While trying to avoid working on my grant yesterday, I was idly flipping channels. I had planned on killing a few minutes while psyching myself up to go back into the Bat Cave that is my office, ignoring a gloriously perfect sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s, to do battle with the grant application again, when I came across it: The greatest movie ever made!
The movie is called Fiend Without a Face, a low budget science fiction/horror movie from the 1950s.
It’s awesome, and I’ll tell you why. The monsters are disembodied brains. Yes, this is (mostly) a medical blog, and talking about a movie about disembodied brains that kill people is my way of keeping the topic medical and sort of scientific, even when I’ve been driven to the brink and put in a very strange mood by last minute grant preparations. Besides, writing about this movie is a perfectly fine way to procrastinate for a half hour or so. Not to mention that there’s that manuscript that I agreed to review before I knew I’d only have two weeks to write a five-year $750,000 grant proposal, with the editors now sending me increasingly pointed e-mails asking me where my review is…
The plot is, of course, silly, as many such plots are. Basically, a scientist’s thoughts, through a combination of his experiments into telekinesis and the power from a nearby experimental atomic-powered radar installation being run by the U.S. Air Force, come to life as invisible entities that attack their victims and remove their brains and spinal columns. OK, you ask. So what? That’s not anything particularly odd for a 1950’s science fiction film. What puts this film over the top in such a spectacular way is the last third of the movie, when, thanks to the nearby atomic power station starting to go out of control and releasing all sorts of energy into the surrounding area, the entities become visible.
It’s a thing of movie beauty.
The monsters, it turns out, are disembodied brains. But not just brains–brains with the spinal cord still hanging off of them. But not just the spinal cord, but the entire spine, or so it appears! Even better, they move about in stop-motion animation like snakes, using their spine to push them along. But it’s even better than that. They have stalks sticking out of them and moving around, like antennae. I thought at first that maybe these were the optic nerves, but they’re in the wrong location, anatomically speaking. (Damn those anatomy classes in medical school; they never let me suspend disbelief!) The killer brains even have some appendages. Maybe they’re the cauda equina or the spinal nerve roots. Check it out:
As a snippet of dialogue goes when a body is found:
Col Butler: “Where has the brain and spinal cord gone?”
Coroner: “I’m a doctor, Colonel, not a detective.”
I wonder if Dr. McCoy on Star Trek stole that tag line. After all, Fiend Without A Face predates Star Trek by around eight years.
Not surprisingly, this being a 1950s science fiction/horror movie, these are nasty brains, definitely central nervous systems with bad attitudes. For one thing, they wantonly attack people:
Don’t worry. This is the obligatory pretty young woman. She survives. But, following the laws of old 1950s B movies, this old dude isn’t quite so fortunate.
Here’s a bit to to give you a taste of the “science” discussions in the movie:
The best scene in the movie has to be when the protagonists are trapped in the professor’s house, surrounded by hungry brains. The killer brains (or–should I say?–bad brains) hang from the trees by their spinal column; they batter the wooden boards the heroes nailed to the windows to try to keep them out, their spines pounding away in much the same way that the zombies pounded away at the barricades at the old farm house in Night of the Living Dead. They even fly into the house once the barricades are finally (and, of course, inevitably) battered down. But, best of all, they blow up real good when hit by axes or bullets, producing a lovely spray of gelatinous bloody goo, and make disgusting sucking noises as they move about, attack, and suck out the brains out of their victims. Truly, the climax of this movie has to be seen to be believed.
This video, set to the song Breathless, give you an idea of the flavor of the special effects:
Come to think of it, the filmmakers should have used that tune; the movie would have been improved for it. Actually, some of the fiddling with the clip to make the monsters appear to dance in a couple of parts of this video might have improved things, too.
Killer brains, classic 1950s atomic paranoia, telekinesis…what more could you ask for in a movie?
Nothing! I say. Sadly, my wife doesn’t understand, which is why it’s a good thing she’s out of town this weekend. And damn if this stupid movie didn’t suck me in until its gloriously wacky end, when I should have been working on my grant. I’m seriously tempted by the Criterion Collection DVD of the movie, although it’s a bit more pricey than I’m willing to shell out for “entertainment” of this type. (Of course, my biggest question is this: What’s the artsy-fartsy Criterion Collection doing giving a movie like this a treatment usually reserved for Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Frederico Fellini movies?)
It even makes a pretty good rock video:
You know, if the Hitler Zombie tried to feed on these brains, who would win? If the Hitler Zombie won, would his feeding on atomic-powered flying brains result in the most over-the-top Nazi analogy ever? Could even Orac survive such an onslaught?