Written by Vy Russell & Sue Dwiggins and Dean Dillman Jr.
Directed by Joseph V. Mascelli
Starring Marjorie Eaton, Frank Gerstle, Frank Fowler, Erika Peters, Judy Bamber, Lisa Lang
Released September, 1963
RT 65 min.
Home Video Moth Inc (Blu-ray) Note: playing this month on Comet TV
Classic Horrors rating = 4 (out of 10)
Can death be outwitted? Is the secret of eternal life just around the corner? These are just two questions the narrator (Bradford Dillman, uncredited) asks at the beginning of The Atomic Brain (1963), an odd sci-fi/horror movie that isn’t altogether unenjoyable. I hesitate to call it “ambitious,” but it does exercise some creativity when combining its disparate elements. The overall subject is brain transplantation, but it contains healthy doses of White Zombie, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Cat People.
The narrator continues talking for at least one-third of the movie before any of the characters themselves speak, generating an air of mystery and intrigue that probably wouldn’t exist without it. We learn that Dr. Frank (Frank Gerstle) has “grafted” an animal’s brain into a human body. However, this has created a “monstrosity” (the movie’s original title), a beast that would belong more comfortably in The Twilight People than in Island of Lost Souls. This beast kills for his master so he can obtain from the cemetery more bodies for experimentation.
To give the movie credit, Dr. Frank’s ultimate goal is not clear at first. It’s kind of fun to realize he’s preparing to grant elderly Mrs. March (Marjorie Eaton) a new lease on life by transplanting her brain into the body of a voluptuous young woman. Dead bodies will no longer suffice, though, so three “foreign domestic” candidates arrive at the airport and are delivered to the creepy old mansion where Mrs. March lives with her husband, Victor (Frank Fowler), and in which Dr. Frank runs his laboratory.
Intentional or not, this is where The Atomic Brain employs some good, “old-fashioned” humor at the expense of these women. While Mrs. March examines them (she’s horrified by a “hideous” birthmark on one of them), in essence shopping for a new home to move into, the narrator tells us, “Victor knew his pick.” Later, she scolds her number one choice for polishing the silver (“you’ll get stains on your hands”) and for walking up and down the stairs too much (“those pretty legs will get ugly muscles”).
The women aren’t dumb, though, realizing right away that they need to remove themselves from the situation. But Mrs. March won’t let them resign; they have contracts, and when they try to call for help, then phone has been disabled. All this is a bit premature, because Dr. Frank hasn’t quite perfected his work. Since they’ve arrived, one subject’s nerve endings were too far gone at the time of the transplant and she’s become zombified. As the movie completely runs off the rails, he uses one of the three women, Anita (Lisa Lang), as another test subject.
If none of this sounds silly yet, it’s at this point that The Atomic Brain becomes so. For some reason that I am either unable to recall or unable to explain, Dr. Frank transplants a cat’s brain into Anita. A poor man’s Simone Simon, Lang acts the part of a cat person, sans any makeup or special effects. Her Anita becomes vicious, not only with a cute little mouse, but also with Bea (Judy Bamber), the result of which propels former runner-up, Nina (Erika Peters), into the top spot to become the new Mrs. March.
The last third of the movie consists of a lot of wandering around by everyone involved. As Bea and Nina try to escape, they encounter the monstrosity, the zombie and the cat person in various combinations, accompanied by a musical score that emphasizes every beat. When we’re supposed to experience a light moment, the music is zany; when we’re supposed to be scared, it’s creepy. And it all occurs in poorly lit (sometimes overexposed and sometimes underexposed) hallways and rooms inside the house, and on the grounds outside.
There are some attempted twists and turns, but I doubt any that you couldn’t predict. The Atomic Brain then concludes with a final narration that explains how the story ended, just in case we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves. The funny thing is, this final narration makes it sound like we’ve just seen a pretty good episode of The Twilight Zone; and, at only 65 minutes, it’s barely longer than one. In no way, shape or form is this a good movie, but you know what? There’s enough to enjoy, especially if you’re not allowing it your 100% attention.