Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cardboard Science: Insane In The Membrane

Year: 1957
Director: Nathan Hertz
Cast: John Agar, Joyce Meadows, Robert Fuller
Run Time: 1 hour 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Welcome back to our second annual crossover with Hunter Allen over at Kinemalogue! It’s time for our second 50’s sci-fi flick, and either I’m building up a tolerance or Hunter picked titles with more Brennan-y appeal this time around (I’m still nursing wounds from Invaders From Mars). Our newest foray into the vast thicker of B-movies is 1957’s The Brain From Planet Arous, a schlock spectacle of otherworldly proportions.

Pun always intended.

Here’s the skinny: Steve March (John Agar) is one of America’s leading nuclear scientists, because the movie would have its 50’s sci-fi license revoked if the A-bomb wasn’t in there somewhere. When he and his sex-on-a-stick partner Dan (noted Western actor Robert Fuller) make a trip to investigate the high levels of radiation at the nearby Mystery Mountain (which was apparently named by the guys who wrote Lone Ranger radio serials), they encounter a giant floating brain named Gor (Dale Tate). Two guesses as to what planet he’s form.

Gor possesses Steve’s body via a clumsy superimposition effect that jerks the projection back and forth until it lines up properly. He’s hellbent on using his magical explodey powers and superior intelligence to take over the world and force Earthlings to build a fleet of ships to launch an attack on his home planet, the name of which slips my mind. However, once he meets Steve’s fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows), he falls instantly in love and gets distracted attempting to tonguelessly kiss her as hard as the Hayes Code would allow.

I guess you could say he’s from Planet AROUSED.

Sally and her father John (Thomas B. Henry) investigate Steve’s sudden fit of tumescence and come across Zol (also Dale Tate), an Arousian policeman (would that be the Thought Police? Buh dum chh), who’s on a quest to capture Gor. He inhabits the body of their dog George (and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him), and together they team up to find out Gor’s plan while keeping watch on him. He can only be destroyed when he leaves his host body to gather oxygen, which he only does once every 24 hours.

i.e. About as often as the budget allows.

The plot has two modes: “Sally fretfully fakes love for ‘Steve’ while he cackles and drops hints about his evil plans,” and “Gor explodes some stuff in the Santa Clarita desert and makes demands of the UN.” This back and forth gets a tad dull but at 70 brisk minutes of content that’s about as racy as Basic Instinct for 1957 audiences, it more than makes up for its redundant repetition.

The Brain From Planet Arous boasts all the hallmarks of a cheesy 50’s crapfest. Gor immediately outlines his evil plans to Steve, so thoroughly that he would have used a PowerPoint if he could. The acting is stilted and overly indicating. And the special effects are charmingly cheap, like an action film made by the kids in your English class. Hair dryer radar guns, perfectly healthy looking “charred” corpses, and big ol’ brain models wobbling around on strings abound in the film. At least the overly simple ending lacks the absurd abstraction of the antimatter nonsense of The Giant Claw. However, depending on your outlook, this can either go in the pro or con column.

We obviously know where Hunter stands, and I’ve been trained to love DIY filmmaking by my abysmal slashers, so for me at least, I enjoy the cut of Brain’s jib. The only truly distressing element is the film’s insistence on showing every detail of the characters slowly traipsing through the desert and tripping over rocks, papering it over with blibbering string music designed to make you feel like something is actually happening.

Spoiler Alert: It’s not.

I can forgive a bit of padding if it’s in service to a film this utterly bizarre. The eerie calmness with which our protagonists accept the idea of a giant floating brain is just the tip of the iceberg. For one, the dialogue is still astoundingly clever Much like The Giant Claw before it, the screenwriters have an inherent skill for banter hat they can’t seem to shut off, even if their plots fly mightily off the rails. The fact that any part of this movie was accomplished with skill leads to the sneaking suspicion that maybe other people on set also had talent.

I know it’s a ridiculous notion, but I can’t help but find that certain scenes lend credence to it. A shot of Steve’s distorted face through a water cooler is one such moment, a visual triumph that’s far out of the movie’s apparent league. It obfuscates reality, creates a sense of unease, and – in short – succeeds where the giant rubber brains intrinsically fail. And the film does have one cool effect: Whenever Gor activates his power, Steve’s eyes become glassy marbles of evil. It’s a very low fi, Village of the Damned trick, but that’s exactly why it works so well even to this day. It might just be a pair of contacts, but there’s something so ontologically wrong with that look that it short-circuits your wiring.

Once you get into this mindset, you start considering the possibility that maybe the brain movie people were actually using their own brains as well as the ones they borrowed from the neighbor kid’s model maker kit. This approach works wonders, unearthing a glittering deposit of potential subtext While TBFPA’s approach to nuclear woes isn’t as cut and dry as, say, Them!, there are several veins of more personal horror to mine.

There’s the obvious parallel between Gor and egotistical, powerful leaders who claim to have the “power of pure intellect,” but use it to coldly strike people down for the greater good. But his possession of Steve’s body and mental faculties creates a Jekyll and Hyde/Wolf Man scenario. Gor acts as Steve’s ravenous id, pushing the civilized man into the pursuit of money, power, and sex. In the buttoned-up 50’s, these primitive drives were especially discouraged, and Steve’s main struggle is for control over the desires that threaten to rule his genteel body.

On the flip side, from Sally’s perspective, this could represent women’s fears of the changing societal and sexual mores as America slipped implacably into the 60’s. Sally is hardly a strong character, whimpering and weeping every chance she gets, but she gets some of the most screen time and her triumph lies in asserting the roles of a clean cut, heteronormative suburban couple. Think about it.

Well, either that or producers had two weeks and some brain puppets and decided to make a movie.

The brilliant thing about The Brain From Planet Arous isn’t its intelligence, but the fact that there could be more beneath the surface. It works on an analytical level and it works – to a point – on a structural level, so either way you choose to take it, it delivers. How come assembly line filmmaking seemed to work so well back then, and today we’re stuck with a half dozen Transformers movies? The world is a scary place.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Yeah, definitely follow that berserk Geiger counter into that cave without a protective suit on. You’ll be fine.
  • Steve’s high tech radio turns off immediately after delivering relevant information.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • India and China are the only non-white countries that exist, according to Gor.
  • Sally’s dearest, most desperate wish is to receive a dishwasher for her birthday.
  • At one point, Sally legitimately calls Steve “Master.” If this film got into the hands of Tumblr, we’d have an all-out war on our hands.
  • Sally’s conviction that another brain was inhabiting the body of their dog is written off as “you and your imagination,” despite the fact that Steve has literally every reason to believe that body-hopping brains exist.
Sensawunda:
  • In the opening scene, Dan reads a book titled “Science Fiction.” In case you weren’t sure what movie you were watching.
  • Robert Fuller’s plunging neckline might be the most revealing outfit in cinema history up to that point.
  • Lead actor John Agar would cap off his career with yet another instantly dated nuclear flick, the magnetic late 80’s treasure Miracle Mile.
  • That poster is honestly the single best design I've seen in my entire life.
TL;DR: The Brain From Planet Arous is a short and sweet camp picture with an occasional burst of talent.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1435
Reviews In This Series
The Giant Claw (Popcorn Culture - Sears, 1957)
The Brain from Planet Arous (Popcorn Culture - Hertz, 1957)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (Popcorn Culture - Gordon, 1955)
Terror Train (Kinemalogue - Spottiswoode, 1980)
The House on Sorority Row (Kinemalogue - Rosman, 1983)
Killer Party (Kinemalogue - Fruet, 1986)

2 comments:

  1. You're right, I do quite dearly love this one--after Forbidden Planet and The Incredible Shrinking Man, it's probably my favorite 1950s sci-fi movie. There's something so amazing about the ambition of its plot, married to a ridiculously small-scale budget. Yet they get such powerful visuals out of it--the brain puppets, the mirrored contacts that drove John Agar to kill again--even if in no sense do the visuals look achieve one percentage point of "convincing."

    Plus, as you say, it has some themes, if you really squint and do a lot of the movie's work for it. I've always seen it as a (deeply imperfect) allegory for spousal abuse, with Sally cast in the role of a battered woman who can't leave even though the situation is unbearable, while Steve oscillates between decent professional man and an unrestrained ogre, and Vol--representing ineffective cops everywhere--arriving to offer nearly no help at all except a helpful hint. It does this as well as any Jekyll/Hyde story I've seen.

    ...Well, until the very tail ending. That last line is simply infuriatingly awful.

    But it's so unique I can't help but love it. Where else do you get Space Brains with Atom Powers? Lots of places now, I guess, but I think this is the first, and for my money the best.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I'd love to hear the story of how this film came into being. There's so many lunatic ideas being tossed around that it must be fascinating.

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