Monday, 7 May 2012

"I'm here and I want action!" - The Brain Eaters

In a 1958 film directed by Bruno VeSota for Roger Corman's American International Pictures, a mysterious spate of killings in a small town in Illinois begins with the sudden appearance of what is initially taken to be an alien spacecraft. There is even mention of sightings of a flaming chariot in the sky, recalling the Biblical tale of Elijah. 

It eventually transpires, however, that the small bug-like creatures, which have begun attaching themselves parasitically to the local populace and taking over their brains, are not extraterrestrials but antediluvian throwbacks to the carboniferous period. Their craft has not fallen down from the sky but tunneled up from the earth after 200 million years beneath the surface, here to offer the planet's current residents the "gift" of a "utopia" based on logic and universal harmony - by force, if necessary. Intriguingly, their fifty-foot-tall, spiral transport bears an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Tatlin's famous monument to the third international.

The creatures - which were apparently handmade by producer Ed Nelson himself using some old wind-up toys, a bit of fur from an old coat, and two pipe cleaners - work systematically, taking over the brains of the local government, the police, and finally the media. It is at this point, when we realise the local radio producer is also One Of Them, that the identity of composer "Tom Jonson" - a man with no other IMDB credits apart from this film - is brought rather sharply into question by a rather glaring needle-drop from the third act vorspiel to Tristan und Isolde. 

The plot was considered sufficiently similar to a Robert Heinlein novel called The Puppet Masters to justify an out of court settlement. But Heinlein's novel is set in a far future 2007, several years after a nuclear war and amidst continued tension between opposing East and West powers. In Heinlein's novel the creatures are aliens - from Titan, one of Saturn's moons - but their resemblance to slugs and the way they attach themselves to their human hosts at the base of the necks makes the link pretty close.  In Robert Rodriguez's film, The Faculty, one of the characters notes that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a "blatant rip off" of this novel of Heinlein's.
There is a very peculiar atmosphere all the way through this film. The strange gaps in logic and continuity combine with an excessive use of dry ice, dutch angles, and often superfluous voice-over to leave the film teetering precariously between Ed Wood-esque unintentional self-parody and a genuinely dream-like driftwork. Director VeSota worked mostly as an actor and ended up playing a series of barmen in various TV westerns. But three years before The Brain Eaters he had written and directed (uncredited) one of the strangest films of the fifties: the dialogue-free noir thriller, Dementia, for which George Antheil provided one of his very best film scores.

The latter film was banned by the New York Board of Censors until the year Brain Eaters was released, three years later, when it limped out with meagre distribution, a poor substitute soundtrack, and an entirely pointless voice-over explaining what's going on at every step. It slowly developed a place in cult fandom, however, thanks firstly to being the picture being shown in the cinema in The Blob, and, much later, a glowing review in the RE/Search Incredibly Strange Films issue. It seems the whole thing is now available to watch on YouTube.