The things we do for love...
Sure, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is a classic example of a bad movie, but what a fucking great bad movie it is! If you appreciate the sleazy in the same way I do, especially sleaze with a distinctly 1950's flavor, there's a lot to savor in this classic of epic bad taste. It's become something of a born-again cult classic since it was lampooned on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 twenty years ago and the treatment it got there was indeed hilarious, but I argue that the film should be experienced on its own merits. It's like the cinematic equivalent of a lurid, ultra-trashy pulp novel found in a filthy bus depot at Jesus o'clock in the morning, only with the added bonus of the horror angle thrown in alongside the lascivious content.
Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a brilliant but unorthodox surgeon who gets into an horrific car accident while out driving with his fiancee, Jan (Virginia Leith). Cortner survives relatively unscathed but Jan is decapitated, so Cortner bundles up her noggin and takes it home to his lab, where he promptly places Jan's severed head in a tray of life-giving fluids and hooks her up to some nifty wires and tubes. Aided by his malformed assistant (Leslie Daniels), the doctor keeps Jan's head alive — and she's somehow able to speak, despite intact vocal chords or lungs with which to produce breath — despite her frequent entreaties to be allowed to die, and in no time he hits the streets of the nearby inner city to find a new body for his love. So what if some innocent woman has to die so he can bring Jan back?
Jan in the pan.
And not just any female body will do for Cortner's sinister purpose. He cruises shady areas and strip joints, prowling for a stacked figure right out of the classic 1950's Jayne Mansfield mold, and he's quite thorough in his search. (It's beyond morally reprehensible, but I can see where's coming from.)
Dr. Cortner does some window shopping.
After striking out with a street pickup and two strippers (who get into a ludicrously gratuitous cat fight), Cortner sets his sights on a raven-haired lovely (Adele Lamont) who poses as a model for an Irving Klaw-style camera club, creepily worming his way into her trust by promising to fix her scarred visage with his miraculous plastic surgery skills. (She hides the scarring by draping her long hair over the left side of her face.) Desperate to look normal, the model accepts Cortner's offer and ends up drugged and bound for his basement operating table.
From girlie-shot model to unwilling replacement body for a severed head.
But while all of this is going on, Cortner's selfish obsession allows him to completely ignore Jan's growing hatred for her fiancee because he won't hear her pleas to be humanely put out of her unnatural misery. While Cortner's away prowling the street for nubile flesh, Jan plots vengeance while learning to telepathically communicate with the cobbled-together monstrosity that Cortner keeps locked up behind a thick door in the basement, which sets in motion the narrative's satisfyingly gory climax.
Shot in 1959, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE — titled THE HEAD THAT WOULDN'T DIE in some prints — didn't see release until 1962. I have no idea why, but I like thinking that it was simply just too damned sleazy to be unleashed onto the screen at the ass-end of the 1950's. Not only is the presentation of the story's material a bit more extreme than usual for its era, the movie also notably possesses a vibe that evokes sweat, greasiness, the choking miasma of stale cigarettes in a closed back room poker game, and the feeling that one is watching the proceedings through the haze of a three-day bender fueled by the cheapest of tequilas. The ending also delivers like few other American-made horror flicks of its vintage, and I'm intentionally not telling you what happens so you can marvel at it like I did when first seeing it at age nine. THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is, in my humble opinion, the perfect gene-splicing of Fifties-era exploitation and E.C. Comics-style horror, and as such it is a nasty little treasure.
Poster from the original theatrical release.