Brains! (Think about it.)

Brains - Frankenstein 1931

Wrap your head around this: the word “brain” appears in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus just once. Chapter 4, to be precise, in a throwaway line about everything that dies with a man’s body. The business of the Frankenstein Monster getting a bad start in life due to the implantation of a dodgy brain is entirely the invention of the movies – specifically James Whale’s 1931 genre game-changer FRANKENSTEIN. Credit for this narrative wrinkle, which sidesteps the soul-searching of the source novel in favor of what amounts to a clerical error — goes (it seems) back to writer-for-hire Garrett Fort and Robert Florey, who brought the project to Universal Pictures and was on tap to direct before James Whale entered the equation. Over 80 years later, brains are very much on our mind, collectively-speaking, and never more so than in horror and science fiction films, where the tussle to retain the primacy of, or superiority over, the human brain provides us with an abundance of food for thought.

Brains - Donovan's Brain

“You never know what goes on in people’s minds.” Curt Siodmak

One man who seems to have taken the whole brain thing to heart is Curt Siodmak, a German refugee from the Third Reich who came to Hollywood with his brother Robert and found work in the film business. While Robert went on to direct such classy studio pictures as THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945), THE KILLERS (1946), and CRISS CROSS (1949), Curt leapfrogged from job to job at the Universal monster factory. (Truth be told, even Robert found a gig there but his SON OF DRACULA is among the most artful of the movie mill’s horror sequels.) It was while writing a one-off for horror kings Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi that Curt Siodmak reintroduced the brain game that was dropped, for the most part, from the FRANKENSTEIN follow-ups THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). A horror-crime hybrid, BLACK FRIDAY (1940) found Karloff in well-meaning doctor mode, transplanting the brain of a mobster into the body of a kindly college professor (Stanley Ridges) with the requisite dire results; before you can say “class is dismissed,” the prof is exhibiting a pronounced predilection for unlawfulness, which includes but is not limited to tracking down members of his old gang (among them Bela Lugosi, in a thankless role) who have done him dirt. In 1942, Siodmak published the novel Donovan’s Brain, in which a research scientist preserves the gray matter of a dead millionaire, who begins to dominate his life not from the grave but rather a fish tank. The novel was adapted for both radio (by Orson Welles) and pictures, as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER (1944), DONOVAN’S BRAIN (1953), and THE BRAIN (1962) — but these are just the acknowledged adaptations. The concept of a free-floating brain flexing its Machiavellian muscles and manipulating the lives of innocent people became a bona fide thing, a conceit, a trope in horror films, which grew ever more obsessed with what Nicolaus Steno called, in 1699, “the masterpiece of creation.”

Brains - The Monster and the Girl

After the self-imposed ban on horror films that lasted in Hollywood from 1936 until 1939, the major studios returned to fantastic and grotesque themes, with even stodgy refusniks like Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount (which had made some intriguing and still-classic forays into the genre during the early sound years) getting into the act. In Paramount’s THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941), the brain of a wrongly-accused (and summarily executed) man is transplanted (by George Zucco — and who better for the job?) into the body of a gorilla, who then goes off (BLACK FRIDAY-style) on a vengeance-tinged kill spree. Curt Siodmak wrote THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) for Universal but between these two projects the brain game was carried forward and complicated without his participation. In THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), the brain of the hunchbacked Ygor (Bela Lugosi, reprising a role he had created in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) is transplanted into the hulking corporeality of the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr.); the unique plot point here is that the difference in blood types between donor and recipient renders the Frankenstein Monster blind… and in so doing damning him with that distinctive arms-out, zombie-style walk he would then carry forward into the public domain.

Brains - Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

The next move in what was by then a wildly-uneven and at times contradictory series, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN cast Lugosi as the Monster (which is fitting, as the Monster spoke with his voice at the end of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN) while Chaney, Jr. stepped back into the yak hair raiment of the shapeshifter Larry Talbot. The notion of the Monster being struck blind was carried forward into this production but in the eleventh hour the powers-that-be decided it was too much of a limitation and sight was restored… though no footage was reshot. So ultimately we have Bela Lugosi lumbering around the film with his arms out in front of him but he’s not supposed to be blind; he also is mute, for some reason, which makes FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN one of Lugosi’s less rewarding assignments and the film itself a bit of a cheat. (Universal had done the same thing to Boris Karloff, who was talking up an electrical storm by the end of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN but was quiet as a church mouse in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.) Contradictions to one side, it’s exciting to localize the origin of an enduring horror trope, even one born out of compromise. Ask any kid anywhere in the world to be the Frankenstein Monster and the first thing he or she will do is put his or her arms out in front and lurch forward heavily and hauntedly — it is hardwired to the brain. Siodmak again broached the subject of brain transplantation in his script for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) but the much-discussed elective procedure never happens; the original/preproduction title for the Universal horror spoof ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) was THE BRAIN OF FRANKENSTEIN, with Lou Costello penciled in as the organ donor.

Brains - The Brain from Planet Arous

Brains really took off in the 1950s – some of them quite literally. The demise of Gothic horror as a going concern in Hollywood did little to slow the ascendency of brains as a point of departure for fantastic and weird tales. The apotheosis of this particular wing of the genre superstructure is THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957), in which an extraterrestrial entity named Gor (pictured above in all his cerebral glory) possesses a scientist (John Agar) with a mind toward dominating the Earth. Released by the lower rung outfit Howco International, THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS was aimed at the drive-in but has attained upper echelon cult status due to that incredible prop (the work of makeup man Jack Young) and a white knuckle embracing of its own inherent ridiculousness. Another brain from outer space turned up in Jack Arnold’s THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958), although its intentions were honorable, intent as it was in helping the eponymous young Americans thwart the escalation of the arms race. In EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), the alien invaders can jack human brains the way hackers plumb the hard drives of unsuspecting PC owners, leading to a cool process shot of Morris Ankrum’s noodle pulsing inside his government issue cranium.

Brains - Earth vs the Flying Saucers

As if peevish that science fiction had intercepted a pass meant for horror, the Gothic began to reassert its sovereignty in genre filmmaking, albeit in the modern setting of I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958); even films that didn’t work a proper brain transplant into the mix had everything to do with horrors of the mind having a physical manifestation; in I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) and BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957), vulnerable teenagers are turned into beasts by a manipulative adult. Across the Atlantic, the Brits were reviving the Gothic in a big way. Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) rebooted the Universal monster machine in a bold new way, in Technicolor and with a permissive emphasis on gore and grue… not the least of which consisted of loving closeups of human brains on the fact track to transplantation.

Brains - Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Hammer’s Frankenstein series is a fascinating exploration of variations on a theme. In CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, an origin story that follows Victor Frankenstein from his boyhood to his first adult attempt to play God, recreates the bad brain setpiece of the James Whale original by having a disagreement between the Baron/the Doctor (Peter Cushing) and his assistant get physical; in the ensuing melee, the recently purloined brain (cadged from the head of an elderly genius) is damaged by broken glass, leading to psycho-motor problems with the Monster (Christopher Lee). Every succeeding Hammer Frankenstein film finds the doctor attempting to work around the bad brain paradigm. In EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), he uses hypnosis; in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967), he drops the brain of a recently (wrongly) executed criminal into the brain pan of a crippled young woman, resulting in a beautiful creature (Susan Denberg) who then goes on a BLACK FRIDAY type revenge round-up. In FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969), the doctor transplants the brain of an unstable genius into the body of a fussbudget asylum administrator (Freddie Jones), who doesn’t have the look of a monster about him but forces the series to its most fascinating (albeit temporary) conclusion. The real monster of the Hammer franchise is, as has been argued elsewhere by brains better than mine, the doctor himself in films extending over the course of nearly two decades. These movies were years ahead of their time, etching as they did a nightmare world in which our best instincts and abilities, the sum total of what makes us us, are downgraded in the mind of Dr. Frankenstein to moveable, transferable quantities that can be re-signed like intellectual property by anyone with a mind to cut and paste.

Brains - The Brain That Wouldn't Die

Not to be outdone, independent filmmakers back in the Colonies kept the brain business buzzing with THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962). More of a living head movie than a brain-in-a-jug movie — the same can be said of THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN/THE MADMAN OF MANDORAS (1963) — this one nonetheless had a woman (Virginia Leith) decapitated in an automobile accident calling the shots (ultimately) in her boyfriend’s underground (and OSHA non-compliant) laboratory. A couple of years later, THE FROZEN DEAD (1966) went this one better by giving its living head/undying brain a see-through cover…

Brains - The Frozen Dead

… all in the name of Nazi research; in the end, this severed melon is able to bring matters to a satisfying close by dint of telepathy, all of which goes to prove the age-old adage (which I just made up) that you can’t keep a good brain down. This notion was probably never more literally true than in FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1959)…

Brains - Fiend without a Face

… in which flying brains that zip about Canada with the agility of Harriers, landing on side tables and knocking off all of your stuff like cats, and then garrotting you with their attached spinal columns, unlike cats. Brains continued to have currency in science fiction and horror; George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) encouraged its protagonists to aim for the brain, averring “Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul,” which shifted focus away from the heart, where we were once instructed to pound the wooden stake or point the silver bullet as a bulwark against evil. Frankenstein stories abounded, often turning on the concept of mental manipulation. The 1974 film THE TERMINAL MAN, an adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, made a monster of a heretofore brilliant scientist (George Segal) whose malfunctioning brain is augmented by Big Science; if the movies have taught us nothing else, it is that when science goes big, horror goes home.

Brains - The Terminal Man

Released the year that Hammer’s Frankenstein cycle came to a close, THE TERMINAL MAN ends where James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN began… in the graveyard. (For the record, the character is not dead here and is wearing a wig.) The last word on the brain, as least as far as its function as a genre advancer is concerned, may well have been Carl Reiner’s THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (1983)…

Brains - The Man with Two Brains

… a brain switch comedy that sends up the subgenre admirable, marks the best-ever use of Merv Griffin, and in which Steve Martin even looks a bit like George Segal in THE TERMINAL MAN. (Credit must also go to Mel Brooks’ Universal send-up YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, which revived the bad brain argument and went on to add its own wrinkles, not all of them expressly comic.)But only a couple of years later, ALIEN (1979) co-creator Dan O’Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) offered its own spin on the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD mythology, reworking what had been in George Romero’s hands an undead hankering for human flesh to one for…

Brains - Return of the Living Dead

Like a lightbulb went on somewhere in our collective subconscious we all went a little brain-crazy after that. Though Mexico’s THE BRAINIAC (1962) and Italy’s CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) both made a meal of our fear of losing our minds to someone else’s lunch pail, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD just clicked with American horror fans… but even that sea change might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the animated THE SIMPSONS, which worked brain-hungry zombies into its third “Treehouse of Terror” Halloween extravaganza.

Brains - Simpsons Treehouse of Terror III

After that, brains were very much on the horror menu and the word became a clarion cry at Halloween; dress a kid up as a zombie and he would be more than likely to cry out “Brains!” than anything else – well, mostly because the Romero zombies didn’t call out anything. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) villain Hannibal Lector even served one thoughtless bastard his own brains in HANNIBAL (2001) and that might have been the end of it… but then AMC’s successful zombie miniseries THE WALKING DEAD returned undeadness to first principles and reintroduced to would-be revenants the anatomical equivalent of the lower 48. What a long, strange trip it’s been since Henry Frankenstein’s crookbacked amanuensis chose the wrong brain to fire up the Frankenstein Monster. I hope at the very least all of this has given you something to think about as we inch with exquisite slowness to Halloween.

3 Responses Brains! (Think about it.)
Posted By Doug : October 25, 2014 1:49 pm

RHS-My, but what big brains you have! I think that you’ve nailed every brain movie, including my favorite Steve Martin film.
This post brought to mind (snicker) the Robert Heinlein book, “I Will Fear No Evil” where a gazillionaire who is dying has his brain placed in the body of his beautiful lady assistant who has an accident just at the proper time.
But…her consciousness is still there in the body also, as in the lesser Steve Martin movie “All Of Me”. And she’s married.
I just checked-published in 1970, the book takes place in the far away future of…2015.

Posted By MIke White : October 27, 2014 5:52 pm

Professor Dowell’s Testament’s is also a pretty good take on the brain/body swap. Definitely an interesting counterpoint to The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.

Posted By swac44 : November 4, 2014 8:16 pm

And The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, featuring “Jan in the Pan”, was a favourite episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, whose production company was called … Best Brains Inc.!

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