Halloween Havoc!: DONOVAN’S BRAIN (United Artists 1953)

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No, this is not a movie about the mind of the 60’s Scottish folk singer responsible for “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow”. DONOVAN’S BRAIN is a sci-fi/horror hybrid based on the 1942 novel by Curt Siodmak, responsible for THE WOLF MAN and other Universal monster hits. It was first made as a 1944  Republic Pictures effort titled THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim (why Universal didn’t buy the rights is a mystery to me). This is one of those rare cases where the remake is better than the original!

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The story concerns Dr. Pat Cory, a scientist experimenting with keeping the brain of a monkey alive without a body. After several failures, Cory and his assistant, alcoholic Dr. Frank Schratt, have finally succeeded. A nearby plane crash leaves three dead, and multi-millionaire Warren H. Donovan in critical condition. Donovan dies on the table, but his brain is still registering “alpha waves”, and Cory removes it from Donovan’s body, and miraculously keeps it alive!

Cory believes Donovan’s brain still contains all the man’s thoughts and knowledge, and tries to find a way to communicate with it. The brain waves begin to deviate as if it’s still thinking, and after a week it has grown, it’s impulses increasing. The doctor hooks the brain up to a radio set, hoping to receive transmission, and gets more than he bargained for when Donovan’s Brain begins to take over, returning the dead millionaire to life in Cory’s body, taking over his will and becoming the dominant force.

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Lew Ayres does a splendid job as Cory/Donovan in this sci-fi variation on the Jekyll/Hyde theme. Ayres is better known as another doctor, playing Dr. Kildare in a series of MGM films in the late 30’s/early 40’s. There’s no weird makeup or transformation scenes, yet Ayres is convincing playing two distinct parts. The actor was a conscientious objector during WWII, serving as a medic, and his career suffered in those fervent patriotic days because of his stance. Besides the Kildare movies, Ayres appeared in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Oscar winner of 1930), IRON MAN (not the superhero, a boxing film with Jean Harlow), STATE FAIR, JOHNNY BELINDA (Best Actor nominee), and THE DARK MIRROR, among many others.

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Nancy Davis is solid in the role of Cory’s faithful wife Jan. She gained a bit more fame when she became the wife of Ronald Reagan, and served as First Lady. Gene Evans (Schratt) was a burly favorite of director Sam Fuller, who cast him in five films. Steve Brodie plays a sleazy, blackmailing photo-journalist who naturally gets his comeuppance. Other Familiar Faces are John Hamilton (SUPERMAN’s‘s Perry White), Tom Powers, Shimen Ruskin, and Harland Warde. Felix Feist wrote and directed, keeping things tense, aided by Joseph Biroc’s photography.

Original novelist Curt Siodmak is well known to classic horror fans as writer of the screenplays for THE WOLF MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS , BLACK FRIDAY, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS . The brother of noir director Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS ), Curt also tried his hand in the director’s chair, though without the success of his brother. Curt helmed the goofy low-budgeter BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (featuring Lon Chaney Jr, Raymond Burr, and Barbara Payton) and the boringest sci-fi I’ve ever watched, THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. As a director, Curt was a great writer!

The novel itself was a best seller, and is referenced in numerous books, movies, and TV shows. No less than Stephen King is a fan, and so am I, having read it when I was a teen. DONOVAN’S BRAIN makes a gripping little film, worth your time to rediscover and enjoy.

 

 

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