Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Brain Eaters (1958)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A curious cone shaped – actually pretty phallic - object appears in the vicinity of a US small town. Shortly after it pops up, murders happen in town, and its mayor disappears. Pompous senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe), the kind of man who likes talking about himself in the third person and is always calling for “action”, sexy young pipe smoking scientist Dr. Kettering (Ed Nelson), the mayor’s son Glenn (Alan Jay Factor) and assorted hangers-on and love interests investigate.

While their investigation of the UFO (or whatever that thing is) is quite inconclusive, the return of the mayor in a half-crazed and rather dangerous state of mind opens new avenues of interest. Our heroes quickly realize the good man is controlled by an alien parasite with pipe filler antennas sitting on his neck. It is of course invasion time by some of those evil communist aliens, though these particular aliens come from a somewhat different direction than usual.

Our heroes (such as they are) will have to fight the alien menace’s attempts to bring peace and understanding to mankind with all the tools the film’s budget leaves them.

Bruno VeSota’s AIP production is quite obviously heftily inspired by (house nemesis) Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, though it lacks the time for the author’s rambling nonsense philosophizing, and was made a good ten years too early get something out of the nudist aspects of the novel. To make up for it, the film uses state of the art needle drop technology to get itself a soundtrack made out of classical music, as happened quite often in AIP films of this era.

That the film is also heavily inspired by a lot of the other secret invasion movies of its time and place hardly needs to be mentioned. It was a natural expression of the anxieties of its time and place, giving expression to the fear of communism and the narrow-minded fear of anything and anyone different that made the 50s such a special time in the USA (and here in Germany too, for that matter).

The Brain Eaters isn’t on the level – neither in quality nor in ambiguity – of a film like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, of course. It does however make quite a lot out of its especially impoverished means. Sure, the acting is mostly pretty dire, with Nelson and sometimes Factor as the only exceptions to the rule, and VeSota’s direction is often quite crude. The latter is at least often crude in an interesting way, trying to build a bit of an atmosphere of menace and dread out of Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups and adorable little parasites (how could I not love those pipe filler antennae?). It’s sort of successful at that, even, building up to a climax that’s weird and archetypal enough to be memorable.

Of course, VeSota has to take short cuts that need a viewer patient with some of the problems typical of shoe-string budget films of its time and place, where there’s just no money available to show some rather important plot developments and narration has to jump in, and where more narration steps in to tell us the things we already see. I’ve seen worse examples of the latter phenomenon, though, and for most of the time, the film’s ambitions aren’t completely outside its grasp.

This all might sound as if I were damning The Brain Eaters with faint praise when in fact I did enjoy myself immensely when watching it. Sure, I’ve seen 50s paranoia done more subtle as well as more cinematically interesting, but VeSota’s film not only has a handful of effective moments but manages to be comparatively fast-moving and fun in between these moments too. From time to time, it even hits on a bit more, like in the scene in which the town’s sheriff fights against the parasite sitting on his back (one of the few moments in SF/horror cinema of the era I know that’s actually interested in how the victim of a mind-controlling parasite must feel). That’s much more than anyone could ever expect from this kind of drive-in quickie, so I find myself quite taken with The Brain Eaters.

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