ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 11/21/09
I have a theory about bad films. I’m not sure if this is the best time or place to talk about it, since comparatively few people ever actually read these reviews, but here you go: I believe that bad movies - particularly bad SF movies - are a more interactive form of entertainment than their high-budgeted A-list counterparts.
That doesn’t make ‘em *good* movies, of course, but it *does* make the interplay between crap artist and crap viewer a bit more…uhm…direct? Intimate? A bit more give and take?
Think about it: If you go see a multi-zillion dollar SF film - the latest Trek film, for instance - everything looks completely real and, if not logical, at least it’s internally consistent according to the hambone pseudo logic they play by in the Trekiverse. What need, then, is there for suspension of disbelief? If, on the other hand, you’re watching the original Trek series from the ‘60s, then you need to expend considerable mental effort in order to avoid noticing that the walls are just plywood, that the Captain’s Chair is just a super attenuated recliner, that Mr. Spock is just a horse-faced dude with a lot of eyeshadow on, and not an alien, and so on. Curiously, a lot of Trekies can’t do this, they can’t watch the original show because it’s just too cheesy for them.
The same is true of any 60s, and most 70s SF shows, and movies, too: The story is the thing, and in order to get to the story, you have consciously avoid the obvious fakeness of it all. The Prisoner is probably the best SF show ever made, and yet objectively it’s silly as hell and knows it. To get to the good stuff, then, you have to deliberately shut down the part of your brain that says “That’s just a damn weatherbaloon, it’s not a monster!”
If you can do this, you’ll be rewarded. If you can’t do this, then all you’ll get is what you can see, which is usually pretty sad.
People ask me how I can watch such crappy films, and don’t I long for something better to watch? Well, of course I do, but as a friend of mine once said, “Good Movies are a dime a dozen, but a truly bad film is forever.” Or, if that’s too allusive for you, let’s quote The Tick: “Sanity is a one-trick pony chum, but when you’re good and crazy - woo-hoo! The sky’s the limit!” My point being that if you can do that - if you can ignore the ‘oh, this is all crap, can’t we just go watch football’ part of your brain - then there’s a kind of narrative freedom that only this kind of trashy film can give you; a dream-logic and incoherence that - for me, anyway - feels kind of liberating as a contrast to my 9-to-5 rational life.
I’m not sure this week’s film is the best example of how this works, of course, but you get my point, right?
PLAY BY PLAY
We start out with a genuinely creepy blank black screen, and a woman’s plaintive voice pleading “Let me die, let me die.” Then the titles come up, and immediately after that, we’re introduced to Dr. Bill Cortner and his dad operating on a guy. The guy codes on the table, though this is before the machine that goes “ping” so we have to get clued in on this from a respirator bottle. Curiously, though this is before the machine that goes ‘ping’, it’s after corneal transplants. What kind of crazy world is this, anyway? Bill chides his dad for letting another one kack, and his dad reluctantly gives in to his sons’ demands to be allowed to experiment on the stiff. Surprisingly, the son is able to bring the dead dude back to life, but his dad is still pissy about it.
The dad gets all philosophical and expository about going too far, about breaking the rules, about doing creepy things with body parts at night. Bill points out that “Alive” is better than “Dead,” and he just saved the life of a guy that would otherwise be otherwise. His dad kinda’ sorta’ relents, kinda’ sorta’, like a drunk at the VFW who knows he’s lost an argument, but continues to put up token resistance because he doesn’t want to admit it. I side with Bill on this one.
Bill’s fiance, Jan, comes in. She’s not at all unattractive, and she’s got interestingly big hair, but enjoy her looks while you can, guys, you won’t get much of a chance. Her and Bill touch, but keep not-quite-kissing in an awkward fashion, and trading stilted dialog while Bill’s Dad just keeps staring at ‘em and saying creepy things like “You know, when you two get married, it won’t be any fun to watch you anymore.”
A nurse comes in to tell Bill that “you know who” called from “You know where” and said there was a problem with “you know what.” I paraphrase. Anyway, Bill decides to take his fiance to see what it is he’s been doing in his mysterious upstate vacation home of sexy mystery. There’s also some conversation of Bill stealing limbs from the morgue, but everyone just lets that slide. It’s been that kind of a day. Bill drives badly on the way up to the house, gets in a wreck, and Jan pulls a Jane Mansfield. Bill scoops up her head, and runs the rest of the way back to the sexy mystery house with it unconvincingly bundled up in his coat. Once there, he meets with Igor - “Kurt” to his friends - and the two of them quickly hook up an old children’s science kit to Jan’s head, complete with a lot of bubblin’ tubes, and pump her full of magical happy juice, which Bill tells us he’s just recently invented, and which will render this whole thing somehow plausible. Jan - who has no lungs, but can still somehow talk - is mounted in a pan, and mumbles ‘let me die’ in her sleep.
Kurt and Bill have an awkward and frankly illogical conversation about transplanting limbs and the nature of the human soul, which is weird because, of course, Kurt has an arm that Bill grafted on to him some time ago, so he knows it’s at least theoretically possible, and they *did* save Jan’s life in shake-and-bake fashion (“And I helped!”), but he plays all his scenes as if the stuff Kurt is talking about is utter madness, as opposed to the thing he’s willingly hitched his hopes for a normal life to. Bad writing. Oh, also, there’s a scary monster (Or perhaps a super creep) in the closet in the lab.
Now, up to this point, the movie has been a fairly standard Prometheus tale, a well-meaning man tampering with the purview of the gods, forces men weren’t meant to know, a tragic tale of forbidden knowledge ultimately resulting in one or more of the irate Olympians smacking their boot down firmly on Bills head, but at this point - zang! - the movie takes a haaaaaaaaard left turn, and suddenly becomes a weird, creepy exploration of the swinger community in Upstate New York in the late 50s.
Bill goes immediately to a stripper bar to size up new bodies for Jan. Jan was kinda’ hot and all, in an overly-prim 1950s sort of way, so it’s not like he can just kill a random hobo or cat lady to get a new one. No, he needs to comparison shop. We get a long, oddly edited, dialog-free sequence of Bill in the club, eyeing the dancer while lots of dead-eyed, hard-faced yankee types look on. Frankly, the audience alone is off-putting. They’re all really well dressed - this is a swanky night on the town for them - and there’s women there, too, staring at the chicks, and having conversation about Proust, or whatever the hell it was that joyless swinger women spoke about in those days to appear intellectual while maintaining a tenuous grasp over their husbands, who clearly have no regard for them beyond a sexual doormat. We watch a booth full of these folks for a long while, with no dialog, and when they abruptly decide to leave - 2 girls and 3 guys, one of whom looks like Mel Cooley - it’s hard not to supply dialog like “Hooray, we’re going to have group sex!” or “Hey, Ted and I are going to swap spouses, while our creepy friend Murray takes pictures that will someday fall out of a box in the attic and embarrass the crap out of our tattooed grandchildren!”
Anyway, Bill takes their seat, and begins putting the moves on a brunette chick in the next booth, then another woman comes by and sits with Bill. They go to the dressing room, and start to talk none-too-subtly about sealing the deal, then a brunette stripper - who’s probably the one from the booth next to Bill, but it’s hard to tell - comes in and strips down to her workin’ clothes and tries to snake Bill away from the other stripper. Bill leaves awkwardly as a catfight ensues, both women bobbling around on the floor. It’s supposed to be erotic, but it’s not. Oh, trust me, it’s not. I do like the stripper music, though. I have a thing for spy music, and 50s stripper music.
Back at the Sexy Mystery House (Available for Birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, and Orgies! Reasonable group-sex rates! Ask about our optional catering!), Jan has awakened, and is surprisingly not freaked out by all this. She’s somehow completely aware of what’s happened to her, and immediately hates Bill and wants to die (Ok, that much is reasonable). She somehow knows that there’s a super-creep (Or possibly a scary monster) in the closet, and she says wistfully poetic stuff that, frankly, you wouldn’t expect to come out of a severed head, while the thing in the closet occasionally pounds on the wall in response (One for yes, two for no). Kurt comes in and talks to her for a while, and again, he’s kind of incoherent in a scenery-chewing way. I mean, he delivers his lines fine, and he plays the hell out of them, but they’re all bad lines. Jan asks about the thing in the closet, and again, we get some hopelessly overwritten and poetic dialog - “The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculations and often lose themselves in error and darkness!” - by way of an answer. Jan, meanwhile, is just as in to purple prose as Kurt is, saying of her condition that, “Like all quantities, horror has its ultimate, and I am that!”
Despite all this, however, she seems fairly with-it for a disembodied head sitting on someone’s work bench. She gets to screwing around with Kurt’s mind, reveals that she’s talking to the thing in the closet, and implies that Bill’s new formula has somehow given her powers of some sort.
At this moment, my copy of the movie suddenly goes to white, and we hear a pleasant man’s voice saying “Neither the Grave, nor deth has power over the Mother of God, who sleepeth not in her intercessions; and who, in her protection, is an unchanging hope.” Then, suddenly we’re back to Jan in the Pan.
What the hell?
Kurt, by the way, was a surgeon who lost his arm in an accident, and has been working with Bill to get a new one. He’s had several new ones, actually, but they all end up withered and gimpy before too long. Eventually, they’ll get it right, however.
Meanwhile, Bill has taken to cruising for streetwalkers - or has he? It’s hard to tell. He’s following attractive, well-dressed women along in a leering fashion, and none of them seem to mind. He finally talks to one, “Donna,” who looks a bit like Debbi Harry, in a shopworn, tumbledown, weathered kind of way. I should mention that all the women in this movie have very Nehw Yoik accents. Anyway, he tries to pick her up to kill her, but she insists he take her to a swimsuit contest first, and he agrees. Then she invites her friend Jeanie along, and the three of them go off to ogle chicks. Which is just weird. Once again, Bill’s attempts to kill and behead a woman are foiled by how eager everyone is to be over-sexed.
Donna reminds Bill of the girl with “The Best Body I ever saw” - a woman named “Doris Powell,” - “Remember her, from school, before she had the accident?” She’s something of a shut-in now - a sexy shut-in, only posing for art classes and compulsively masturbating shutterbugs - and Bill instantly thinks he can kill her and no one will notice for quite a while, nor tie it to him.
Donna really is the best looking woman in the movie, and as it happens, she already knows him. Evidently he gave her an abortion some years back. Her deformity - which consists of a badly scarred-up jowl - has ruined her life, and now she’s forced to subsists as cheezecake for the monkey spankers - many of whom are shown gadding about her - rather than going out and having sex with total strangers, like everyone else in this town. Sad, really. There’s some nebulous dialog which might imply she’s a lesbian, or it might just be badly-written, badly-delivered “Men are pigs” lines. Anyway, Bill plies her with talk of plastic surgery, and she immediately falls for it, because despite all this talk of self-expression and blah blah blah, what a lifetime of swingery apparently means is that women aren’t worth a damn if’n they ain’t purty.
Back at the sexy mystery house, Jan gets a telepathic blast of this, and realizes she must act in order to save the young, dumb, slutty girl’s life. Kurt comes in to feed the thing in the closet, and Jan goads him with insults until he isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing. Then the monster reaches through the feeding-hole in the door, and rips Kurt’s arm off - the good one! Kurt leaves the room, leaving a big ol’ trail of cairo syrup on the wall as he goes, lumbers around the living room pointlessly for a bit, then comes back in to the lab, and expires.
Bill comes home with Donna, and goes downstairs to get the roofies, when he sees Kurt dead. He goes back up and drugs Donna, then carries her down stairs and straps her to a table. Jan complains, but Bill just tapes her mouth shut. Jan causes the thing in the closet to bust through the door, killing Bill and setting the lab on fire. The monster rescues Donna and leaves the room, while Jan cackles, “I told you to let me die!”
Obviously, Steve Martin's movie "The Man With Two Brains" is a parody of some very specific aspects of this movie, particularly cruising slutty women to steal their bodies.
Man, what a smarmy film! I’d seen it before, repeatedly, as a kid, but I’m pretty sure the version I saw had the catfight and the stripper club stuff cut out, or toned down quite a bit. And of course the “Virgin Mary” stuff was missing. That really flummoxed me. I thought at first that it might have been some weird supernatural redemption aspect coming in to the film, but, no, obviously just a sloppy editing mistake by whomever did the crappy transfer to DVD. No idea how that would happen (“We’re out of videotape? Oh, well, just use this old EWTN crap from the 50s….”), but it was weird. Weirder still, as it felt strangely appropriate, like there *should* have been something religious right then, subplot-wise, to offset all the smarm.
Getting back to my original theory on movies, if one looks only at the surface, this is merely a crappy movie made by some talent less hacks either out of pretension, a desire to get laid (“Hey, baby, wanna’ be in my movie?”), a tax dodge, or all three of the above. If, however, one looks at it a little deeper, one can see this as an odd antecedent of “Who’s Life Is It Anyway?” with Jan, the cripple arguing to die, and the doctor determined to save her life against her will. We can also see it as a particularly badly done Prometheus riff, or even a kind of weird Prison tale in which rejects from society - the head and the monster - find a common bond that society at large can’t give them. Or it could just be an excuse to show a little cheesecake and provide some thrills.
Even if that’s the only factor here, I think the movie shows us more than it really intended to: rather than being sexy, swanky, 1950s-styled Cinemax-After-Dark fun, it’s just kind of cold, distant, off-putting and desperate. It’s a weirdly non-glamorous look at the swinger subculture on the eve of the sexual revolution, made weirder still by how glamorous everyone is trying to look, and yet everyone just comes across looking even more up-tight and forced. All the creepy women in the audiences in strip club and the beauty contest have this look on their faces like “I wish he’d just pick one and nail her already so I can get home and get the roast started. Also, Dick Van Dyke is on tonight…” It’s weird, it’s strange, it’s sexist as hell, and as every single woman in the movie’s value is directly tied to their appearance and nothing more, it’s disturbingly superficial.
All the women seem attractive on first glance, but they’re all a bit meatier than would be considered really alluring today, and the grainy film stock, cheap print, and stark lighting make it kind of hard to really appraise the assets. The strippers, we’re told, are really good looking, and young and hot and vivacious and all, but they both look kinda’ old to me, you know? Like in their 40s, or maybe they just look old after a few years of cigarettes, booze, and one-night stands. In any event, there’s no doubt that both of ‘em are real strippers. The “Backstage” scene is done with a mostly-static camera, and terrible, echoey live sound while the actresses deliver terribly stilted dialog in an entirely unconvincing matter. It looks and feels like the first couple minutes of a stag film.
So, yes, this is a bad film, and one of those bad films that everyone’s heard of, but few have actually seen, which is a shame: There’s a cognitive dissonance in this film that makes it strangely affecting in the right mindset, and occasionally it glimmers though with moments of what it could be - the opening voiceover - the sexless woman in a jar while her boyfriend is out trying to get laid, the desire for death being more constructive - in this instance - than the desire for life. It’s a weird film that never comes close to realizing its own potential, but occasionally it trips over something poignant. It’s dripping with the ever-so-slightly disturbing feeling of an early Lynch film, or Jarmush, if he wan’t trying to be funny. Albeit, this is in watered down doses, but it’s worth a watch.
But probably only one.
Jason Evers - who plays Bill - went on to a surprisingly long career as a third-banana guest star in TV shows. I recognize him from an episode of The Wild Wild West, and he played a minor recurring character on Mission Impossible.
Virginia Leith - who plays Jan - was pretty much at the end of her career with this one. She continued to turn up very rarely on TV, but this was her last gasp.
Lola Mason - the bedraggled Debbi Harry-impersonator - actually began her career with this film, and continued to work steadily on TV through the mid 1980s.
This was also the end of the line for Adele Lamont - who plays Doris Powell - she had worked infrequently in TV up until this was released. Afterwards: Tumbleweeds and crickets…
Director Joseph Green never went on to do much else of note. Producer/writer Rex Carlton had a relatively long career in crap film, culminating with him killing himself in 1970 when he couldn’t pay back some money he borrowed from the mob.
The monster was played by Eddie Carmel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Carmel who’s only other screen role was as a caveman in a nudie film the next year.
Much of this film uses a prerecorded orchestral score called “The Web” which never actually matches the feel of anything onscreen. The stripper music is pretty bland, aside from the first piece, which I like. Hilariously, it cuts in inappropriately when a drugged Donna starts to take off her gloves. I was cracking up over that.
Ordinarily, I’d go on about any continuity errors I noticed, but there are just so damn many that I’ll just turn you over to this list of them http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052646/goofs
Curiously, this film was actually made in 1959, but it didn’t get a release until 1962, owing to problems with gore and censorship. Given the odd editing in several of the scenes, I’m assuming that it was probably originally shot with some actual nudity in it, but this was cut out at the distributor’s insistence. There’s several varying-length cuts of the film - the ‘standard’ one appears to be about 83 minutes there’s a ‘racier’ version that runs 85. My crappy print ran about 82. 81 if we cut out the Virgin Mary stuff. It was originally filmed under the name “The Back Door,” which once again makes me wonder what the hell the producers were thinking.
And that’s about it, really. If you’d like to watch this film, you can do so here http://www.archive.org/details.php?identifier=brain_that_wouldnt_die or here http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6660611491774828467# or, if you’re a wus and a poser, you can watch the MST3k version here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBYLOLuf4gI