By 1981, I’d seen The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on TV maybe a half dozen times and had started going to sci-fi conventions the previous year, my first being the old Creation Conventions here in NYC. I bring this up because it was at one in 1981 where I met a rather quirky gentleman named Jack Tiger (J.G. to his friends) and ended up working with him on a project that could have been popular at the time, but wasn’t able to get fully off the ground.
Now, I should be reviewing either one of his two low-budget films here or at the very least the film that gained me some temporary employment with the man, Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror, a film that had neither a Frankenstein and thanks to the censors here, nor much Bloody Terror in it. Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t seen it in decades and really need to do so again, but in its original uncut Spanish version. Also, I’ve only ever seen one of Jack’s films by very happy accident a few years back on TCM when I came home very early in the morning from a lousy party I stayed too long at, and it was on TV unexpectedly. So, Brain it is because it’s a fun flick and there’s also a small personal connection there you’ll read on and find out about. So, read on, please.
So, J.G. was a bit of an oddity, as his beatnik-era goatee, penchant for loud shirts (I think they were genuine Hawaiian), sharp eye for the ladies, and the weird fact that he never cursed (“Mother Grabbers” and “Pluck a Duck!” were probably the worst things I’d hear him say with any regularity) made him stand out a bit. He told me he’d been working with another amateur artist om a different project who went back to school to learn more art skills when he popped by a table I was sharing with another friend and saw my terrible artwork. But he also saw someone who could work cheaply on the next project he was planning. I wasn’t at all ready for real commercial work, but J.G. claimed that another illustrator who’d worked with him went on to do some work for magazines, which was kind of just what I needed to hear at my age.
From what I recall, the plan was to take a 3D print of the 1968 film, put together a press kit and promotional materials using some of my art and images from the original film’s press kit (we had a copy available) and shop it around as the next big thing or something like that. At the time, I hadn’t seen the film in a while, but J.G. said the print he’d seen was fantastic and it looked as if the film wasn’t made that long ago. Besides, as he also noted, the craze for 3D films at that time was restarting and the success of Comin’ At Ya! meant you struck while the iron was hot. I’d seen that film twice and sure, that made sense in a way, even though it wasn’t a great film, people seemed to go nuts over things popping out at them when wearing those cardboard glasses.
J.G. lived in a tiny but clean apartment West 58th Street in NYC, which seemed like a ritzy location, but in 1981 you could still find a bit of old New York in spots where now, it’s all office space or tourist trap shopping. As I was still in school (J.G. was all about keeping education a focus), I’d go to school, come home and knock out any homework, rest up and pop down to his place around midnight or a little earlier and draw for a few hours. The first night I popped downtown, I was surprised at how small the place was and that there was a huge original poster for The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on a wall. As I was admiring it, J.G. said that he was a friend of writer/director Joseph Green and I’ll admit to not believing that at first because well, you shouldn’t believe all that you hear about a horse until you hear if from the horse that’s being talked about.
I think it was the second or third time I’d gone to work there that J.G. asked if I wanted to speak to Joe (who was in California, I believe), who he was calling up about something related to the non-Frankenstein film. That was a bit of a “wow” moment for me, and yes, Joe Green was indeed on the line a few seconds later and I was handed the phone after about a minute of J.G. and he chatting it up. I don’t recall exactly what I said then, but I think I had to mention that Brain was one of my TV favorites for a while since I first saw it. Do you know that feeling when someone is smiling on the other end of a phone line when they hear something pleasant? Well, I got a big happy thanks from Joe for my comments and I think about two minutes more of his time after that before he asked to speak to J.G. again. I wasn’t “starstruck” at all, mind you. But it was the first time that I spoke to someone who made a film I liked and that was important.
The place was tiny, but there was enough room that two could work in and J.G. gave me my space, as there were a desk and chair on the left side after you walked in the door. J.G. slept in the back of the apartment on a bed near the what I think was the sole window (I never went into his kitchen if there was one) and boy, did he snore! Sometimes, he’d stay up late and tell me old Hollywood stories and/or take about art for a bit until he got tired and went to sleep. Other times, he’d go out for a bit or, if he was tired when I got there, give me a few directions and pass out until I was ready to leave at about 5am.
Back to the main subject of this review, if you’ve never seen it, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a seminal, essential trash movie in the best possible way. The plot is silly as hell, absolutely none of the science or medical stuff makes any sense (as it shouldn’t), there’s some neat and cheesy early blood and gore effects, the ladies are all drop dead cheesecake gorgeous (even the film’s subject is a knockout), and while it’s a pure “B” grade film, there’s an earnestness to it that demands attention. It’s easy to have a preference for the hilarious fun of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, but I say see this as it’s meant to be seen: in full uncut and unedited form and well, leave it at that, period.
When Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers), A brain surgeon with a interesting new technique and his fiancee, Jan Compton (Virginia Leith) get in a car accident, the good doctor it thrown clear, but Jan kind of loses her head (oops). Cortner saves it, but as her body has been burned in the wreckage, he’s forced to use his somewhat incredible skills to keep the head alive with the aid of his assistant, Kurt (Anthony La Penna), whose right arm is a mangled mess partly because of the doctor’s earlier experiments in restoring an amputated arm. Jan is alive, but the treatment has made her telepathic, she’s angry that the Doc didn’t let her just die, and there’s another really deadly, but mute failed experiment locked in a closet she can communicate with.
Meanwhile, the doc is on the body shopping routine, unaware that things are about to go very south back at the lab.
There’s a level of pure sleazy fun and thrills here as the film goes for the jugular on a few fronts, from its portrayal of female characters to it’s surprising for 1959 gore effects (the film wasn’t released until 1962 in the US). Camp value aside, the downbeat ending actually works as Jan gets what she wants, the creature formerly in the closet gets what it wants, and the evil that some men do gets quite a comeuppance when all is said and done. Wrapping things up in a neat, nasty bow is this spectacular bit of song work that jumps into your skin and tries it out for a spell. To me, it’s the Doc’s mindset mood music as he’s headhunting for a body replacement for Jan, and boy, does that tune stick with you because it’s perfect at what it conveys.
The film defies a proper rating to me, as for every bad thing about it from a film making perspective, an equal amount of “Wait, that just happened?” genius occurs. Yes, it’s dumb and quite single minded (much like the beast in the closet), but it’s determined in what it delivers and that’s why it works for me to this day. I was recently re-watching both Re-Animator films and hilariously enough, thought of this flick fitting like a corset on a stripper because there’s that appropriate (or, OK, inappropriate) level of sexploitation without the nudity in those and just enough shock value to keep things interesting throughout.
“So, what happened with the other film?”, you’re likely asking right about now? Well, I think it was a case of not finding enough interest in it and J.G. not having unlimited funds to get the project off the ground. I think Joe Green might have been or was a partner in the deal, so I felt doubly bad that the film didn’t get a release. J.G. was also a great raconteur, in that he was always going on about a few film ideas he had even though they had zero chance of realization because they were too bizarre. I do recall the time he was talking for a while about a sci-fi flick he wanted to make that had a story on the Yegods (as in the old saying Ye Gods!), which had me incredulous indeed, until he said he was serious about the idea. Well, who didn’t have a sci-fi film idea. good, bad, or otherwise after Star Wars, right?
Anyway, even though the project flamed out, I still kept in touch with J.G. over the years, I think until about the late 80’s or early 90’s. He’d send me a Christmas card and once he sent me an art book (was it on Michelangelo? I believe so), but I was moving around from place to place at the time, and lost touch after that. I recall Joe Green died back in 1999, which I found about that year quite by accident when a customer at the game shop I was working in noted that milestone in a conversation I overheard. I remembered the very distinct and amusing sound of pigeons making baby pigeons outside J.G.’s sole window (his apartment was facing an alley and the birds roosted under the window ledge) and how it was the first time I’d head that sound. I recall I woke him up laughing from the desk I worked at and he yawned and just said something like “Oh yeah, I guess I should have mentioned that.” before he got up, put on a shirt and paid me for the night’s work.
A neat story, Greg, and yes, a cool movie! Oddly enough, I just found an HD print on-line and ‘saved’ it…maybe I’ll give it a look this week. It’s been years since I’ve seen it…a one-time staple for me on Saturday afternoon local television. And Virginia Leith! Imagine my happy surprise when I saw her in ‘Violent Saturday’! (I just looked her up…she passed away just a few months ago! Why didn’t I know this?). Anyway, a fun post…keep ’em coming!
The funny thing here, is I think the film was either in public domain or pretty much free to watch for ages before the Scream Factory release. I was always a fan of it from when I was a kid and I think it popped up I think, when a baseball game was rained out and the channel ran the film to fill out time! Yeah, Virginia passing away was a shock to hear, but her films still exist, so there’s that.