Release Date(s)1962 (December 22, 2015)
Studio(s)American International Pictures/MGM/20th Century Fox (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: D+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die poses itself as a horrifying piece of cinema, but in reality, it barely passes the mark of legitimacy. Made in 1959 and released in 1962 by American International Pictures on a double bill alongside Invasion of the Star Creatures, it tells the story of a mad scientist whose grotesque experiments on human body parts reaches its zenith when, after a fatal car accident, he revives his dead girlfriend’s head with the promise of finding her a fresh, new body to go with it.
The film began its life as an idea for a drive-in horror movie with the title I Was a Teenage Brain Surgeon, but somewhere along the way, morphed into a less perfunctory type of movie (perfunctory for its time, that is). It was completed with the title The Black Door and later intended to be released with the title The Head That Wouldn’t Die (which erroneously still appears during the end credits). Finally, the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die stuck when the film was eventually released.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is not what anybody would consider a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s on the verge of Z-grade as none of the performances or makeup effects have much to them, and the filmmaking itself leaves much to be desired. Certain shots appear somewhat competent at times, but they find themselves rolling around in the muck of a meandering story. Far too much time is spent not advancing the main plot, especially during the middle section of the movie where it literally is just a series of titillating moments for the male audience. That is, once the mad scientist in question lays out his plan, he scopes out various women in nightclubs, wherein the supposed eye candy is found. It’s straight up exploitation at that point.
However, the most indelible image from the film is its namesake. It was an image that was slapped on the movie’s poster, which was probably the smartest move to make when selling it to the public. Affectionately known as “Jan in the Pan” by fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the execution of the headless body effect is the most effective and memorable thing about the movie as a whole. It’s a creepy image and just the thought of being a living head without a body is a terrifying one. Unfortunately, less than effective filmmaking hampers everything around it.
Despite itself, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die continues to live on as a highlighted good/bad movie many years after its release. It managed to reach somewhat cult status, mostly due to its MST3K appearance, and stands slightly above most of the teenage horror movie fodder of its era. At the very least, it seemed to have an idea that, while not thoroughly original, wasn’t commonly executed at the time.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of the film features a brand new transfer of the 81 minute uncut version, and to great effect. It’s a very clean and stable presentation, one that is so good that the bad special effects can be seen better than ever before. Grain levels are quite satisfactory with some nice black levels, and both the overall contrast and brightness is perfect. There are some film artifacts left behind, such as changeover cue marks and scratches, but as much should be expected from a movie of this vintage. There’s also a single audio track, which is in English mono DTS-HD, and it too is quite satisfactory. Much of the hiss and crackle from previous worn-through presentations is gone, giving the dialogue and score a little more crispness. Overall, this is the best that the film has ever looked and sounded on home video. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
The extras on this release are surprisingly enriching, particularly the audio commentary with film historian Steve Haberman and author Tony Sasso. Also included as an added bonus is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that featured the film, which is essential viewing for good/bad movie fans. There’s also an alternate version of the modeling scene from the international version of the film in which the model is actually nude, but is presented without sound elements as they weren’t available. Rounding things out is a still gallery and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Trying to talk about The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in filmmaking terms feels somewhat ludicrous once you understand what you’re dealing with. It’s a film that doesn’t quite live up to the power of its poster, but it offers enough to make it worth watching. And I can think of no better way of doing that than with Scream Factory’s terrific Blu-ray release.
- Tim Salmons