Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Curt Siodmak, writer of many classic-era horror films (THE WOLF MAN, SON OF DRACULA, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) published a novel called Donovan's Brain in 1942. The basic story, about a disembodied brain that takes over a man's will, became a standard horror and sci-fi plot, and the novel was adapted for film twice in ten years. In the 1944 version, which takes several liberties with the novel, mad scientist Franz Muller (Erich von Stroheim, pictured) lives on the edge of an Arizona desert in a large house he calls a castle. With his Czech ward Janice (Vera Hruba Ralston) and a research scientist named Patrick (Richard Arlen), he's experimenting with keeping the brain alive after death. His work with monkeys has proved inconclusive, and when a small plane belonging to a rich financier named Donovan crashes in the desert and Donovan's dead body is brought to the castle, Muller cuts out the brain and manages to keep it alive—he knows it's alive because of the electrical pulses he records from it. Mrs. Donovan (Helen Vinson) and her lawyer/lover Eugene (Sidney Blackmer) find out what's going on, but they leave well enough alone; they know that Donovan's wealth was fake but suspect that he had a fortune stashed away somewhere and they hope that Muller will discover where. Soon Patrick discovers he can receive telepathic communications from the brain, falling into a kind of trance as Donovan's will takes over, and the plot thickens as Donovan's brain takes over Patrick's life.

In the second version, which sticks more closely to Siodmak's plot, Patrick (Lew Ayres) lives in suburbia, Janice (Nancy Davis, pictured with Ayres) is his wife, and Frank (Gene Evans) is an alcoholic but good-natured lug of an assistant. Patrick has managed to keep a monkey brain alive for a time, but when the body of a plane crash victim is brought to his house and he discovers the brain is still alive, he takes it out, puts it in a tank, and begins his experiments. It's all made almost wholesome here—largely due to the sunshiny setting and the bland niceness of all the three central characters. Soon, as in the earlier film, Patrick is doing Donovan's bidding, even to the point of turning into a version of Donovan, dressing, adopting a limp and ordering people around like the rich man did. It takes the combined will of all three characters to win out against the brain.

THE LADY AND THE MONSTER has the edge between the two films. It's more anchored in the Gothic horror tradition, thanks to some wonderfully atmospheric sets, good cinematography, and the presence of Erich von Stroheim as Muller—though actually, the monster of the title is really a reference to Arlen, whose face becomes sinister and deeply creased in shadows when he's being controlled by the brain. The narrative gets a little convoluted in the last half, and occasionally a narrator has to break in to explain things. Arlen is fine, as are Vinson and Blackmer; Ralston, a Czech figure skater, is known for her mediocre performances and she gives one here, rarely striking a believable note. DONOVAN'S BRAIN has a good performance from Ayres—he has fun being obnoxious when he's under the brain's power—and is mostly a sci-fi film, with a bit of a mystery vibe as the motives of Donovan's brain are less clear in this one. The 50s film has a clearer narrative, but the 40s film is more fun and looks better. [Netflix streaming]

1 comment:

Steve said...

I bought Donovan's Brain from a Hollywood Video that was going out of business. I can't remember what I paid, but it wasn't much, yet I still felt gypped - it came across like a TV production from the period. I like what you said about the "bland niceness" of the characters in the 1950s version. I think I was hoping for something a bit campier than what I got - Ayres' performance isn't really as hammy as I'd have liked it to be. Vincent Price would've been a hoot in the role.
There was also a pretty good radio adaptation, with Orson Welles, I believe. And I think this is the story that Bill Cosby satirizes in his "chicken heart" comedy routine.