AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!

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Reviews from Planet Arous:

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THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1958)

"As long as you are alive, you will have me using your body. Directing your brain. Turning your simple little will on and off like a key in a lock…."

Director: Nathan Hertz (Nathan Juran)
Starring: John Agar, Joyce Meadows, Thomas B. Henry, Robert Fuller, Dale Tate
Screenplay: Ray Buffum

Synopsis: A strange light hurtles towards Earth, and an explosion occurs in the desert. Nuclear physicist Steve March (John Agar) and his assistant Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller) discover that strange, intermittent bursts of radioactivity are coming from the direction of Mystery Mountain. Over lunch with Steve’s fiancée, Sally Fallon (Joyce Meadows), and her father, John (Thomas B. Henry), Steve and Dan announce their plan to travel to the mountain to try and locate the source of the radioactivity. The scientists drive into the desert. Near their destination, they find the road blocked and get out of their jeep to walk. After finding an unexplained rock fall, the men discover a cave freshly blasted out of the base of Mystery Mountain. Strangely, there are no footprints in the dirt before the cave entrance. Steve and Dan explore, and again detect the periodic radioactivity. The men see a strange glow, and call out for whoever is in there to show themselves. Suddenly, the radioactive signal strengthens, and the scientists are confronted by a huge, floating brain. The men fire their guns to no effect, then both collapse in agony under the influence of a strange power exerted by the brain. The brain then takes possession of Steve's body.... A week later, Sally phones her father to tell him of her plan to search for Steve and Dan. To her astonishment, Steve suddenly appears at her back door. The two kiss passionately. Steve tells Sally that Dan went to Las Vegas. Sally senses that something is wrong with Steve. As he is denying it, Steve is gripped by a sudden pain, which he attributes to a toothache. Steve grabs Sally again, embracing and kissing her so roughly that he tears her blouse. Sally’s dog, George, alerted by her cries, attacks Steve, who beats him off. When the frightened Sally suggests that Steve see a doctor, he repulses her angrily and leaves. At Steve’s house, the scientist writhes in agony as the alien brain, Gor, leaves his body. Gor tells Steve that he intends to use his body as a dwelling-place, and that he was chosen because of his profession, and his access to restricted facilities. Having seen Sally, Gor is even more pleased with his choice of a host. Meanwhile, Sally tells her father of her fears about Steve, and that she does not believe that Dan went to Las Vegas. John goes to see Steve, who tries to tell him about Gor, but is again overtaken by pain and screams at John to leave. Sally convinces John to accompany her to Mystery Mountain, to try and find a clue to the mystery. The two locate the new cave and, to their horror, Dan’s body. There is a sudden glow, and Sally and John find themselves confronted by a second alien brain….

Comments: As I sit down to review The Brain From Planet Arous, it occurs to me – and not for the first time, by any means – that there is something really wrong with me. Here I am confronted by one of the most notorious clunkers in the history of motion pictures, boasting the second silliest alien invader in all fifties science fiction. And how do I react to it? By laughing? By heaping scorn on it? By pointing out its endless flubs and failures? No – by taking the damn thing seriously. I wrestled with myself, but to no avail. And so – consoling myself with the reflection that my Brainathon colleagues are doubtless busy treating this film as it deserves to be treated – I hereby present something that you probably won’t find at any other website: a straightfaced political analysis of The Brain From Planet Arous.

Of all the motifs that recurred in the science fiction films of the fifties, the most frequent was probably the fear of being taken over by a mysterious Them. Time and again, human beings - American human beings – were possessed or controlled by an evil alien force: one that looked just like them. This obvious anti-Communist theme appeared again and again throughout the decade, sometimes buried beneath layers of characterisation and plotting, and sometimes – as in Arous – right out there in the open. Like so many of its fifties’ brethren, The Brain From Planet Arous is a paranoia film. It follows its obvious model, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by having its threat posed by a literal alien. However, unlike the ambiguous Invasion, there is precious little doubt about which side of the political fence Arous is on.

One of the more perplexing things about American society is the way it tends to use the word "intellectual" as a term of abuse. This tendency reached its peak during the fifties, when "intellectual" became more or less a euphemism for "dirty Commie"; and when the "East Coast intellectuals" in their "ivory towers" (i.e. Ivy League universities) were considered by some to be a genuine threat to America’s youth. In this context, The Brain From Planet Arous can be seen as a remarkably glaring piece of anti-intellectual propaganda. As a disembodied brain, Gor is the most literal example possible of the "dangerous mind". His opening speech, quoted above, is a reasonable representation of the Western world’s contemporary view of Communism: that it was less a political doctrine and more a form of mind control, its converts automatons with no will of their own. The Arousians are, of course, crude kissing cousins to the Krell from Forbidden Planet: a race that has evolved to be wholly of the mind – in this case, physically as well as metaphysically. As one of the greatest intellects on a planet where "intelligence is all", Gor is, inevitably, undiluted evil. His pure intellect is thus purely destructive. While his powers of destruction are exercised at the slightest excuse – or even with none at all - Gor is physically incapable of contributing anything positive. And that is not all. Gor’s presence on Earth is an admission of an extremely embarrassing realisation: that being the universe’s supreme brain isn’t a damn bit of use if you don’t have the opposable digits to back it up. Gor might be able to design the greatest invasion force ever conceived, but without the help of someone who can operate a Phillips’-head screwdriver, his plans aren’t going to amount to very much. The helplessness of the purely intellectual Arousians is further underscored by the character of Vol. Being a "good intellectual" (an oxymoron, surely?), Vol turns out to be utterly ineffectual. Unlike Gor, who accomplishes a great deal of evil during the brief time he inhabits Steve March, Vol is reduced to inhabiting Sally’s dog, George, and in fact accomplishes nothing. Vol is on Earth, we are told, to arrest Gor, a criminal on their home planet (guilty of thought-crimes, presumably). Just how Vol intends to accomplish this assignment remains undisclosed. Perhaps recognising the physical impossibility of his task, Vol takes the easy way out by instructing Sally Fallon in how Gor may be killed, and watches in delight (at least, so we judge from the wagging of George’s tail) as Steve makes brain chop suey out of his quarry.

But The Brain From Planet Arous doesn’t stop there in its attack on the cerebral life. It also contains a great deal of positive reinforcement. Much of the film’s running time is spent in demonstrating just how much more fulfilling and fun it is just to be Joe Lunchpail, rather than one of those high-brow types. Once ensconced in Steve March’s body, Gor discovers a whole world of hitherto unsuspected pleasures: pipe smoking, potato chips, alcoholic beverages, driving a convertible. And then there’s the big one: nooky! Here we hit upon yet another recurrent theme of fifties and sixties science fiction. Hand-in-hand with the apprehension of the lookalike aliens ran a deeper, still more primitive fear: that the outsiders not only looked like us, they wanted our women! Time and again in the films of this era, humankind is threatened by powers intent upon kidnapping or impregnating Earth females. Since most of these "advanced" societies have, naturally, eliminated "useless" emotion, their designs are purely biological: they want incubators, or breeding partners. The Brain From Planet Arous may well be unique in its depiction of an alien for whom this is clearly not the case! If there is one thing likely to grant immortality to this movie (apart from its aliens!), it is its absolutely outrageous depiction of the relationship between the possessed Steve March and his horrified fiancée, Sally. In Gor, we have an alien with Only One Thing On His Mind! Revelling in the "strange new elation" he feels, Gor simply cannot keep his newly-acquired hands to himself. (Perhaps Gor’s actual planet of origin was Arouse rather than Arous? Ugh, that’s bad….)

And it is here that another interesting aspect of Arous’s subtext begins to surface. Perhaps unintentionally, the film has some fairly unappealing things to say about the relations between the sexes. Prior to Gor’s intervention, the "engagement" of Steve and Sally gives the impression of being a fairly dreary business. Significantly, it is only after being possessed by Gor that Steve appears at all interested in the question of marriage (an alien with honourable intentions! – is this another first?). Up to that point, he seems perfectly content to leave his relationship with Sally exactly as it is: the two of them living apart, and him dropping in at her place for meals whenever he feels inclined. Her existence doesn’t appear to mean much to him beyond the promise of a free lunch, and he can work himself up to nothing better than a passionless peck on the cheek. (One wonders whether the photograph of Sally that graces Steve’s mantelpiece was her fruitless attempt to stir things up a little: in it, she strikes the classic hands-behind-the-head, stomach-in, chest-out, cheesecake pose!) Now, I’m not for a moment advocating Gor’s Neanderthal approach to matters, but you can certainly understand why, at first, Sally is as delighted as she is surprised by the new, improved Steve March. Ironically, it is Steve’s increased interest in her that first tips Sally off to the fact that something is badly wrong with him; and we are left to contemplate the film’s rather depressing inference that the correct response to a passionate kiss is for the kissee to suggest that the kisser see a doctor!

Okay, okay. That’s enough – more than enough – of the serious stuff. Now, let’s get down to some ridicule! Naturally enough, my first target is the film’s "science". Arous actually contains one interesting point: it is one of the very few films of this era in which the scientists’ source of funding is clearly identified. That single piece of reality aside, however, we are once again confronted by the peculiar sight of a scientist who operates out of his own lounge-room (his friends are polite enough to call it "the lab", but really….). Despite this handicap, Steve March has some truly remarkable scientific abilities, like being able to use a Geiger counter to tell exactly in which direction a radioactive source lies, and how far away it is. Steve is every inch the cinematic scientist. He’s absent-minded. He smokes a pipe. He has a lou— er, lab containing mysterious coloured liquids in conical flasks (I can’t think of a reason why any scientist would want those, but least of all a nuclear physicist). The film’s approach to radioactivity is as hilarious as it is horrifying. Once Steve and Dan have noticed the "hot blast of gamma" [!] coming from Mystery Mountain, they decide not to alert the Atomic Energy Commission until they find out what’s causing it – obviously considering themselves better qualified to carry out such a task than the AEC. According to Steve, the radioactivity poses no threat to the people in its vicinity because it’s intermittent (and just how Gor manages to turn his radioactive-ness on and off is just one of the things that are never explained). If it were constant, Steve explains solemnly, they’d all be fried by it (an announcement which causes his companions not the slightest concern). On this basis, Steve and Dan set off for Mystery Mountain without a single piece of protective clothing. No, excuse me, that isn’t quite true. Steve does wear a pith helmet (well, he is a scientist, you know!). Wandering through the desert, Steve and Dan develop some really interesting sweat stains, which start on their chests and work their way up onto the top of their shoulders, but do not occur under their arms (sweaty pecs? – eww!). Once the scientists enter the cave, The Brain From Planet Arous reaches its next level of idiocy with the appearance of one of the most unforgettable aliens in screen history: Gor the Evil Brain!

Gor is, in a word, ludicrous. Silly enough as a transparent superimposition, when Gor actually manifests himself at the movie’s climax, we are treated to the sight of what is clearly a dressed-up balloon with ping-pong balls for eyes, which is made to float through the air on an all-too-apparent wire! Indeed, the consistently appalling wire-work is one of Arous’s comic highlights. Not content with their puppet aliens, the film-makers also included an exploding plane whose debris mysteriously hangs in the air post-explosion (this was done deliberately as a joke in Amazon Women On The Moon; naturally, it is twice as funny here). The most noteworthy of the film’s effects is not an effect at all: the actual atomic test footage used to demonstrate Gor’s power provides a sincerely disturbing moment. Also memorable are John Agar’s silver contact lenses, which are really creepy (and must have hurt like hell). Which brings us to another of the film’s more interesting aspects: the central performance of John Agar, who attacks his dual role with an exuberance that suggests that he actually enjoyed it. Agar’s howls of pain as Steve battles with Gor, and his maniacal laughter and expressions of evil delight as Gor carries out his destructive plans, are all delivered with real enthusiasm. This is particularly evident in the scenes in which Steve/Gor forces his rough attentions upon Sally (hmm – bit of a worry, really), and during his demonstration of power for the world government delegates (a scene which is clearly intended as a riposte to Klaatu’s pacifist power-stopping in The Day The Earth Stood Still, showing how an invading alien would really behave!). In addition, Agar’s ranting and raving as Steve/Gor carries so much conviction that you begin to get the impression that Steve wasn’t as content to be Joe Lunchpail as the film-makers might have believed. Agar also gets director Nathan Juran’s one big attempt at an "art shot" when he is photographed through a water-cooler, the distortion of his features providing a visual metaphor for his internal battles. (In fairness, this is a pretty cool shot, and together with our first glimpse of the icky silver lenses, makes for an effective moment.) Agar gets reasonable support from Thomas B. Henry and, particularly, Joyce Meadows. The role of Sally would have benefitted from having a stronger actress in it, but Meadows certainly gives it her best shot, successfully conveying Sally’s struggles to conceal her horror of Steve/Gor. However, Meadows’ efforts are frequently scuppered by the script and some poor direction, such as when Sally screams at a glowing light, but barely reacts to her first sight of Vol, or the discovery of Dan’s body (which seems remarkably intact for something that’s been lying for a week where it’s one hundred and twenty in the shade). To her credit, Meadows keeps an admirably straight face through the scene in which Sally reads up on the dreaded "Fissure of Rolando" in an encyclopaedia (which seems, oddly, to have hand-written annotations), and when she demonstrates her intimate knowledge of her fiancé by leaving the instructions for how to kill Gor where Steve is certain to see them: under his pipe-rack!

The unsung star of The Brain From Planet Arous, however, is the film’s associate producer, Dale Tate. In return for his contribution, Tate scored himself a supporting part as a nuclear scientist (called "Professor Dale Tate" – imaginative, huh?), and also the plum roles of the voices of Gor and Vol. As Gor, Tate got to cackle and gloat and slaver, while for Vol he provided some unctuous tones that managed to suggest a distinct personality. (I have a suspicion that Tate may also have been responsible for George’s growls, which are unconvincing in the extreme.)

The late fifties were a particularly rich time for science fiction movies involving bizarre aliens invading planet Earth, their intentions sometimes peaceful, more often hostile. Although the field was probably led by Roger Corman and his co-conspirators at AIP, it would not be fair to overlook the contribution of Nathan Juran, who in addition to the floating brains from planet Arous, blessed the cinematic world with a rampaging Venusian Ymir in 20 Million Miles To Earth and a giant alien with powers of enlargement in Attack Of The Fifty-Foot Woman. Although his use of the pseudonym "Hertz" suggests that Juran was less than fond of his creative output at this time, there is little likelihood of his films ever being forgotten. At least – not as long as there are special events dedicated to their memory; events such as – BRAINATHON ’99….

Footnote: Special thanks to Mark Hurst of Apostic’s B-Notes for providing me with a copy of The Brain From Planet Arous. Thanks also to Ken Begg of Jabootu’s for the offer of a tape, Allan Gallauresi of Oh, The Humanity! for the banner, and – oh, heck! – to just about everyone, really…. 

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