also has some thoughts to share here. Please check out all the blogathon contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Rebecca of Taking Up Room for permitting our uncensored brain dumps.
Brains with frightful cartoon faces are one thing, but once those Fiends wrap their spinal cords around your throat, watch out! Plus the weird slurping sounds they make are unnerving! Is there a reason that Canada is so fond of ambulatory brains? 🧠
Don’t forget the way blood gurgles out of the Fiends when they are shot. Back when the film came out, those images were criticized for excessive gore.
I don’t know what it is about Canada that makes it enticing for free-range brains. I know I personally have an affinity for all monster brain films. Maybe its a common Canadian trait and the brains, sensing sympathetic thoughts, are drawn like moths to a flame.
I just went back and took another look at your article about The Brain from Planet Arous from last year. I had forgotten that, in the comments, I longed for this exact triple feature. I guess the power of positive thinking works…but don’t tell the brains. 😀
Where’s my brain, for managing to live this long without seeing The Brain from Planet Arous or The Brain? Based on your exceedingly entertaining article, I have some movie watching to do. I don’t think I’ll ha n any IQ points, but they’re bound to make me smile.
Hey, Barry! Thanks for stopping by. Clearly your brain has been trying to hide these gems from you. But seriously, they are both complete cheese, so you have to be in the right sort of mood, but they can be a lot of fun.
Wow, this was completely worth the wait (I’m still picturing that one GIF of the brain inching along like a caterpillar). Who knew brains could be so fearsome. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Michael–I always enjoy what you guys come up with!
As always, thanks for hosting, Rebecca. It has become a tradition for us that we look forward to each year.
Thank you for this educational and entertaining public service announcement, michael! I have long suspected my brain is a dangerous thing and now I have proof.
I have seen fiend without a face, but I need to experience your other two films just so I am as fully prepared as possible for the eventual takeover!
I am here to serve, John. If just one person partakes in all these films, purely for research purposes you understand, then I will have succeeded.
Thanks for dropping by!