Monday, December 1, 2008

“Oh, come on now, Doris…do I look like a maniac who goes around killing girls?”

As part of CharredHer’s On Demand service, I get the opportunity to see free movies from the likes of Flix (which is sort of the bastard child of Showtime and The Movie Channel), TCM, The Sundance Channel, occasionally IFC, something new called RHI Showcase (which seems to have a lot of Hallmark-type dramas) and a channel called Illusion that apparently is available on some digital channel lineups. You have to sift through a lot of chaff to find some worthwhile wheat…but in some cases, the chaff will suffice if you’re just looking for something to keep you amused.

Illusion had just the ticket last night—the 1962 camp classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. MST3K enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with this colossal turkey, about clearly crazed surgeon Bill Cortner (Jason Evers, the only big name I could find in the cast…and even in this one he answers to the opening credits as “Herb”) conducting unorthodox experiments with reanimating the dead. As he speeds along a highway to his “country home” with fiancée Jan Compton (Virginia Leith), he cracks up his little sports car and is thrown from the vehicle; as he returns to the automobile he looks in horror at the passenger side and picks up an object with his jacket—then makes a beeline for the house (carrying it under his arm, as if he were trying to score the winning touchdown), where he shows it to his deformed assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels). It’s Jan’s disembodied head, which he places in a pan containing a solution of his own making—his diabolical scheme is to find a body for “Jan in the Pan” and he’s only got about 48 hours in which to do it. For those of you who went “Eww…” when you learned what he was carrying in his jacket, you will no doubt be further creeped out by the fact that Dr. Von Gigolo starts visiting the local dives in town scoping out the women to find the one specimen (un)willing to donate her smokin’ hot body to science. Jan, on the other hand, has other plans—she learns that the serum being pumped into her to keep her alive has given her telepathic powers so formidable that she is able to communicate with the mutant that Dr. Creepy and his lackey keep in a locked room in the lab.

I have to tell ya, this one is full of laughs. First of all, you don’t find a lot of movies that manage to change their name by the time the credits roll (it starts out as “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” and becomes “The Head That Wouldn’t Die” when it calls it a wrap). The acting is atrocious, the dialogue hysterical (“Nothing you can be is more terrible than I am”), the sets chintzy (the nightclub Evers visits in search of a body donor looks like it was filmed in someone’s basement)—I don’t think I saw anything in this movie that would reek of professionalism. For good ol’ fashioned god awfulness, Brain is pretty hard to beat.

At least, that’s what I told myself before checking out Reefer Madness (1936)—which is also playing a limited engagement on Flix On Demand. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with this one: an “expose” on the dreaded marijuana menace that was used many years after as lecture material to the nation’s impressionable youth. (Which got me to wondering: why did these filmmakers—if they were so determined to put teens on the straight and narrow—always make the life of a hophead such an enticing one? I mean, these movies show kids drinking, smoking weed, dancing, necking—clearly having the time of their lives—and yet this behavior is supposed to be bad?) It’s now considered a camp classic, and was used by the pro-weed organization NORML in the 1970s to demonstrate how naïve our thinking remains today.

What’s always amused me about Madness is the movie’s many connections to old-time movie serials. Dave O’Brien, who plays unfortunate Ralph Wiley—the hophead who goes criminally insane—was an actor/stuntman who appeared in many chapter plays: he’s the titled hero of Captain Midnight (1942), and he’s also in The Black Coin (1936), The Secret of Treasure Island (1938) and The Spider Returns (1941)…plus he appeared in many of PRC’s cheapo Billy the Kid and Texas Rangers programmers. He’s probably best-known for his appearances in MGM’s Pete Smith shorts…and when you think about it, Reefer Madness sounds like a title of one of them. (I can hear Pete narrating now: “Look, fella…you’re supposed to inhale…g’bye now!”) O’Brien’s wife at the time, Dorothy Short, co-starred alongside her hubby in Midnight (she played Joyce Edwards) and also appeared in the Pete Smith shorts (the two were divorced in 1954). A third member of Reefer’s cast, Carleton Young, gained notoriety in cliffhangers like Buck Rogers (1939), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), The Adventures of Red Ryder (1940) and The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)—but he’s probably best-known as Dick Tracy’s kid brother Gordon in the first of the successful Republic serials based on the comic-strip detective.

I didn’t notice until last night, however (and it’s fair to admit I’ve seen Madness a few dozen times), that one of the blaring, sensationalistic newspaper headlines has a story that trumpets DICK TRACY, G-MEN LEAD SUCCESSFUL RAID and mentions the killing of “Trigger” Stark. This is the plot of Dick Tracy Returns, and since this serial was released in 1938 it would appear that some post-editing was done to Madness after its initial release. Well, it was good for a giggle, anyway…though not the kind of giggle one would get from smoking the dread demon weed in the film.


Pam said...

I love TCM On Demand. It makes my life complete. I realize it's a sad little life if TCM On Demand completes it. But there it is.

Vince said...

On a recent episode of Scream Queens, a VH1 reality show that I am NOT hooked on in which 10 ingenues vie for a role in Saw VI, the "acting challenge" required the ladies to recreate a key scene from The Brain That Wouldn't Die. What's amazing was how instructive it was. It's hard out there for a disembodied head.