Joseph Green’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) is an absolute gem of trash cinema – ferocious and ridiculous in equal measure, with the sensibility of those 1950s horror comics (it was apparently filmed well before release) that imitated the comparatively subtle EC titles with demented glee. It has mad scientists, strippers, a living severed head, a monster in the closet, ripped-off limbs, cars with fins, a cat-fight, general sordidness, and a lot of ranting. It’s a one-off, but has inspired one or two gonzo filmmakers – Frank Henenlotter comes to mind and the Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator – and even added the head-on-a-table trope to the brain-in-a-bottle sub-genre, as seen in They Saved Hitler’s Brain, The Head, The Frozen Dead and Re-Animator.
Derek Carl’s remake is the Gus Van Sant’s Psycho of fringe cinema, in colour and with a few new jokes – the knock-out drug administered to exotic dancers is ‘cosbynol’, and there’s a sweet musical cue lifted from The Man With Two Brains – but as close as the makers can manage to the style of the original, though of course this means more knowing performances … Carl’s cast are trying to be funny after the manner of the players in Larry Blamire’s films (and mostly succeeding) rather than giving their all and hoping no one sees the results, and the pastiche effects – heavy on rich red blood – lack the disturbing raw wound unsightliness that makes Green’s film still a shocker for all its crudities and lapses.
Dr Bill Cortner (Patrick D. Green) – or Courtner as it’s occasionally spelled in the film – is a stridently megalomaniacal young genius surgeon, who has been experimenting with grafting, transplanting and monster-assemblage since college, when he was responsible for the accident that led to his minion Kurt (Jason Reynolds) losing an arm he’s replaced with a tangled knot of flesh (with fingernails – a lone disturbing touch). Now, his mix of mad science and carelessness causes a car accident in which his sweet fiancee Jan (Rachael Perrell Fosket) is decapitated. Cortner keeps Jan’s head alive, despite her (many) complaints – Fosket, who was well down the cast in Roland Emmerich’s Midway, emotes considerably, despite what must have been uncomfortably limitations on her performance, and is the best thing in the movie.
Dr Bill trawls the city, checking out strippers and figure models for a fresh body he can sew the head onto … but Jan has an understandable personality change and develops an ability to exert psychic control over others (a steal from Donovan’s Brain, the ur-text of this sort of thing), which means that the thing in the closet (Alex Tiefenthaler) does her bidding when the time comes for the whole experiment to backfire gruesomely. It’s a labour of love that feels a lot like those occasional musical mountings of classic splatter movies where the front rows of the audience are given plastic rain ponchos.