Horror Movies with Brains (Literally): A History of Killer Brain Movies
It seems like every time a horror movie happens to become a hit with film critics, they always have to make it a point to say that it’s “a horror movie with brains.” Thus implying that most horror movies don’t have brains, I suppose. You know critics — always going out of their way to make sure you know that they only like SMART movies.
But that’s beside the point. If it’s horror movies with brains they want, then I will gladly oblige in providing an overview of horror movies that have brains.
Literal brains, that is.
Following my last article about the neglected genre of crocsploitation, I will now focus on an even more neglected genre: BRAINSPLOITATION. Once again, I’m not sure if this is an actual genre unto itself, but there have been plenty of horror films throughout the years that have featured a killer brain of some sort. Other organs don’t seem to lend themselves as well to being horror movie monsters. Killer heart movies? Killer lung movies? Killer stomach movies? Nope. Well, there are a few killer penis movies, but that kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it?
Perhaps the brain as a monster represents the fear of information overload and technological advancements that were prevalent especially in the mid to late 20th Century, a sort of primordial trepidation about our own minds being our collective downfall. It could be seen as a symbolic cautionary tale thematically consistent with that famous photo of Albert Einstein expressing remorse that his ideas led to the creation of the atomic bomb. It could also be a stark anthropomorphism of the human brain as a representation of mental illness.
Or it could be that killer brains just look inherently cool. (I’m leaning towards that.)
So let’s take a look at some of the more notable killer brain movies throughout history, shall we?
The earliest example I could find of what could be classified as a killer brain movie is The Lady and the Monster from 1944. It’s based on the book Donovan’s Brain from two years earlier. The book is fairly well regarded, having been cited on numerous occasions by Stephen King as an influence. It was written by the great Curt Siodmak, who is probably best known for writing The Wolf Man and thus creating most of modern werewolf lore in the process.
The Lady and the Monster was only the first of three adaptations of the book, and despite featuring the always excellent Erich Von Stroheim, it may be the least well known of the the three. The book was later adapted in 1953 keeping the title Donovan’s Brain and again in 1962 called simply The Brain. The ’50s version is the best known and most popular of the three versions, and since there were not killer brain movies made between The Lady and the Monster and Donovan’s Brain (at least not that I’m aware of), I think it’s safe to say that it was Donovan’s Brain that really kickstarted the subsequent wave of killer brain movies (however small a wave it may have been).
It’s about a wealthy businessman who is hospitalized following a plane crash, and once it’s determined for certain that he will not live, a nearby doctor decides to remove his brain and conduct experiments on it to see if he can keep it alive. The doctor had previously attempted this on a monkey’s brain, and having not been successful in this endeavor, he pretty much just decides, “Well, fuck it. I’ll push forward with trying it on a human brain anyway.”
The experiments, in fact, do prove successful. So much so that the brain grows increasingly powerful over time thanks to the electricity being constantly charged into it, and eventually it develops the power to send out brainwaves (I mean, what other kind of waves would it have?) to control the minds of people around it. This leads to all sorts of shenanigans as the brain decides the best thing to do would be to kill everyone while they’re under its control, whether by getting them into car crashes or just simply committing suicide.
While Donovan’s Brain and its adaptations may have launched the killer brain genre, they might still only be considered proto-brainsploitation (we’re getting technical now!) in the respect that the brain remains stationary throughout and kills only through mind control. The real meat of the genre is the movies about brains that actively move around like monsters and do the physical killing themselves. And for that, we come to the 1957 film The Brain from Planet Arous.
This one is about an alien brain (from the planet Arous, of course). The brain talks, has eyes, and moves around. It’s a fully formed monster now, not just a regular old human brain that happens to have the ability to control minds thanks to being subjected to kooky experiments. Granted, it is a brain from another planet, where presumably the beings are just brains without bodies. But it’s still a brain, dammit. And it comes to earth to — what else?
The evil alien brain is capable of possessing people by literally going into their heads and acting as their brain. He can’t stay in their heads for too long, though, as he occasionally has to leave in order to refill on oxygen, and it is only when he’s outside of a human head and floating freely in the world that he can be killed, a weakness that is revealed by the good brain from Arous that later also arrives on Earth to help the world battle this sinister cerebrum. Yes, good brain versus evil brain action. This movie has it all.
The movie was directed by Nathan Hertz, who the following year made both the campy favorite Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the Ray Harryhausen classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (though he was credited as Nathan Juran for the latter, which was his actual last name…I suppose sci-fi horror films didn’t warrant usage of his real name). And lest you think The Brain from Planet Arous is just another in a long line of disreputable ’50s B-movies, Hertz/Juran had previously won an Academy Award as the art director of John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, infamously known as the movie that beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1941. So if anyone gives you a hard time for liking it, just tell them it was made by a guy who won an Oscar for a movie that the Academy deemed to be better than Citizen Kane. The Brain from Planet Arous is obviously a super prestigious film, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously lacking brains.
Yet despite this high honor, The Brain from Planet Arous is still not quite the Citizen Kane of killer brain movies. That would be released a year later in the form of the masterpiece that is Fiend Without a Face.
If I came across as facetious just then when I described this movie as a masterpiece, I want to stress that I meant it sincerely. This movie is amazing. It’s not only the greatest killer brain movie ever made, but one of the greatest sci-fi and/or horror films of the ’50s. In fact, it may even be my personal favorite from that decade. The Criterion Collection agrees with me too, since it was released under the label which is usually reserved for arthouse films and classics of world cinema. Fiend Without a Face is in the same company as Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu. Except they never made a movie that features brain monsters being smashed and shot in gory detail, so they still fall short.
Unlike The Brain from Planet Arous, the killer brains in Fiend Without a Face are not from another planet and are indeed human brains. But since this was the ’50s and there was only one other option for the origin of a horror movie creature, the brains are the result of nuclear experiments gone wrong. At first the creatures are invisible, as initially it’s a living stream of consciousness concocted by a scientist and corrupted by nuclear radiation to the point that it escapes from the lab and goes on a killing spree. Its victims are found with their brains and spinal columns missing, and eventually these are the physical manifestations taken by this spreading thought creature thing.
For a movie released in 1958, it’s pretty fucking gory. Mind you (is that another brain pun? I can’t tell anymore), it’s obviously nothing compared to the gore in more modern horror films, but compared to other movies of its era, it’s in its own category. The Hays Code was still in effect at the time, which severely restricted what could be shown (or even suggested) in American movies. Onscreen violence was only allowed to be extremely tame, like an occasional slap in the face or completely unconvincing punch. I guess this movie found a loophole, though, as the gory scenes don’t depict violence against human characters but rather against the killer brains. As I previously mentioned, they’re shot, smashed, and destroyed in graphic detail. You definitely get your fill of gooey brain entrails in this one.
For the most part, the ’60s failed to capitalize on the blueprint for brainsploitation that the ’50s had laid out so wonderfully. But I guess that’s to be expected. Sci-fi horror and monster movies were going out of style throughout this decade, and by the time the age of modern horror fully arrived in 1968 with the releases of Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby, killer brain movies were probably seen as too silly in those oh-so-socially-conscious times. Not that I’m dissing that era, of course; many of the greatest films ever made in and out of the horror genre were produced during the ’60s and ’70s. I’m just saying if you were hoping for a killer brain movie that was made as an allegorical comment on Vietnam or Watergate, you were out of luck.
I’ve seen 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die categorized as a killer brain movie, but it’s not. It’s about a severed head. The brain is keeping the head alive, of course, but for the purposes of this article, I’m only interested in discussing movies in which the brain is detached from the head and is the killer on its own. In this regard, the next movie that I think can vaguely qualify is Evil Brain from Outer Space.
Evil Brain from Outer Space was actually spliced together from three episodes of the Japanese sci-fi serial Super Giant to be shown as a single movie for American television. The episodes of Super Giant were made between 1958 and 1959, but they weren’t shown edited together as Evil Brain from Outer Space until 1964. Taking footage from Japanese series and reediting them to form a different American production is something that has been common practice for a long time, dating as far back as the original 1954 Godzilla being edited with newly filmed footage to make the (considerably less dark) 1956 American version Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and more recently as the Japanese series Super Sentai having its battle sequences edited into American-made footage to form Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
But anyway, Evil Brain from Outer Space is about the brain of an intergalactic supervillain that comes to Earth in an attempt to — guess what?
He’s not depicted as anything truly resembling a brain other than his body having a vaguely brain-like texture, but he is indeed supposed to be a brain. It’s not a horror movie, but it’s worth noting anyway as an example of a killer brain. His plot is thwarted by the heroic Starman.
There’s also They Saved Hitler’s Brain from 1968, but like the aforementioned The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it’s about a severed head, not a detached brain. The poster would seem to indicate otherwise, but nope, no brain activity in this movie.
No, in order to return fully the glory of pure brainsploitation, we need to skip ahead to the ’80s. In general, the ’80s saw a resurgence of a lot of tropes that were popular in the ’50s, from creature features to aliens to mad scientists. And yes, killer brains made a comeback too, however briefly.
1987 and 1988 represent probably the pinnacle of brainsploitation, as a whopping FOUR movies released during those two years could qualify as killer brain movies. Let’s start with Mindkiller, if only because it has one of the greatest posters in all of movie history.
The movie itself doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations that its totally rad poster creates. For most of its duration, it’s about a loser who develops psychic powers, and they gradually spiral out of control (which tends to happen with anyone who gets psychic powers unless their name is Charles Xavier, it seems). Where this fits into the killer brain genre is that the movie’s climax features the guy’s brain becoming so powerful that it bursts out of his head and wreaks havoc on its own. This sequence alone is really cool, but the fact that it’s available isolated from the rest of the movie on YouTube definitely makes tracking down a copy of the whole movie a lot less pertinent.
Then there’s Blood Diner.
Where do I even begin with Blood Diner? It’s honestly one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen. There’s so much going on in it that categorizing it as a killer brain movie seems incredibly reductive, but there is, in fact, an evil brain in the movie. There’s just also cannibals, a resurrected goddess, a naked kung fu fighter, a diner patron who happens to be a giant dummy but is never presented as such, a Hitler-themed professional wrestler, and…um…that doesn’t even begin to cover all of this movie’s weirdness. So you can see how a mere talking evil brain could get lost in the shuffle a bit.
Nonetheless, yes, there is a brain in this movie. The brain belongs to a serial killer who is the uncle of the two main characters. His dug-up brain is placed in a jar and proceeds to give them instructions on how to resurrect a goddess named Sheetar. Then it’s just one batshit crazy sequence after another. For sheer demented lunacy, there are very, very few movies that can match Blood Diner. Its director Jackie Kong only made four movies plus a few episodes of a 2001 series called Karaoke Nights that is apparently so obscure that it only has six user ratings and ZERO reviews on IMDb, leading me to believe that it probably never even aired anywhere. I wish she’d done more, because if this magnum opus of madness is any indication, she’s got one of the most brilliantly perverse imaginations of any filmmaker whose work I’ve ever seen.
Perhaps the most well known killer brain movie of the modern era is 1988’s The Brain, which for a long time was regarded as one of the best horror movies that was trapped on VHS. It has recently popped up for streaming on Prime Video and at the time of this writing is just about to get a deluxe Blu-ray release from Scream Factory, so its reputation as a relic of the VHS era has finally gotten it the modern exposure it deserves.
The Brain is a Canuxploitation classic that works as both a wickedly fun monster movie and a surprisingly biting media satire. It’s about a TV show host (played by the awesome David Gale, of Re-Animator and From Beyond fame) who runs a cultish self-help program called Independent Thinking. The only problem (aside from those sorts of shows being creepy as fuck to begin with) is that he’s secretly running the show as part of a plan devised with an alien brain so they can control the minds of humanity and eventually —
As more and more viewers are brainwashed by The Brain, it continues to grow larger and more powerful. It’s a really fun creature design, and special makeup effects artist Mark Williams has a few other notable credits to his name including Blue Monkey, MST3K favorite Werewolf, and even Aliens (on which he worked as part of the film’s creature effects crew). It also features another classic ’80s trope in that the heroes of the movie are a group of ragtag kids. It’s a hell of a lot of fun all around, and I’m glad it’s finally getting some more attention and an upgraded release (though the VHS still remains highly prized among collectors).
And finally, there’s Brain Damage, also from 1988, which only sort of counts. But really, I’ll use any excuse to talk about this movie, so I’m including it.
Brain Damage is not technically about a killer brain, but rather a parasitic creature that feasts on brains and happens to kind of look like a brain himself. I guess you could describe him as a serpentine brain parasite. He goes by the name of Aylmer (or Elmer) and provides his host Brian (get it? it’s an anagram of “brain”) with a singularly euphoric hallucinogenic experience by connecting to his brain and secreting fluid into it. The catch is that it’s highly addictive, and the only way Aylmer will agree to continue giving it to Brian is if he kills people for him so he can feast on their brains.
It obviously could be seen as a drug metaphor, but writer/director Frank Henenlotter (who also made the classics Basket Case and Frankenhooker) is too committed to making an outrageously fun exploitation movie to weigh it down with any kind of heavy-handed symbolism. It’s violent, outlandish, and demented, which is exactly what you’d expect from Frank Henenlotter. Basket Case is probably still the movie for which he’s best known, but I’ve been noticing an increasing number of people citing Brain Damage as their favorite of his films, and that’s not something I’d argue with. It may not technically be a killer brain movie in the same way that the others I’ve discussed are, but there’s enough gooey brain matter in the movie that it surely deserves an honorable mention at the very least, even if it doesn’t fully qualify. Perhaps there are even subcategories of brainsploitation to differentiate killer brain movies from a movie like this? The plot thickens.
Okay, I can’t end this article without at least mentioning Krang. While we’re venturing far outside the realm of horror movies here, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain Krang is undoubtedly the most famous killer brain of them all. As was the case with the brains in some of the movies I’ve talked about here, he has alien origins, but it is explained that he did once have a body. He debuted in the 1987 animated series (he wasn’t in the original comics), further leading me to believe that 1987 and 1988 were truly the golden age of brainsploitation. Along with Shredder, he was the main antagonist of the series. In fact, Shredder was usually positioned as being subservient to Krang, who was the true brains (I mean…) of the plot. The plot to do what exactly?
Wait for it…
Krang wasn’t featured in any of the ’90 live action Turtles movies, which is a shame because I would love to have seen him rendered with practical effects and puppetry. When he finally made his live action debut, he was portrayed entirely in CGI, but the good news is that — and this goes against my principles as a staunch proponent of using practical effects except when absolutely necessary to use CGI — he actually looked pretty good. They got Brad Garrett to do his voice, though, which made him sound a lot different than the high-pitched Krang voice we’re used to hearing from the cartoon.
So that about wraps up my overview of this glorious genre that I’ve just dubbed brainsploitation. Not the most prolific genre out there, but there’s definitely a lot of fun to be had marathoning these films, so I highly recommend doing that as soon as possible. Call in sick to work and do it. That’s what I write these article for. I give you the resources to lose your job and become a full-time trash movie fiend. I hope you use them wisely.
Until next time, fellow scavengers of the cinematic junkyard, have fun and use your brains.
OMG! Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I was wondering if I had been imagining this movie since I was young (born 1959). Must have seen it on TV as a kid, I know my parents wouldn’t have taken us to see it at the theater. I have never been able to forget the brains and spines slinking around in Fiend Without A Face!! I know have the name to go with my memory. I am definitely going to get it on Amazon Prime and watch it again!