Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, October 28, 2019

Creature Double Feature Night 8: THE BRAIN THAT COULDN'T DIE (1962), SPIDER BABY (1964)


When it comes to trashy black and white films from the 60s, thanks to The Addams Family and The Muensters, as well as Dr. Shock, Ghoulardi and all the other local TV monster movie hosts across the land, America had developed a national obsession with goofy monsters, along with muscle cars, and hey-hey rock-and-roll. Here are two films that dig into that realm with enough intelligence to know they must play things absolutely straight, to dare even to be touching at times. These are dynamite drinking movies that I first fell in love with watching them round the clock back to back on an old VHS 6-hour tape dupe I made, so I can vouch for their sea legs. Thanks to Prime and progress, you won't have to endure the streaks. Today I may need to be sober as far as booze goes, but these two films still make me drunk on delirious horror shivers, with absurdity and genuine tragedy eyeing each other across a wild dance floor. 

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE
(1961) Dir. Joseph Green
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B-

A beloved classic in the disembodied head canon, with the reptilian/handsome intern Herb Evers using his experimental formula for full limb transplants, despite his surgeon father's stodgy resistance. Trouble is, mutations can form, and to prove it, Evers keeps a sentient hulk of living tissue in the closet and--after a car accident--his fiancee's severed head on a tray. Kept alive (and telepathic!) until he can find a "suitable" body (by cruising the neighborhood and local sleazy 'body beautiful' pageants.) Occurring in some strange twilight realm of tawdry nightclubs and louche stares, Brain features two great performances by two ravishing brunettes: Virginia Leith is the severed head, rasping her threats and pleas from inside a TV tray full of circulating blood; Adele Lamont iw an initially wary, ever-so-slightly disfigured model whose body Evers figures would be.... just right. She really wants to be perfect, and declares to Evers, unwisely, "I'll do anything that will help me get rid of this face." (The script hums with these tossed off bits). So while Evers cruises and cajoles, Leith bonds with the thing in the closet, forming the most unique and touching friendship in the low budget monster annals ("I've got to see your hideousness and you've got to see mine!" she rasps.  "I am just a head... and you are whatever you are... but together we're strong!") the closet monster can only bang on the door to express his agreement, but he does so in a way that makes a simple loud bang almost a punk rock clarion call any malformed post-pubescent tween could raise a fist to.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, in an over-exaggerated but dead perfect acting style, Lamont conveys what it must be like to endure endless come-ons by pervy men; it's a moving if bombastic performance in which a probably very real deep disgust that feels very modern vis-a-vis our era's increased sexual harassment awareness. Alas, that's what makes it all the more tragic when she falls for Evers' line about fixing her scarred face, only to wind up roofied after all. She was so smart up to a point that we really feel for her when her vision blurs to blankness after telling him, "I trust you with my life." ("I can't ask for more than that," he says). Man, oh man. It's the creepiest because it's all done in real time, with the drug allowed a realistic time to kick in, all scored to a nice bump-n-grind jazz score calling it all out, slow as you like. As he tells Leith's horrified head, "This kind of thing must be done."

Adele Lamont dares to fall for Herb Evers' bullshit
Unfortunately the HD upgrade print isn't ideal, as someone figured it would be fancier in widescreen so merely lobbed the bottom and top of the frame off (so we don't see the blood in Virginia Leith's tray like we used to on local TV in the 70s.  Still, having this so handy, just a click away at all times, ensures nothing bad can ever happen to you again, provided you don't let smoov dudes leave the note for your roommate so she'll know where to find you if you fail to come home. And with her scratchy sexy voice and limitless desire to crush her ex-fiancee with a little help from her friend, Leith's head makes her the perhaps the most enduring sci/horror female icon since Brigitte in Metropolis. 

SPIDER BABY
(1968 - really 1964) Dir. Jack Hill
**** / Prime Image - C

One of those perennial Halloween gems at the Kuersten house, or anytime really. Jack Hill's scrappy gem it's somewhere between Lolita, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Addams Family and... well, I guess in its way it's a total original yet feels so familiar... It's got Lon Chaney at his best, both macabre and a little sad; his teary little moment with the kids before he gets the idea to bring home some dynamite is justifiably regarded as one of his most moving moments, a capstone sign-off (he died shortly after) akin to Bela's "Home... I have no home" speech in Bride of the Monster. It's got the late, lamented Sid Haig as Ralph, and it's got letter perfect Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn as murderous Lolita-style moppets, one of whom is really into something called "the spider game," which you won't want to play, but kind of do. Think it can't be anymore perfect? Try adding Mantan Moreland as a nervous telegram delivery guy, Carol Ohmart as a scheming relative sensing a fortune buried in a revocable trust somewhere; and even the 'normal' couple are pretty cool, "Are you a horror fan, Ann?" says Uncle Bill with a clear post-tavern buzz on. Dam right she is. (see: A League of Wednesdays)

The Prime print isn't the greatest. If you're a fan, Ann, it's worth getting the Arrow Blu-ray. If like me you loved this film to death even as a crappy dupe, the new version, scored from the negative finally, is like a dream come true. This edition isn't the HD remaster, but is still highly effective.

If you want to go really crazy, chase it with Mesa of Lost Women, and Plan Nine from Outer Space and if you're still awake after that, Cat Women of the Moon. They are all on Prime. If you want to go off Prime, find The Boogieman will Get Youa personal deranged favorite. You don't need any of these other films... but seriously.

Triple Feature Recommendation:
(1953) Dir. Ron Ormond
**** / Amazon Image - C

My favorite bad movie, perhaps surpassing even Plan Nine and Cat Women of the Moon in my undying esteem. It's the tale of a scientist who somehow winds up a basket case after escaping the tarantula arms of Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan) and his 'experiments' who live high up on a mesa in New Mexico's Muerto Desert. Aranya's able to accelerate spider DNA to make hot Mexican women and small men (including Angelo Rossittio!) from black widow spiders ("the male of the species," Aranya notes, "is a poor and puny thing." There are also giant spiders, either early drafts or side effects of the process. Coogan is a long way off from Uncle Fester and so thankfully so underplays it, and the result becomes almost surreal. The star of the show of course is Harmond Stevens as Dr. Leland J. Masterson, who Michael Weldon famously describes as doing a weird Elmer Fudd impression. He does so much more, Michael! Watch him when other people are talking at the cantina, the terrifying and hilarious way he holds these frozen super-creepy smiles as he stares but doesn't seem to see anything. Suddenly his 'nurse'  (George "Ro-Man" Barrows)shows up from the local mental hospital and announces he's somehow his patient has acquired a gun along the way so we all better humor him. When he spots one of the spider women he remembers from the mesa, Leland shoots her right in the middle of her "tarantella." Soon he's hijacking the private plane of a rich honeymooning May-December couple, and a bottle of whiskey stashed in the cockpit helps warm the cockles after the plane crashes on Aranya's mesa. Over a long and scary night the survivors are menaced by all giant spiders and shady looking shadows, and well, I can't possibly do it justice. Nor can I even begin to stop praising the shattered flamenco and off-key barroom piano hammering of the repetitive score. You'll either love it or hate it, but if you love it you can't get enough of it. I dig the fact for example that--aside from some daytime desert exterior in the framing device, it's all shot on soundstages, even the crashed plane; there's this great sense of interiority when bad movies shoot outdoor scenes indoors, a neither here/there vibe that, for some of us, is so eerily evocative of delirious dream states we've had and still cherish the memory of, that they become our happy place: the graveyard and pilot's porch in Plan Nine from Outer Space, the cave and temples of Cat Women of the Moon, and The Mesa of Lost Women! 


Prime directive: See the upload with the black "Film Detective" border; the "Wade Williams" cover upload has a slight jump. That said, it's worth getting the actual Wade Williams DVD of Mesa if you're a true blue fan, though the ideal version has yet to be struck. The night scenes are still hard to see once they're away from the fire but it's clearer. Is it too much to ask, Shout Factory or Arrow or even Criterion, to give us a remastered Blu-ray, maybe with some other long-out-of-circulation Ron and Suzy Ormond titles!? Stand back and let me dream on it. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...