I love “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” but sometimes it ends up doing a disservice to the movie viewing public. There ends up being the assumption that the films featured on the show are the worst of the worst, but that’s not always the case. Today’s film, 1962’s “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die,” was the first movie featured on MST3K after Mike Nelson took over the lead role. It’s far from being a fantastic film, but it’s definitely not one of the worst of the worst.
The film concerns Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers), a scientist with some unique theories about life, death and the human brain. He’s got himself a beautiful fiance, Jan (Virginia Leith), who also happens to be one of his nurses. He’s also got a secret laboratory, far from the hospital where he works, where he tests out some of his ideas. His assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniel) looks over the place.
One day, while Bill and Jan are on their way to the lab, they end up in a terrible car crash. Bill ends up a bit bruised, but what of Jan? Well, all we know is that Bill reaches into the flaming wreckage and carries out something spherical that he’s wrapped in blanket. You got it, junior…it’s Jan’s head! He rushes back to the lab where Kurt assists him in setting up an aparatus to keep Jan, or at least her head, alive.
But, that’s not the only thing going on at the lab. Seems that Kurt has been having trouble with one of Dr. Cortner’s other experiments. Behind a locked door is a creature that the Doc created by stitching together pieces of other accident victims. The thing has been acting up a bit lately.
Cortner is now obsessed with finding an appropriate new body for Jan. She, however, wants to die. With Bill ignoring her pleas to let her die, she begins to plot against him. She starts communicating telepathically with the creature behind the door…trying to get it to fight back against it’s creators.
Meanwhile, Bill hits the town to find a slinky new body for his beloved head. He heads to a strip bar first…well why not? He even makes it into the back room with one potential body donor when he’s interrupted by another stripper who’s got her eye on him. The two ladies end up in a catfight before it’s all done. He then tries picking a girl up on the street, but that plan gets foiled when she spots a friend and invites her to come along. Then he ends up at a beauty pageant, but still no luck.
He does end up successful, though, when he drops by a photo studio where a Bettie Page wannabe named Doris (Adele Lamont) poses for dirty-minded amateur photographers. She’s got a great body, but on her face is a huge scar that she keeps hidden with her hair. Cortner convinces her that he can fix her problem, so she willingly goes with him back to the lab.
But there is trouble back at the ranch. Jan has convinced the creature to fight. First it attacks Kurt…reaching through an opening in the door and ripping his arm out of it’s socket. We don’t see the actual limb removal, but the aftermath is pretty gruesome and bloody for an early 60’s B flick. Even though Cortner discovers Kurt’s body, he continues preparing Doris for his ultimate surgery. But it all comes to fiery end as Jan continues to manipulate the creature to rise up against the deranged doctor.
In some ways, “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die” is a unique take on the Frankenstein story. You have a doctor resurrecting dead bodies, experimenting with the brain and such. The difference is the brain exists as it’s own character. The brain is evil…but only because it wants to be allowed to die. It’s a very intriguing concept. Though the film is ultra low-budget and has it’s moments of silliness, I think it succeeds in creating an eerie story. It’s certainly one of the bloodiest films of the era I’ve seen.
Also intriguing is the obsession of Dr. Cortner. He basically becomes a sexual predator as he trolls the town searching for the perfect body for the head he’s in love with. I admit, I laughed a bit when he first heads for a strip club to find the body of his dreams…but when he starts picking up women on the street, it becomes more disturbing.
But even more disturbing is Virginia Leith’s performance. She ends up being evil and manipulative…a very effective performance, especially considering she’s just a head. Several of the other performances…well…they’re good for some laughs. The arguing strippers scene is not to be missed.
I can see why MST3K chose this film. There is certainly a lot to work with and the film delivers a lot of comedy all on it’s own. But it also works as a creepy little B-shocker. It has plenty of weaknesses, but it’s also got more brains than many cheap horror films.