The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) ****1/2
Director: Nathan H. Juran
Runtime: 1h 11m
Sometimes you hear a concept for a film and you know that you’ll love it right from the start. Such is the case with today’s film, which is a story of an American nuclear physicist possessed by an evil alien balloon monster. Ok, the monster isn’t supposed to be a balloon, that’s just the easiest way to make a floating brain-creature when you’re on as tight a budget as the one director Nathan Juran was laboring under. The alien-brain is named Gor, he is a creature of pure intellect from the planet Arous, and he’s a fugitive on the run from the Arousian authorities. Like all of his kin, Gor spends most of the time completely incorporeal, only becoming fully corporeal to breathe every couple of weeks. Gor’s plan is to subjugate the earth with his psychic-nuclear powers, and then lead the earthling in a war of conquest against his home world of Arous. However, with the Arousian police hot on his tail Gor doesn’t have time to possess some yahoo. No, Gor needs to conquer the earth as fast as possible: he needs someone who can get all the most powerful people in the world together. That’s why he carefully selects Steve Marsh, an eminent nuclear physicist operating somewhere in the American South West as his most desirable host.
Gor takes advantage of Steve’s natural scientific curiosity to lure him into a trap at Mystery Mountain (no, really that is the actual name the film goes with, the cast will say that absurd name at least a dozen times in the film’s first act; feel free to make a drinking game of it, it will probably put you in the right mood to watch the rest of the film). The evil alien brain emits pulses of gamma radiation that Steve is able to pick up on from his laboratory 30 miles away. Steve, dressed in a goofy British explorer’s outfit complete with pith helmet, takes his assistant Dan Murphy out to the middle of the desert to investigate. Dan will complain the whole trip, so we won’t feel too bad when Gor kills him the moment that they stumble upon the brain monster in a newly formed cavern.
Steve/Gor returns to his laboratory, where he explains Dan’s absence with a lame story about Dan running off to Las Vegas for the weekend. The brain-possessed abomination wastes no time in pawing Steve’s fiancé Sally, kissing her with such intensity that it shocks her. Gor you see, being a creature of pure intellect has had no experience with carnal desires and now that he’s had a taste of these primitive pleasures he can’t get enough. Initially Sally is somewhat pleased by Steve’s sudden virility, but pretty soon Steve/Gor’s advances make the jump from heavy petting to attempted sexual assault. Only the last minute intervention of Sally’s dog saves her. The wrestling match between Steve/Gor and the dog looks disturbingly sensual given what immediately precede it.
Sally is worried about her fiancé’s strange behavior, so she and her father, John, head out to Mystery Mountain to see if they can piece together what happened out there. It’s here that the second alien brain enters the picture; this one is named Val and unlike Gor he’s here to help mankind, not enslave them. Val is an Arousian policeman who has been tracking Gor, and now he’s cornered him on earth. Only problem is that Val cannot get at Gor so long as he possesses a human host. So Val’s only option is to take a body of his own and wait for Gor to open himself up to arrest. Initially he plans to use Sally, but then it turns out that Sally’s dog offers a less conspicuous and less morally fraught vessel, so the alien brain possesses the family dog.
Steve/Gor in the mean time keeps himself busy, blowing up airplanes, laughing like a gibbering idiot, ranting to Sally about power while trying to shove his tongue down her throat, turning his eyes entirely black for no readily apparent reason, and essentially kicking back until it’s time for the big atomic bomb test. Since Steve is presumably a member of the AEC, he has no trouble inviting himself to the weapons test, even though it’s nothing groundbreaking it does have a large concentration of army brass and other AEC scientists. Steve/Gor takes the chance to demonstrate the full extent of his powers. The Arousians have master psycho-nuclear warfare, and Gor is able to create an atomic blast roughly the size of the planned test at will. A rather artful use of stock footage from Atomic tests is spliced in here to drive home the power of the Arousian monster. Steve/Gor informs the military brass gathered there that if they don’t arrange a meeting between him and all the major leaders of the world he will start using this power on cities. The army tries to kill Steve/Gor with conventional weapons, but of course they prove utterly powerless (when have you seen a mid-century movie monster laid low by mundane sidearms?).
All the while Val and Sally wait for their chance. If they can catch Gor when he becomes fully corporeal there will be a chance of destroying the monster. The brain monsters from planet Arous are nearly invincible, but they do have one weak spot: The Fissure of Rolando. For those unfamiliar with anachronistic medical terms, the fissure of Rolando is a major fold in the brain that separates the frontal and parietal lobes. A few good whacks there and Gor will no longer be much of a threat to anyone. The trick is catching him with his guard down.
Director Nathan Juran was supposedly so ashamed of this slipshod, low budget film that he put an alias in the opening credits, opting to go by Nathan Hertz (his middle name) instead. Watching The Brain From Planet Arous, I simultaneously understand Juran’s shame and disagree with it vehemently. While I can understand why the director of 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) would like to leave this film of it’s resume, I can’t help but think the Juran underrates it’s charms. The Brain From Planet Arous is a crappy movie, but it is an infectiously fun crappy movie, one that flirts with full-blown anti-classic status while still being relatively well made; relative of course to fully amateur productions like Robot Monster (1953). It is infectiously watchable, in the way that only the worst and best movies can be. The sheer goofiness of the plot-line, props, costumes and even the very local names (Mystery Mountain) is enough to insure that all but the most fun-adverse audiences will have a good time. It’s the kind of movie that people see in their head when they are trying to picture the archetypal goofy 50s sci-fi movie.
A word about the Gor balloon: It’s about as ludicrous as you would expect from a helium balloon dressed up to look like a mid-century sci-fi villain. The droopy eyes really give the monster its charm, making the look like it’s always bored and slightly sleepy whenever it interacts with the other characters. The creature is superimposed onto the rest of the film, at a reduced opacity, to simulate its incorporeal nature. The real treat though is not the Gor balloon but instead the performance that John Agar gives while his character is possessed by the monster. Fans of 50s sci-fi film will recognize Agar as the stoic leading man of a great number of b-films, most notably Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Steve Marsh very much is the standard blasé John Agar hero, but when possessed by Gor Agar takes the chance to go absolutely ballistic and play so far outside his type that it’s stunning. He chews through the scenery laughing manically, spazzing-out whenever Steve is suppose to be resisting Gor’s control, wrestling with his dog, sexually assaulting his co-stars and ranting about power and domination. Who would have thought that Agar had it in him? It’s a shame that he wasn’t cast as a villain more often.
Buried within all the nonsense and good times is a rather disquietingly modern notion: the idea of an individual nuclear power. Such a notion would have been utterly foreign to audiences in the middle of the 20th century; indeed even experts did not seem to give much credence to the idea as both Eisenhower’s New Look and McNamara’s policy of Mutually Assured Destruction were predicated on the idea that only nation-states would be able to use nuclear weapons and would have too much to lose from ever actually using them to start a nuclear war. However, the idea that a single man or small group of committed terrorists could launch a nuclear attack has become a much more popular troupe in recent years. The collapse of the USSR and the ensuing breakdown of all traditional authority inside and outside the Russian military, made it seem possible that a nuclear bomb could be lost or stolen. The 9/11 terrorists attacks gave US filmmakers an easily-cast villain for the role of one-man or small group nuclear power. A whole crop of movies sprung up in the late 90s and early 2000s dealing with the subject; from The Sum of All Fears (2002) to Broken Arrow (1996) to Cradle 2 the Grave (2003). Fortunately reality has not followed Hollywood’s predictions. Gor, in his own cracked way, is a forerunner to this trope: an individual nuclear power holding the rest of the world hostage in exchange for his demented goals. In 1957 Gor was total fantasy, an absurd villain in a cheap movie mostly watched by children. In 2007, or indeed 2017, he was not such a laughing matter.