There is one celebrity gag in It Came from Hollywood that made me laugh, rather than sigh heavily. And that is when Dan Ackroyd bursts through some double doors, wearing surgical scrubs and a semi-Vincent Price moustache. He was also carrying in his hands a human brain, which he then proceeded to thrust at the camera while screeching, "Look! A Brain! Eek! A Brain!" It's funny, because it's true: here is Bad Movie Philosophy in a nutshell.
What the hell is it about brains? We learn about them in health class, along with all the other organs that slosh around inside us. As a lifelong horror fan, I've seen a lot of innards tossed around, and they do rank on a kind of ooky-ometer: kidneys get sort of an eh, intestines a eew, hearts an eeeEEEEeeewww! (especially if still beating) and the liver a do they really jiggle that much? But nothing beats the superstitious dread summoned up by the brain. While all the other organs seem slimy, the brain seems sorta gooey; the others smooth and honest and proletarian, the brain all crinkly and duplicitous and alien. Perhaps it is the brain's function as receptacle of what is qualifiably us, possibly the very seat of our souls, that gives the brain this mythic power; place a brain on a table in the center of a room and just stare at it - yeah, right, it may be dead, but there's always a niggling little voice in the back of your head that's pretty sure it's still thinking. Probably about you.
Thus there are a whole slew of movies that are content to simply shriek at us, "Look! A Brain! Eek! A Brain!" Most crap movie aficionados can come up with four or five titles without a single wrinkle touching their brows. There's at least two horror movies that claim to be about brains, but are really about heads (The Brain That Wouldn't Die, and They Saved Hitler's Brain, the big cheaters). Come on: I defy anyone to name me a movie of quality that features a naked brain. Anybody? Anyone?
Good. If you had, I would have insisted you leave. Now let's get on with The Brain from Planet Arous.
The movie starts with a picturesque view of a mountain in a desert vista. What appears to be an abnormally bright star grows in intensity - and size - as the credits roll. The first credit is "Howco International Presents..." causing a moment of deja vu for me. Hm... desert... Howco... now where have I.... wait.... was it.......Mesa of Lost Women!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! NOOOOOOOOOOOO! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
Sorry. I had a bit of a Blair Witch moment there. Well, actually, had it been a Blair Witch moment, it would have been:
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! NOOOOOOOOOOOO! F*CK! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! F*CK! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
Okay, I think to myself, Okay... calm down. We can do this. I'm not alone. I've got six other sites backing me up on this. So I continue to watch as the star moves across the mountain and lands with a great explosion.
Later, 'nuclear scientist' Steve Marsh (John Agar) is puzzled by intermittent bursts of radiation emanating from "Mystery Mountain" (another open call: does any place in the world other than Scooby Doo Land actually possess a 'Mystery Mountain'?) Taking leave of his fiancee, Sally (Joyce Meadows), he and his assistant Dan (the likable Robert Fuller) pack their desert gear and head out for the source of the bursts.
Finding a new tunnel freshly blasted into the mountain, the two scientists journey ever deeper into the earth, enticed by flashes of light where there should be none. Finally, in a dead end cave, they are confronted by the title character, a ghostly image of a huge floating brain with glowing eyes. It introduces itself as Gor from the Planet Arous, who has ventured to Earth to lord it over us savages. Step one involves killing Dan with a burst of gamma rays, Step Two is shrinking itself down and entering the body of Steve, a process which looks like it hurts.
When Steve shows up at Sally's house a few days later, he's acting just a bit... off. When Sally asks where Dan is, his reply is a guilty, muttered "Oh, he went to Vegas...", then a kiss nearly turns to rape, with Steve actually tearing at her clothes; the attack is only stopped when Sally's dog, George, jumps Steve. Steve leaves hurriedly; when Sally's father, Mr. Fallon (Thomas Browne Henry) stops by his lab to check on Steve, the scientist melts down and yells at him to leave. As soon as he does, Gor exits his body, and starts makin' with the tauntin'. Not only is it going to take over the whole world, using Steve's body, but it really likes that Sally! Yep, having had a taste of the physical, the Brain has turned into a real horndog. Steve throws books at (and through) the insubstantial blob. It laughs, a motif which will continue throughout the picture.
Sally, convinced that something happened out there, convinces her father to come with her to Mystery Mountain. There they find Dan's corpse and yet another Brain: This one's name is Vol, and it seems to be a officer with the Brain Police. It's here to catch Gor and take him back to Arous. Trick is, Gor is invincible while it's in Steve's body or intangible - it's only vulnerable when, once every 24 hours, it has to leave Steve and become solid enough to assimilate some oxygen. Vol needs someone to ride so he can keep an eye on Gor until this happens. Both the Fallons volunteer, but it is finally decided that Vol will lurk about in the dog, George.
Steve manages to wheedle a seat at an upcoming A-bomb test; to celebrate, (on his way to the Fallons for dinner) he looks at a plane flying in the night sky and blows it up with his ghastly Brain Power. Whenever Steve uses the Brain Power, his eyes go a shiny black, the picture goes slightly out of focus, and John Agar starts laughing like a madman. When I was a child, this image fueled my nightmares for a week or so.
Trying to act normally, so as not to alert Gor, Sally goes for a moonlight drive with Steve (and George in the back seat). When caveman lust doesn't turn the trick with the lady, Steve begins telling her how things will change after tomorrow's bomb test, and promises her the world - literally (superior race, my patoot - they still can't come up with a good pick-up line).
Steve almost doesn't make it to the test when the local sheriff (Tim Graham) shows up and starts asking some hard questions about Dan's body. Gor finally decides "Oh, the hell with it" and gammas the poor schnook, then traipses off to the army base, where he finds a whole town built for the bomb to destroy (yep, you guessed it - stock footage alert!). Steve's eyes go black and he grins, causing the town to be blown apart without benefit of bomb. As Steve tells the brass in attendance to have delegates from all the major powers meet there that night, one colonel palms a .45 and starts pegging Steve, who merely laughs and quick-fries him to a crackly crunch.
Exhausted, Steve naps in Sally's backyard until the meeting that night. Vol states that Gor is using a lot of energy and will have to leave its host body soon; the Brain Cop also reveals Gor's most vulnerable point, "what you humans refer to as the Fissure of Rolando". That night, Steve demands the delegates hand over the keys to the world, and just to show he's serious, blows up another plane (and laughs. Gor sees the funny side of everything).
Sally leaves a map to the Fissure of Rolando under Steve's pipe stand, just as he returns from conquering the world. She hides as Gor leaves Steve's body and becomes solid. Unfortunately, the niche she has chosen to secret herself is also where Gor placed the Sheriff's crispy body. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!
This prompts some flying around on the part of Gor and some half-hearted gamma bursts, but Steve has read Sally's note and puts an end to all this nonsense with a fireaxe (Sorely missing: the line, "So I'm a savage, am I? EAT AXE!!!!"). Now free of Gor's control, Steve asks Sally, "How did you know about the Fissure of Rolando?" Sally calls George over and tells him to explain things to Steve, but Vol, just like the Lone Ranger, has gotten his Fissure of Rolando out of there. "Ha! Your imagination!" laughs Steve, kissing her. Hey, nuclear scientist! How about that cubic yard of gray matter sushi at your feet? Is that her imagination? The end.
My misgivings at the beginning aside, The Brain from Planet Arous is actually a pretty good little movie. The deceptively simple storyline actually opens the door for a whole lot of drama; the fact that the fate of the world depends on Sally convincing Gor that everything is normal, even as she bites back tears and revulsion, is a nifty device, and handled well by Meadows. It's a device copied, I think, from some spy movie or other, but it still makes for an intriguing tension-builder. I almost wish that Vol had taken over Sally; it would have led to some interesting, multi-layered scenes.
Mike Weldon refers to this as "the ultimate John Agar movie", and he could be right. Agar certainly has to pull off some actual acting in this, and hits the mark most of the time. If his supervillain laugh is less than effective, well, his slides from tormented scientist to smooth sociopath (in the space of a second) are, and those contact lenses must hurt like a bitch.
Director Nathan Juran delivers a solid thriller, and in only a few instances does the budget peek through. Juran directed a slew of episodes of the Irwin Allen TV shows and some of the more influential B-movies - not Citizen Kane influential, but influential as in we've all seen them and taken them to heart. Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman? Juran. Deadly Mantis? Juran. Don't hold these against him, though - he also directed what are commonly known as "Ray Harryhausen films" - The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and First Men In the Moon. He also wrote and directed what is unfairly typified as merely a Sinbad rip-off, Jack the Giant Killer. There are some nice directoral touches, as in the scene where Mr. Fallon is grilling Steve, and the struggling scientist's face is viewed through the distorting lens of a water cooler. Overt, almost ringing of film-school cleverness; I like it anyway. In another scene, as Steve blows up the mock town by simply looking out the army base's window, the venetian blinds serve to blot out all the features of Agar's face, and leave only the features which are Gor: those disturbing eyes and the madman's grin. Nicely done, Mr. Juran.
Juran, as I said, manages to conceal his dime-store budget much of the time, but the instances where he cannot are the very things that endear this movie so warmly to the Bad Movie Fan. The two plane explosions, for instance - especially the second one where we see a piece of the tail section swinging back and forth in the smoke, at the end of its wire (and there are two plane explosions??!! Did the Art Director happen to have a bunch of models lying around?* Maybe Brains just hate planes. Hate them as much as they love the hour of 8:00pm, which is the only hour Gor and Vol ever use to set appointments. Maybe it's a Brain religion thing. Where was I?) Most of the time the Brains are superimposed, transparent photographs which move in a most primitive fashion - ie, by panning the camera wihich is aimed at the photograph. When Gor is revealed as solid in the final scene, it's quite startling to suddenly see it in three dimensions, as it were - for instance, I had no idea he also sported a spinal cord - but as it attacks Sally physically (why? Still mad with Brainy lust?) we find out Gor is just a balloon wobbling about on some black wires. Oh well.
There are other bobbles, as when the otherwise desert-savvy Mr. Fallon (who accurately predicts the temperature at Mystery Mountain day in and day out) goes traipsing about in the sun without any head covering whatsoever, not even the silly pith helmets that Steve and Sally employ. There is apparently no Barney Fife in our little community, as there are no repercussions in the hours that follow the Sheriff's failure to return from questioning Steve. The American delegate certainly rolls over and plays dead quickly after Gor's little demonstration; I'd like to think my tax dollars would at least go for a sniper or two, if not detonating that nuke I just happened to have lying around in the vicinity. Cripes, get the CIA to send in some poison cigars, something! And Vol must be the Brain Cop who's always getting busted down a rank for spending too much time at the donut shop - a lot of people die while he's out sniffing fire hydrants.
But these are minor cavils, in a field where the physics of the real world are often violated needlessly and harshly - a glance around the archives of any of Brainathon's sites will net you enough dubious science, inconsistent continuity and lackadaisical storytelling to fill any number of current summer blockbusters. The Brain from Planet Arous is far, far from being the worst of the offenders. It is also fun, pure and simple, and educational to boot. If nothing else, the next time I see a massive head trauma in a movie, I can say, "Ouch! Right in the Fissure of Rolando!" and be perceived as even more intelligent by my peers. That counts for something.