Respectful Insolence

Greatest. Movie. Ever.

While trying to avoid working on my grant yesterday, I was idly flipping channels. I had planned on killing a few minutes while psyching myself up to go back into the Bat Cave that is my office, ignoring a gloriously perfect sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s, to do battle with the grant application again, when I came across it: The greatest movie ever made!

The movie is called Fiend Without a Face, a low budget science fiction/horror movie from the 1950s.

It’s awesome, and I’ll tell you why. The monsters are disembodied brains. Yes, this is (mostly) a medical blog, and talking about a movie about disembodied brains that kill people is my way of keeping the topic medical and sort of scientific, even when I’ve been driven to the brink and put in a very strange mood by last minute grant preparations. Besides, writing about this movie is a perfectly fine way to procrastinate for a half hour or so. Not to mention that there’s that manuscript that I agreed to review before I knew I’d only have two weeks to write a five-year $750,000 grant proposal, with the editors now sending me increasingly pointed e-mails asking me where my review is…

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The plot is, of course, silly, as many such plots are. Basically, a scientist’s thoughts, through a combination of his experiments into telekinesis and the power from a nearby experimental atomic-powered radar installation being run by the U.S. Air Force, come to life as invisible entities that attack their victims and remove their brains and spinal columns. OK, you ask. So what? That’s not anything particularly odd for a 1950′s science fiction film. What puts this film over the top in such a spectacular way is the last third of the movie, when, thanks to the nearby atomic power station starting to go out of control and releasing all sorts of energy into the surrounding area, the entities become visible.

It’s a thing of movie beauty.

The monsters, it turns out, are disembodied brains. But not just brains–brains with the spinal cord still hanging off of them. But not just the spinal cord, but the entire spine, or so it appears! Even better, they move about in stop-motion animation like snakes, using their spine to push them along. But it’s even better than that. They have stalks sticking out of them and moving around, like antennae. I thought at first that maybe these were the optic nerves, but they’re in the wrong location, anatomically speaking. (Damn those anatomy classes in medical school; they never let me suspend disbelief!) The killer brains even have some appendages. Maybe they’re the cauda equina or the spinal nerve roots. Check it out:

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As a snippet of dialogue goes when a body is found:

Col Butler: “Where has the brain and spinal cord gone?”
Coroner: “I’m a doctor, Colonel, not a detective.”

I wonder if Dr. McCoy on Star Trek stole that tag line. After all, Fiend Without A Face predates Star Trek by around eight years.

Not surprisingly, this being a 1950s science fiction/horror movie, these are nasty brains, definitely central nervous systems with bad attitudes. For one thing, they wantonly attack people:

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Don’t worry. This is the obligatory pretty young woman. She survives. But, following the laws of old 1950s B movies, this old dude isn’t quite so fortunate.

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Here’s a bit to to give you a taste of the “science” discussions in the movie:

The best scene in the movie has to be when the protagonists are trapped in the professor’s house, surrounded by hungry brains. The killer brains (or–should I say?–bad brains) hang from the trees by their spinal column; they batter the wooden boards the heroes nailed to the windows to try to keep them out, their spines pounding away in much the same way that the zombies pounded away at the barricades at the old farm house in Night of the Living Dead. They even fly into the house once the barricades are finally (and, of course, inevitably) battered down. But, best of all, they blow up real good when hit by axes or bullets, producing a lovely spray of gelatinous bloody goo, and make disgusting sucking noises as they move about, attack, and suck out the brains out of their victims. Truly, the climax of this movie has to be seen to be believed.

This video, set to the song Breathless, give you an idea of the flavor of the special effects:

Come to think of it, the filmmakers should have used that tune; the movie would have been improved for it. Actually, some of the fiddling with the clip to make the monsters appear to dance in a couple of parts of this video might have improved things, too.

Killer brains, classic 1950s atomic paranoia, telekinesis…what more could you ask for in a movie?

Nothing! I say. Sadly, my wife doesn’t understand, which is why it’s a good thing she’s out of town this weekend. And damn if this stupid movie didn’t suck me in until its gloriously wacky end, when I should have been working on my grant. I’m seriously tempted by the Criterion Collection DVD of the movie, although it’s a bit more pricey than I’m willing to shell out for “entertainment” of this type. (Of course, my biggest question is this: What’s the artsy-fartsy Criterion Collection doing giving a movie like this a treatment usually reserved for Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Frederico Fellini movies?)

It even makes a pretty good rock video:

You know, if the Hitler Zombie tried to feed on these brains, who would win? If the Hitler Zombie won, would his feeding on atomic-powered flying brains result in the most over-the-top Nazi analogy ever? Could even Orac survive such an onslaught?

Comments

  1. #1 Mike O'Risal
    August 12, 2007

    Ah, one of my all-time favorite movies. I first saw this classic on the old Creatures Features Saturday afternoon horror movie show on WPIX in NYC when I was about 6 years old. As young as impressionable as I was, I was actually afraid that one of the invisible brain monsters was gunna git me for a couple of weeks thereafter! I’ve probably watched this one about 20 times since then and I still love it.

    If you want to check out another wonderfully paranoid science-run-amok movie, might I humbly suggest a flick called The Flesh Eaters (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058101/), in which an escaped Nazi scientist has engineered glowing microorganisms that dissolve the meat off people’s bones; watch for the surfing skeleton!

    Oh, and there’s also the Hammer classic Island of Terror (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060548/), starring Peter Cushing. The monsters in this one kill by sucking out the bones of their victims. If they’d teamed up with the Flesh-Eaters, there’d be nothing left of any of us by now. Aieeeee!

    Enjoy. :)

  2. #2 qetzal
    August 12, 2007

    DAMN! I’m jealous!

    I don’t know if that was on here, but if it was, I missed it.

  3. #3 afarensis
    August 12, 2007

    Okay, someone has to say it:

    Watcha’ going to do when they come for you, bad brains, bad brains

  4. #4 Romeo Vitelli
    August 12, 2007

    I wonder if it says anything about how I’ve changed as a person that I tend to root for the monsters these days whenever I watch these old movies? The actors (and I use the term loosely) are usually so unsympathetic that I have little sympathy for them and I wait for the monsters to eat them with relish (or maybe mustard).

  5. #5 Orac's Mom
    August 12, 2007

    Ah Son, you do me proud. I knew some good would come from watching all those Sir Graves and Ghoul hosted movies during your formative years. Having grown up in the 50′s, and seeing all those wonderful movies as first runs, I can highly recommend another movie that, at the time it was released, even frightened me. Have you ever seen “The Tingler”? I think you’d like it.

  6. #6 Klystron the Impaler
    August 12, 2007

    This is one of my favorites. I saw it when I was young on the “Creepy Creature Feature” and always liked it. When I, as an adult, went crazy collecting such movies had a hard time figuring out which movie it was (I couldn’t remember the name): Brain from Planet Arous — no; The Brain Eaters — no (first Leonard Nimoy role); They Saved Hitler’s Brain — no (one of the worst movies of all time, but it has some camp appeal); The Brain that wouldn’t die — no; look in IMDB there are dozens of them…
    I eventually found it and bought a very expensive Criterion DVD of it. Success!

  7. #7 David D.G.
    August 12, 2007

    Klystron the Impaler mentioned:

    The Brain Eaters — no (first Leonard Nimoy role)

    As I recall, Nimoy’s first movie role was the title role in Kid Monk Baroni, a totally non-SF movie. (The title character is a boxer.) However, perhaps that was just his first starring role; I’m finally getting a little rusty on my old Star Trek trivia.

    ~David D.G.

  8. #8 HP
    August 12, 2007

    I think I actually prefer the first half of the film, when the brains are invisible, and the bit players have to pantomime being strangled by an invisible disembodied central nervous system. It’s pure theater.

    I have the Criterion DVD, and while it’s pricey, I think it’s worth it. It’s a beautifully restored print, and the extras and commentary track are geek heaven. It all depends on your budget and priorities, however.

    Criterion has put out a fair number of (mostly British) low-budget sci-fi and horror titles. I’m a huge Karloff fan, and his British work in the 1950s is only available on Criterion.

    I wouldn’t rank them as highly as the (much cheaper) specialty exploitation labels like Mondo Macabro or Blue Underground, but they certainly do a much better job of presenting SF/Horror than Universal, MGM, or Warner.

  9. #9 Klystron the Impaler
    August 12, 2007

    David D.G mentions: As I recall, Nimoy’s first movie role was the title role in Kid Monk Baroni, a totally non-SF movie. (The title character is a boxer.) However, perhaps that was just his first starring role; I’m finally getting a little rusty on my old Star Trek trivia.

    I just checked IMDB and Baroni is much earlier than the Brain Eaters (whose plot was stolen from Heinlein’s Puppet Masters) –not his first by 2, but some of his early stuff are not big parts. The first early one that I clearly remember is in the intelligence center of Them!.

  10. #10 Klystron the Impaler
    August 12, 2007

    Criterion is about to release Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which has never yet been release on DVD. I’ve been waiting for it for many years.

  11. #11 blf
    August 12, 2007

    I’ve been working with the Unix (now Linux) computer OS for multiple decades, and there’s at least one movie in a vaguely-similar vein–Ok, not really horror a movie per se, just a very wacky one–which has been very popular with Unix/Linux people for some years: The President’s Analyst, with a villain known as “TPC”. The key to understanding the popularity of this movie amongst Unix/Linux gurus is to know Unix originated at Bell Labs. When Bell Labs was owned by the real “TPC”.

  12. #12 Samantha Vimes
    August 13, 2007

    As I said to my husband when it comes to our netflix queue, “Anything with ‘brain’ in the title is going to be worth a laugh.”

  13. #13 Chris Rowan
    August 13, 2007

    Ahhh, fond memories…. I was introduced to this wonder by a former housemate, and while it’s no ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’ I’ve always felt it encapsulates everything that is good (and bad) about 50s sci-fi. Other than the flying brains, I’ve always enjoyed the ‘feisty’ heroine who oh-so-quickly reverts to stereotype (screaming and needing to be rescued by clean-cut male lead)…

  14. #14 KeithB
    August 13, 2007

    Don’t forget “The Brain from Planet Arous”:
    http://twtd.bluemountains.net.au/Rick/liz_brainathon.htm

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