Monstrosity/The Atomic Brain (1963) -***
It’s a movie directed by Ray Dennis Steckler’s cinematographer— and if that isn’t a ringing anti-endorsement, then I don’t know what would be. Before he teamed up with Steckler to lens the likes of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies and The Thrill Killers, Jospeh V. Mascelli directed Monstrosity, a whacked-out, sleazed-up variation on the venerable mad doctor theme. It’s slightly less loony than the typical Steckler picture, but only very slightly.
It’s also nearly as heavy on the narration as The Beast of Yucca Flats— indeed, narrator Bradford Dillman (who got to show up on the screen in Piranha and The Swarm) probably should have been given top billing. (Actually, if you get Monstrosity as part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s Science Fiction Classics twelve-disc box set [where it goes by The Atomic Brain], you’ll see that the packaging does identify Dillman as the star!) As the voiceover explains, Dr. Otto Frank (Frank Gerstle, from The Wasp Woman and The Neanderthal Man) has been hard at work on transplant research, and is rapidly approaching the day when he will be able to move human brains from one body to another. Frank has already enjoyed some success in installing animal brains in human bodies. For example, Hans, the hulking assistant who accompanies him on his nighttime body-snatching missions, was a traffic-accident victim whose dying brain was replaced by one from a vicious dog! (Which explains Hans’s hornet-mean disposition and inability to speak, but doesn’t quite make sense of his fangs, subhuman brow ridges, or 40’s werewolf facial hair…) The trouble is, Frank has been unable to duplicate that feat since; his theory is that the length of time between death and transplantation is the critical factor. His latest experiment didn’t pan out at all, and so he and Hans go out to steal another body, killing a drunk cemetery security guard while they’re at it. (This, incidentally, will have no bearing whatsoever on the plot.) The new dead girl (Margie Fisco) has been in the crypt for only a couple of hours, but while Frank’s radiation machine is able to reanimate her, she returns to life as nothing more than a zombie, even more completely mindless than Hans the dog-man.
Interestingly enough, Monstrosity makes a point of addressing something that falls by the wayside in most mad-science flicks— where’s the money coming from? Frank’s lab space is provided and his experiments funded by an eccentric (and extremely nasty) old woman named Hetty March (Marjorie Eaton, from The Killing Kind and The Zombies of Mora Tau), with the understanding that as soon as Frank’s techniques are perfected, her brain goes straight into a young, beautiful body. Then she can ditch Victor (Frank Fowler), the slightly less old man whom she has permitted to sponge off of her for many years because it beats being totally alone, and go out hunting for guys who will finally be able to appreciate her for something other than her money. Frank has told her that an absolutely fresh donor body is almost certainly the key, and with that in mind, Mrs. March has put out an advertisement seeking three foreign girls, ostensibly to work as maids in her mansion. It’s pretty smart when you think about it— by shipping in their victims from out of the country, Hetty and Frank give themselves a head-start in evading the law.
The girls in question are Nina Rhodes of Austria (Erika Peters, from Mr. Sardonicus and House of the Damned), Bea Mullins of England (A Bucket of Blood’s Judy Bamber), and Anita Gonzalez of Mexico (Lisa Lang), and not one of them suspects a thing when Victor comes to collect them from the airport. That changes almost immediately, though, when the first thing Hetty Marsh does upon their arrival is send them down to Dr. Frank’s lab for a medical examination. I mean, that’s hardly standard operating procedure for a job interview! Nor is it anything like common practice to have your prospective boss come in and inspect your naked body when all she’s supposed to be hiring you for is to keep the house clean. Hetty doesn’t seem terribly impressed with Anita, and she ends up relegated to a room down in the basement— conveniently close to Frank’s laboratory. The other two girls get rooms on the uppermost floor of the mansion, where they will be well insulated from any suspicious noises coming from behind the laboratory door. You know the noises I mean— the kind that invariably accompany sending a beast-man to collect a girl from her bed, replacing her brain with one from a short-tempered housecat, and then zapping her with a dose of gamma radiation to bring her back to life.
Nina and Bea really start to wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into once they notice that Anita has gone missing, even though her clothes and personal effects are all still stored neatly in her room. Then they happen to be looking out the window right when the zombie girl (whom Frank has been letting have the run of the laboratory since her reanimation) gets loose from the basement, wanders into the garden, and runs afoul of Hans. Much as they might like to flee, they’ll stay right where they are now that they know what Hans will do to any girl that comes within arm’s reach. Meanwhile, Hetty has settled upon Bea as the provider of her replacement chassis, and begins insisting that Nina do all the work around the house. I mean, Hetty can’t have her future fingernails getting all cruddy or her future hands getting all calloused, now can she? The plan hits a snag, however, when Bea has a run-in with Anita. The cat-girl may not have Hans’s strength, but she’s much quicker and more agile, and if anything, she’s even more hostile toward strangers. Anita pounces on Bea when the latter girl tries to talk to her out in the garden and find out where she’s been for the past few days, and the human cat quite literally scratches one of Bea’s eyes out! This, of course, means that Nina is now the designated carrier of Hetty Marsh’s brain, and the scheming old woman quickly gets moving on making the arrangements for transferring her wealth to Nina after the brain-switch. Marsh rewrites her will so as to leave everything she owns to Nina, and then makes preparations to have her home destroyed in a fire. That last part will also cover Dr. Frank’s tracks by incinerating the lab where he did the deed. One might ask, however, just how willing Victor is going to be to cooperate further in the event that he figures out how small a role he can expect to play in the Nina-fied Hetty’s life, and for that matter, how far Hetty can trust Dr. Frank to perform the operation she expects of him on the terms she expects to dictate.
Monstrosity is exceedingly stupid and makes almost no sense, but as I’m sure you’re well aware by now, there are times when those qualities are exactly what I’m looking for. It is worthy of consideration as one of the great “what are you people doing?!” movies of the early 60’s, fit to stand in the company of such maniacally bizarre films as The Manster and The Brainiac. Brain-swapping in the movies has nearly always been an occasion for unintended chuckles, but Monstrosity’s creators didn’t even bother to make sure the brains being exchanged would fit comfortably within the skulls for which they were destined. Not even the most gigantic dog has a brain large enough not to rattle around inside a human cranial chamber like a marble in a ping-pong ball, while the brain of your average housecat would fit (albeit with a bit of squeezing) within a man’s sinus cavity. And when Dr. Frank double-crosses his benefactor by transplanting her brain into the body of a cat, the most remarkable facet of his achievement is not a matter of medicine but of basic physics— somehow he has circumvented the fundamental nature of matter itself, that it has mass and takes up space. The eventual outcome of this betrayal is possibly even more hilarious, in that anyone who has ever lived for any length of time with a sufficiently intelligent cat will know that no brain transplant would be necessary to explain the way Cat-Hetty takes her revenge. Let’s just say that if I had a mad lab with an atomic reactor in my basement, Dr. Hell (yes, I named my cat Dr. Hell— this surprises you how, exactly?) would under no circumstances be allowed to go anywhere near the thing. I also have to wonder why Hans looks like the monster from a poverty-row werewolf movie from twenty years back, while neither Anita Gonzalez nor the zombie girl take on any of the physical characteristics of the animals whose brains they end up carrying.
Nor does the unique screwiness of the mad science exhaust the masochistic charms of Monstrosity. When the first three scenes went by without a single line of dialogue, I began to fear that Bradford Dillman was never going to shut up. But then I heard the actors speak, and I understood at once why near-constant narration seemed like the safer bet. Judy Bamber in particular is incredible. Not even among the cast of Bram Stoker’s Dracula will you find a counterfeit British accent more shamelessly phony, more grating upon the ear. She was probably aiming at Cockney, but it comes across more as the world’s worst approximation of Australian— Bamber’s idea of faking an accent is to do nothing more than speak in her normal manner, but converting all of her long-“a” sounds to long “i”s, while substituting “oi” for the long “i” on a rather less systematic basis. Erika Peters, meanwhile, wisely doesn’t bother pretending to be an Austrian at all after her introductory scene, and for this we may be grateful; no one would be able to stand it if she had compounded Bamber’s affront to the ear by spending the entire movie doing her Colonel Klink impersonation.