Let’s take a minute and give thanks for the Mad Scientist. Like any other cinematic profession, there can be good and evil examples of both; some want to heal the world, others want to crush it. The Brain (1988) gives us a villain squarely in the latter camp, and he’s not even the head baddie (see: title). A modern day love letter to the genre, The Brain is weird enough for a passé crowd yet conventional enough to work as a straight up monster movie.
Given a limited release in its homeland in November, the achingly Canadian film was released stateside on video in December. Some critics appreciated the good-natured update to the schlocky sci-fi fests of yore; others did not, and to them I say they can’t all be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, bunky.
But by gum they can be fun; even though the seams threaten to burst at every turn, The Brain hustles by with A Nightmare on Elm Street visions, Cronenberg nods, a monster with a face like a Madball, and another Grand Guignol-soaked performance from David Gale (Re-Animator).
Welcome to Small Town, USA (aka Big City, Canada) where the hottest local talk show, Independent Thinking, is on and Dr. Blakely (Gale) has another rapt audience; so compelling is he that one of his teenage patients watching at home begins to hallucinate of tentacled monsters reaching her through the walls – and she ends up killing mom thinking she was a monster.
Enter Jim Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan – Ski School), the school clown and troublemaker who gets sent to Blakely’s Psychological Research Institute (or PRI) for some “re-programming”. After being hooked up to electrodes in order for him to be hypnotized like the other townsfolk, Jim panics and takes off; thinking the hypnosis didn’t work, the PRI gang takes off after him. But don’t worry, their brain juice most certainly goes to town on Jim; his drive home involves the aforementioned tentacles popping out of his steering wheel and causing him all kinds of discomfort. When Jim learns that Blakely plans on taking Independent Thinking nationwide, he pulls out all the stops to stop him – but will he be too late?
Great Green Gods, where are my manners? We haven’t even introduced The Brain! Well, the brain in question is a veiny, pulsating blob not unlike Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors; and it’s calling the shots baby, you better believe it. The Brain does not subscribe to the Jaws/Alien motif of “show less”, instead opting for “show it all”. I purposely left our bulbous fella (he really does look like one of those round-ass Madballs) out of the plot description just to show how one element can make a difference – without it, The Brain is just another goofy Man and his Lab flick; with it, we have the Man, his Lab, and the Creature with Receipts. When the nurse gets out of line, it simply eats her, plumping up ever so slowly.
I have given no indication that any of this should be taken remotely seriously: The gilded arch delivery of Gale sees to that and early, as does the constant appearance of the monster, eradicating any chance at suspense in the process. But what The Brain does have is a fondness for those films of old, with atomic energy, a feisty gal (here played by Cynthia Preston), and a troublesome hero. An easy formula, or rather a comfortable one; this sub-genre has its share of flunkies but done well enough always feels fresh, or at least welcome.
The Brain is the last collaboration between writer Barry Pearson and director Ed Hunt; from Plague (1979), through the glorious Bloody Birthday (‘81), to the less-so Alien Warrior (‘85). This is my second favorite of their films together, after Bloody Birthday. I think I enjoy both because Hunt treats the material with a light touch while keeping the characters po-faced and earnest. (Except for Bresnahan, who mugs too much. Sorry.) They come off as goofy, but by design.
As for messaging and an effective delivery system, The Brain humorously simplifies Cronenberg’s Videodrome vision of mass media short circuiting humanity; it’s all about that local cable access, grass roots hubbub essential to a burgeoning, world domination horror tale. Independent Thinking – For All, As One. The film favours Elm Street optics over Cronenberg-ian image issues; every hallucination is punctuated by the same tentamonsters at the most inopportune moments – okay, so it’s the same fake Freddy formula each time out, but it’s a good one.
While the story reads pro forma Atomic, The Brain can’t help but interpret that map in unique ways; it plays as tribute to the ‘50s, yet comes across as camp in the (then) modern age. But that camp is sincere, and why people, real Independent Thinkers, admire the film to this day.
The Brain is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.