I’ve been in radio silence for a while. No theater to see, obviously, and I’ve already conveyed my irritation with the Netflix binge-watching experience. Lately I’ve spent more time mining the old-movie archives on services like Amazon and Turner Classic Movies. It was nice to rewatch The Best Years of Our Lives, which TCM aired on Memorial Day evening, and I’m catching up with some of the lesser works of auteurist favorites like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray — though I can’t say I’ve discovered any neglected gems from those interesting but erratic filmmakers.
Then, out of sheer boredom, I clicked on a film that popped up recently on TCM’s list of on-demand offerings: a cheesy horror film called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. I grew up watching lurid cheapies like this on late-night television — crudely made, often laughable horror films like Attack of the Crab Monsters, Creature from the Haunted Sea, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. This one was new to me, and it was something of a revelation. I do believe I have discovered the worst movie ever made.
The warning signs are all there. The film was apparently shot in 1959, but not released (at gunpoint, I presume) until 1962. The director is one Joseph Green, who has only one other film in his credits, something called The Perils of P.K., which gets an even lower score on IMDB’s user ratings. The film’s budget was estimated at $62,000, and it’s hard to see where the money went. The sets are bare-bones, and the editing barely coherent, full of jarring jump cuts and mismatched closeups. Some scenes appear to have been pasted together from silent or stock footage, with a tacky music track laid on. In other scenes, the dialogue is so tinny it sounds like it’s coming from a transistor radio.
The plot is no sillier than many sci-films of the era; a surgeon (Jason Evers) with a knack for reanimating dead body parts manages to save the severed head of his fiancée after a fiery car crash, keeps it alive in his laboratory, then sets out to find a body to attach to it. But the technical and logical inanities are striking even for this dumb genre. After getting thrown from the car in the crash, the doctor returns to the flaming wreckage, reaches in with his overcoat and pulls out the severed head as if he were retrieving a misplaced bowling ball — not a drop of blood, and, once she’s set up in the lab, still made up like a Helena Rubenstein model. The doctor’s hunt for a new body becomes a tawdry, ‘50s-exploitation-pic jaunt through strip clubs, street pickups, and a local “Miss Body Beautiful” contest. There’s a catfight between two strippers that is punctuated by a bizarre shot of two cat figurines and an off-screen “meow!” And I haven’t even mentioned the panicky lab assistant with a withered arm (the result of one of the doctor’s experiments gone awry), or the deformed ogre (another of the doc’s misfires) hidden away in a padlocked closet, with a viewing window just large enough for the monster to reach out and grab the assistant and tear off his other arm.
The only anomaly in the grade-Z production is the presence of Virginia Leith as the head-without-a-body. She was an actress of some promise in the mid-1950s— co-starring in Stanley Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire, as well as a few reputable 20th Century Fox B-pictures — and it’s frightening to contemplate the depths to which her career must have sunk in order to accept this role. Still, given the limited range potential of playing a head on a table, she’s actually not bad — pleading to be allowed to die, while establishing a conspiratorial bond with the ogre in the closet (who gets his big reveal at the end, sporting a makeup job that looks like a second grader’s clay project).
Yet The Brain That Wouldn’t Die gave me more pleasure than almost anything else I’ve seen in the past few weeks. Not just because of the unintended laughs, but for the nostalgic reminder of a kind of brazen amateurishness that has all but disappeared from the movies. We’re in the age of YouTube and TikTok and all sorts of do-it-yourself video, but the idea that something so mindless and technically inept could actually be produced by Hollywood professionals and released in real motion-picture theaters is a little startling. You can’t have fun like that anymore.