January 4, 2009

Show me your Fissure Rolando!

The Brain From Planet Arous THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957)
Directed by Nathan Juran (Hertz)
Starring:
John Agar – Steve March
Joyce Meadows - Sally Fallon
Thomas B. Henry – John Fallon
Robert Fuller – Dan Murphy
Henry Travis – Colonel Frogley

As the opening credits roll in The Brain From Planet Arous, the filmmakers opt for the classic opening gambit as a light makes its way thoughtfully through the sky above a barren, desert landscape; accompanied by a bass thump march over high-register quiver on electric Theremin. Immediately any fan of Radiation Cinema is tuned in: this is an “invasion picture.”

The light, which looks like the Star of Bethlehem and is clearly a craft, drops low and hovers, and there is an explosion (typical 1950s movie explosion with plenty of great phosphorous sparklers and smoke trails), which take us out of the credits and into the start of some classic Sci-Fi.

As the opening theme fades away, we have nuclear scientist, Steve March (B-movie legend, John Agar), sitting before two or three Geiger counters, looking awfully confused. He has, as you may imagine, been getting some very strange readings on his “instruments.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he says to his fellow scientist, Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller), who seems more interested in loafing and reading science fiction pulp that doing any research work. “The Geiger counter’s been going off all morning, and the nucleo-meter checks right along with it.”

During a short scene, where much well-managed pseudoscience is tossed around and the source of irregular radiation is established, we are introduced to Dr. March’s fiancĂ©e, Sally (played to pert, bouncy perfection by Joyce Meadows). “You know it’s nearly three o’clock, and you mad scientists haven’t even stopped for lunch?” she huffs, breezing into the lab/living room in a brilliant white dress. Immediately, Sally’s role is crystal clear: Fists-on-hips scolder, lover, vulnerable dish. “No wonder I’ve been getting insulting messages from my stomach!” says Dan with a chuckle as Steve gives his girl a peck on a proffered cheek. “Hello, Sal,” says Dr. March. “It looks like there’s something going on over at Mystery Mountain.”


Robert Fuller, John Agar, and Joyce Meadows

Along with quick clarification of Sally’s duties in the film, the scene also establishes a terrific “atomic” theme. Much of the dialogue between the two nuclear scientists takes place in front of a wall map of New Mexico (the words “White Sands Proving . . .” has been hand-written on the corner to avoid any confusion). Geiger counters are heard chattering throughout the scene, and when Mystery Mountain is mentioned, Sally –an Army brat as well as a living doll -- chirps in, “Dad says he can’t understand how the army missed building a base out there, it’s so miserable.” Everyone knows what Army bases in the desert are for, right? Your choices are: either 1) the investigation or subsequent cover-up of alien visitation, or 2) horrid nuclear experimentation and atomic testing. The mere fact that the site was considered is good enough to further establish some fine atomic-theme credentials.

It is decided that Mystery Mountain deserves some investigation, but not before (at her firm but precious insistence), the boys enjoy the barbecue Sally has prepared first. As the guys enjoy their burgers, Sally’s father, John Fallon, shows up (played by old pro, Thomas B. Henry). Mr. Fallon asks several intelligent and obvious questions: Might an extended trip in 120 degree heat be ill-advised? If the “gamma” radiation is so high, shouldn’t the Atomic Energy Commission be notified? Naw, replies Dr. March. Hell no. Eat your burger. While on the topic of burgers, it should be noted that every single meal in the film is eaten outdoors in Hawaiian shirts, barbecue style, on patio furniture with plenty of beers, drinks and hamburgers; served up by Sally in high-heels. I can only speak for myself here, but I want a goddamn time machine, and I want it now.

Thomas B. Henry and John Agar

The two scientists hop into a Jeep and head out to Mystery Mountain, which is actually the legendary Bronson Canyon just outside Los Angeles, location for dozens of Sci-Fi classics (including the epic Robot Monster), as well as hundreds of other genre films and television episodes. One day a book will be written, chronicling the films and episodes shot at this location, as a tribute to this national treasure. Actors must have hated the location, however, as all concerned here certainly have a rough go navigating the rocky, murderously hot, uneven landscape. John Agar, on the down slope of his 30s when this film was made, does some serious puffing for oxygen and pours sweat; while in a later scene, both Joyce Meadows and Thomas B. Henry slip together, holding hands, and do a nasty butt-slide as they skid down a ravine. Watch close and you can see Meadows mouth a word that may or may not be “ouch.” Quick question: Are the resulting large, purplish, horribly-painful scrapes from this kind of fall called a “strawberry” or a “rasberry?” I can never remember.

Finally our heroes find the source of the radiation and go exploring a cave; and the film lights up the afterburners.

Gor!

A rogue, criminal brain named Gor has come to Earth from the Planet Arous – a planet where the creatures have evolved so intellectually that they are simply . . . well, floating brains with half-closed eyes locked permanently into an expression of bored malevolence. Said floating brain appears and, despite our boys filling it with some pretty substantial led courtesy of a GI .45 Colt and a M1 Garand (post-war scientists were always well armed with army issue), Gor fries Dan to a crisp and occupies the body of Steve.

Gor’s mission, which he (and it, as we soon learn, is certainly a he) plans to accomplish with Steve’s body, is the complete enslavement of Earth. Once all humans are slaves to his will, Gor will direct humans to build spaceships and be trained as part of an invading space army, which Gor will lead back to conquer his home planet, Arous. Not so fast, he’s not done. Refusing to think small, Gor will then enslave all the inhabitants of Arous, combine them with his established, human force, and then proceed to, yes, conquer the universe. Whew!

Having his work cut out for him, Gor/Steve returns home where he busies himself through the bulk of the picture proving his destructive powers to military personnel and the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as lusting mightily after Sally. It seems that Gor is not quite the creature of pure intellect we had imagined. As with most invading alien creatures, even floating brains, Gor can’t keep his grubby mitts of earth women and develops an overpowering leech for Sal. Gor wastes no time in using Steve’s body with intent. “Wow,” says Sally after one particularly grueling, teeth-mashing embrace, “you never kissed me like that before!” You bet he hasn’t, honey, and there’s plenty more where that came from!

John Agar

Gor’s powers, aside from being a love machine, seem largely of an explosive, atomic nature, which are signaled by his eyes becoming large and blackly shiny (a very nice effect produced by contact lenses lined with foil, which must have hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Agar, who certainly proved himself a trooper throughout the demanding filming, claimed in many later interviews he could only wear them for brief periods). Unlike a lot of alien invaders, where eliminating humans is merely a means to an end, Gor really enjoys blowing stuff up and killing folks. The local Sherriff becomes suspicious of Steve over the disappearance of Dan, so Steve happily admits that, yep, he killed Dan; and then proceeds to “radiate” the stunned Sherriff, obviously enjoying his work. Later, he is positively giggly as he blows an airliner out of the sky for kicks; again demonstrating a decidedly un-intellectual side.

Eventually, Gor, wearing Steve’s body like a favorite suit, bullies his way into an Energy Commission meeting, where he makes his intentions known after a demonstration of his powers. Here, filmmakers use stock footage of de-classified Government tests that were preformed in the 1940s on mock cities peopled with dummies (if you ever want to understand the existential humor of the “duck and cover” program offered to American schoolchildren of the era, feast your eyes). “If you all will kindly watch the screen,” says Gor in a smarmy tone, having established that the monitor in the room is trained on the test area. The footage, where buildings simply tremble like dried grass in flame, disintegrate, and become part of the wind, rolls to much maniacal laughter from Gor.

Speaking of Gor’s maniacal laughter, it’s a good a time as any to say something that needs to be said about The Brain From Planet Arous. That is: John Agar seems to come up a bit short when “maniacal” is required. Agar was a fine actor with a natural, warm style; reliable and easy in front of the camera when cast correctly; but as a tyrannical alien planning to crush all in his path toward Universal domination? Agar simply can't muster the villainous intensity required. His metre was the hail fellow well met; the B movie handsome hero, the solid officer or scientist; a pipe smoker congratulating his neighbor on a nice lawn. At his most villainous maybe a lecherous tennis pro caught screwing the Mayor’s wife (come to think of it, that's a meaty roll Agar would have smacked out of the park), but a universe-dominating, sadistic monster demanding subservience from world leaders? Nope. Just nope.

Help comes in the form of Vol, a good cop brain from Arous, who was come to take Gor back home for trail. Vol, while sporting the same hooded eyes as Gor (clearly a second brain would have broke the budget), has a melodious voice and is kind to the pet dog, which cements his goodness beyond suspicion. Soft voiced, pleasant Val offers to help by taking over the body of the pet dog, which, when occupied, does absolutely nothing but sniff around playfully. Vol, it must be said, does nothing in the way of help except to offer a bit of advice: Gor must occasionally leave Steve’s body and take on solid form to become “re-oxygenated.” Once solid, he can be killed by a sharp blow to the “Fissure of Rolando,” an actual fold in the brain. Realizing that Vol’s “help” is only going to be advice offered from a safe distance (no wonder Gor only sees his wimpy home planet as a stepping stone to larger things), Sally decides to grab the bull by the horns. She tears a page out of a set of encyclopedias which illustrate the fissure, scribbles a helpful note, and leaves it strategically for Steve to see. Steve sees the note, as luck would have it, not only at a moment when Gor has gone solid, but when there is an axe in easy reach as well. Gor suddenly makes a play for Sally and it’s batter up!

Steve wails away with the axe while Sally screams and Gor squeals like a little girl. It should be noted, though, for future victims of Arousian possession, not much attention need by given to the much-discussed “Fissure of Rolando” as a point of vulnerability. In other words, don’t worry about aiming your chops too precisely. Dr. March seems to do just fine simply hacking away like a rabid lumberjack until the Brain flops on the floor like a big potato. During this scene, Agar is certainly in his element as an actor, and seems to be enjoying every second of it. The effects in this scene are, shall we say, limited by budget restrictions. The brain suddenly looks like a balloon on a very obvious string attached to the ceiling, swaying and bouncing around weightlessly, as Agar somehow manages to convince. Now that’s great acting.

As our exhausted by exalted couple catch their breath, and all threat of danger has passed, chicken-shit Vol exits the dog’s body and scoots off without so much as a by-your-leave to the Earthlings, who, after all, have done all his work and taken all the risks. Sally calls to him, but he’s long gone; heading back to his home planet, no doubt, to claim all credit and reward. As she tries to explain to Steve about the second alien, March, for reasons unknown, doesn’t believer her. Sally, who has not only figured out how to kill the alien but has also stood right in the middle of the fray when brain parts were splattering about (and while, it should be noted, the “cop,” Vol, was cowering in the dog, outside the house), receives only a contemptuous snort as a reward from Steve. “You and your imagination,” he says, as end theme music swells and a rough embrace and kiss fade us out.

How to explain this ending? Why, of all people, would Steve not believe the possibility of an alien, considering he has spent the entire movie writhing and sweating with one inside him, a great deal of the time with black, swollen, shiny eyeballs into the bargain? Why doesn’t Sally, in a meltdown of frustration, simply kick Steve in the nuts? Since we are asking questions, when do the authorities show up and arrest Steve for the murder, at the very least, of Dan and the Sherriff, whose smoking body is still in the house? How does our couple deal with that? I want to be a fly on the wall when our exhausted, sweaty couple begin blathering some nonsense about alien brains. “See, there was this good brain, which hid in our dog, and the bad brain made me blow up airplanes with my eyes, and . . .” No wonder Vol beat feet, probably grinning all the way, the yellow swine.

The answer is, of course, don’t be an ass. Let’s make it a double feature! So shut up and stick another bag of popcorn in the microwave. This is Radiation Cinema.

I loved this movie and, as instructed, always keep an axe by the fireplace just in case. Do you know where the Fissure Rolando is?

5 comments:

  1. Love your blog. Brain from Planet Arous is my favourite 50's SciFi!

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  2. Panavia: You have picked a good one as your favorite. Agar was never beter! - Mykal

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  3. Mykal,
    Looking around, it appears that "The Brain from Planet Arous" appeared on a double bill with "Teenage Monster" (1958).

    Your comments evoked a mental image of Vol high-tailing it back to Arous to collect the "$50000, dead or alive" bounty for Gor. Hilarious!
    Thanks!

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  4. "the legendary Bronson Canyon just outside Los Angeles" and "Actors must have hated the location, however, as all concerned here certainly have a rough go navigating the rocky, murderously hot, uneven landscape"
    Well, with all respect to your wonderful blog, I have the feeling you've not yet visited Bronson Canyon (or more precisely Bronson Caves, which is instantly recognisable from the opening of the old Batman tv show, and from Invasion of the Body Snatchers - it's the cave in which McCarthy and Ms Wynter shelter from the pod people). Thing is, the caves are not a natural phenomenon. It's an old granite quarry. And the Canyon itself is not a daunting ravine - in fact it's just up the road from where I live, which is in the heart of Hollywood, itself in the heart of Los Angeles (not 'just outside'). And there is nothing particularly gruelling about the terrain; it's hot in summer, but no more than the rest of the city. As it forms a corner of the vast Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the US, comprising some very wild landscape indeed, the only dangerous aspect of the canyon and caves is the potential to go off hiking in the wilder reaches of the park and its hills without adequate preparation, such as a supply of water in the hot weather. As it is, I go up to the Caves often to walk my dogs, and the slope leading from Bronson Avenue to the Caves is short and gentle enough to offer no challenge to my old (13 years) hound. There are homes along Bronson Avenue abutting the park entrance(s)which means that there are people living within 5 minutes' walk of Bronson Canyon and Bronson Caves. It's a tribute to imaginative and resourceful filmmakers that such a relatively small, urban location can be translated into screen landscapes of quite iconic power (viz Day The World Ended, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Earth vs The Spider, and all the countless others). As always- love the blog, do please keep up the good work!

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  5. iain: Thanks for the info, and I'll have to reconsider my thoughts on the legendary canyon.

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