Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Brain from Planet Arous (Howco International, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Brain from Planet Arous, which we actually watched before Missile to the Moon, proved to be a real disappointment: too mediocre to be effective as a genuine sci-fi thriller and not bad enough to be entertaining as camp. The premise of this one is that the beings on the planet Arous have become pure intellect and their bodies have been reduced so the only part that remains are free-floating brains, which look like giant “brain” balloons (they have two normal-looking eyes set in the front of their otherwise brain-like grey matter). Two of Arous’ brain-people make it to earth; one is an evil brain called Gor with designs on conquering the universe, while the other is Val, part of the brain police (finally answering the question Frank Zappa asked in one of his best early songs, “Who Are the Brain Police?” — incidentally Sting wanted to name his band the Brain Police but Frank Zappa threatened to sue, so they achieved fame simply as The Police) who follows Gor to earth to capture and/or kill him. Gor takes possession of the body of nuclear physicist Steve March (John Agar, once again trying to copy the vocal tics and mannerisms of his good friend John Wayne for a part ridiculously unsuited to them) on the eve of a major nuclear test in the Nevada desert. March announces to the government officials in charge of the test that he’s going to give them a demonstration of his powers that will be more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — and he follows through by using his new-found mental powers to get an airliner to blow itself to pieces in mid-air. During the extreme close-ups of March using Gor’s mental energy to blow up planes and vaporize people (including his former assistant Dan Murphy, played by Robert Fuller — whom it’s a pity to lose so early because he’s not only the cutest guy in the film, he’s also its best actor) it looks like John Agar is wearing spectacularly ill-fitting contact lenses to make it look like his eyes are bulging out. According to one “trivia” poster on, that’s exactly how the special effects were done!

March demonstrates his powers by blowing up all the model houses and people constructed in the desert to test the effects of the bomb — the tests really were done with models to see how destructive the bombs would be, and this footage was readily available both in newsreels and in movies like the unspeakably bad Mickey Rooney vehicle for Republic, The Atomic Kid (ah, how the mighty had fallen!). When I saw these clips — first in the trailer (included here as a bonus item) and then in the film itself — I joked, “Special effects by the U.S. government!” The sight of the toy buildings blowing up before they were supposed to causes the world’s governments to yield to March’s demand that they convene a meeting of plenipotentiary representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, India and China (“Which China?” Charles joked) so he can present his demands to them — and when the meeting occurs March informs them that the entire earth’s population will become slave laborers to build spaceships so he can create an invasion fleet that will conquer the universe on his (Gor’s) behalf. Meanwhile Val, the cop-brain sent from Arous to catch or destroy Gor the crook-brain, has a meeting with the only two people with any apparent connection to March: his girlfriend Sally Fallon (Joyce Meadows) and her father John (Thomas Browne Henry). They talk about who Val can take over so he can have a human body in order to catch Gor, but instead of imposing his will on either of the people he ends up taking over March’s dog. Val explains to the Fallons that every 24 hours or so Gor has to leave March’s body to replenish his oxygen supply (why he can’t supply himself oxygen through the same normal respiration process that March used to sustain his normal human-born brain is not explained by writer Ray Buffum), and once he does this he can be killed by a blow across the fissure of Rolando, the seam down the middle of the brain. It’s helpfully illustrated in a copy of the Encyclopedia Americana from which Sally tears out the relevant page and leaves it with a note so March will know how to kill his malevolent brain-possessor once it leaves his body and becomes a brain-guy again. March takes up the opportunity and grabs an ax, though he keeps flamboyantly missing the brain by so much it’s hard to understand exactly how Gor does die — but he does, Val heads back to Arous with his mission accomplished and the world is safe for niceness ever after.

Probably the most frightening part of The Brain from Planet Arous is the make-up credit to Jack P. Pierce (the Frankenstein monster’s, the Wolf-Man’s and the Mummy’s creator — once again, how the mighty had fallen!); other than that it’s a barely competent sci-fi movie that takes a preposterous premise and makes it at least halfway believable. The biggest problem with it is the risible appearance of the brains (plural) from planet Arous — especially Gor bobbing around at the end on wires like a particularly nasty helium balloon sold for Hallowe’en — but John Agar’s acute limitations as an actor (to put it politely) also hurt the film. Delivered with the panache and élan of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, March’s lines when he’s announcing his Gor-driven intentions to conquer the universe would sound positively chilling; out of the mouth of a bland screen presence like John Agar, whose only hint of dramatic expression was to try to sound like John Wayne, they just sound like the ravings of a harmless lunatic. The Brain from Planet Arous was directed by Nathan Juran, though on this occasion (and on some others when he was similarly embarrassed by the quality, or lack of same, of the script he was given) he used his middle name and had himself credited as Nathan Hertz. (Juran, under his actual name, worked on such sci-fi and fantasy spectaculars as The Black Castle, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, though the main reason one would watch The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is the still-impressive effects work by the recently departed Ray Harryhausen, proving for all time that given enough artistry and patience stop-motion animation can still hold its own against CGI for believability and spectacle.) The director formerly known as Juran does his best with an impossibly silly script and an actor who can’t rise even to its limited challenges, but The Brain from Planet Arous plods through 71 minutes of running time and, as I noted at the outset, isn’t good enough to be entertaining as drama and isn’t bad enough to be entertaining as camp either. One noteworthy aspect of this film is it was released by Howco International, whose name derived from its owner, Joy Houck — at a time when it was a rarity for a woman to be involved as a CEO or top executive of any film company, even a cheap-jack outfit like this! [Actually Joy Houck was a man — and to make it worse, he named his own son Joy Houck, Jr.!]