November 24, 2012

The Incredible 2nd Anniversary, Diabolic Dual Personality Double Feature

Today marks the second anniversary of this blog. At the beginning, I wasn't sure how long I'd run with it, but I've had so much fun (and discovered so many other like-minded people who still appreciate these old films), that I've gone ahead and elected myself to another two year term of posting about my favorite moldy-oldy, underdog genre films.

Happy anniversary! Two years and counting...
For those of you who are new to the blog (and for those who've read a post or two and are thinking, "why does he write about movies no one's ever heard of?"), Films From Beyond the Time Barrier is a salute to the movies I watched in my youth on the old black and white TV, at downtown theater matinees, and at the drive-in (which works out roughly to stuff made between 1930 and 1980). If you peruse the lists of categories and titles to the right, you'll see mostly sci-fi, fantasy and horror, but I also post about mystery-thrillers, film-noirs and even the occasional western.

As much as I love the true classic sci-fi and horror films such as Forbidden Planet and Bride of Frankenstein, far better and more insightful people than me have written a ton of material on these titles, and I could scarcely add anything else to the treasure trove. I prefer to dig up movies that have largely escaped the attention of (or been studiously ignored by) mainstream reviewers and even vintage B movie fans. They tend to be low-budget, black and white occupiers of the bottom half of double bills, with no-name actors and cheap effects. But in spite of their flaws, I find something to like about them -- an unusual plot twist here, a surprisingly good performance there, or just an interesting behind-the-scenes story. Even in this age of ubiquitous online streaming and cheap DVD releases, they're not always easy to find, but perhaps worth the trouble if only to take a break from the unending parade of multiplex blockbusters that come, make their billions, and then get out of town to make way for the next blockbuster.

In honor of the second anniversary, I thought I'd double the action and double the fun with a special double feature post. And then double down again by featuring two of the better and more underrated adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of dual personality, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to one source, there have been over 120 film adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde (only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes seem to have inspired more filmmakers). There's been a son and daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a Sister Hyde, and even a blaxploitation Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. Whatever the variation, our fascination with humanity's dual nature ensures that the good doctor and his cruel opposite will return again and again to the theater, movies and TV.

Poster for The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright), 1960
Now Playing: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright, 1960)

Pros: Unique take on the Jekyll/Hyde story; Christopher Lee is a convincing good-for-nothing upper-crust sleazeball
Con: Hyde's good looks take the edge off the character

We seem to be living in the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde age. Hardly a day goes by without some upstanding pillar of society revealing an ugly dark side on the omnipresent 24 hour news cycle. One by one, once-respected people and institutions fall spectacularly -- Rod Blagojevich, John Edwards, Joe Paterno, the Boy Scouts, Jesse Jackson Jr. -- and always the reaction is the same: "But they seemed so upstanding, so caring, so charismatic…"  Mass media keep feeding our delusions, keep encouraging us to conflate appearances with reality and attractiveness with virtue. Then zing -- some new high-and-mighty celebrity gets caught, and the media revel in their depredations and our gullibility. And the cycle begins anew.

Hammer Films' version of the classic tale is a particularly apt one for a society that's so susceptible to pretty faces. Two Faces adds a neat twist, making the good Dr. Jekyll look almost like a caveman with a bushy unibrow and unkempt beard, and turning Hyde into a suave and devilishly handsome member of the upper class. (The tagline: "Sometimes, Terror has a Handsome Face!")

Paul Massie as the reclusive Dr. Jekyll
Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) is about to
undergo an extreme makeover.
The film opens with the homely, obsessive Jekyll (Paul Massie) discussing his work with his friend and colleague Dr. Ernst Litauer (David Kossoff). He's been working with deaf-mute children, observing how they act out more than normal children due to their inability to express themselves verbally. Jekyll wants to chemically isolate the part of man that is "beyond good and evil," the primitive, unrestrained energy. It seems Jekyll has been drummed out of the scientific community for such cockamamie ideas, and has since been living and working as a near recluse. Ernst chides him, "Why not try to bring out the good?" Jekyll mutters something about needing to understand the flip side in order to better understand the good.

While sad-sack Jekyll has been immersing himself in his work, his beautiful but no-good-unfaithful wife Kitty (Dawn Addams) has been stepping out with Jekyll's upper crust slacker friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee). Jekyll is the ultimate cuckold-- Paul has been coldly hitting Jekyll up for handouts even as he's been carrying on with his wife. When Jekyll takes his serum and frees the Nietszchean superman in himself, the dashing, blonde, blue-eyed and clean shaven Hyde visits a bawdy music hall and promptly discovers his wife and friend together. In between beating up the lower class locals, assignations with exotic dancers, and general mischief and depravity (not to mention fighting off Jekyll's personality trying to take back his body), Hyde concocts a scheme to cover the incorrigible Allen's gambling debts in exchange for Kitty's favors. As Hyde's depravities begin to catch up with him, he devises yet another plan to suppress the Jekyll part of him for good.

Paul Massie cleans up quite well as Mr. Hyde
Mr. Hyde looks forward to a night on the town.
Hammer's master craftsman Terence Fisher directs a typically sumptuous looking production on a relatively low budget. Paul Massie chews the scenery outrageously as Hyde, but then, if ever there was a character that called for scenery-chewing, this is it. Dawn Addams as Kitty is yet another alluring, red-haired Hammer leading lady in the mold of Barbara Shelley and Hazel Court (someone in the Hammer executive suite apparently liked redheads). The biggest surprise is Christopher Lee, who at the time of Two Faces was neck-deep in horror films: his breakout Horror of Dracula was released a couple of years earlier; he was wrapped in bandages as The Mummy in 1959; and he made two other horror films that were released in 1960, The City of the Dead and The Hands of Orlac. Lee nicely plays against type as the dissolute, conniving Paul, casually fleecing Jekyll while making out with his wife, then feigning outrage when Hyde offers him money for Kitty's favors. (Observant fans will also notice Oliver Reed in a small, pre-The Curse of the Werewolf role as a young tough who gets pummeled by the gleeful, sociopathic Hyde.)

Two Faces is one of Hammer's better non-Dracula/Frankenstein remakes, and boasts one of Chris Lee's better non-Dracula performances for the studio.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

"Here is the century-old horror classic filmed as it has never been before!"

Poster for the TV movie, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)
Now Playing: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (TV movie, 1968)

Pros: Bravura performance by Jack Palance; Authentic production design
Con: Shot on videotape

Strange Case is a more straightforward retelling, although it still takes liberties with the source material. All the familiar elements from Stevenson's story and earlier film adaptations are there: the hostile reception by his medical colleagues to Jekyll's theories; the drinking of the potion and the agonizing transformation; Hyde's savage beating of an unarmed gentleman with his cane; his possessiveness and terrorizing of an attractive dance hall girl; the suspicion of Jekyll's friend and solicitor that Hyde is blackmailing the good doctor; and Hyde threatening to permanently take over Jekyll's body as the supply of reverse potion runs out.

Jack Palance as Dr. Jekyll in an early lab scene
Dr. Jekyll (Jack Palance) hesitates before
drinking the potion for the first time.
This made-for-TV version greatly benefits from Jack Palance's energy and dynamism in the role of Jekyll/Hyde. Dick Smith's Hyde makeup accentuates Palance's already unique, chiseled features, making him look like a Satanic prince. Palance clearly relishes the role and bounces all over the sets with an animal physicality,  brandishing his sword-cane, howling with glee as he beats up assorted London low-lifes, and racing through dark back alleys, his cloak flapping behind him.  (According to the IMDb entry, the role was a bit too physical.  Palance broke his arm in one of the chase scenes -- sharp-eyed viewers will note that he uses only one arm in later scenes.)

Palance also hits just the right notes as Jekyll (which is not necessarily easy, as Palance looks pretty intimidating even as the refined Dr. Jekyll). The character traces a sort of bell curve through the film-- anxious and under attack by his colleagues at the beginning, intoxicated by Hyde's perverse joie de vivre in the middle, and worn out and hopeless at the end. He is a true addict. At one point, he tells his friend Devlin (Denholm Elliott), "Hyde has no hold over me. Whenever I want to get rid of him… [downs the rest of his drink] … I can do it just like that." Spoken like a true junkie.

Jack Palance as Mr. Hyde looks dashing and diabolical
Mr. Hyde has his sword-cane ready for muggers and
other assorted London low-lifes.
The other star of the show is the production design. Art Director Trevor Williams takes some Toronto locations and sound stages and turns them into a very dark, very convincing London. The costumes, the dance hall, Jekyll's lab -- all are impressive for a TV production and seem to have been meticulously researched. It's a shame that the whole thing was shot on videotape -- a true film treatment would have looked spectacular.

There's one bit of business that's almost a throwaway, but adds to the authenticity of the Victorian London setting and is chilling in its own way. As a constable walks along the darkened street, he looks up at a lighted window, from which a woman's screams are emanating (Hyde is beating his dance hall companion). He pauses, then vaguely smiles and walks on. No prosecutions for domestic violence in this Victorian-era London!!

Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows and Kolchak: The Night Stalker fame produced. Fans of either or both will immediately recognize the signature soundtrack. I was a big Dark Shadows fan at the time, and I remember counting down the days to the debut of Curtis' Jekyll and Hyde on network television. I wasn't disappointed. The Emmy's were similarly impressed that year, giving it 4 nominations, including Best Dramatic Program. It's held up remarkably well, and is worth tracking down.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

"It has been said that many men have found their way from the valley of violence to the palace of wisdom. But if all men must learn wisdom tomorrow from violence today, then who can expect that there will be a tomorrow?"

November 17, 2012

Klaatu's Funny Uncle

The Cosmic Man (1959) poster
Now Playing: The Cosmic Man (1959)

Pros: Intelligent script celebrates science; Bruce Bennett is interesting and credible in the lead role
Cons: Bottom-of-the-barrel effects; Minimal excitement

I know as a fan of '50s sci-fi that I am supposed to love and revere The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but there's one small catch… I don't. There, I said it. I don't own a copy, I don't go out of my way to catch it when it's shown on TCM, and I haven't seen it in years. I remember as a kid being impressed with the saucer landing in beautiful Washington D.C., the space-suited alien slowly emerging from the craft, the nervous soldier shooting the figure, and then, best of all, Gort the robot vaporizing all the military equipment. Then it went on a long, slow downhill slide from there. It got all talky and serious and moralistic, like an overeager parent trying to steer you through puberty and sell you on the importance of eating vegetables all in one long, excruciating lecture.

Klaatu and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Klaatu tells the people of Earth: "Be more like me or die!"
Even though I was a dumb kid, I just didn't trust or like the Michael Rennie Klaatu character. While the film tries to convince you that this guy is wise and compassionate and all-knowing, to me he comes off as slick and self-righteous. I mean really -- what kind of person invades your turf, then says that if you don't play by his rules, he'll kill you?
"It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."
That's not tough love, that's sociopathic. In decent, red-blooded '50s sci-fi like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), we booted jerks like this off our planet without getting all mushy over what wonderful, advanced beings they might be.  In the words of Earth vs.' General Edmunds: "When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don't meet him with tea and cookies!" (On the other hand, sometimes it really was better to think first and shoot later when encountering an alien threat, as we shall see shortly.)

I think the primary reason for Day's sterling reputation over the years is that it's got a supposed highfalutin' message for mainstream movie fans who wouldn't normally touch sci-fi with a ten-foot tractor beam -- flying saucers and giant robots with death rays coming out of their faceplates are marginally acceptable as long as there's a moral to the story. And many true-blue classic sci-fi fans have somehow been browbeaten by the rest of society into giving this thing way more credit than it deserves.

By contrast, The Cosmic Man, with a plot that's more than a little reminiscent of Day, gets absolutely no credit at all. This thing is about as obscure as low-budget '50s sci-fi can get. So obscure in fact, that even I hadn't seen it until just a week ago. There's no real mystery to its uncelebrated status:  it's in-your-face cheap; the effects are minimal; the Cosmic Man (in human disguise) looks like somebody's funny great-uncle; and it's slow-paced and talky.

Even the great chronicler of classic '50s sci-fi, Bill Warren -- a guy who made it his business to see every forlorn, forgotten sci-fi film that ever existed -- had not seen The Cosmic Man when the first edition of his exhaustive Keep Watching the Skies! was published in the mid-'80s (McFarland, 1986). He managed however to write 6 tightly-spaced pages on the film, apparently from reading contemporary reviews and press releases and talking to people who had seen it. In spite of only knowing about it second-hand, he wasn't above passing judgment:
"Although something can be said for the makers of The Cosmic Man apparently having the desire to make something a little different from the usual story of invaders, their lack of skill apparently made the film dull, and the lack of originality made it too familiar."
The military tries to cut open the Cosmic Man's spacecraft
This "golf ball" from outer space is the film's
most sophisticated effect.
Fortunately, The Cosmic Man is now available on DVD and through online streaming (see below), and we don't have to just take Bill's word for it. IMHO, Warren's blind assessment gets it half right. There's no cool giant robot to liven things up. The best effect is a spaceship that looks like a giant golf ball suspended in mid-air. The second best effect is the Cosmic Man in a hood and cloak, printed in the negative, then superimposed to make him look like a being who's half in this universe and half somewhere else. It's dull in spots and cloyingly sentimental in others. And it borrows liberally from a number of films, most notably The Day the Earth Stood Still. In spite of its defects, The Cosmic Man does manage to set itself apart from the typical run of '50s B sci-fi by actually celebrating science and scientists, instead of indulging in the same old science run-amok clichés, with scientists portrayed as either naive or demented or both.

The story is simple (dictated by the ultra-low budget). Military radar picks up a UFO traveling at impossibly fast speeds. Soon, a mysterious white sphere is discovered suspended above the ground in a remote canyon. The military acts quickly to seal the area off, but not before a local lodge owner, Kathy Grant (Angela Greene) arrives at the scene and wants to know what's going on. Kathy is a Korean war widow with a precocious son Ken (Scotty Morrow), who has some unspecified affliction and is confined to a wheelchair. Of course she's a very attractive blonde (aren't they all?). Col. Matthews (Paul Langton) of military intelligence takes an immediate shine to the attractive widow, and swears her to secrecy.

The craft is uncomfortably close to a number of military installations. The general in charge (Herbert Lytton) wants to call in a noted physicist at nearby Pacific Tech University, Karl Sorenson (Bruce Bennett), to help with the investigation. Matthews is skeptical about bringing civilians in, but follows orders. Meanwhile, the locals are terrorized by a creepy, shadowy figure. Sorenson's lab is broken into, and a problematic equation for an ion propulsion project is corrected by an invisible hand. The military installations in the area also report break-ins.

A mysterious visitor (John Carradine) shows up at the lodge.
You'd think an advanced alien civilization would have heard of
contact lenses or laser eye surgery!
An odd-looking man dressed in a trench coat, hat, and thick glasses shows up at Kathy's lodge, wanting a room where he won't be disturbed. She assumes he's one of the scientists called in by the military. Neither the military or the civilian scientists are having any luck figuring out the sphere. It can't be cut with the most advanced torches, and it can't be moved with even the heaviest equipment. Sorenson has a theory that the craft converts light into energy, and he rigs up some equipment to try to tap into the sphere's energy, unleashing a tremendous sonic explosion in the process. Alarmed, the military calls in yet another scientist, Dr. Steinholtz (Hal Torey), to destroy the thing by surrounding it with a magnetic field. Sorenson preaches caution, to no avail.

The military and civilian types gather at Kathy's lodge to talk strategy. Suddenly the lights go out, and a black silhouette confronts the bewildered humans. The Cosmic Man makes a Klaatu-like speech revealing that the earth has been visited many times by interstellar neighbors, and that science, not fear, will enable earth people to join the community of the "free cosmos":
 "… I will speak to those of you who have expressed words and thoughts of understanding. You Dr. Sorenson, are engaged in a difficult field of endeavor-- you search for truth in a society that fears the truth. But you and others like you are the hope of the world. You must hold to your convictions, you must continue your work-- the fate of your civilization will become your responsibility."
Thankfully, this alien visitor is not one to threaten the planet with incineration if earthmen don't play by his rules. Still frightened by a creature with obviously superior technology, the military men give Steinholtz the go-ahead to disable the sphere with magnetic fields. Sorenson and his assistant rush to prevent them from possibly starting an interstellar war...

The peaceful nature of the Cosmic Man and the salute to science as mankind's best hope is certainly different for this type of B sci-fi. Not only that, but the leading characters are surprisingly adult and multidimensional. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The military men put up a brave front, but are clearly frightened by the unknown. Sorenson admits that there's much he doesn't know, and that he could be wrong about the Cosmic Man's intentions. The tension between the military men and the civilians is very plausible, but in the end, neither side really wins the day for humanity. This really goes against the formula grain for a cold war sci-fi programmer. Compare, for example, to Howard Hawks' highly regarded The Thing from Another World (1951), wherein a well-meaning but hopelessly naive scientist gets pulverized trying to communicate with the alien, while the wise-cracking guys in bomber jackets heroically save everyone's keisters.

Credit Arthur C. Pierce, a WWII Navy combat photographer, with a story that humanizes everyone, and steers clear of the same old "military good, civilians and scientists naive" cold war claptrap. (Pierce also contributed the screenplay to the Swedish-U.S. co-production Terror in the Midnight Sun, reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) The undisputed king of B sci-fi actors, John Carradine, has little to do but show up for a couple of brief scenes in a trench coat and coke bottle glasses, and lend his resonant voice for the Cosmic Man's climactic speech. As hammy as John was in this later stage of his marathon career, I never get tired seeing him in these roles, however small.

Bruce Bennett as Dr. Karl Sorenson
Dr. Sorenson (Bruce Bennett) listens with rapt
attention to the unearthly visitor.
Bruce Bennett is dignified and quietly competent as Sorenson. A star athlete in the 1928 Olympics, Bennett (born Herman Brix), lost out to Johnny Weissmuller for the role of MGM's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), but he ended up playing the role anyway in an independently produced serial, The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935). He played in dozens of B movies through the '40s and '50s. According to Bill Warren, he retired temporarily from acting in the early '60s and made a lot of money in real estate (Ibid.). His best known role is Cody, the lone wolf prospector who tries to horn in on the gold action in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Sorenson/Bennett has a line that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago-- perhaps especially so for a 21st century society that seems increasingly predisposed to rejecting science and the higher pursuit of knowledge in favor of superstition and make-a-quick-buck hucksterism.
"It's seems to be a common problem today, everybody's afraid of scientists… they seem to feel we know some sort of deep dark secret about the mysteries of life… Really, they're not afraid of what the scientists know, they're afraid of what they themselves don't know. All we're trying to do is find the answers to a lot of questions."

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

"Power beyond anything human! Terror from a world beyond!"

November 10, 2012

A Brain is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Spanish language poster for The Brain (1962)
Now Playing: The Brain (1962)

Pros: Interesting melding of a crime thriller with sci-fi; Dark and moody with eccentric characters
Cons: Wooden acting by the lead; Straight-up sci-fi / horror fans will be disappointed

I'm not sure why, but lately I've been on a living head / living brain kick. A few months ago I did a quick survey of the curious "living head" sci-fi subgenre of the '50s and '60s. Before that, I wrote about the greatly under-appreciated The Colossus of New York (1958), wherein a brilliant scientist has his brain transplanted into a robot body, resulting in some unexpected -- and cheesily fun -- consequences.

Not to keep beating a dead horse, but as science and cybernetics grind relentlessly toward that day when we can finally preserve the brain (or our living consciousness) outside of these shells we call bodies, perhaps we need to revisit that ancient mind-body debate -- what is it that truly makes us… us? Is the core of our being in the brain, with all the electrical activity that produces conscious thought (and that unique personality that is all you), or is there more to us than just that one, albeit very vital, part? Is the body also an essential part of what is you? What about the soul? Does it even exist? If it does, does it need a body? Laugh at moldy old B movies like Colossus and The Brain That Wouldn't Die all you want, but they actually attempt to address these issues in offbeat and entertaining ways.

The obscure UK-German co-production The Brain (1962) presents its own quirky take on this existential subject in its relatively spare 83 minute run time. The Brain (and its source novel, Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak) posits that, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the living brain abhors being bodiless. So much so, that, given time, it will develop frightening telepathic and telekinetic powers to procure the needed body. After all, what good is pure thought without the physical means to back it up? And if that pure thought just happened to belong to a powerful, implacable multimillionaire used to having his own way, you can imagine how pissed he'd be to find himself reduced to a mass of brain matter plopped into a glass jar with some electrodes attached.

In Siodmak's original 1942 novel and the best-known film adaptation, Donovan's Brain (1953; with Lew Ayres, Gene Evans and Nancy Davis), Donovan is a monster who uses his telepathic powers to carry on with his evil deeds and eliminate his enemies. The Brain (and an earlier predecessor, The Lady and the Monster, 1944) takes a different tack, wherein the disembodied magnate exercises mind control to investigate his own murder and right some wrongs (or at least that's what I gather from the synopsis -- I've never seen the 1944 adaptation).

Holt's brain bides its time in its glass prison
"I ain't got no body..."
In The Brain, the Donovan character is named Max Holt. At the beginning of the film, Holt is traveling on an incredibly spacious and well-appointed private plane, doing the usual international financier thing -- barking orders at assistants and being generally grumpy. We never see Holt's face, but we do see one of his quirks in closeup -- when he's deep in thought or agitated, he drums his thumb repeatedly against anything that's handy (make a note, it will be important later).

Just as Holt begins dictating into a tape recorder, we see an exterior shot of the plane, and an explosion. Cut to the crash site, where Doctors Peter Corrie and Frank Shears (Peter van Eyck and Bernard Lee, respectively) are inspecting the scene for survivors. It seems their research lab, where they've been doing some interesting work with monkey brains, is nearby, and naturally they've been called out to the site to help (never mind that after a mid-air explosion and crash, there wouldn't be much left to help with).

Miraculously, there's enough left of Holt to scrape up and take back to the lab -- but no time to take him to the hospital (uh-huh). Just as Corrie and Shears are ready to pronounce the financier dead, they spot evidence of brain activity. The somewhat-less-than-ethical Corrie is excited by the prospect of finally being able to experiment with a human brain, while at the same time saving a life (in a manner of speaking). He persuades his decidedly reluctant surgeon colleague to help him extract the brain from Holt's completely broken and rapidly fading body. Little does he know that he'll soon be in the employ, so to speak, of the determined rich man who refuses to die.

Corrie devises a system that activates a light over the tank whenever Holt's brain is "awake." "Every thought has it's own signature," he tells his beautiful lab assistant Ella (Ellen Schwiers). That night, Corrie can't sleep. He wanders downstairs, seemingly lost in thought, and pauses over the tank holding Holt's brain. As he shuffles away in the darkened room the brain-activity light comes on, eerily illuminating the disembodied grey matter floating in the tank. Corrie soon finds himself at his desk, pondering the microphone from Holt's dictation machine that was recovered from the crash. He starts to write on a sheet of paper, but then switches the pen from his right hand to his left!

Dr. Corrie and the blackmailer
"You took his brain... what will they say when they dig him up again?"
The result is a list of names, followed by Max Holt's signature. Corrie has no recollection of writing the list. Shears points out that Holt was left handed… could telepathy be at work here? Things start getting interesting pretty quickly. Corrie is visited by a mortuary assistant (Jack MacGowran) who noticed that Holt's body was missing something rather important after its brief stay in Corrie's lab, and he tries to blackmail the scientist. Rumors swirl that an explosion brought down Holt's plane. Corrie, exhibiting more of Holt's mannerisms (including the nervous tick with the thumb), pays a visit to the tycoon's family -- daughter Anna (Anne Heywood), son Martin (Jeremy Spenser), and Holt's lawyer, Stevenson (Cecil Parker). All of their names, among others, are on the list Corrie wrote in his midnight daze. It soon becomes apparent that it's a list of suspects, and that a "dead man" is investigating his own murder through the body of the scientist who recovered his brain and is keeping it alive.

Although it was filmed in England and more than half the cast is British, this dark, moody British-German co-production is more reminiscent of the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace crime thrillers ("krimis") that were so popular in Germany in the 1960s. Peter van Eyck in the lead role of Corrie/Holt gives The Brain a decidedly Teutonic tilt: he played in several of the Dr. Mabuse films of the 1960s, including The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), Dr. Mabuse vs. Scotland Yard (1963), and The Secret of Dr. Mabuse (1964). Unfortunately, van Eyck is pretty wooden throughout the film, thus undercutting the menace and intrigue of a character in the grip of a powerful telepathic brain. James Bond fans will immediately recognize Bernard Lee in the Frank Shears role -- that very same year he would appear as 'M' in the first Bond movie, Dr. No (and reprise the role in 9 more Bond films after that).

Martin's unflattering portrait of his father
You'd better do everything this man tells you to --
telepathically or not!
The other stand-out cast member is Jeremy Spenser as Holt's spoiled and dissolute son Martin. When Corrie, under the influence of Holt, meets the family and Holt's lawyer for the first time, Martin glibly encourages everyone to lift a drink in celebration of his father's death. He relates that he had painted an absolutely hideous portrait of his hated authoritarian father, but was surprised when the old man insisted on displaying it prominently in his office. Later, Martin takes Corrie back to his studio where he shows him more paintings of surrealistic monsters, which he says are all portraits, of a sort, of his father:
Martin: I became a painter, because I couldn't think of anything that would annoy my father more.
Corrie: Did you succeed?
Martin: Oh yes, I succeeded. I wanted to be as unlike him as I possibly could. He was a great, busy beast of prey… so I decided to be innocently useless.
Freddie Francis, the Oscar-winning cinematographer turned horror and sci-fi film director, keeps things moving nicely in a shadowy, "Dr. Mabuse meets Donovan's Brain" fantasy world. Not long after this film, he directed a couple of decent psychological thrillers for Hammer, Paranoiac (with Oliver Reed, 1963) and Nightmare (1964). He also had a go at both Frankenstein and Dracula for Hammer (The Evil of Frankenstein, 1964 and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, 1968). In addition, he directed some of the better Amicus horror anthologies, including Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and Tales from the Crypt (1972). (See also my post on another of Francis' creepy directorial outings, The Creeping Flesh, 1973.)

I won't go so far as to say that if you see just one adaptation of Siodmak's Donovan's Brain, this should be it. But if you're a fan of the dark, film-noirish German "krimis," your brain will thank you for tracking it down.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Trash Palace (Rare Sci-fi and Fantasy Movies)

Available online

Amazon Instant Video