Monday, September 8, 2008

The Atomic Brain (Monstrosity) (Independent, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode from early in Mike Nelson’s tenure as host (in fact, the very next show after Beginning of the End) based on a 1964 movie called The Atomic Brain, though according to its theatrical release title was Monstrosity (actually better in terms of conveying what the movie is about). The plot deals with multimillionairess Hetty March (Marjorie Eaton, top-billed and the only genuinely talented actor of either gender in the film: she was in Zombies of Mora Tau and stood out in that cast, too), who’s quite old and is keeping an over-the-hill gigolo named Victor (Frank Fowler). She’s also subsidizing a mad scientist, Dr. Otto Frank (Frank Gerstle) — were we supposed to think, à la Frankenstein’s Daughter, that his real name was Frankenstein? — who’s built a fully functioning nuclear reactor (which looks like an outdoor privy with a dry-ice machine on the floor to indicate when it’s working) in her basement and is using it to do a series of experiments transplanting animal brains into the skulls of recently deceased humans.

Her intent in bankrolling these bizarre experiments is to keep herself alive indefinitely by having him transplant her brain into a young woman’s body, and so she’ll have a suitable body for this purpose she has Victor write letters to employment agencies in three countries to send them girls to work as maids, with the threat of being deported if they cause trouble. The girls are Bea Mullins (Judy Bamber) from Britain, Nina Rhodes (Erika Peters) from Austria and Anita Gonzalez (Lisa Lang) from an unspecified Latin American country (or if they specified it, I missed it — I nodded off a lot during this film) — and the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew was especially savage in their mockery of Judy Bamber’s inability to maintain a consistent British accent, sometimes sounding like Eliza Doolittle at one end of her transformation and sometimes sounding like her at the other.

The Atomic Brain was actually a movie that even on a “B” budget had real potential: the central premise is legitimately frightening, Marjorie Eaton’s performance has real depth and pathos, and with someone like Edgar G. Ulmer (who had previously worked with the film’s producer, Jack Pollexfen, on the interesting The Man from Planet “X”) at the helm this could have been quite an exciting, suspenseful film with good shock moments. Instead, the script (by Pollexfen, Dean Dillman, Jr., Sue Dwiggins and Vy Russell, all of whom were also named as producers) is messy and ill-constructed, and the actual director, Joseph V. Mascelli (the cinematographer on one of the legendary bad movies, Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies), is slovenly in the extreme, cutting directly from the appealingly Gothic sets of Hetty March’s house (which the MST3K crew likened to the Selznick International Pictures building) to the airport where the three girls have just arrived in the U.S. and leaving us to wonder, “Who the hell are they?”

The movie is saddled with an incredibly pretentious narration, delivered by Bradford Dillman (uncredited), who seems to have more actual talking time on the soundtrack than all the officially billed actors combined. Even by the standards of MST3K this is a really stupid movie — and the fact that it wastes a potentially good premise and an excellent performance by Marjorie Eaton only makes it that much more obnoxious — though it inspired the crew to an excellent performance of their own, with rapid-fire jokes and a neat bit in which they warbled the opening of the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as the plane carrying the three transplant-pigeons to the U.S. flies into view on the screen. The ending is really ridiculous: the vengeful Dr. Frank puts Hetty’s brain into the body of her pet cat, then the cat locks him inside his own reactor and he dies as it goes critical and consumes the house (à la the ending of the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, which seems like hard-edged realism compared to this!), and then Bea escapes while the cat chases her … and meanwhile there’s also a previous monster from Dr. Frank’s workings, a person of indeterminate gender (I thought it was supposed to be a man but the credits indicate s/he was played by one Margie Fisco — so maybe we were supposed to think this was the movie world’s first Transgender monster) who got the brain of a dog and started acting in canine fashion (or, more accurately, in were-dog fashion) and randomly killing off some of the other cast members.

I’d expected a film called The Atomic Brain to be an inept “B” about a super-computer run on nuclear power that goes crazy and tries to conquer the world, not a stupid “B” about a rich psychopath hoping that funding the development of brain-transplant technology will help her stay young forever!