There are a lot of genre films out there that succeed because they take a ridiculous idea far too seriously. Movies about time travel, killer animals, invaders from space, vats of liquid Satan (Prince of Darkness, represent!), and plenty of other wacky things can be great cinema when the right filmmakers and cast members are willing to believe in an unrealistic premise. Nobody, save the extremely nerdy and critical, blinks twice when an '80s kid travels to 1955 in a Delorean or when a scientist turns a preserved mosquito into an island full of dinosaurs, because the filmmakers behind these movies distract us elsewhere and don't give us time to think too much about how crazy the whole darn movie is.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die is not one of those movies. If anything, it's the exact opposite. It spends too much time making us think about what's going on - thanks to some poor pacing and a tendency to just let the characters talk about the plot instead of having them do anything - which makes it an easy target for skeptics, such as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew that once mocked it thoroughly on television. (In the film's defense, it's hard to have a character who is only a severed head "do anything." We'll talk more about that later though.)
If you don't know The Brain That Wouldn't Die, a drive-in stalwart that was released in 1962, it's the story of a power hungry doctor who specializes in Frankensteiny experimental medicine and the woman he loves - a woman who is beheaded in an automobile accident while he is driving erratically due to his lust to get to his science. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on who you listen to - that same science allows our narcissistic doctor to keep that head alive, living in a few clamps and a tray of serum (or, as the MST3K guys called it, "neck juice"), while he searches for a body that he can use for a transplant. Oh, and there's a "thing" living and groaning in the closet too. You gotta wonder if that's gonna come in to play later on.
Now, most will scoff at that premise - a severed head suspended in a pan while an evil doctor hunts for a victim - but I can see a good movie inside of it. And one of the things I love most about The Brain That Wouldn't Die is that it's clear that writer/director Joseph Green believed there was a good movie in there too. The film's script has plenty of dialogue that misses the mark or is delivered awkwardly - like the disfigured character who keeps repeating how she carries memory of her past around with her or the lab assistant who shouts things like 'You're nothing but a freak of life! And, a freak of death!" - but there are also moments in the film where the script stumbles upon slightly profound comments on science and the doctor's meddling nature.
Virginia Leith - who stars as both the full bodied girlfriend, Jan, and as "Jan in the Pan" - is given most of the opportunities to monologue about right and wrong, and she's clearly not excited to be preserved as a captive cranium. As she rants about her captivity she eventually stumbles into one of the film's more interesting arguments, discussing her "power" with the lab assistant and the creature in the closet. The empowered version of Jan, like most of the characters in the movie, spends more time talking than she does achieving, but she still seems a lot more interesting than the rest of the characters in the film. Maybe it's Leith's smoky delivery of her lines, or maybe it's just the fact that she's a severed head in a pan with fantastic eyelashes, but when she rasps "like all quantities, horror has its ultimate...and I am that" I definitely can see that Green had some good ideas up his sleeve when he made this movie.
Then again, most of the flaws - like the awkward catfight and the doctor's doomed search for a body - are the things that make The Brain That Wouldn't Die a must see piece of flawed drive-in history, and by the time that closet opens up late in the film I think most fans of pure cheese will find themselves having at least a little bit of unironic fun with this film. Those hints of something smarter in the dialogue - even throwaway lines like "The corpse is yours, do what you want to do" seem like they would get a laugh in a less serious film - and Leith's presentation of tabletop anger that keep me thinking about how perfectly imperfect the tone of The Brain That Wouldn't Die is, and that tone is what makes this film so memorable to me.
Well, it's that tone that makes it memorable....and it's also the talking severed head that's floating in neck juice that's memorable. You never really forget seeing that.