On Time and Under Budget

he Brain Eaters

American International Pictures came along at a pivotal point in the history of American movies: the cultural landscape was changing in ways the big studios couldn't even begin to understand; and in order to survive, a small, struggling outfit like AIP had to rethink the ways movies were made and marketed.

Part of the solution was to find out in advance what the audiences wanted, and promise it to them (even if they had no idea how to deliver on the promise). Thus it was a common practice, especially in the early days, for James Nicholson to dream up a catchy title, which would then be turned into a poster... and the picture would be pre-sold on the strength of the title and the artwork.

This approach might have worked for anyone, up to a point... years earlier, to quote a famous example, Edward D. Wood's Glen or Glenda? got made and distributed as a result of a similar scheme. But deceptive marketing alone would never have allowed AIP to build into the powerhouse it became, had it not been for the second part of the solution: actually inspiring a new kind of guerilla film-making that would breathe life into the stagnant movie industry. The key was to find a bunch of talented lunatics who would put up with ridiculous time and budget constraints — who were hungry enough (sometimes metaphorically, but often literally) to rise to the challenge and create something out of nearly nothing. With budgets so criminally low — again, often literally, if the stories of Samuel Z. Arkoff's tight-fisted money management are true — writers, directors, technicians and actors all had to forget the rules and make things up as they went along, adjusting to circumstances that were always changing beyond recognition, and even moving to the other side of the camera if it became necessary. Evidently this trial-by-fire method worked pretty well, because it helped launch such remarkable people as Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola, who went on to develop independent careers and considerable mainstream success1

And then there's Bruno VeSota.

I have a feeling that some of my readers are drawing a blank on that name. Perhaps if I said "the fat guy from Attack of the Giant Leeches", a few more people would connect; but then the response might be, what does he have in common with Corman or Nicholson? Well... he'd probably have had a lot more in common with them if he hadn't been so convincing as the fat guy from Attack of the Giant Leeches, or for that matter the slovenly fat guy in The Choppers, or the smarmy fat guy in Daughter of Horror, or the inexplicably semi-nude fat guy in Jerry Warren's Creature of the Walking Dead, or... you see the pattern here? VeSota was a rather large man, at least by the standards of the mid-20th century, and though he was a talented actor the roles that were available to him in exploitation cinema — even the ones he developed for himself — were usually of a very (you'll pardon the expression) broad nature.

These days there are fewer people who remember VeSota's behind-the-scenes work, much of it uncredited. Certainly the number of people with first-hand knowledge of his extensive work in theatre, both on-stage and off, has dwindled considerably. At any rate, VeSota was an experienced theatrical actor and director who drifted into low-budget cinema when the opportunities in the theatre started to dry up. In 1955, he co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in a bizarre little horror film called Dementia — better known by its alternate version title, Daughter of Horror, and still better known as the movie being shown during the theater attack in The Blob. During the preparation for Dementia, VeSota hired a down-on-his-luck actor named Jonathan Haze for a bit part. Haze returned the favor a few years later by introducing VeSota to his new friend Roger Corman.

Corman immediately cast VeSota in The Fast and the Furious, the first film Arkoff and Nicholson released (under the company's original name, American Releasing Corporation). It was a good partnership all around: by the time VeSota started to turn his back on cheapjack exploitation years later, AIP had matured into a stable and successful company; thus VeSota continued making films with AIP for the rest of his career.

AIP (or rather ARC) even picked up VeSota's first credited film as director, Female Jungle, which had languished unreleased for over a year. And while VeSota was one of the few people in Hollywood who didn't shoot any footage for Corman's The Terror, he did direct two more films for Arkoff and Nicholson. The second of these films, Invasion of the Star Creatures (1963), is dreadful2, and suggests why VeSota wasn't asked to do a third film; but the first, The Brain Eaters (1958), is a classic example of AIP's shoestring showmanship.

No brains are actually eaten in The Brain Eaters. The creatures implied in the title are parasites that attach themselves to their hosts' brains, and dissolve the brains with acid before they leave... but they don't actually eat the brains. This is yet another example of James Nicholson inventing a catchy new title after the movie was already in the can. VeSota's original title had been The Keepers. I think it's safe to say that if had been released under its original name, this film would sunk without a trace.

You see, even with its lurid new moniker, The Brain Eaters has never achieved the cult renown of other AIP movies like It Conquered the World or Invasion of the Saucer Men, though it's certainly no worse than the average Corman product of the time.

There are plenty of reasons why it's remained in relative obscurity. The film ran into trouble early on, when science fiction author Robert Heinlein noticed the similarity between The Brain Eaters and his novel The Puppet Masters: Heinlein's work also involved icky parasites that attached themselves to the backs of people's necks, and killed their hosts if they were removed. Heinlein was not only upset that someone had ripped off his novel; he was equally incensed that they'd done it so badly. Thus he not only requested damages, but also insisted that the movie not credit its apparent source. The suit was eventually settled out of court, without even lending any welcome notoriety to the movie.

Another problem that's kept The Brain Eaters from attracting a cult reputation is the lack of a decent monster. AIP had learned back in its early days3 that if you promised the audience (and the distributors) a monster, you had damned well better give them one... even if its execution left something to be desired. So there are monsters in The Brain Eaters — but they're some of the worst alien invaders AIP ever came up with (and no; I haven't forgotten Larry Buchanan). They're little wind-up toys, covered with fur swatches and topped by little pipe-cleaner antennae. Apparently they looked much better in development, when the actual wind-up mechanisms worked. In the finished film, they look like... well... broken wind-up toys covered with fur swatches and topped by little pipe-cleaner antennae.

And then there's one other thing: in spite of some effective moments, the film really doesn't make a lot of sense... even by the standards of 1950's monster movies.

The movie opens (as the voice-over informs us) at midnight on an ordinary Saturday night, in the little town of Riverdale, Illinois. And before we've even started, we're introduced to Budget-Induced Shortcoming Number One: the Voice-over.

When you're shooting with a limited budget, one thing you can do to economize is shoot certain scenes without synchronized sound4. That way, if the actors muff their lines, or if the microphone stops working, or the clapper-loader sneezes, you don't have to waste precious time and film stock doing retakes. You simply fill in later, with either post-dubbing or (even cheaper) a voice-over. Here's the catch, though: there are few things more boring to an audience than a voice-over telling it things it already knows — solely to mask the absence of sync sound. The Brain Eaters will come to rely on its voice-over a little too much. The only thing that keeps it from lurching into Creeping Terror-like tedium is the identity of the voice-over: it's not an omniscient narrator, but neither is it the voice of the square-jawed hero. Instead, it's the voice of an ordinary guy who gets drawn into the action almost inadvertently. Although he provides the running commentary, he doesn't have all the answers... in fact, sometimes he has none of the answers, and by the climax of the film he seems to be on the verge of running away in sheer panic. If you're going to have a character talking the audience through the film, it might as well be a sympathetic, fallible character like this — someone the audience can identify with.

So it's midnight in Riverdale. Archie and Jughead are no doubt sleeping peacefully at home, unaware of the "living nightmare" that is about to begin. Two men accidentally run into each other on a dark streetcorner, causing one of the men to drop what he's carrying: a glowing glass jar. The jar shatters. A gooey liquid spills over the pavement; and whatever was in that liquid crawls away, making a hissing sound. The man who'd been carrying the jar reacts with unexpected fury, seizing the other man by the throat and throttling him to death.

After the credits, we get to meet our voice-over. His name is Glen Cameron; he's the son of Riverdale's mayor, and he's just become engaged to his sweetheart, Elaine. It's late afternoon the next day, and the two are on their way back home after a weekend in the country... when suddenly — WHAM! — there comes the sound of an explosion, so sudden it even interrupts Glen's voice-over explaining how sudden it was. Glen and Elaine go into the darkening forest to investigate. They find a clearing littered with the bodies of dead animals. Pushing further, they find an enormous metal structure sticking out of the ground — like a cone, but with a spiral shape, almost like the tip of a gigantic screw.

(The most curious thing about this whole sequence is the explosion. If the sound is supposed to signal the arrival of the mammoth cone-shaped object... then why did the "living nightmare" begin the night before? And though the dead animals are eventually explained — as early but inadequate hosts for the newly-arrived parasites — that poses another question: if the brain eaters have just arrived a moment ago, how did they manage to do everything so quickly?)

News of the discovery of the curious metal cone soon spreads to Washington, where the government convenes a special meeting. The matter is placed in the hands of a pugnacious Senator named Walter K. Powers. Powers is the sort of fellow who refers to himself in the third person; he's forever ordering people to get busy and produce some results, even though he never bothers to specify what those results ought to be. Senator Powers spends much of the movie demanding "some action", to the point at which you wish someone would point him to the airport mens' room and let him get it out of his system.

Powers, irascible taskmaster though he is, arrives late for his big meeting. Once he gets there, we're treated to the only thing more likely to wear out an audience's patience for exposition than a poor voice-over: a film-within-a-film. The government's footage, with its overly enthusiastic narration, doesn't really tell us anything we couldn't have figured out on our own. Later on, we'll discover that most of the information in it is wrong; and that, in a way, makes the whole sequence a bit more tolerable in hindsight. Once the film is over, Powers gets up and harangues the others about the need for action! immediate action! (whatever that means); but privately, he's convinced the Riverdale "space ship" is some sort of hoax.

We then discover that this whole chunk of exposition was unnecessary, since the government's entire official response consists of... Walter K. Powers, who will be going to Riverdale alone to harangue them about action!

Powers is miffed to find that Riverdale's mayor is not on hand to greet him on his arrival. The greeting party consists only of the mayor's son, our narrator Glen. Nobody's seen the mayor; which is troubling, since three of the town's most prominent citizens have been murdered in the last day. Powers callously suggests to Glen that his father's been murdered, too, but Glen takes the comment in stride.

Glen takes Powers off to the site of the cone. There he's introduced to the scientists who are examining the curious object: Dr. Kettering and Dr. Wyler. Also on hand is Alice, Dr. Kettering's secretary and also (as though you had to guess) his girlfriend. The distinguished, experienced, professorial-looking gentleman is Dr. Wyler. The young, square-jawed, handsome fellow is Kettering, and since he is square-jawed and handsome, naturally he's the one giving the orders.

Powers stands over the scientists and bellows for action, and Kettering gives him the attention he deserves — none. When Powers demands to know if the scientists have removed any identifying markings from the outside of the cone, Kettering points out rather testily that this would be impossible: the surface of the cone seems to be made of a material so durable that nothing can damage it. "Nothing is indestructible!" retorts Wyler. "Give the wind enough time, and it can wear away a mountain."

Yes; Senator Powers is apparently suggesting the cone formed by erosion. It's comforting to see that fifty years ago our elected representatives were nearly as bone-headed as they are today.

No doubt enraged by the stupidity of Powers's remark, Kettering decides to give the Senator a demonstration. When the surface of the cone proves every bit as hard as Kettering described, Powers changes his argument. What's inside? he asks. If it's a space ship, there must be a control room, or living quarters...

Once again, Kettering stops him short: since they have no idea what the cone might be, or even what it's made of, there's no way of telling what they might expect inside. But since Powers is obviously a man who needs to see things for himself, Kettering decides to give him another demonstration — and for the first time, the film lurches toward total insanity. Kettering grabs a revolver. Without explaining what he's about to do, or why he's going to do it, he points the gun into the cone's lone opening and fires. The bullet ricochets around inside the cone ("We don't know what's in there... let's shoot it!"), and then comes f'tanging back out of the opening. It's almost miraculous the bullet doesn't end up killing one of them on the way out.

The point of the bullet test was to demonstrate that the opening doesn't seem to lead anywhere: "the point of origin becomes the point of return". Wow — there was a test worth making. But even this demonstration seems to be too abstract for Senator Powers: "You science boys tend to get wrapped up in your test tubes," he says (an image I don't want to think about too carefully). "I want action, not theories!"

So there's nothing for poor Kettering to do but crawl into the ship himself, gun in hand, and see what he can find.

The hatch is just wide enough for a man to squeeze into, and it leads to a sort of tunnel of equal width. Kettering disappears into the tunnel for a disturbingly long time. Just as Wyler is about to go in after him, Kettering crawls back out again: the inside crawlspace leads nowhere. It just spirals its way through the structure and comes back out again. The cone is essentially empty.

The field telephone rings. Glen answers, and then announces the news: his father the mayor has come back. Everybody jumps in Glen's station wagon and drives back into town.

The party barges into the mayor's office just too late to see the disheveled man struggling to blow his own brains out. They arrive just as he's managed to regain control over himself and put the gun back in his desk drawer. Everyone is a little dismayed by the mayor's appearance, and by his openly hostile tone. It's Kettering who gets the first inkling that something is seriously wrong... perhaps he's noticed the curious tilt in the camera setups. Or perhaps he's noticed the way the back of the mayor's business suit keeps throbbing, as though something were struggling underneath it? When Kettering calls attention to the mayor's back, the elder Cameron pulls his gun back out; in the ensuing struggle, Kettering slams his hand down on the mayor's back. The impact sends the mayor into convulsions. His hands spasm, causing him to fire the pistol repeatedly into the floor as he stumbles to the door.

At this point, the mayor is clearly not in control of himself. Also, nobody outside the room could possibly have figured out what's just happened. Still, as soon as the mayor comes staggering out into the hallway, pistol in hand, the local sheriff steps up and shoots him three times (in the groin, to all appearances).

There seems to be an unwritten law of monster movies: any time law enforcement shows up, they will immediately be able to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. They will then immediately shoot and kill the bad guys — even if the "bad guy" is the town's mayor, who was apparently behaving normally a few minutes before. Usually nobody ever thinks there's anything dodgy about this kind of impromptu justice, but at least in this case the script makes a point to exonerate the sheriff. It turns out the mayor was a walking dead man anyway: it wasn't the bullets that killed him. The thing that was attached to his neck seems to have been some sort of parasite that attached itself to the mayor's nervous system by way of two pipe cleaners thin probes. When the parasite was attacked, it responded by injecting a caustic poison into the mayor's body, killing its host. Even the bull-headed Senator Powers realizes the implications of this: if there are more such creatures attached to human hosts in Riverdale, they can't be removed without killing the humans. Not that it matters, philosophically: as Kettering points out, once the parasite is attached, "the victim isn't human any more."

Now that they have some idea what they're up against, it's time for everybody to follow B-movie tradition and get stupid. The sheriff, on his way back to the cone (alone!), falls for the oldest ambush trick in the book, and is quickly parasitized. Kettering, while dissecting the thing from the mayor's back, discovers that the creature isn't quite dead. It's "like a snake," explains the brilliant scientist. "Cut a snake in half, and two pieces go off in different directions.." (kids, don't try this at home). Then Kettering lets his mind wander, and is surprised when a bit of parasite he's just chopped off crawls up and bites him on the arm.

Immediately thereafter, Dr. Wyler comes up with a new theory about the origin of the cone. He's completely mistaken; but the theory does generate some useless action that eats up screen time — and that's important to a movie that has to struggle to pad its way out to a mere sixty minutes. There's a lot of driving around, and a pointless attack scene in an abandoned shed (during which our narrator panics and starts shooting recklessly); and we finally get a look at a parasite as it scrambles away from a dead victim. Of course, the little toy parasite is so ridiculous, it might have been better if we'd only heard its sinister hissing sounds... There's also a little bit of ambiguity concerning Dr. Wyler: at first he seems reluctant to follow up his own suggestion, and later on it turns out his theory was a wild goose chase. This leads us to suspect he, too, might be a pawn of the parasites.

At least the movie isn't afraid to admit it's been chewing up time for nothing. "We've all had an object lesson in how not to conduct a search," says Kettering, to us as much as to his colleagues. And then the movie has another minor brush with insanity: Alice opens one of the late mayor's desk drawers, and wonders aloud what all these glass jars are doing there... whereupon Kettering does a double-take. Glass jars? Why, of course! The mayor had been intending to put parasites in the jars, and then leave them "where they would do the most damage". Well, yes. Or the mayor might have had lousy luck with goldfish; who can tell?

But then, having made this brilliant deduction, our heroes suffer another huge lapse of judgment. They decide to get in touch with the Governor, and the only way they can do that is... by telegraph. Not by courier... not by phone... by telegraph. This means getting the town's only telegrapher out of bed and phoning a message to him. Not delivering the message personally and watching as it is sent... phoning. The parasites have already figured out the major methods of communication, most of which still required human intervention in the late 1950's; they've already taken over the telegrapher, and by the next day they'll have the switchboard operators as well. And our heroes remain oblivious.

Suddenly, we find ourselves in an eerie and suspenseful scene, as the possessed police chief and two others sneak up on someone who's at home asleep. We realize with a shock that the sleeper is Alice, whom we saw only a moment ago in the late mayor's office with the others. Perhaps there's a transitional scene missing. Anyway: the three men set a parasite loose in Alice's room. The camera takes the creature's POV as it slides across the floor to the bed, slithering up the blankets and pausing for a moment before striking... and soon, Alice comes walking out of the building with a blank expression on her face and a curious lump on her back. She doesn't even notice when she slams the hem of her nightie in the car door as they all drive away together.

No sooner have they driven off when Glen and Kettering come bursting through the door of Alice's apartment. Seeing Alice gone, the immediately figure out what's happened. Perhaps there are several transitional scenes missing.

Glen and Kettering head off to the cone, where the movie is about to start its descent into complete lunacy. You see, Wyler and the others have come across the a dying man, who has apparently just crawled out of the cone. Hmmm... perhaps he was cut to ribbons by a ricocheting bullet? In any case, the man has apparently been abandoned by his parasite because his body is no longer viable. Kettering recognizes him as Professor Helsingmann, who disappeared on an expedition five years ago.

But... but... Kettering's already been through the cone, hasn't he? It's just a labyrinth of parasite-sized tubes, isn't it? Kettering already determined the tubes don't lead anywhere. Where was this guy hiding? Did the whole inside of the ship just change to suit the script?

(Ummm... yes, actually. But more about that later.)

Helsingmann is taken off to the hospital: the combination of his failing body and the parasite's lethal poison mean there isn't much time to try and stabilize him, to get a last word or two out of him before he dies. Every second counts as Kettering and the others stand by his bedside — Powers, as usual, pulls Kettering's elbow and demands results!. Eventually the dying man is able to speak a single word: "Carboniferous...!" Then he sinks back onto the pillow.

"The Carboniferous Age!" exclaims Kettering. "What's the Carboniferous Age?" asks Glen.

Oh, Glen. Now you've done it. Helsingmann is on the verge of death, having spoken only a single word; and now Kettering forgets all about him and begins a lecture on geologic periods. You expect him to pull out a blackboard and pointer (and you can just imagine poor Helsingmann, trying to get a word in: "But... (choke)... but I only meant to tell you... they eat meat!").

In the event, Helsingmann only gets to add one more interjection — "Death! oh, death!" — before dying. But from Helsingmann's first word alone, Kettering is able to put together the whole story: the parasites don't come from outer space at all. They've burrowed up from beneath the earth (something the screw-shaped cone and the pile of dirt around the base should have suggested to them much sooner, don't you think?). Taking over the bodies of Helsingmann and his expedition, the parasites, umm, developed metallurgy, and mechanics, and physics, and electronics, and all sorts of industrial & technological skills you don't normally associate with invertebrates... all so they could build a super-advanced, indestructible burrowing machine that the humans alone could never have thought of. In five years. Why, yes; that makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately this information comes a little too late to be useful. By this point, the parasites have taken control of most of the key people in Riverdale. They control the telephones, the telegraph, the radio; they control the vertical; they control the horizontal... There's nothing left but for Kettering and the others to fight their way back to the cone, and see what else is inside it.

And you'll never guess what's inside it.

Remember how the inside of the cone was just an empty series of tubes at the beginning of the picture? Well, now the series of tubes leads to a room large enough for several people to stand in comfortably. And in the room... is God. God is played by Leonard Nimoy, and he's having a sauna.

What, you don't believe me? See for yourself:

Leonard Nimoy as the deus ex machina

More Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy as an emotionless, half-human scientist.

OK; so "God" is actually Helsingmann's colleague Dr. Cole, but he looks like God. And by God, he sounds like God... not only because he has a deep, resonant voice, but because he has grand plans for the human race. These parasites haven't come to merely conquer us: they've come to evangelize. They intend to establish a paradise free from human conflict. "Our social order is pure, innocent," he proclaims. "We shall force upon man a life free from strife and turmoil. Ironic, that man should obtain his long-sought Utopia as a gift, rather than as something earned."

Deep, resonant voice and long white beard notwithstanding, this sounds a little too much like — gasp! — Communism for our heroes. There is a battle, during which the glass containers holding the next wave of parasites get broken. Kettering and Glen are forced to flee for their lives...

... from this:

The Brain Eaters!

One of the strong points of The Brain Eaters is its refusal to allow a straightforward happy ending. The square-jawed hero and his girlfriend are in for a particularly nasty fate; and even though the invading menace is thwarted, the movie does acknowledge that the cleanup is going to be difficult. I have to admit, though: it's strange to see these concessions to reality at the end of a movie that's held common sense at arm's length for the previous 55 minutes.

Though The Brain Eaters was largely forgotten for years after its release, there was one moment when it was singled out for special recognition. In the Medved brothers' book "Son of Golden Turkey" (1986), The Brain Eaters was nominated for "Least Classy Use of Classical Music in Movie History"5. The Medveds pointed out that the movie depends heavily on excerpts from the music of the Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, while crediting the score to one "Tom Johnson".

There's nothing particularly "classy" about overt plagiarism. And I know plenty of people who would be appalled by the inclusion of art music in a cheap monster film. But the Medveds were mistaken: this isn't the Least Classy Use of Classical Music in Movie History... or for that matter, the Least Classy Use in an AIP production6.

That's not to say there aren't big problems with the movie's soundtrack choices. Incidental music is supposed to enhance the action without being obtrusive; but random excerpts from classical music may be either so richly detailed or so well-known that they take attention away from the action. At the very beginning of the film, for instance, when the parasites' ship is first discovered, the texture of the music is much too dense: there's so much going on in the soundtrack that you can't help but notice how comparatively little is going on on-screen. On the other hand, the problem of familiarity arises during the scene in which Dr. Kettering is attacked by the parasite he's been dissecting. The music that accompanies this is taken from "The Battle on the Ice", part of Prokofiev's soundtrack for Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky; it's some of Prokofiev's most famous and easily-recognized music. Instead of Teutonic knights, though, we see a little bit of alien slime charging into battle; and for anybody acquainted with the music's original context, this episode is likely to come as a bit of a shock. Then, to make things even stranger, the music segues without pause into the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich — some of the most instantly-recognizable music that composer ever wrote.

And then, there's always the chance that the editor compiling the soundtrack will just make a flat-out error of judgment... for example, when a brief fist-fight is accompanied (and totally overwhelmed) by the coda of the Shostakovich First Symphony.

But there are a number of places in The Brain Eaters where the plagiarized music works pretty well. For instance, when Kettering and Alice discover a body in the woods, Alice's gasp of horror and the slow pan to the corpse coincide with the entrance of the piano and low brass in the score, creating a very sinister effect. There is another scene in which the camera takes the place of one of the parasites and stalks Alice while she is sleeping. As the creature gets closer, the camera pauses; as it does, the music pauses at the same time, and for the same duration. You get the feeling that the AIP sound men had heard the records over and over again so many times that they knew exactly what music to cue, and where.

Two of the best moments in the film show the struggles of the parasites' victims as they try, for the last time, to fight off the creatures' control. Mayor Cameron tries to blow his own brains out, but is ultimately overcome by the will of the thing on his back. The sheriff we see sitting in near-darkness, next to a glowing glass jar containing more parasites; there's a look of sheer horror frozen on his face as he attempts (and fails) to raise his hand and tear the Brain Eater off his back (though he knows this will kill him, too). In front of him, the telephone rings and rings... Both these scenes are accompanied by the Largo movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, and to tell the truth, it's difficult to imagine how any specially-composed music could fit the action and the atmosphere any better.

Furthermore, the musical excerpts in The Brain Eaters aren't rubber-stamped all over the place: that is, even when they quote the same piece of music, they don't just use the same few bars over and over again; and they never attempt to associate a particular theme with a character or situation, leitmotiv-style. Thus when a theme recurs — as it tends to do when you're cutting chunks out of a symphony — it still sounds fresh, and actually gives some unity to the film as a whole.

To illustrate what a comparatively good job the editors did with The Brain Eaters, you need only take a look at an earlier AIP film that used the same techniques to much poorer effect: The Beast with a Million Eyes!

Beast... was also a shoestring production, made for just under $30,000; it, too, used great chunks of classical music to make up for the lack of a specially-composed score. Shostakovich's music gets plundered here as well — the Tenth Symphony this time (one of the composer's greatest works) — but in even sillier contexts. The hair-raising second movement of the Tenth (which is also used for the opening credits) plays uncut for three minutes and 18 seconds late in the film, starting with the big fight between Dick Sargent's character and the half-witted handyman known as "Him". Sure, the music works fairly well as long as the fight is going on; but then the fight stops, and the frantic music continues long after it's ceased to be appropriate (SEE! a man walking through a forest alone! THRILL! to the awesome spectacle of a branch falling off a date tree!).

And as for rubber-stamping? Well... almost every time "Him" appears on screen, he's announced with a seven-note theme from Wagner's opera "Lohengrin". Whatever the context — "Him" looking through the window; "Him" thumbing through his girly magazines; "Him" climbing a ladder — you can count on "Lohengrin" popping up on the soundtrack. Now, "Him" is usually seen spying on the narrator's nubile young daughter... so if you know anything about the plot of "Lohengrin", and what that particular music is meant to suggest (that is, an angel who takes the form of a human knight and comes to the defense of a young woman's honor), you can't help but wonder if the editors have lost their minds.

In other places, you get the feeling the editors were thinking a little too hard — like the scene in which "Him" is walking through the forest, to the accompaniment of... what else? The Forest Murmurs music from "Siegfried". He sees a bird fly by — and hey! there's the Forest Bird leitmotif, just in time! Sigh.

But worst of all is the editors' choice for the background music for the final confrontation with the Beast with a Million Eyes: it should be the high point of the film, as the human heroes choke the invader to death with sentimentality... and as we finally get a look at Paul Blaisdell's hastily-constructed monster. So what kind of dramatic music did they choose for the Big Reveal? Would you guess, perhaps, that they went back to the Shostakovich Tenth? That would certainly have been dramatic enough... but no; they did not. Maybe they used some stormy music from Wagner's "Ring"? That's what they used for most of the animal attack sequences; but again, no. Instead, they went with an excerpt from Igor Stravinsky's ballet "Firebird" — but not the ominous, bass-heavy music that accompanies the villainous Katschei... not the bombastic fanfare from the finale that turns up in all those TV commercials and high school football games... but rather the delicate, graceful Dance of the Firebird, some of Stravinsky's lightest and most ethereal music. That's right: delicate; graceful; ethereal. Just the words you'd use to describe a Big Monster Battle, right? Double sigh.

So The Brain Eaters manages to come out just slightly ahead of its predecessor in its use of "needle-drop" classical music.

I suppose you could work in some sort of justification for using the music of Soviet composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev in movies about alien invasion and mind control, like both The Brain Eaters and Beast... After all, the Cold War was just getting started, and nothing suggested "alien invasion and mind control" like the Soviet Union (and as the Cold War went on, nothing came to suggest the struggle against mind control more powerfully than the afore-mentioned Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich, which had its world premiere less than two years before Beast with a Million Eyes! ripped it off). Certainly The Brain Eaters, with its themes of forced Utopia and "boring from within", isn't terribly subtle as a political allegory.

But in fact there was a much more mundane reason why Shostakovich and Prokofiev feature so heavily in these films: copyright — or rather, the lack thereof. There was no reciprocal copyright agreement between the Soviet Union and the U.S. from the Russian Revolution until 1973. Shostakovich actually sued Twentieth Century Fox over use of his music in 1949, but his case was thrown out by the American court for precisely this reason: his music was public domain outside the USSR. AIP may not have been particularly "classy" stealing music from Soviet composers, but what they did was still legal.

I've just realized that in trying to defend The Brain Eaters's use of music, I may have disqualified it from the only "award" it's ever won. That's the kind of paradox you run into when you try to come to terms with a film like this. Poor Brain Eaters. Had it been just a little worse, it would have been a better movie.

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1. ... though, ahem, some might question whether Coppola's progress from Dementia 13 in 1963 to Bram Stoker's Dracula nearly 30 years later represents either development or success (though, to be fair, I've heard Mr. Coppola made a few acceptable features in between).

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2. It was actually Jonathan Haze who had written the original screenplay for VeSota's last feature, under the name Monsters of Nicholson Mesa. Haze tried to get his film produced by AIP as a vehicle for himself and Dick Miller, expanding on their roles as Army misfits in It Conquered the World; but the project fell apart, and the script eventually ended up in VeSota's hands. VeSota, who'd had a mutually-advantageous relationship with Haze up to that point, did his friend a disservice by retooling the script for two fifth-string AIP bit players, Frankie Ray and Bob Ball (who also has a small rôle in The Brain Eaters as Senator Powers's assistant)... while still crediting Haze as writer. Haze didn't even find out about the film until he saw it on television, at which point he must have felt the same way Robert Heinlein did after watching The Brain Eaters.

Full disclosure: when I was eleven, Invasion of the Star Creatures was one of my favorite movies (that should give you a pretty good idea of the level of the film's "comedy"). I remember my Geography class, when we were learning the basics of cartography and map-reading: we were supposed to use the symbols we'd been learning about to draw a map of an imaginary landscape. I drew Nicholson Mesa. Still, I suppose even then I had some idea — way, way down in my subconscious — that the movie wasn't really very good: I mis-spelled the name of the place "Nicholson Mess".

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3. The Beast with a Million Eyes! (1955), one of the last films produced by American Releasing Corporation before it became AIP. It was originally titled The Unseen, which was a much more accurate description of its title menace. Nicholson came up with the new title and lurid poster art after the film had been shot. At the initial screening, the distributors were very unhappy to learn that the new title was purely metaphorical: frankly, they weren't buying it (and that wasn't metaphorical, either). So new footage had to be shot to include an actual beast. The feeble result was even more disappointing than No Monster At All, but Arkoff and Nicholson had learned an important lesson.

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4. Another way to economize is to simply set up the camera in one position, with all the important action within the camera's field of vision, and just let the film roll through the scene. If you can afford to shoot inserts to liven up this "master shot" later, then that's fine; but in the meantime, you've got your minimum requirements in a single take. VeSota uses the combination of an unbroken master shot and a painfully unnecessary voice-over in the fight scene with the "brain-eaten" telegrapher. Decisions like this no doubt came back to haunt him in later years, when he worked with Jerry Warren: unbroken master shots and painful voice-overs were Warren's trademark.

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5. It won.

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6. My vote for the Least Classy Use of Classical Music also involves Sergei Prokofiev. Tinto Brass's hardcore travesty Caligula uses the "Midnight" movement from Prokofiev's Cinderella as a countdown to ejaculation during the Big Orgy Scene.

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