The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) -****
There are times when I feel like life is deliberately waving my abnormality in front of my face. Two months or so ago, while I was arranging to take time off from work to go to B-Fest, my coworkers were understandably curious about what had possessed me to take a trip to Chicago in the dead of winter. For some reason, whenever I explained B-Fest, the first title to spring to mind was always The Brain from Planet Arous; no sooner would those words leave my mouth than whoever I was talking to would look at me as though I had suddenly started speaking to them in Urdu. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Ye gods, man— it’s a motherfucking brain, and it’s from motherfucking outer space! What more do you need?!” But apparently most people’s minds don’t work like that. Hey— sucks to be them…
The Brain from Planet Arous lets you know you’ve picked a winner right out of the gate. How? By beginning with some kind of glowing meteorite falling to earth at a place called Mystery Mountain. No modern movie would even try to get away with a toponym like that. The next day, nuclear physicist Steve March (John Agar, from Invisible Invaders and Journey to the Seventh Planet) and his friend and colleague, Dr. Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller), notice that Mystery Mountain is now emitting sporadic bursts of high-intensity gamma radiation. Both men are deeply puzzled by this development, but it’s difficult to imagine why. I mean, the place is called Mystery Mountain— you’d think all kinds of weird shit would be going on there, 24-7. In fact, I guarantee you 30 years later, Mystery Mountain is going to be where all the pseudo-Satanist teenage metalheads hang out on Saturday night, smoking up and listening to King Diamond on their boom boxes. In any case, March and Murphy decide to go out and investigate. This they do, I hasten to add, without taking any recognizable safety precautions or packing any meaningful quantity of supplies. Despite the fact that they’re about to make a several days’ trek across uninhabited desert to get a closer look at the unknown source from which pulses of deadly ionizing radiation emanate, they bring no containment suits, no rucksacks, no film badges— just a pith helmet John Agar’s probably had sitting in his closet since making The Mole People the year before!
What the men find at Mystery Mountain (damn, but I love typing that…) is odd even for a spot with a name like that. At the mountain’s base is a cave that wasn’t there the last time March stopped in for a visit. A closer look reveals signs of artificial excavation, and fresh ones at that. This is far too much for the scientists’ curiosity, and they both go inside the enigmatic tunnel. The cave leads all the way to the heart of the mountain, and once there, Murphy picks up another surge of radioactivity on his Geiger counter. Soon after this latest pulse subsides, Dan and Steve are attacked by a huge, floating brain with glowing eyes! The shells from Murphy’s rifle pass harmlessly through the thing, which then kills Dan with a concentrated beam of the gamma rays that had coaxed him out to Mystery Mountain in the first place. And once it has finished with Murphy, the brain monster slips its fleshless form effortlessly into Steve’s body, seizing control of him for who knows what nefarious purpose.
You’ve got to give the brain monster credit for one thing, though— at least it doesn’t keep its host in the dark for long. The brain’s first order of business upon bringing March home is to use a few plausible-sounding lies to blow off a string of questions from Steve’s fiancee, Sally Fallon (I Saw What You Did’s Joyce Meadows), regarding what became of Dan and what the scientists found on their little excursion. But once that’s taken care of, and once Steve is safely alone in the house, the brain creature leaves his body so as to make its introductions. Its name is Gor, and it has come to Earth from the distant planet Arous. Gor’s objective, as if you couldn’t have guessed this, is the conquest of our world, though precisely why Gor should desire such a thing is never really addressed. But whatever his reasons, Gor has chosen his host well, for Steve’s lab is currently employed on nuclear weapons research, and the government contacts that come with such a project mean that Gor will be ideally placed to deliver his threats and ultimata to the leaders of the world when the time is right. March makes a brave show of defiance in response to Gor’s speech outlining his program for our planet, but it’s a totally empty gesture as long as the alien brain can reenter his body and override his personality at will.
Laying the groundwork for world conquest isn’t the only thing Gor is going to be doing with Steve’s body, either. Almost immediately after setting up shop inside his unwilling host, the insubstantial parasite begins noticing some of the fringe benefits of corporeality. Now that he’s got access to hands and skin and taste buds, Gor is able to partake of all the carnal pleasures his race got shafted out of in the process of evolving into creatures of pure intellect; inside Steve’s body, the evil space brain is like the proverbial kid in the candy store. In particular, Gor takes much more interest in the sensual aspects of Steve’s relationship with Sally than March himself ever did. At first, Sally is outright pleased with this development, but as the possessed March passes beyond “attentive lover” and through “playboy” to the very threshold of “deranged sex fiend,” his fiancee’s pleasure turns to concern. That concern only deepens when Steve— again under Gor’s direction— begins talking obsessively of wealth and power, hinting that whatever he’s up to at the lab is going to shake things up much more than his military paymasters anticipate. Sally eventually makes her worries known to her father (Thomas Browne Henry, from Blood of Dracula and The Beginning of the End), who agrees that something strange seems to have come over March of late. Making the connection between the onset of Steve’s personality shift and the time of his trip to Mystery Mountain, Sally and her dad retrace his steps, ultimately arriving at the very same cave where March and Murphy ran afoul of Gor. They don’t have to look around too long before finding Dan’s dead body, either, putting the lie to Steve’s stories about his friend’s trip to Las Vegas. What’s more, they also meet up with another Brain from Planet Arous. Theirs, however, is one of the good guys. His name is Vol, and he’s a cop of sorts. Evidently Gor is a fugitive from Arousian law, and Vol has followed in his tracks on a mission to haul him in. Taking up residence inside Sally’s dog, George, Vol joins forces with Steve’s loved ones in an effort to trap the other alien brain.
Vol’s arrival comes not a moment too soon. Steve’s lab is scheduled to conduct some kind of H-bomb experiment for the army brass in a few weeks, and Gor has been just as busy as the human scientists. But while they have been hard at work setting up their experiment, Gor has been practicing for a rather different demonstration. He’s been honing and magnifying the power of the gamma death ray that he used on Dan Murphy, and by the time Sally and her father have met and befriended Vol, Gor has reached the point where he can shoot down airliners with just a nasty glare from Steve’s eyes. (Pay attention when he does so, and you’ll be treated to the amazing spectacle of a large piece of the model Constellation stubbornly hanging in midair from a barely visible wire, even after Gor has blown it up!) Then when the generals stop by to watch the H-bomb go off, Gor shows off his death ray instead, wreaking even greater destruction on the testing range than the nuke would have. The alien brain has Steve tip his hand then, demanding a conference of world leaders and threatening to incinerate the capital city of any nation that refuses to send a duly empowered delegate to receive Gor’s ultimatum. The only hope hinges on a detail of Arousian biology on which Vol helpfully fills Sally in: once each day, an Arousian must leave its host’s body and take on independent physical form for a short time. When that happens, a good, solid blow to the Fissure of Rolando will kill the space brain. The trick will be communicating this information to Steve without Gor finding out.
The Brain from Planet Arous is the kind of film that causes previously normal people to become B-movie freaks in the first place. Even for a hardened veteran like myself, it’s impossible to watch such scenes as Gor’s destruction of the airliner— to say nothing of the final battle between Steve March and the sinister cerebrum— without a considerable degree of awe. What other reaction can there be in the face of Shirley Temple’s husband taking an axe to a four-foot balloon tricked out to resemble a gigantic brain with luminous little eyes on the underside of its frontal lobes? How else do you greet a plot development like Vol attempting to accomplish his mission by possessing the family dog? And as is often the case with the true touchstones of deliciously crappy cinema, the ways in which The Brain from Planet Arous goes most deliriously wrong are thrown into especially sharp relief by a curious form of blinkered professionalism. Director Nathan Juran (or Nathan Hertz, as he called himself here) made at least one very solid monster movie during the 1950’s— 20 Million Miles to Earth— and a certain amount of the competence he displayed there can be seen in this movie as well. The camera setups are frequently interesting, the sets are generally well dressed, and stock footage of real US military nuclear weapons tests is used to surprisingly good effect. The contrast between the quietly good and the raucously bad leaves The Brain from Planet Arous looking like a piece of jewelry in which an elegantly crafted setting is combined with the cheapest and ugliest possible stone— or maybe even with just a preserved dead cockroach!
But there’s one thing about The Brain from Planet Arous that stands out above all others: star John Agar. Up to now, my primary image of Agar came from the rather drab movies he made for Universal in the mid-1950’s— Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula, etc. Agar plodded through those roles with all the vigor and intensity of a two-toed sloth. But this film is something else altogether. Nowhere else have I seen Agar give such a gleefully unrestrained performance. Watching him as the possessed Steve March, blustering at a roomful of generals or feeling up Joyce Meadows like there’s no tomorrow, you get the feeling that Agar had never had so much fun on a movie set in his life. And yet after The Brain from Planet Arous, it was right back to the sort of lumpishly stuffy protagonists Agar had played during the Universal years. I guess some people just can’t recognize a good thing when they see it.