Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Brainiac (1962): or, Brains is Brain Food

I was first exposed to El Barón del Terror, aka The Brainiac, as a clipped scene in a trailer compilation tape I owned called Horrible Horror. In the included scene, an attractive young woman turns around to discover that the man she was just talking with has changed into a hideous, troll-headed beast with a long forked tongue and fingers reduced to two tube-like prongs--incongruously still wearing a suit and tie. As he walks toward her, someone behind the scenes with a bicycle pump is obviously inflating and deflating the monster's rubber head, giving it a low-tech pulsation not unlike the famous transformations in An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. The girl screams, the monster advances--and then, a scene from The Attack of the Giant Shrews.

Of course I was fascinated. What was this movie? What was this strange creature? Who devised this (for the time) pretty amazing makeup? And could a movie that included such a singular beastie really be that bad?

Well, I got the chance to find out as I spun my dvd copy of The Brainiac, which I now know was filmed in Mexico in 1962. And after viewing the film, like the Brainiac's victims, I am of two minds. But before we get to that, a little about the flick:

We open in Mexico City, 1661, in the court of the Inquisition (no surprise there--EVERY Spanish/Mexican/Hispanic horror film seems to start with the Inquisition!), where the mysterious Baron Vitelius d'Estera is being tried for a laundry list of crimes that would make Alec de Margnac proud, including sorcery, necromancy, and of course heresy. Strangely, no one knows where the baron comes from, or what his family history is--just that he's a bad mamma jamma and no mistake. As the Grand Inquisitor reads the chargers, the Baron only laughs; they describe his trial by torture, and he just smiles. Finally, a nobleman steps forward to defend the Baron, and is sentenced to 200 lashes for his trouble. In the end the Inquisition sentences the Baron to be burned at the stake. But as he's led away, the Baron defies them again by saying, "If my body is to be burned, it will not be in chains," and magically transfers his shackles to the feet of his guards, which causes him no end of mirth. You've got to take pleasure in the little things in life, no?

Just another pretty face.

At his execution, the Baron uses his x-ray vision to see through the masks of his judges, and standing on the pyre, guess what he does? Yes, he CURSES them! Looking overhead and noting a spectacularly-realized fx shot of a comet, he says that when that comet comes back around, he will come with it and wreak his vengeance on their descendants. I'm sure the Inquisitors feel bad for their great-great-grandkids, but still, considering what follows, they have to feel lucky they got off so easy.

Flash forward to 1961, 300 years and one comet circuit later. We meet a couple of young astronomy students in love, who under their crotchety old professor are tracking the rare comet as it comes back into view. And find it they do--but strangely, it shoots off a sparkly disco-ball of destruction and then disappears. The young lovers go to investigate, but before they can find it, a passerby witnesses the impact of a mountain-shaped meteorite that lands just like a Monty Python 16-ton weight and then becomes the troll-headed monster from the Planet of the Brainsuckers. Growling like a lion, the beast attacks the hapless hombre, sucks his brains, and magically steals his suit. (He leaves the corpse its underwear, though--apparently, alien sorcerers like to go commando.) Transformed back into Baron D'Estera, the creature meets our young couple and recognizes the boy as the descendant of his defender, the girl as a descendant of one of his judges. Talk about a small world! After some pleasantries, they part, promising to meet again.

Another brain feast (this time from a middle-aged hooker in Mexico D.F.) and an off-screen jewel-heist later, the Baron is back in his palatial estate and planning a party for all his "old friends." Meanwhile a Joe Friday-style police detective and his comic relief sidekick are looking for the brain-sucking fiend who is leaving scantily-clad corpses all over the federal district. After the party the Baron makes his way through each of his judges and their children, freezing them with his Bela Lugosi stare and then transforming and sucking their brains. The best of these scenes involves a history professor and his daughter; the prof, frozen in terror, gives one of the most amazing bug-eye pops in the history of cinema as the Baron first seduces and then slurps the man's daughter. Great acting there.


After some ineffective police work and some pretty tedious repetitions of the freeze-kiss-slurp M.O., we finally get to a pretty wild finale, as the troll-beast chases the young astronomer girl, having saved her for last out of gratitude to the great-great-great-grandpappy of her boyrfriend. Out of nowhere the cops burst in--inexplicably packing a pair of military-issue flamethrowers! They fry the Baron extra-crispy, managing not to set anything else on fire in the process, and as the Baron's corpse dissolves, we get confirmation that this is indeed THE END.

Sounds great, eh? Well, it is, partly. There are definitely some great things about it. The monster design and early air-bladder fx technology are quite interesting, and the grim conversations about empty-headed corpses whose brains have been sucked out must have seemed pretty intense in 1962. Even moreso the scenes later when the baron, alone at home, breaks out a platter full of brains and goes at them like ice cream! The actor playing the Baron is quite impressive too, with his cold, evil looks and strange allure--he really could be a Mexican Bela. A late scene before the wild finish also seems ahead of its time, as the Baron terrorizes a young chica on her honeymoon, who keeps calling to her new husband, in the bath in the next room. The Baron lets her go to the bathroom and discover her husband, hung upside down from the shower, his head submerged in the running water below! Quite shocking for 62, as are a few of the corpse shots--one of them a charred skeleton. And it's fun to mark the craftsmanship of the numerous painted backdrops, on which no expense was spared, obviously. Pretty much all the outside shots were studio shots, and some painters did a lot of hard work for this, it's clear.

That's the good stuff. The bad is, I'm afraid, that it's all rather boring. I know, sounds impossible, but even at 77 minutes this movie seems to drag quite a bit. After the first kill, every monster scene is pretty much a repeat, and it gets old. The talking scenes in between are very padded, and stop the movie dead. The voice acting is occasionally hilarious (the Jose Friday cop is particularly good, with lines like, "I wish they could find a way to control the subjects a man studies. A maniac with a lot of knowledge is a threat."--yeah, keep 'em stupid, Jose!), but more often just dull. In fact, if it weren't for that slam-bang ending with the shower-kill and the flamethrowers, it might have been a complete dud.

But it DOES have that ending, so like I say, I'm of two minds. In the end I guess I have to give it a 1-thumb "poor" rating, but raised .5 thumbs thanks to that ending, for a final of 1.5--"average" Worth seeing once, but no world beater.

1 comment:

The Duke of DVD said...

Sounds like one that is worthy of a viewing, for sure. Holy shit at the first picture in the review! If I were talking to someone and turned around and they had transformed suddenly into that THING, I would do two things. First, I would soil my pantaloons. Then I would vomit in terror whilst jumping from a nearby window.

The bathtub death shot sounds fantastic. At least there is a bit to love in this older piece. Bravo once again on a fantastic review!

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