Sunday, September 07, 2008

A Change of Mind

Today’s Silly SciFi Summary courtesy of my Sci-Fi box set poses important questions about an issue of crucial importance in the 2008 Presidential election: brain transplants.

Previous movies in this series are:
The Amazing Transparent Man
She Gods of Shark Reef
Moon of the Wolf
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Queen of the Amazons
The Incredible Petrified World

The Atomic Brain (aka Monstrosity) (1964)
Joseph V. Mascelli
Star of Shame: None to speak of
Monster(s): Creepy old woman; feral creature that resembles Stephen Stills; vaguely Hispanic woman with the brain of a cat

Called Monstrosity in its original theatrical release (and one uses the word “theatrical” advisedly), it was retitled The Atomic Brain for subsequent TV and video infliction— I mean, releases. Putting the word “atomic” in any title in the 1950s and 60s was a surefire way to tap into both Cold War fears of nuclear destruction as well as fears of science getting up to not-at-all-good things. The Atomic Brain, though, is less about either of those things than it is kind of a creepy middle-aged male fantasy. Or female nightmare. Or feline horror (there are certain scenes in this movie that would be utterly terrifying to any cats in the audience.)

This movie was also done on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The movie certainly opens abruptly! Less than a second into it, we are asked, “Can death be outwitted?” Certainly not at chess, as Ingmar Bergman could tell you, although I always thought that if I challenged Death to a game of Scrabble I’d have a fighting chance. But what does that have to do with atomic brains? We are told about how medical science patches up and heals injured people (and the narrator makes this sound like a bad thing)—but “is the transplantation of the human brain the next step?” As it turns out, scientists say yes, but then the narrator goes off on a tangent about “blood-sucking vampires.” A bit of a leap from one to the other, I should think.

In the background, we see Dr. Frank (not Dr. Frankenstein, I hasten to add) puttering around in his lab. I wonder if he is really Dr. Konstantin Frank,* before he got into winemaking. But I digress. Back to the blood-sucking vampires... “Is man now doomed to produce a race of ever-living monstrosities?” I would say yes, but then I’ve been to South Florida. And now we get to the premise of the movie: will rich old people steal the bodies of the young and transplant their brains into them and live forever? Young people, of course, live forever. They never become old; no, not at all. But, okay, I’ll grant the premise. Do go on. “Such questions may see fanciful”—or downright goofy—“but at this very moment, scientists are working on the answers to brain transplantation...and human bodies are used.” They are? (The scary thing is that the religious right thinks that this is exactly what scientists are actually up to!)

We are introduced to Dr. Otto (not Konstantin) Frank and his latest victim—er, patient: a young girl who had recently died and whose body had been stolen. We are told that Dr. Frank transplanted an animal’s brain into her body. What animal? A dog? A cow? A ring-tailed lemur? A spider? Who knows, but it might make a difference. Fortunately, she was just the right height so that the metal support straps cover up her naughty bits. “The brain cells are being reactivated by an atomic fission.” Well, that explains the title of the movie, but—huh? “Has he found a way to outwit death?” Good question.

We then cut to a cemetery, and the night watchman (in a cemetery?) is making his rounds. Dr. Frank needs another body, so he breaks into a vault using a sledgehammer and chisel. As it turns out, he has the physical strength of a two-year-old so it takes rather a while. The watchman sneaks out his bottle (of course) and is easily overpowered by Dr. Frank’s pet/bodyguard/goon Hans, who is one of Dr. Frank’s failed experiments but, as MST3K pointed out, is a dead ringer for Stephen Stills. The narrator expresses wonder about the “monstrosity.” Well, what was anyone expecting? If you transplant an animal’s brain into a human body, what do you think is going to happen? That the result will be able to solve quadratic equations and join Mensa? Jeez. Talk about unreasonable expectations.

Meanwhile, “Inside the vault, a body waits.” Well, there’s probably little else it would be doing. Stephen Stills takes the body back to the car. Well, he’s handy to have around, at any rate. And probably easier to manage than graduate assistants.

The car returns to a large mansion, conveniently located a short drive from the cemetery. Dr. Frank pushes the button to open the glove compartment and the automatic gate slides open. To open the glove compartment, does he need to use his garage door remote? Another experiment that failed, I suspect.

It turns out that Dr. Frank’s lab is below the mansion, and the new body is brought down for another transplant. The narrator expresses concern that brain tissue in dead bodies decays rapidly; “where are the live, fresh bodies he was promised?” Surely FedEx gave him a tracking number. The narrator is also pissed about the fact that all his scientific research has to be conducted at the whim of “a miserly old woman brooding upstairs in her bedroom.” You know, this is the weirdest adaptation of Great Expectations I’ve ever seen.

We then cut to the crotchety old Mrs. March, the rich old miseress herself, played by Marjorie Eaton. Marjorie Eaton, IMDb tells us, had a long distinguished career playing mostly uncredited old women. Here, she gets her star turn. And it is very upsetting. The narrator has mixed feelings about her and her money, “Money horded through a long greedy lifetime, each day more money, each day death getting closer. Ah, but to start life again in a brand new body, beautiful and young.” But wasn’t she at one time young (you would think so) so logically at some point she will arrive back at the same place. Ah, but there are other issues going on: “Hasn’t everyone tried to cheat her? Wanting her money while they smiled at her ugliness?” That does kind of sum up our economy as whole, if you think about it. Then we are introduced to Victor, “this old fool.” Boy, for a narrator, he’s certainly judgmental.

Mrs. March and Victor are evaluating the girls they have “hired” and who are due shortly. “Pleasing personality,” scoffs Mrs. March, “whatever that might mean.” It certainly is a foreign concept to her. Maybe the problem isn’t her oldness.

On the radio, KPLOT breaks in with a news announcement about a body being stolen from the cemetery.

Down in the lab, Dr. Frank has strapped the new body into his atom brain thingie—the metal straps also hide her naughty bits. Boy, I guess every woman in that town is the same height.

Mrs. March and Victor pay a visit to the lab. “The bodies must be fresh,” says Dr. Frank. Well, don’t say “hi.” Dr. Frank also points out that if the police shows up, he has a special button that will set off a nuclear explosion. A what?! Uh, isn’t that a bit of overkill? (And I think you can pretty much anticipate the end of the movie. Although, even at only 10 minutes in, I’m already anticipating the end of the movie. Badly.) When Mrs. March hears of this she says, “Be careful!” Ya think? They watch as the dead girl is reanimated. “She lacks one thing: a brain,” says Dr. Frank. Oh, who needs one of those? They’re more trouble than they’re worth a lot of the time. Victor, like a dork, taps on the glass, as if she were a fish in an aquarium.

Then, suddenly, terror! Horror! Oh, never mind; it’s just a Pan Am flight landing. Sorry; I have a perfectly rational fear of airlines.

At LAX, we are introduced to three young women, who are accompanied by some of the goofiest music cues in the history of movie soundtracks. One buxom blonde apparently has a xylophone in her underpants, which plays in time to the movement of her buttocks. Whatever meager shred of dignity this movie may have had (and it had none) is now gone forever. Her name is Bea and she is supposed to be British, although her unaccountably vaguely Australian accent sounds like someone doing a bad imitation of a Foster’s beer commercial. She sits down next to Nina (pronounced Nyna, for reasons passing understanding), who is supposed to be Austrian (certainly not conveyed through her accent, which only kicks in about every third sentence). Then Anita wanders over and says “Por favor, I no speak anglays very good. ” Oh, please kill me. (On the plus side, one can imagine Lou Dobbs’ head exploding, which is the only way of getting through this scene.) It turns out that the three of them have been hired as “foreign domestics” (huh?) by Mrs. March. Victor turns up to drive them back to the mansion. Victor has trouble pronouncing Anita’s last name (Gonzales). He lives in Southern California and he can’t pronounce the name Gonzales? He should get out of that mansion once in a while.

Now things start to take a creepy turn. “Three new bodies,” says the narrator. “Three fresh new bodies. No families or friends within thousands of miles. No one to ask embarrassing questions when they disappear.” Yeah, those crazy Europeans, not caring when young women go missing overseas. “Victor wondered which one Mrs. March would pick....Victor knew his pick, but he still felt uneasy. Making love to an 80-year-old woman in the body of a 20-year-old girl was insanity.” Ewwww!!!!! That’s what this is about? I need a shower. Yes: Mrs. March planned to have her brain implanted into one of the young girls, and she intended to transfer her fortune to the one she selected (that is, to herself). Victor, apparently in love with Mrs. March (but why?), was looking forward to a best of both worlds scenario—if that’s the best term for it. “It was unpleasant to think what was going to happen to these girls, but a man has to consider his own future.” I’m guessing the theater’s concession stand did not do a brisk business while this movie was playing.

They pull up in front of the mansion. Bea asks, “Aren’t there any nybors?” That accent has got to go. There are no other servants, but, Victor says, “I don’t think you’ll find it boring.” Meanwhile, Stephen Stills prowls the yard and looks on...

They enter the house; “What a jolly little plyce this is,” says Bea, so not British.

Anita sees Stephen Stills peering in the window and screams, although David Crosby would actually be scarier. Everyone ignores her.

They go upstairs and are introduced to their boss. Mrs. March takes great delight in ogling the women and poking their butts with a cane, and it is creepier than you could ever imagine.

Victor goes down to the lab to get Dr. Frank. The brainless woman is wandering around (huh?) loose (if she has no brain, then how...oh, never mind). The narrator tells us, “As with the other bodies stolen from cemeteries, the nerve endings of the brain were too far gone to receive a proper transplant. The experiment had failed to produce anything more than a walking, breathing, zombie-like creature.” Sarah Palin? “But the doctor permitted her to walk around the laboratory. She was quite harmless and at times even...quite amusing.” I am so happy that the movie does not elaborate, as there is already an all-you-can-eat buffet of loathsomeness here. “She doesn’t need to have a brain,” muses Victor. “There could be advantages.” Ewwww!!!!!

Dr. Frank is ordered to give the girls an examination, and the girls begin to get suspicious that they are not mere domestic help. What tipped you off? The job interview in your underwear, maybe? Mrs. March yells at Victor, “Have you disconnected the phones? Can’t I depend on you for anything?” Buy, I can see why she appeals to him.

During the exam, it is discovered that Anita has a big birthmark in the shape of West Virginia on her back. “Hideous,” says Mrs. March. “She’s useless. Do anything you want with her.” The other two are “perfect medical specimens.” Outside, Stephen Stills howls.

Nina in her not-Austrian accent tries to quit. Mrs. March does not let her. Victor wanders in while they are half-undressed and makes some sort of disturbing guttural noise that sounds like someone backing a car over a goat. It is the most pleasant thing to come out of Victor’s mouth, actually, especially when he inexplicably offers his congratulations to the girls, who are starting to catch on that something is weird.

Victor, speaking of old goats, shows Bea to her room. The xylophone is still in her underpants, and it makes a strange plinking arpeggio as Nina slides across the bed. Anita’s bedroom is in the basement, while Nina’s is at the top of the house. “I’ll have to show you,” says Victor. Of course he will.

Bea tries to use a wall phone to make a call, but it doesn’t work. So I guess the March house uses Verizon.

Later that night, Anita is in bed, and hears a weird tapping noise. She opens her door, and, as she screams, we zoom into her teeth and cut to black.

The next morning, Bea and Nina are polishing the silver (if not their accents) and musing on what happened to Anita. “I don’t blyme her for not wanting to sleep in the bysement.” Could she please not talk? Mrs. March shows up and yells at them not to polish the silver as it will stain their hands. They are also told that Anita has left during the night. Later, Bea is castigated for walking up stairs; “those pretty legs will get ugly muscle.” It’s a weird management style.

Nina intercepts Bea at the bottom of the stairs. “Become with me,” she says. Huh? Become what? Oh: “Bea, come with me.” You know, commas exist for a reason.

They—and their weird, freakish music cues—sneak down into the bysement—er, the basement. (Now she’s got me doing it.) They discover that Anita’s clothes are still in her room. “Why would she leave without her clothes?” Have you seen her clothes? They then jimmy open a door; Dr. Frank, whose lab is down the hall, hears something, and wanders out to investigate, clutching a cat. But the girls are gone. Why is he clutching a cat? Oh, now things start to get really upsetting.

The narrator tells us that the doctor’s most important experiment is about to take place, and the grafting will take place with a living breathing human body. That is, Anita’s. “And the brain would come from the doctor’s favorite cat.” (Now this is turning into a Lou Dobbs fantasy.)

Upstairs, Bea is packing. Nina comes by and they decide to somehow flee the house. The soft, almost silent closing of a suitcase catches Mrs. March’s attention through two closed doors and a long hallway. Mrs. March gets up and walks slowly down the stairs, the oboe simulating the sound her joints must be making. (Who the heck is the music editor for this movie?!) She creeps down to the basement and finds the jimmied door and evidence that it had been the girls. As it turns out the girls are right behind her. They quickly run in the other direction.
Meanwhile, Mrs. March struggles back upstairs and locks Bea and Nina in a room.

Victor comes back and tells Mrs. March that she has an appointment to see their lawyer in the morning to change her will. She yells at him for taking so long. Yes, she is one hot mama.
They go down to lab to see what the doctor has been working on and...OH MY GOD!!! Yes, the cat’s brain was successfully transplanted into Anita’s skull—I’m guessing he had to use no small amount of those styrofoam packing noodles or something since a cat’s brain is pretty small compared to a human skull. Mrs. March is horrified. “Does she have all the instincts of a cat?” Is that really the first question that pops into your mind? Dr. Frank demonstrates, and Anita successfully captures, kills, and eats a mouse. I personally don’t want to see the litter box.

While the doctor had been busy doing upsetting things with a vaguely Mexican girl and a cat, the brainless woman ambles outside and is mauled and killed by Stephen Stills. The grisly tableau is watched from the upstairs window by the girls. For some reason, even though the girls are three floors higher than the underground, concrete-lined lab, Dr. Frank can hear Nina yell “Somebody help her!” He runs out and chains Stephen Stills to a tree, which is reminiscent of the most recent Crosby, Stills, and Nash tour.

Later, the girls serve Mrs. March, Victor, and the doctor dinner and, in the kitchen, plot their escape. Bea will attempt to seduce Victor (like that will be difficult). She will then get the car keys. Bea finds Victor in the study having a nightcap (following all his daycaps, I guess). They go for a quiet romantic walk outside past the chained up, hideously mutated creature. While they are having a tender moment in the bushes, Mrs. March calls to Victor, and he goes back to the house. Bea wanders over to a gazebo and sees Anita hanging from the top—do cats climb up concrete and iron gazebos? Someone has apparently confused cats with monkeys. Anyway, Anita scratches out Bea’s eye.

In the blink of an eye (so to speak), Anita is on the roof the house somehow. Nina opens the window and looks up and sees Anita peering over the eave. Nina runs up to the roof to help her. Trying to get down, Anita plummets to her doom (actually, she falls quite gently to her doom).

Now the wheels are really coming off the wagon, and they hadn’t been screwed on too tightly to begin with. In the lab, Dr. Frank is treating Bea while Mrs. March and Victor look on. He holds up her eye in his hand, “Astonishingly complex isn’t it, the human eye.” Could you be more creepy, please? Nina bursts in, is shocked by seeing Bea with an eye missing, and she then tells them that Anita is dead. Dr. Frank runs out. Nina is pissed; she orders Mrs. March and Victor from the lab, and oddly they obey. Dr. Frank returns and says that his prognosis for Bea is good. “I’ve preserved the eye. Let me show you...” No! “She is a very lucky girl,” says Dr. Frank. “Do you think that ironical?” Ironical? Dr. Frank then expresses his sour grapes that other doctors have won Nobel Prizes, while he is stuck in a crazy old lady’s basement because she is the only one “who can supply me with the funds I need to continue my work.” Nina is not impressed.

Bea wakes up and freaks out when she realizes what has happened.

The next day, Victor and Mrs. March return from a day of shopping for Nina’s/Mrs. March’s new wardrobe. They have also made a hair Nina’s name. Later, Nina tries on the new clothes while Mrs. March ogles. The narrator reminds us, “the stupid girl wasn’t just modeling Mrs. March’s future wardrobe...but Mrs. March’s future body. So round, so nicely rounded in places that men like.” Sounds like an old Lucky Strikes commercial. Oh, and what a surprise, lecherous old Victor bursts in without knocking. “Don’t stop your style show on my account.” Oh, I think they should.

And now the gloves come off: Mrs. March tells Victor point blank that he is no longer needed. “You are no longer needed,” she says, “close the door on your way out.” “So I’m no longer needed at all, is that what you’re saying?” Um, yes; which word did you not understand? Victor hints that something macabre is about to happen, and Nina catches it. She is curious. Victor slinks out. You think he’s gonna drink?

Yep, sure enough, he is in the study downing what looks like a bottle of A1 Steak Sauce. Nina drops by and asks for clarification to his earlier comment. Victor drunkenly accuses her of being in on a plot to cut him out. having her own brain removed? He then shows her a press release (press release?) announcing that the March millions will be left to an orphan girl (she’s an orphan?). I guess they’re hoping it’s a slow news day. Victor then adds, “The next press release will be ‘March mansion destroyed by fire.’” Do you really need to send a press release out for something like that? Usually huge mansions that are consumed by fire make the news pretty much by themselves. And sending it out before the fire might raise suspicion. She implores him to help her and Bea get away. He agrees, and has her sign something. Then he tells her to go out to the car and wait.

After Nina leaves, it turns out that Mrs. March has been hiding in the drapes and she pops out and stabs him with a knitting needle. Or I think she does. It’s filmed and edited so weirdly that you’re not sure if they’re even on the same set as each other.

Nina then goes to Bea’s room and, suddenly very Austrian, tries to get her to accompany her escape. “Now; I won’t gow.” Still not British. Nina runs back to the study and finds Victor’s body. She screams, more out of relief than terror, I should think. Dr. Frank chloroforms Nina and brings her down to lab. Mrs. March is strapped into the bed next to her, and it looks like it’s showtime. Mrs. March drones on about how because of her hideous old body, “No one ever gave me any attention. Just my money. I never knew what it was like to be loved for myself.” Hadn’t there been by definition a Mr. March? And, hey, what about Victor? He inexplicably had a thing for her and she treated him like crap! “Why did you kill Victor?” asks the doctor. “Victor was a fool.” You know, again, I don’t think the old body was the problem.

All right, we’re in the home stretch here. Mrs. March is anesthetized, and the doctor glances over at where the cat’s brainless body is hanging. He has an idea...

Some time later, Nina wakes up...and she is still Nina. Where is Mrs. March? Her brain has been the body of the cat! (I guess it would have to be really crammed in the cat’s skull.) The doctor says, “You are now a very wealthy woman, Nina.” He wonders how he can keep access to her money. The cat is pissed and immediately scratches the doctor. “Dr. Frank enjoyed this transplantation,” the narrator tells us. Is that a tone of gloating?

Well, Mrs. March gets the last laugh. The cat manages to trap Dr. Frank in his atom brain tube thing and at the same time trigger the nuclear destruct device. So, basically, it’s like any cat. Nina is still strapped to her gurney. Bea, in bed, suspects something is up and staggers out. She pulls her bandage off to reveal an empty eye socket. Thank you, movie. She helps Nina escape. She runs back for her eye, which she spies in a Petri dish. However, her depth perception is obviously not what it used to be, and she blunders into a piece of machinery and is electrocuted before she can get to it. Doh! Nina flees the building just as it is consumed in flames. She wanders away, followed by the cat—that is, Mrs. March. “She would follow that girl. Some time, some place...revenge would come.” How is that gonna happen?

The end.

And that was how Dr. Frank transitioned from transplanting brains to opening a Finger Lakes winery. Boy, Dr. Frank did have a wildly awry moral compass. He said the goal of his research was to save lives, but if you can only transplant brains from one live body into another live body, that kind of means you have one extra brain that has to be disposed of. In other words, someone has to die to save someone else who wasn’t really dead to begin with. It’s probably futile to examine the moral implications of a movie like this too closely, but all brain transplant movies have the same problem. Maybe the goal should be to work on transplanting human brains into animals. But, as Dr. Farnsworth said in Futurama: “Sure everyone’s in favor saving Hitler’s brain. But put in the body of a great white shark, and suddenly you’ve crossed a line.” So maybe we should just all keep our brains to ourselves. Think about it won’t you? Thank you.

*I hasten to point out that I have visited Dr. Frank’s Finger Lakes winery many times and his wines are excellent and having nothing whatsoever to do with transplanted brains.

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