March 13, 2011

When They Come, They Will Look Like Us

The Brain Eaters (1958)
Directed by Bruno Ve Sota
Ed Nelson as Dr. Paul Kettering
Alan Jay Factor as Glenn Cameron
Cornelius Keefe as Senator Walter K. Powers
Joanne Lee as Alice Summers
Robert Ball as Dan Walker

"It may not show on the outside," says Dr. Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson) in Bruno Ve Sota's, The Brain Eaters, discussing the growing number of alien possessions that threaten the quiet town of Riverdale, Illinois. "A victim may act normally."

This theme wherein an alien invasion will come via possession of our friends and neighbors, who will appear friendly and known to us, was a popular one for movie makers during the atomic age. Several of the great movies from the 1950s utilized this theme to potent effect; among them Invaders From Mars (1953), I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958); and most famously, Invasion of the body snatchers (1956). In the paranoid world of these films, those that appear "normal" and friendly - even family members that we have loved and known all our lives - could possibly be possessed by an alien hostility. They may smile at us with their familiar faces, but they will no longer be themselves. And they will want to assimilate us - kill us - and control or remove our souls and minds, using only our familiar bodies as host. They want to make us one of them.

First sight of the "aliens"

Unlike these classics, The Brain Eaters is not a great film, or even a very good one if the viewer insists on going all film-school on its ass. It does have solid pleasures, however, for those with antennas tuned to the B-movie wavelength (No. This does not mean that the movie falls into the horrid, college-frat-house category "its so bad it's good." This is more like "It has some fine surprises amid the dross worth loving," which is the true attraction of the B-movie). The Brain Eaters feels just like the bottom half of a drive-in double feature, which only increases interest for the chosen.

The film opens with narration: "A few weeks ago Riverdale, Illinois was just another quiet, small town. Then on a Saturday shortly before midnight, a living nightmare began." We see a man shambling slowly along a deserted late night street, his shadow moving across the darkened glass of storefronts. His footsteps tap a hollow sound on the pavement. Another man, younger - moving along quickly and holding a glowing sphere wrapped in a towel cuddled against his chest, collides with the first man. The lighted container is dropped, shattering on the pavement. Instantly, the younger man attacks the other, pushes him against a wall. He throttles him violently. The camera moves to the legs as we see the spilled contents of the jar - a black, viscous sludge that appears smeared across the sidewalk like the slime trail made by a slug. We hear a hissing, slithering sound as something not quite seen moves along the shadows of the building; and we hear the sound of quiet, desperate retching. We watch the shadows of the men's legs now, with the older man's feet do a skittering tap dance as he is strangled to death. Cue music, Fade to black, roll title credits.

After the credits roll, we find the narrator, Glenn Cameron (Alan Jay Factor), tooling along a country road with his fiancé, Elaine (Jody Fair). "All was right with the world," he tells us via his voice narration. They are returning to town after a weekend getaway wherein they have decided to get hitched, and are rushing back to tell Cameron's father, the town mayor, the good news. Suddenly, a blinding flash of light and nearby explosion drives them off the road. The couple wander into to the woods to investigate. As they step into a clearing, their determined march becomes a slow, cautious placement of steps - as though they were making their way through a mine field: The clearing is littered with dead, feral dogs; their bodies looking slightly mangled. Cameron goes from one dog to the next, finally kneeling by one. "All of them," says Cameron. "Dead."

They press on, pushing through the brush toward the light, the sight of a field of dead dogs having only heightened their curiosity (the newly engaged are so blind to danger). In the next clearing, they both become stock still and look up into the source of the light. They move together. Alice puts her hand on Cameron's shoulder.

They stand bathed in light, staring up as so many couple have done through the canon of atomic age sci-fi, and then we see what they see. It is something clearly alien: a large cone perhaps four or five stories high - an ascension of spirals narrowing to a point (one is reminded of the interior staircases of the Guggenheim museum). "What is it?" asks Alice, sounding profoundly stupid. Glenn, coming from a more gallant age, tells her kindly that he doesn't know ("How the fuck should I know?" seems a more modern response, in keeping with our savage times).

After the couple report the cone, Hell begins a popping. In Washington, a committee is hastily convened, resolved to keep public knowledge of the cone under wraps until it can be determined exactly what the hell it is. Spearheading "Project Damper" is chief scientist, Dr. Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson). He quickly builds a scaffolding around the cone. Senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe), a blustering demagogue with a massive, irritating overbite, is sent to Riverdale. His mission: insure that all reports coming from Dr. Kettering serve to completely debunk any theory of the cone as alien spaceship, and to make sure the debunking happens quickly. The citizens of Riverdale have already begun talking about seeing flying saucers, etc. Fearing a panic, Senator Powers tucks his coat under his arm and heads off for Riverdale with his personal assistant, Dan Walker (Robert Ball). "We're heading to the little town of Riverdale," says the right senator. "I'm going to poke so many holes in that space ship fairy tale, the lid will be off in twenty-four hours!"

Ed Nelson as Dr. Paul Kettering

Once in Riverdale, the senator finds the hole poking to be very hard going. Powers is met at the airport by Glenn Cameron. The senator wants to know why the mayor isn't there to greet him. Cameron explains that his father, the mayor, has gone missing - and that there have been some other "disturbing developments," such as three local murders that have gone unexplained.

The senator rushes to the cone site and, without permission, he and his aide scale the scaffolding around the structure and join chief scientist, Kettering, and his associate, Dr. Wyler (David Hughes) near a small hatch or entrance. Powers immediately begins bullying Kettering for "action." Dr. Kettering, who naturally smokes a pipe (this was always a sure sign of a serious yet thoughtful intellect in 50s sci-fi), listens to the politician's puffed-up bluster for a moment, then explains that as of yet it's been impossible to determine very much at all about the structure. Its material is of an unknown metal and completely indestructible. Without knowing what the basic material of the ship is (goes Kettering's reasoning) it is impossible to draw any conclusions as to the structure's purpose.

"Look at this," says Kettering, pulling a revolver from a holster hanging on a scaffolding rail. Proving he's no slave to strict, scientific method; Dr. Kettering fires a shot straight into the small portal, then pushes everyone away from the entrance. We hear the bullet zinging and zanging inside the ship, buzzing and ricocheting around, then it shoots back out the portal.

"What's it mean?" asks the senator. "It's cyclic," answers Dr. Wyler, which elicits a blank look from the politician. Dr. Kettering explains as though quoting ancient wisdom: "The point of origin becomes the point of return."

"I can do without the double talk," snaps Powers. Hmmm.

The senator then harasses and berates both Drs. Kettering and Wyler for being "science boys" too wrapped up in their test tubes and theories to see the obvious; and it's high old time that someone go into the space ship and see what's what. One would imagine Kettering had proven his no-nonsense credentials when blasting into the ship's entrance with a .44, and what exactly "the obvious" is in this case isn't explained; nonetheless - Kettering rises to the bait. He straps the revolver into his Sam Brown belt and holster and crawls into the ship, braving the chance that if there are any living aliens left inside the craft after his .44 caliber exploration, they might be pre-disposed to a hostile response.

The doctor crawls back out hours later, his hair a mess and sweating. The cone is nothing but a series of tunnels, he declares, "Like a toy railroad train, spiraling up and down, over and over again." "Well, the thing has some purpose," declares Senator Powers. "What's it for?" "I don't know," says Kettering. Well, shit.

With the movie's foundation thus set, the film gather's speed quickly. After Kettering crawls out of the ship, the team receives a phone call: The mayor has finally returned to his office.

As the team travels back to town, we find the mayor (Orville Sherman) in a terrible state. He sits at his desk in his office, shaking and sweating, apparently in the throes of a suicidal anxiety. As though working against some invisible force, he pulls a pistol from a top desk drawer and tries to force it against his temple. "Oh, leave me alone," he pleads. He is unable to hold it to his head but for a second or so, then yields as though to a greater power, returning the pistol to the drawer.

Powers, Kettering, and the rest of the team file into the mayor's office. "Dad," says Cameron, "We've been so worried." The mayor sits behind his desk, staring at them like a bullfrog caught in a gigging light. His behavior becomes increasingly strange, particularly after Dr. Kettering observes a large growth or bulge on the back of his neck. Finally the mayor pulls a pistol, threatens everyone, and finally pistol-whips his own son. Kettering gives the back of the mayor's neck a karate chop, making him scream in pain. The mayor pulls off a couple of shots in a kind of spasm, then is gunned down in a hail of fire from the sheriff (Greigh Phillips) and one of his deputies.

After an autopsy of the mayor's body, we learn that a large parasite had attached itself to the mayor's brain by two, long antennae/fangs thrust through the base of the neck. When Kettering gave the mayor's neck the chop, he had inadvertently forced the parasite to withdraw its fangs. The examining doctor also explains that once the parasite had left the host, it had injected the mayor's spinal column with acid, which would have killed the mayor in short order anyway (although surely not as quickly as the five or six rounds the sheriff and company pumped into him). In short, once the parasite attaches itself, it is tantamount to a death sentence for the host.

Conducting his own autopsy of the still living parasite, Kettering notices that the creature is difficult to kill. He cuts a piece of it off. "It has the reflex actions of a snake," he explains to his (naturally) attractive lab assistant, Alice Summers (Joanne Lee). "Cut a snake in half, the two pieces go off in different directions." Kettering pauses a moment to puff his pipe and flirt with Alice, and a piece of the parasite attaches itself to his forearm. He screams horribly, finally burning it off with a Bunsen burner.

After a scene or two of the senator blustering and the team bumbling around the "restricted cone area," Kettering concludes that the parasites have emanated from the cone spaceship. He surmises as well that they had first inhabited the field of dead dogs, but quickly realized that humans were the highest life form on the planet. In the meanwhile, we have seen scenes were zombie-like citizens, carrying around the glowing spheres scene in the introduction. These zombies are in fact infected hosts, spreading the alien, parasitic takeover of the town. We see one parasite, looking like a large, furry amoeba; being lifted from a sphere like a handful of stringy gelatin.

". . . A victim may act normally."

The parasites, it is discovered, are not very mobile and need to be transported in fishbowls (the glowing glass balls ) where they can be placed within striking distance of a host. Eventually, nearly the entire town is taken over, including the sheriff and his men, the telephone and telegraph operators, etc. In effect, Kettering, Powers, and our small core of principals become trapped in the town as the aliens close in around them. Finally, even the beautiful lab assistant, Alice, is taken over in her sleep and joins the others in a trance walk (like nearly all alien possession in 50s sci-fi, the alien hosts adapt a flat affect, or at least an unhappy skewing of emotion. The exception to this is the great I Married A Monster From Outer Space, wherein the aliens quickly learn to enjoy the staggering, new range of human emotion available to them in their new sweating, pulsing, lustful host bodies).

Nearly deranged by the abduction of his sexy lab assistant and possible love interest, Dr. Kettering goes back to the cone site with renewed passion. There he and his team discover a dying old man who has apparently crawled out of the cone. The man is Professor Helsingman (Soul Bronson), a long lost scientist who went missing years ago, along with his team of explorers.

Helsingman, who exhibits the two fang punctures of all parasite victims, is rushed to the hospital, Before he dies, he manages to say a single word: "Carboniferous" - as in Carboniferous Age; Kettering understands from this that the cone comes from deep within the Earth, and is not extraterrestrial in origin. the cone, then, is a ship of sorts, but one that his drilled to the surface of the planet from deep within. The parasites, therefore, are not aliens, but are rather some sort of ancient Earth life, risen to claim the surface as their own. Armed with this new facts, Kettering decides to reenter the ship.

Kettering and crew are forced to engage in a wild shootout with the sheriff and his deputies (now parasite drones) as they begin to enter the cone. Miraculously, the science geeks win going away (for a team of bookish, science nerds, Kettering's team is amazingly capable with firearms. Not only does Kettering pull a weapon from his jacket like Wyatt Earp, so does Dr. Wyler and Glenn Cameron. All blast away like untouchables, shooting parasite men off scaffolding - standing their ground as growling parasite zombies charge, etc.).

After the gunfight, Kettering reenters the ship, which now can be seen to resemble a long cone-shaped drill, and discovers inside a very old, bearded man cloaked in wisp-like fog, whom he recognizes as one Professor Cole (a nearly un-seeable Leonard Nimoy - hired for his beautifully deep voice), once a prominent scientist and a member of the scientific team thought lost. He announces that he is helping the parasites take over the earth. Kettering pleads with the Professor to return to the light of humanity. "I was once Professor Cole," says the old man, standing in the mist. "I now hold a much higher order.Leaving Professor Cole to his ramblings of higher orders and world domination, Kettering decides upon a final solution, a kind of scorched-earth policy featuring a rigged electrocution by overhead high-tension wires. Kettering has commandeered an electric company, air-powered "harpoon gun" used for shooting cable over trees and rises. He plans to shoot a conducting wire over the high-tension lines, then allow the two ends of the now-electrified wire to drape over the cone - in effect, plugging the ship into the massive electrical output of the nearby power plant.

Dr. Kettering on the scaffolding

Just before pulling the lateral and preverbal trigger on his plan, Kettering sees Alice standing high up in the scaffolding, still dressed in her flimsy nightgown (she was brain-linked by a parasite while sleeping in her bed). She calls to him, urging him to come to her.

Kettering hands the cable-shooting rifle to Cameron and rushes to the scaffolding. Shot against the arc lights of the skeletal scaffolding, we watch Kettering climb up and onto the planks near the entrance. Alice, her thin negligee whirling around her - backlit by the bright lights, snarls at Kettering. Her face now distorted with hatred, she pulls a revolver from somewhere and shoots Kettering, who clutches his belly then rushes to Alice with his dying efforts. She screams as he pulls the parasite off her back, freeing her, and killing her, in the same action. As the two struggle in their death spasms, Kettering screams for Cameron to shoot the gun.

After a bitter argument with Powers ("He's as good as dead! Shoot the Gun!"), Cameron steels himself and fires. The cable makes an arc, drapes itself over the high-tension wires, and falls into place. The night becomes bright with the flashing of electricity and the crackle of burning ozone. Everyone shields their eyes as white light washes out everything. We see Kettering drop dead from the scaffolding like a stone, his struggle for life short circuited in an instant. Inside the ship, we see Professor Cole, despite his high order, throw up his hands and vanish in a scorching flash of white. We watch the parasites writhing and whipping around their antennae fangs frantically as they fry.

After the sizzling dies down, Senator Powers and Glenn enter the ship, quickly concluding that everything inside is dead as they waft away clouds of burnt parasite. How about the townsfolk still walking around Riverdale, taken over by the parasites? wonders Cameron. Don't you worry about that little detail, assures the senator. "Watch my dust," says Powers, a bit oddly. "I'll get them, or you don't know Walter K. Powers!" (I challenge anyone to sit through this movie without calling the senator, at least once, an ass hole). One is left to imagine the senator, going pure homicidal, marching through the streets of Riverdale with is aide, the reptilian-like Dan Walker - both of them armed with axes and hacking wildly at the backs of the parasitic citizenry. Remember, nearly the entire town has gone parasite. Surely after hours of diligent work the pair would be laughing and giggling hysterically, drenched head to toe in blood; perhaps even given to a mistake now and then in their fervor.

The film ends with Powers marching off toward town, eager to begin the slaughter; while Cameron and his ineffectual fiancé (all fiancé Elaine has done through the entire movie is look worried, confused, or just flat stupid) hold one another in the traditional atomic age "we have overcome" final embrace. Music swells, and the pair stroll off to a life of quite TV diners, a nice split-level, and a couple of kids.

Despite this "happy" ending (actually, we have never given a shit about either Cameron or his extremely dull fiancé - the two interesting people in the picture - kettering and Alice - die horribly unhappy deaths), The Brain Eaters is a very grim and gritty 60 minutes. Like Hobbes solitary life of man, the movie is "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Which certainly isn't necessarily a bad thing at all.

Which takes us straight into the Good Stuff!

The Good Stuff, Part I: The B-world of Bruno Ve Sota

Bruno Ve Sota is best remembered by atomic age B-movie fans for his excellent portrayal of Dave Walker - Yvette Vickers cuckolded, shotgun-wielding husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches (Bernard Kowalski, 1959). In Fact, throughout the 1950s, Ve Sota was a member of Roger Corman's unofficial stock company, appearing in bit parts in many of the legendary movie maker's quickies (Bucket of Blood, The Wasp Woman, War of the Satellites, Teenage Doll, etc.).

Roger Corman was the executive producer of Brain Eaters, and recruited Ve Sota as director (previously, Ve Sota had directed Female Jungle in 1955) presuming, I imagine, that De Sota could work quick and cheap. In a 1976 interview with actor and writer, Barry Brown, Ve Sota made the following pertinent points:

  • The Brain Eaters was shot in six days for $26,000.

  • Ed Nelson, star of Brain Eaters, and Ve Sota were acting buddies, having worked together on Corman's Teenage Doll (Nelson would go on to a successful career in television, becoming a hot property due to his work on Peyton Place.

  • Ed Nelson created the parasites for Brain Eaters. He glued fur onto a child's toy - a windup metallic ladybug popular at the time - and used pipe cleaners for the antennas.

  • The cone in Brain Eaters was a one-sided wooden structure about 50 feet tall, built by a local lumber company. It was originally covered with a shiny, silver paper to make it look metallic. One evening some kids playing in the hills around Pomona (where the movie was filmed) spotted the thing and peppered it with rocks (the little shits). Ve Sota and company had to cover the thing with galvanized tin to resist these nightly attacks. In all, the cone was built for about $500.

  • The part of Dr. Kettering was to have been played by Brain scriptwriter, Gordon Urquhart, who died of cancer before production began. Corman suggested Ed Nelson (also a member of the Corman company) who Corman liked for his commitment and enthusiasm to any project given him.

  • Leonard Nimoy came to the project via a friendship with Ed Nelson, who thought of Nimoy as a great "character man." During filming, Ve Sota, who had extensive training in radio and had once supplied the voice of Winston Churchill in a radio production, taught Nimoy some vocal tricks to sound like an old man.

Brothers and sisters, if the above facts don't make you tingle with B-movie joy . . . well, actually, if you have read this far, I know they do.

In Brain Eaters, Ve Sota and cinematographer, Lawrence Raimond, achieve a dark, gritty, uniform tone via imaginative camera angles and effectively stark lighting. Despite the puny budget and blistering shooting schedule, Ve Sota clearly brought an artistic sensibility to the project beyond what one might expect (this was true of most projects that fell under the Corman banner, which is probably why so many Corman B-nuggets have survived the dust bin of history).

Ve Sota also exhibited a real flair for action scenes in Brain, as well as managing to provide some very creepy moments. The scene when the possessed mayor clubs his son, and is then in turn gunned down by the sheriff's men, is explosive in its force. Also very effective is the final shootout, when our team of kick-ass scientists blast the parasite cops into the next world (as Kettering shoots one of the parasite/deputies off the cone's high scaffolding, he hits the ground like a sack of potatoes. After a moment, he rights himself and begins to advance quickly on Kettering, hunching along nearly on all fours and making a guttural sound like a mad dog - remember, the parasites had once attached themselves to feral dogs!).

The Good Stuff, Part II: The McCarthy Connection

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia; wherein he claimed that he had a list of 205 known communists working in the State Department, shaping policy. The number of known communists changed several times in the months ahead, and no such specific list was ever produced; yet the effect on the American psych was potent and sudden. Imagine: these communists would look and seem like average Americans. They might be your friends, your family, your trusted leaders. Someone might even think you were one of them. Could you prove you weren't if someone swore you were? And worse - an accusation, in terms of reputation, was as good as a conviction. Paranoia, like the song says, does indeed strike deep. The resulting wave of McCarthyism quickly found its easiest and most vulnerable targets in Hollywood. With chief council Roy Cohen at his side, and the House Un-American Activities Committee his right arm, McCarthy put the hammer on many Hollywood careers (the glory of B-movies from his period is that many black listed actors and directors managed to find work in them).

Films which feature an alien hostility cloaked in the appearance of normalcy, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, have often been written of and discussed as parables to McCarthyism; whereas both hinge their feelings of paranoia on the concept of "the other" seeming just like "us" (Kevin McCarthy, star of Invasion, has stated flatly in many interviews that the makers of Invasion, primarily Don Siegel, had no such thing in mind).

Of all the films featuring alien or foreign invaders cloaking themselves with the bodies of normal citizens, none seem as committed to conjuring McCarthy as does Brain Eaters.

Consider the scene where Senator Walter Powers and his aide, Dan Walker, are about to leave for Riverdale:

Senator Walter K. Powers and aide, Dan Walker

As he is leaving the committee chambers, Powers puts his arm around the shoulder of his assistant, Dan Walker, and pulls him close, speaking confidentially in a harsh whisper. "Call the Signal Corps. Get General Prescott on the line. Say that Senator Walter J. Powers will not tolerate departmental interference. That if that spaceship film has been doctored in any way, he stands in a very shaky position. Lay it on thick! I want him so busy cleaning out his own closet, that he won't have time to get in my way out there at that ship."

Walker nods smugly and winks. "I'll use the old "investigation" threat. That always works."

Substitute the spaceship concept for the investigation of communists, and we have a perfectly imagined reenactment of Senator McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohen, discussing an attack on some suspected communist sympathizer in the Army Signal Corps. Or, actually, we have a glimpse of McCarthy and Cohen at the very cusp of McCarthy's very sudden and ruinous fall from power.

What makes this scene so fascinating is the mention of the Signal Corps. In 1953, McCarthy began an investigation of the military, claiming that he had proof of a spy ring active in the Army Signal Corps. McCarthy quickly learned that fucking with the United States Military is a far, far different kettle of fish that kicking around some defenseless Hollywood actors and directors. By 1954, after a much publicized senate investigation in which the senator was humiliated and crushed, his career as a commie buster was over. He died in disgrace in 1957.

All in all, The Brain Eaters is a real blast of atomic age, low-budget film-making. Someone make some popcorn and let's get paranoid!

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  1. Lucky for us, the Brain Eaters will soon become mal-nutritioned here on Earth and move on.

    Thanks for deciding my Sunday afternoon programming once again, Mykal!

  2. You talked me into it ! Great write up- I am all tingly with B-movie joy ! This is one I haven't seen yet and will seek out. It might even be @ ? Man, that's alot of galvanized tin. It would cost 50 times that amount these days. I used to weld alot of galvanized... a taste you would never forget !

  3. My wife is a Brain-Eater. I watched her eat pig and cow brains right before my eyes.

  4. Jeff: Hope you enjoy it, Jeff!

    Lysdexicuss: This movie is what B-movie making is all about.

    KW: When they come, they will seem normal.

  5. Not seen this one, Mykal, but it sounds pretty exciting for such a brief running time.

  6. Venom5: It's very interesting!

  7. Joe McCarthy was the biggest Brain-Eater of all, but he only ate his own...and their offspring, in the form of Ann Coulter and her ilk.

    i admit, i was impressed with this film when i wasn't expecting to be!

  8. Prof.: "Tailgunner" Joe was more of a soul-eater, I think.

    You know, this film has a lot to recommend it, not least of which is the completely, 100% committed performance of Ed Nelson.

  9. Hah! I can go all film-school with the best of them! But, then, I've been saying for years that a steady diet of crap cinema can sharpen your appreciation for those random moments of transcendence. It's like climbing a mountain of dung to pluck a single rose from the summit, hoping that you don't lose your sense of smell on the way up.

    It's been a while, but I don't remember experiencing any such moments of transcendence in The Brain Eaters. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

    Good post, as usual.

  10. Dr. Morbius: Certainly, the scrappy, hidden roses of Brain Eaters present a challange for even the most experienced climbers. But they are there once one is free of "film appreciation" and enters the thin air near the summit.

    Thanks for commenting!

  11. AMC plays "The Brain Eaters" at least once a month late at night.

  12. DE: Thanks for the info! I hope everybody takes the time to see it. Very nice to know AMC has this one in its vaults.