Campy but creepy
‘The Brain From Planet Arous’
The Film Detective
$29.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)
71 minutes plus special features
By Mark Voger, author
‘Britmania: The British Invasion of the Sixties in Pop Culture’
Sci-fi films from the 1950s cover a wide spectrum in terms of production values — that is, cold hard cash spent. There’s “Forbidden Planet.” And then there’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
Where does Nathan Juran‘s campy but creepy “The Brain From Planet Arous” fall on that spectrum? Let’s just say it’s a movie in which exactly three props are used to convey an invasion from another world: a plastic brain with illuminated eyes and two silver contact lenses.
Other than that, the only FX to be found in “The Brain” — as devotees are wont to call the film — are lights, a stock footage explosion, “burn” makeup that may or may not be by the great Jack P. Pierce, and a water cooler. (More on that later.)
A special edition Blu-ray and DVD release of “The Brain From Planet Arous” is due out on Tuesday from The Film Detective.
So why do we love “The Brain”? The mere fact that it stars John Agar is a huge plus. This guy who got his start in John Ford movies became, for worse or worser, the most prominent sci-fi hero of the ’50s in films of middling-to-piddling quality. In “The Brain,” Agar carries with him the legacy of movies like “Revenge of the Creature” (1955), “Tarantula” (1955), “The Mole People” (1956), “Daughter of Dr. Jekyll” (1957), “Attack of the Puppet People” (1958) and “Invisible Invaders” (1959). You feel as if you’re in expert hands.
Also, this happens to be Agar’s best performance in a sci-fi film. Rather than play a conventional hero spouting conventional heroic cliches, Agar is doing a clever Jekyll-and-Hyde thing as a nuclear scientist who is intermittently possessed by an evil space alien named Gor. (That’s one letter shy of “Gort.”) Agar is positively eerie in Gor mode, smiling gleefully as he causes an airplane to explode in mid-air; or informs an old sheriff that he’s about to die; or fights off a faithful dog who thwarts his attempt to molest his fiance Sally (Joyce Meadows).
On those occasions when Agar wears the large silver contact lenses that caused the actor so much pain, such as in a dialogue scene photographed through a water cooler for maximum distortion, it’s all the more unsettling.
The plot has two nuclear scientists, Steve March (Agar) and Dan Fuller (Robert Fuller, later a star of TV’s “Emergency”), who detect a fluke abundance of radiation at Mystery Mountain. Um, Mystery Mountain? Sounds like the title of a Hardy Boys book.
Steve and Dan enter what movie buffs will easily recognize as Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, the site of many a western and sci-fi movie. (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Robot Monster” spring to mind.) There, the men encounter a large floating brain who kills Dan and enters the body of Steve via cheezy superimposition.
Later on, the brain helpfully spills the beans to Steve: “I am Gor. I need your body as a dwelling place while I am here on your Earth. … You have entre to places on Earth I want to go.”
In a development I don’t believe I’ve seen in any other 1950s sci-fi film, Gor has a serious case of the “hots” for Sally, calling her “an exciting female” who “appeals to me.” In Gor mode, Steve attacks Sally, ripping her blouse. Wha?
“The Brain” feels like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when Sally frets to her father (Thomas Browne Henry) that Steve is “not the same.” Steve never would have said things like “I’ll make the atomic bomb look like a firecracker.” Sally and her dad go to Mystery Mountain in search of clues and find Vol, another brain from Planet Arous, but a good brain this time. Vol asks for help in order to vanquish Gor and rescue Steve.
Gor and Vol appear identical, and you never see them in the same shot. So I’m going to stick my neck out and say that (gasp!) the one plastic prop was used to portray both brains from Planet Arous. PROVE ME WRONG.
Gor/Steve demonstrates his destructive powers to the brass at the Indian Springs Atomic Commission, and demands to see leaders from the United States, England, France, Russia, China and India. “I’m going to give a demonstration tomorrow that’ll create as much excitement as the bombing of Hiroshima,” he boasts — a line that apparently passed muster in 1957, but today smacks of a callous indifference to the estimated 70,000 to 135,000 lives lost in that bombing.
Juran is an interesting figure in the genre whose movies are all over the map, quality wise: “The Black Castle” (1952), “The Deadly Mantis” (1957), “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957), “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” (1958), “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (1958). (A couple of his films were released under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz, “The Brain” being one of them.) Juran directed “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957) starring Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, who 24 years later occupied the White House as president and first lady. He finished out his career as a director on Irwin Allen‘s ’60s sci-fi series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “Lost in Space,” “The Time Tunnel” and “Land of the Giants.”
The Film Detective’s release includes widescreen and full frame formats. Extras include “Not the Same Brain,” a hilarious short film written and directed by musicologist David Schecter, in which Meadows recreates her role of Sally; two featurettes about Juran from Ballyhoo Productions (which are sometimes redundant and should have been combined); a booklet with an essay by author Tom Weaver (who has interviewed everyone, everyone, in vintage sci-fi films); and commentary by Weaver into which he intersperces audio clips and recited quotes — some fresh, some decades old — from Meadows, Marquette, Agar, Schecter and “Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” director Larry Blamire. (Schecter provides a detailed analysis of the “Brain From Planet Arous” score by Walter Greene, which lends the film a scope that it doesn’t truly have.) Marquette and stuntman Gil Perkins tell the same sad story, that “The Brain’s” distributor, Howco Productions, used “juggled books” to avoid paying residuals. And you thought Gor was conniving.
Trailer for The Film Detective’s upcoming release.
Trailer for the original 1957 release.
Porfle Popnecker’s video compilation of Agar’s creepiest “Brain” scenes.
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These two again. Man, they must’a put on a thousand T-shirts during that photo session!