The Brain That Wouldn't Die (shot in 1959 but not released until 1962, and never released in the United Kingdom due to content) is a low-budget horror film spawned from a team of creatives in Tarrytown, New York. Its narrative crux is the story of a surgeon, Bill Cortner (played by Jason Evers), who has an auto accident while driving with his fiancée Jan (played by Virginia Leith), killing her and mangling her body. Her head still intact, he revives and keeps it alive in a pan of serum in his secret laboratory, then departs for the big city to ogle female bodies, scouting a suitable transplant carcass to stitch his girlfriend back into a do-able Saturday night date.
In most psychotronic cinema, the formal filmmaking tropes are both listlessly conventional and uniquely perverse. The Brain That Wouldn't Die is no exception. For while the images are not burnished, nor is the cast coached into delivering moments of rhythmic physicality, the screenplay is crafted with a structure (conscious or unconscious?) balanced between montage-like location sequences of barely-functional expositional banter and studio-bound stretches of philosophical dialogues and soliloquies.
The dialectics begin with the first scene in an operating room between father and son surgeons. Dr. Cortner the elder has just lost a patient on the operating table; his son Bill asks his father permission to attempt reviving the corpse with his new and controversial techniques. The father acquiesces. While the son applies electric shock to the brain and the father massages the heart of the foreground corpse, they debate whether the patient would be better dead or paralyzed, search for guilt as to whether they are playing God, and compare their actions relative to the obstetrician who must decide between the lives of mother and unborn child. The son does revive the dead patient with his methods, and later while father and son clean up post-op, the debates resume: the innate desire for exploration, the morality of human experimentation, and the line between "scientific genius and obsessive fanaticism." The development of ideas on scientific intervention and natural causation forms the matrix of this film.
The scene that follows is the introduction of Cortner the Younger's fiancée Jan, in one of the rare shots where there are more than two people talking. Referring to his high sex drive, Jan explains to her future father-in-law that if she and Bill have children, "they won't be test tube babies." Their dialogues in this scene underline and affirm a secondary motif of the film: healthy sexual appetites, physical attraction, and fecundity.
Stylistically, an abrupt segue from these studio-bound setups of dyads then occurs as the first of several exterior sequences begins, where dialogue degenerates to banter that pushes the story along, as Dr. Bill drives his fiancée Jan to his country house, culminating in the crash that decapitates Jan.
If any image crytalizes the gorgeous leanness of The Brain That Wouldn't Die, it's the shot about fourteen and a half minutes into the film, where Dr. Cortner retrieves the head of Jan from the burning car by wrapping it in his coat and pulling it out through a broken cardoor window. Obviously for budgetary reasons the entire car is not shown, only a car door shot from inside with flames in the foreground, with a heightened view of Cortner wretching as he peers in and sees his mangled love. The single-take shot works with a deft, elliptical articulation: a cinematic equivalent of a Brancusi sculpture.
Having the head in his basement laboratory, Cortner and his assistant, Kurt, while initiating the revivification of Jan, begin the second of philosophical dyads. Kurt posits that Jan had a brain and a heart and that a spirit dwelled in both, that there is "a pattern and order to all that lives" and asks Cortner: "How could you make an experiment of horror?" Once Jan is "in the pan" and revived, the film ping-pongs between awkwardly-realized location scenes of Doctor Bill checking out the physical attributes of exotic dancers at an urban dive called the Moulin Rouge, and studio set-ups of Jan's dawning consciousness of her situation and surroundings.
Instead of visually representing the interiority of the eponymous brain, thoughts and feelings of the disembodied head are articulated through lengthy prose. Jan starts to grasp that there is a living entity behind a bolted closet door across from her. Having this invisible audience she begins her first soliloquy: He should have let me die. I hate him for what he's done to me. If he only knew what it's like...like this. Cortner's assistant, Kurt, enters and so begins what I call the "Quantities of Horror" Aria. Lines of literary calibre are woven into scientific and philosophical discourse: a doctor's ability to create both horrors and wonders, grotesque work in the name of science, etc. Jan, a medical worker, muses with Kurt on the scientific inability of a body to accept her transplanted head. Feeling that Cortner's serum is "burning in her brain" and giving her paranormal powers, she and Kurt argue what "power" is: as a trunkless human, is she defenseless or is she hyperpowerful due to the chemicals coursing through her head? This aria* includes the jewel of textual iterations for the film, when Jan flatly states:
All quantities of horror have their ultimate, and I am that.
The film is 82 minutes dedicated to discourse on the surrender to divine plans, the questionable domination of science over theology, contrition in the face of horror, and the vital integrity of procreation, plus structural exercises in the correct use of predicate nominatives and parenthetic expressions.
I've never been on a blind date with an English major from a Catholic university, but after seeing The Brain That Wouldn't Die I feel as if I have.- Doug Bonner, © 2008
* I'm not unaware that the name of the film's director and co-scriptwriter, Joseph Green, in Italian is "Giuseppe Verdi." Nor is the irony that this movie was lensed in Tarrytown, New York - the setting for Washington Irving's classic Headless Horseman story - lost on this writer.
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