Sleazy is the best way to describe THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE. But I mean that in a good way. This trashy drive-in classic is a mix of gory horror and outright voyeurism. Right up my alley! Made in 1959, the picture sat unreleased until American-International picked it up in 1962. Producer/cowriter Rex Carlton always seemed to have money problems. Carlton toiled mainly in the exploitation field, producing and writing for Al Adamson films BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE and HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS, before putting a bullet in his own brain in 1968. It’s been said he owed some mobsters a ton of cash borrowed to finance his filmmaking endeavors.
The movie is all about brilliant but arrogant surgeon Bill Cortner. Bill’s been conducting some experiments at his country home involving “complete transplantation” of body parts and organs. He’s also been “borrowing” these parts from the hospital where he works. Bill gets a call from his assistant Kurt to come home immediately. He and his fiancée, Jan Compton, speed down a deserted highway when Bill loses control of the car. There’s a firey crash, and Bill is thrown from the car, but poor Jan is trapped. Furthermore, she’s been decapitated! Bill quickly wraps Jan’s head in his suit jacket and races to the house. Then Bill and Kurt (who has a deformed arm, by the way) hook Jan’s head up to some electrodes and keep it alive, floating in a special solution Bill has invented. (No, I’m not making this up!!)
Despite having no lungs, heart, etc, Jan’s head can talk. While Bill goes out to search for a new body for Jan’s head, she and Kurt have some absurd conversations about the nature of horror . Kurt tells her about the monster locked in the closet, the grotesque result of Bill’s mad experimentation. Meanwhile, Bill’s on the prowl for a hot-looking body for Jan’s head. He hits a strip club (where the camera lingers on the girls), a Body Beautiful contest (the camera lingers some more), and finally a modeling photo shoot (yep, more lingering camera). Coincidentally, the model (named Doris) is the victim of horrible scarring by a jealous ex (“I hate men”!) Equally coincidentally, Bill went to college with Doris. He convinces her to accompany him to the house, telling her new plastic surgery techniques can fix her face.
Jan’s head has discovered she (it?) has telepathic powers, and can control the closet monster. She commands it to attack Kurt, and the thing rips his good arm off. Kurt’s a bloody mess, and dies. Bill and Doris arrive at the house, and of course he dopes her drink. Ready to give Jan’s head a new body, Jan’s head orders the monster to destroy Bill. It does, after knocking over some chemicals and setting the place on fire. Jan’s head then has the thing bring Doris to safety, while she can finally die in peace.
The actors are either over-the-top hammy or downright suck. Herb Evers (Bill) changed his name to Jason. It didn’t help, as his career went nowhere. Virginia Leith (Jan’s head) made her film debut in Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE. It was all downhill after that. Anthony LaPenna (Kurt) had better luck doing dubbing for Italian movies. Adele Lamont (Doris) is one hot babe, but no actress. The director was Joseph Green, who later became a film distributor specializing in kung-fu movies. The “closet monster” is one Eddie Carmel. Standing over seven feet tall, Carmel suffered from acromegaly, the same disease that Andre The Giant had. Carmel got work in carnivals as a sideshow freak, and had a run with Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus. Known as “The Jewish Giant”, Carmel gained some notoriety posing with his parents for famous photographer Diane Arbus in 1970.
Finally, remember that scene with the modeling photo shoot? The shutterbug sitting on the floor is Sammy Petrillo in an uncredited cameo. Petrillo was the Jerry Lewis rip-off who costarred with Bela Lugosi in the infamous film, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA. I haven’t got around to seeing that one yet. Hmm…stay tuned!