The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (2020)

“Let me die, let me die,” says the female voice at the beginning of Derek Carl’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, leading to monochrome credits that would not be out of place in a B-movie from the 1960s. Indeed, this closely mimics the opening to Joseph Green’s 1962 film of the same name (although also known as The Head That Wouldn’t Die, or by its working title The Black Door when it was shot in 1959), right down to Abe Baker and Tony Restaino’s dramatic orchestral score, here pilfered wholesale from the original. Obviously the list of cast and crew is different, but apart from the introduction of colour, the film’s opening scene plays out much as it did in Green’s original, with young Dr Bill Cortner (Patrick D. Green) stepping in where his father Dr William Cortner (David Withers) has failed, and bringing a dead patient back to life through new and ethically questionable techniques. This generational conflict, as the father’s crusty conservatism makes way for the son’s morally dubious modernity, lifts its stilted dialogue direct from Green and Rex Carlton’s original script, while the actors play up to the exaggerated gestures and hammy stylings of Sixties psychotronica – and so it looks, at least at first, as though this reimagining will relate to the original in the same manner as Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake (1998) related to Hitchcock’s 1960 original: a slavish, broadly shot-for-shot, ‘colourised’ homage. 

Yet there are big differences too, as becomes apparent as soon as Bill begins working on the patient’s brain, only to get comically showered – twice – in absurdly copious quantities of blood. While it is easy today to perceive in classic B-movies an element of camp that had not always been part of the intention, screenwriter Hank Huffman’s emerging alterations to the original script bring the comedy thick and fast, as the source story is exposed to the twin forces of irony and revision. Soon, alongside scenes that closely reproduce Carl’s film, we also notice new lines, new characters, and wholly new sequences, all of which bring a post-millennial perspective to these post-war materials. 

The original, though black-and-white in format, was also a decidedly all-white affair – something that this new version addresses critically by introducing commentary from two POCs: a waiter (Tom Avila) who raises a sceptical eyebrow at Bill’s suggestion that masala dishes contain aphrodisiac properties; and the black prostitute Lady Marmalade (Gaelle Lola Beauvais) who deems Bill and his assistant Kurt (Jason Reynold) “a couple of racists”, and expresses her inability to “understand the type of shit you white folks get up to.” Similarly if in the original women were seemingly lining up for the malevolent Bill to take advantage of them, here he more than meets his match with the street prostitute Roxanne (Julia Bray), who turns on a dime from potential victim to violent, emasculating avenger, and hilariously sends the terrified Bill packing.

Despite many digressions and deviations, the story remains essentially the same: after his fiancée Jan (Rachael Perrell Fosket) is beheaded in a car accident, Bill keeps her head alive in his country house’s basement laboratory, while seeking a good-looking woman’s body on which to transplant it, very much against both women’s will. Accordingly, this is a story of toxic masculinity, manifested as both SF-standard mad-scientist hubris and objectifying misogyny. Jan’s heady resistance to both of these ensures that, while she may insist on no sex before marriage, she is certainly happy to fuck the patriarchy and has found her own body, in the form of Bill’s closeted mutant experiment ‘The Thing’ (Alex Tiefenthaler), to help execute her disembodied will. 

At the same time, Carl’s inherited theme of head transplants becomes a reflexive commentary on his film’s status as a remake: for Carl’s entire film transplants the brains of Green’s original onto its own all-new body, while letting all the seams and sutures show. More reflexivity comes in references to other films. Here, when Jan and The Thing perform a bizarre duet to Bob Cole’s Under The Bamboo Tree (1917), they are conjuring a similar duet of the same song from Carl Reiner’s The Man With Two Brains (1983) – a film which bridges the semi-serious motifs of Green’s original and the more parodic aspects of Green’s remake. As a scene from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955) is glimpsed on television in which a mad scientist is overcome by one of his own experiments, Bill – with extreme dramatic irony – offers the comment, “Serves him right”, oblivious to the approach of his own similar fate. In a later scene, Bill’s father William is shown at home watching Green’s original The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, to which he responds, “What nonsense!” For in a truly postmodern move, this film dismisses itself for its own ridiculousness – and if Bill puts himself in Oedipal competition with his daddy, so does Carl in this brilliant but ludicrous attempt to outdo Green. Bill even makes a film of his own deeds, which later – again – his dad will watch, and take rather more seriously.    

The very existence of this remake belies its opening lines – which are heard again at the end. For this is one brain (or two) that won’t die, simply because Carl will not let that happen. As his protagonist Bill struggles – and repeatedly fails – to transplant a new working arm onto Kurt, or to perfect The Thing out of “bits and pieces stolen from the morgue… stitched together like a monster’s jigsaw puzzle”, and as he proposes not just finding another woman’s body for Jan’s head, but then another new body for that woman’s head, and yet another new body for the third woman’s head, in “an endless cycle, ad infinitum!”, his deeply flawed experiments are just like Carl’s film, pieced together from other films to keep alive – in ever more monstrous form – an idea that goes back, ad infinitum, not just to the original The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960), Wood’s Bride of the Monster, James Whales’ Frankenstein films, and beyond these to the Pygmalion myth of ancient times.

It would appear that stories about men’s insane idealisations of women are still very much alive and here to stay. Meanwhile, there is much to savour in this particular hybrid incarnation of the story type, knowingly born of the past, yet lovingly retrofitted to show that anxieties about (female) identity and (male) oppression can still be as relevant today as they were in the early Sixties.      

strap: Derek Carl’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die finds a new postmodern, parodic body for the severed head of an early Sixties sci-fi B movie.

© Anton Bitel