I have always been an instinctively good speller. This comes, at least in part, from my love of reading which started with comic books (let’s just never mind that comics are not the best resource for spelling and grammatical reference). At any rate, in seventh or eighth grade I won my school’s spelling bee and made it to the regionals (I believe this was sponsored by Scripps, so it had some clout/prestige to it). I practiced my skills with the help of my aunts (and if you ever met my aunts, I guarantee you the term “drill sergeants” would spring to mind) and the provided study guides. Nevertheless, I got taken out of the regionals on about my second time up with the word “caterwaul.” The next year, I entered the local bee again, and I got housed by some girl a grade or two below me. Being the melodramatic attention whore that I was, I gurned and writhed my way through this ordeal. Needless to say, pics of my histrionics appeared the next day in a local newspaper. The point is, learn your limitations and how to live within them. Yes, these limits can be overcome, and the effort should be made to do so, just not all at once. Come to think of it, maybe the point is, don’t try to walk before you crawl. Either way, Ed Hunt’s The Brain is about a giant brain that wants to take over the world, and it starts with people easily taken in. The Brain knows the score.
Dr. Blake (not Donald, played by the late, great David Gale) runs the named-so-as-to-not-draw-any-unwanted-attention Psychological Research Institute and hosts a popular local show called Independent Thinking (his creative team are either doing a hell of a job at naming things or are just ripping him off). Thing is, some of his patients have offed themselves recently, and young jerk and all around malcontent Jim Majelewski (Tom Breznahan) finds himself at the Institute after causing more trouble than he’s worth. But Blake and the Brain have their sights set much higher than on some punk who thinks that destruction of public property is good fun, though they’ll include him in their plans because he’s another warm body.
Like Videodrome, and The Twonky, and Network, and so many other films, The Brain concerns itself primarily with the power of television (and not dissimilarly, religion) and how it can consume our lives and our thoughts (I’m sure there have been plenty of radio pulp plots involving the same basic idea, as well; the technology powers the story, but let’s also remember that people didn’t really plant themselves in front of the radio for the entirety of their day allowing it to narcotize them into complacency). Blake is a slick, pedagogic guru for the McLuhan Age, a late Eighties Dr. Phil, offering up easy solutions (just ship your troubles away!) to questions that don’t necessarily have straight answers. The nefariousness lies in what’s underneath these reassuring edicts of white noise bullshit. Words do have power, but here they are a mask, like a political façade, seeking power and corruption in the guise of magnanimity with good deeds. Mass communication is the key, for with it the Brain creates an army of pod people. The kicker is that people want to watch Independent Thinking, otherwise the seed would never have been planted and allowed to grow. The commentary is that we desire the lives of sheep. It’s easier that way, and when the masters come to slaughter you, you likely won’t even understand what’s going on until it’s too late, anyway. Interestingly, the Brain itself doesn’t speak, instead projecting its thoughts and commands onto a computer screen. I can understand why it may need to project its thoughts to a mass audience via television, but it strikes me as odd that it can’t just communicate orders directly into the minds of its lackeys (I get that the computer is more visual, but it’s also dumb). Plus, it makes the Brain come off like a spoiled child (“I WANT ACTION!” Who doesn’t?), an angle that has some intriguing possibilities but with which nothing is ever done (the fatal flaw of the entire film, really).
In the same way that this movie takes ideas from more sophisticated films, it also follows in the tradition of B-movie creature features (largely from the Fifties). Everything from The Brain from Planet Arous to Fiend Without a Face to The Space Children to The Brain that Wouldn’t Die have dealt with disembodied heads and/or brains which have machinations on the lives of men (and only one of the ones I mentioned, The Space Children, has a brain that wants to actually do good, though it does so through destruction). Of course, other body parts, especially hands, have been granted nefarious motives in cinema (Body Parts, Hands of the Ripper, The Hands of Orlac, etcetera), but typically there is a more psychological implication in those scenarios, a conflict between the man and the foreign graft. With the mind of the other, the influence is exterior. You can cut off a hand that tells you to kill, but you have to track down and physically destroy a giant brain (this is made more difficult when said brain has a giant mouth loaded with pointy teeth). In line with the power of mass media on the gullible mind, the power of the invading brain on the individual means a loss of identity for the victim. The difference lies in the desire of the prey. We want to tune in and drop out with our television, though we say we don’t want others telling us what to do. The collision of these opposing desires, to me, is what makes them fascinating. I’m easy.
The Brain is, or at least could be, some good fun with the right set of lowered expectations. The monster is slimy and goofy. The premise has promise. The problem is that the film never goes for more than it absolutely has to in fulfilling its obligations as a monster movie. It also never explains certain things, like how an eight-foot brain gets from place to place without being seen, how it manages to surprise people as often as it does, or why it needs to eat them other than to give the audience some oddly Cookie-Monster-esque vibes. More than these things, which are forgivable in this context, is the fact that our lead is an unconscionable prick with a smartass streak a mile wide. He blows the plumbing at his high school for no reason whatsoever (aside from blatant foreshadowing). After making with a load of self-righteous indignation that he could possibly be in trouble for anything because of his good grades (arguably his girlfriend Janet’s (Cynthia Preston) grades, since Jim copies off her), he superglues his principal’s slacks to a chair. Jim shouldn’t be worried about being expelled from school. He should be worried about having his ass kicked up and down the school’s hallways. This being our main character, it’s difficult to really care if he gets eaten, mind-controlled, what-have-you. Consequently, it’s difficult to sit through the film from Jim’s perspective except in the hope that your own dormant mental powers will kick in and rewrite the film so little Jimmy gets a well-deserved comeuppance.
MVT: The effects are gooey, goofy, and well enough designed.
Make or Break: I defy you to not want to smack the smug look off Jim’s face from the minute he enters his high school and hooks up with his “friends” (also jerks but on a smaller scale than young James).