Friday, March 27, 2015

The Brain Eaters (Corinthian/American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie we had recently downloaded from, though with some peculiar glitches — every so often the figures in the middle of the screen would get blurry and look like they were about to dissolve, then in a few seconds they would snap back to normal (the first time this happened was during the opening credits and at first I assumed it was a deliberate effect on the part of the original filmmakers, designed to make their movie “spacier,” but no-o-o-o-o). The film was The Brain Eaters, a 1958 release from Roger Corman’s Corinthian Productions via American International, though only one hour long, and directed by Bruno VeSota from an “original” script by Gordon Urquhart that turned out to be an uncredited semi-adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (Heinlein sued for plagiarism and the case was settled out of court). Actually the film is at least as much a ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and AIP’s other ripoff of Body Snatchers as it was of anything else. It takes place in the town of Riverdale, Illinois, where on their way to their engagement party Dr. Paul Kettering (Edwin Nelson) and his assistant and fiancée Alice Summers (Joanna Lee, who a year later appeared in Ed Wood’s messterpiece Plan Nine from Outer Space before she blessedly switched careers and became a successful writer of made-for-TV movies, including That Certain Summer, virtually the first serious treatment of homosexuality ever to make it onto American TV) discover a strange cone, 50 feet high, sticking out of the ground. It turns out to be made of a previously unknown metal impervious to all human weapons and disintegrating agents, and it contains parasites about a foot long with two white pincers in the front with which they can penetrate a human in the back of the neck and sap them of their own will, leaving them almost totally under the parasite’s control. I say “almost totally” because a few people try to fight back — including the mayor of the town, who when he realizes what’s happened to him tries to commit suicide with a gun he conveniently kept in his office, only the parasite won’t let him. As in It Conquered the World, the parasites don’t just attack random citizens; they specifically target people with some degree of political, military or scientific authority.

About midway through the film we get the big switcheroo, sort of; instead of being from outer space the craft and the parasite creatures inside it are from inside the earth — they evolved 250 million years ago during the Carboniferous Age (the one that formed all fossil fuels, narrator Robert Ball in the character of “Dan Walker” explains to us) and have now decided to take over and bring about an era of world peace and an end to violence, though like a lot of other would-be utopians from other worlds in Cold War-era science fiction they are using highly violent tactics to achieve their “nonviolent” ends. The Brain Eaters has got mostly bad press — in their books on bad movies Harry and Michael Medved said that any potential for fright was vitiated by the monster parasites looking like “fluffy bedroom slippers” (actually they were wind-up toys Edwin Nelson, who produced the movie as well as starring in it) and made fun of the ripped-off background music (mostly from Soviet-era Russian composers like Shostakovich and Prokofieff, though I clearly recognized the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde during a scene in which Dr. Kettering explores the inside of the craft — “original” composer Tom Jonson was being savvier than his colleague, scenarist Urquhart, in only ripping off people who were in the public domain in the U.S.: in Wagner’s case because he’d been dead for 75 years and in Prokofieff’s and Shostakovich’s case because Lenin had renounced intellectual property laws and whatever copyrights existed in the Soviet Union weren’t recognized here) — but the person who posted it to was clearly pushing it not as a campy-bad movie but a worthy work in its own right: “This could be considered a rip off of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World, except for something you will only discover by watching it, and it is worth watching. [This was obviously a reference to the switch that the monsters are from inside the earth, not from outer space, which impressed Charles not at all: “It’s just Pellucidar instead of Mars!,” he joked.] This is a surprisingly good little drive-in sci fi flick considering the extreme limitations of its $30,000 budget.” I’d be more likely to say that about Tom Graeff’s fascinating Teenagers from Outer Space (also available from, which is a considerably better and more thoughtful movie than The Brain Eaters. 

Not that The Brain Eaters is bad as can be; director VeSota actually does a few things right, including shooting a lot of tilted-camera shots, showing the parasites themselves mostly in half-light (I get the impression he was influenced by the less-is-more aesthetic of Val Lewton in his “B”-horror masterpieces from the 1940’s) and even showing Joanna Lee’s takeover by the things from a parasite’s P.O.V. shot. Even Urquhart’s script, as tacky and silly as it is throughout — especially in the sequence when a former scientist who has been taken over by the creatures appears as their spokesperson, made up to look like the second coming of Christ, and he’s played by Leonard Nimoy, whose last name is spelled “Nemoy” in the credits — the only actor in this who went on to a successful career, in the very science-fiction genre in which he’d previously turned up in tacky productions like this and the late Republic serial Zombies of the Stratosphere, and they couldn’t even spell his name right! — rises to a genuine bit of tragic pathos at the end, when Dr. Kettering volunteers to hook electrical cables to the craft, thereby electrocuting all the parasites inside it, even though that also means incinerating his girlfriend, who’s just made the big speech (the equivalent of the pod psychiatrist’s speech in the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) encouraging him to go over to the dark side and become a … well, whatever, and Kettering is briefly possessed himself before Senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius O’Keefe, billed as “Jack Hill” and not the token white villain in innumerable Blaxploitation films in the 1970’s) shoots Kettering, triggering the electrocution. The Brain Eaters is pretty useless on its own but it’s significant not only for the movies that inspired it but the ones — one in particular — it inspired; in at least one scene Dr. Kettering and Alice are hiding out in a farmhouse and are being menaced by people who’ve been taken over by the parasites, and damned if it doesn’t look just like Night of the Living Dead 10 years early — and apparently George Romero has conceded the influence!