The Brain (1988) **1/2

The Televangelists who fleeced cash from their guileless flocks were only half the story. While the religious right was peddling lies on the airwaves, a crop of self-help psychologists descended on daytime TV, targeting those who were ideologically, but crucially not intellectually, immune to seduction by televangelism. By the 1980s many American had turns away from Christianity, regarding it as an outdated, reactionary creed with no place in the modern world. However, most people are not, as it turns out, mentally prepared to live in a meaningless vacuum of a universe, where the only certainty is that one day they will die. Having turned their backs on organized religion they could find no succor from the church and the quack doctors who populated daytime talk shows were more than willing to pick up the slack. The quacks would never match the excesses of the televangelists; they were never so greedy or so openly hypocritical. But like their preacher kin, the TV psychologists were more concerned about lining their coffers than helping any of the lost souls who looked to them for answers. The TV shrink, unlike the televangelist, has also managed to stick around; we still get them in the form of Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew. For a long time I believed that pop-culture had totally ignored this phenomenon, choosing instead to lavish attention of the more acceptably targeted televangelists. Chris Claremont made a televangelist the central villain in one of his best X-men story arcs (God Loves, Man Kills) and cartoons as recent as Gravity Falls have been using televangelists as antagonists (the character of Little Gideon). So naturally, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the secondary antagonist in today’s film was a huckster psychiatrist with a daytime talk show; the primary antagonist is of course a giant alien brain-monster.

I walk into every brain movie with good expectations, and in the pre-credits sequence it seemed like my trust in The Brain had not been misplaced. The first scene in the film is a gut punch of horrific imagery that magnificently walks the line between monstrous invasion and mental collapse. A teenage girl, currently in treatment for an undisclosed mental illness, sees strange events happen in her room: Her teddy bear begins to cry, hands burst forth from the TV, walls shake and the lights flicker. She screams, summoning her mother to the room, and for a moment everything is normal. Then tentacles burst from the wall and wrap themselves around the girl. She grabs a pair of scissors and stabs at the grisly appendages. The tentacles vanish, and sees that her mother is covered in stab wounds, and collapsing dead on the ground. From beyond the girls’ vanity mirror a grotesque brain-monster stares back from the darkness, pounding on the glass cracking it with every thwack. The brain-monster bursts through the glass and hurls the girl out of the window. To everyone who might discover the horrid scene it looks like a murder-suicide, a tragic end to doomed family. But was it something more? We in the audience are left to wonder what the hell we just watched. The opening is a masterpiece, and if the rest of The Brain were as good as this, then it would warrant my highest recommendation. But the rest of The Brain is nowhere near this level, and the opening only winds up making me much more disappointed in what turns out to be a rather average little horror movie.

Part of the problem is our hero: Jim Majelewski. He’s one of those obnoxious, brilliant types who succeeds at everything without putting in much effort. A high IQ and a flagrant disregard for the hoops that society makes you jump through can produce a compelling hero, but in Jim’s case it just makes him seem like a rich jerk that likes making trouble for other people. Case in point, the first thing we see him do is cruise up to school in his vintage 50s car (alright, alright, part of my ire towards him is jealous coveting), copy his homework off of his girlfriend Janet, and then toss a lump of pure sodium into the school’s toilet. Sodium, of course, reacts violently with water and causes a significant explosion, wrecking the whole bathroom. Property damage aside it also drenches his principal in water just as he’s going to take a drink from the bubbler. The principal understandably finds Jim’s pattern of pointless, destructive actions as cause for concern and forces the boy to get therapy under the threat of expulsion.

Normally, this would be a good thing, as clearly Jim has some issues that he needs to work through; at the very least he needs to learn why setting off bombs in public places is frowned upon. Unfortunately, Jim is going to be seeing Dr. Anthony Blakely, local TV personality and quack psychiatrist. Now, an emotionally troubled young man certainly can survive a run-in with a psychiatric imposter like Blakely. Unfortunately, Blakely isn’t just a 2nd rate TV doctor: he’s the willing thrall to a giant alien brain-monster. The brain-monster has the power to brainwash any human unfortunate enough to be watching Blakely’s broadcasts (anyone watching a day-time talk-show is already unfortunate, even if they are not enslaved by aliens as a result). Very few people can resist the psychic domination of the brain-monster, and as a result the most of the county is under Blakely’s spell; giving him enough viewership to take his local TV show national. One of the few who can fight off the psychic domination of the monster is, you guessed it: asshole-protagonist Jim Majelewski. The brain tries to manipulate him with nude images of the doctor’s assistant, Vivian, but Jim’s high IQ mind is just too resistant to the Brain’s mental spell.

Blakely retires to his mad scientist lair, to plan his next move. It’s at this point that Vivian airs her doubts about the whole enterprise. For a while she may have been able to convince herself that experimenting on the mentally ill using an alien brain-monster might have been a scientifically valid, if morally dubious, undertaking. But it’s starting to look as if Blakely’s tests are more likely to result in brain-monster backed global domination than they are in any legitimate scientific breakthroughs. The Brain isn’t one to tolerate any dissension among its human henchmen, so it eats Vivian alive, drastically increasing its own size in the process. As for Jim, if the brain cannot brainwash the boy it has no choice but to destroy him. It does so by forcing Jim to crash his vintage 1950s car while driving one day. When Jim stumbles into the local burger-joint where Janet works to get help, the brain attacks him leading to what everyone else sees as an epic spaz attack. The cops are called, and they drag Jim kicking and screaming off to Blakely’s hospital, this time for a permanent confinement in the psychiatric ward.

Janet recruits one of Jim’s friends to drive her out to the hospital and rescue Jim. Now, in real life this is a startlingly bad idea; please kids, do not try to bust your friend who have just suffered nervous breakdowns out of the psych ward. However, in the real world you’ll only have to worry about the hospital staff and the police; giant floating brain monsters won’t enter into the equation. Even with the brain-monster, the hospital proves almost ludicrously easy to escape from, thanks in no small part to the fact that dangerous mental patients are allowed to wander the hallways as they please, even go into restricted areas like the cell where Blakely is holding Jim. One wanders in there just as Jim is waking up and lets him out. The need to keep prisoners physically confined is evidently a foreign concept to the brain monster; perhaps mental isolation is enough to keep prisoners sedate on the Planet of the Brains. Regardless of its incompetence the brain is eventually roused to action against its teenage antagonists. When the kids are leaving through the boiler room, the brain attacks, killing Jim’s friend but allowing Janet and Jim to make good on their escape. The only problem is that Blakely’s talk show is way more popular than I would expect among police officers, and virtually every man with a badge and a gun in the whole county is under his spell.

Jim and Janet take refuge in the High School, and then comes possibly the silliest scene in the entire movie: With the entire town out looking for the two wayward teens, and the fate of the country, if not the entire world at stake, at this moment when everything is riding on the two of them getting word to somebody with the authority to do something about the alien brain monster, it is here that Janet decides she is finally ready to lose her virginity. Earlier in the movie she had been adamant that Jim not sleep with her until they go to college, a ploy that she confessed, was to ensure that Jim would go to the same college as her. Now, at probably the worst possible time, she has decided that it’s time to get her cherry popped. I suppose that this is the reason why in real life stupid, horny teenagers are not entrusted with the fate of the world more often.

Things really go to shit though when the film, following the playbook used by the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), has Janet fall for the alien brainwashing shortly after consummating her relationship with Jim. With his girlfriend now working for the alien monster as well, Jim is forced to go it alone. For some baffling reason he decides not to follow the example of Dr. Miles Bennell, and run for help in the next town over, but instead figures his best chance is to take Blakely and the brain-monster on solo. He steals a junker from the school’s auto shop and heads out, determined to put an end to the brain menace once and for all.

There are worse ways to go about making a 1980s horror movie than to just add nudity, contemporary special effects and gore to a 1950s film framework. The Brain obviously owes much to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for the nature of its brainwashing antagonists, who have the power to turn the hero’s friends and family into slavishly obedient minions. The physical appearance of the monster is of course, taken from such anti-classics as Fiend Without a Face (1958) and The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). However, inviting comparisons to some of the most thoughtful, and some of the most entertaining, sci-fi films of the bygone era is a risky gamble. For starters, brainwashing is less effective than growing a whole new copycat entity, because it implies that the subject can be un-brainwashed. Such an easy return to the status quo undercuts the terror of seeing all the usual “good guys” converted into pawns of a malevolent enemy. But on a deeper level, The Brain cannot help but come up short when compared to it’s models, it’s not as much fun as The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) nor is as intelligent as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In such luminous company it stands out like an ugly, mute dwarf.

The effect would not be so bad if the film did not front-load my expectations quite so much. Ending with a stunning scene, of the caliber with which The Brain begins, leaves a far better impression than starting with one and then letting the audience suffer through a succession of boring chases over the next hour and change. That’s not to say that the Brain is a bad film, it is often entertaining and the visual effects creating the brain-monster are very good. It also boasts a delightfully unhinged performance from David Gale, who I last saw using his severed head to perform cunnilingus on an unconscious woman in Re-Animator (1985). It’s the same old routine that I’m sure his fans will be familiar with, but in an age where mad scientists were few and far between Gale always offers up a good one.

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