Last updated: June 05. 2014 12:57PM - 221 Views
Tom Doty Times Columnist

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A doctor conducting experiments on the human brain loses control of his own in this lean chiller from the fabulous 1950s.

Our story begins with Dr. Cory and his wife, Janice, driving home from a trip to procure a lab monkey. Janice winds up cuddling the frightened animal, while her husband chuckles at this display of her maternal side. They arrive home shortly thereafter and are soon marveling at the monkey’s brain, which is now free of the monkey’s skull and floating in a tank of nutrients.

The experiment is interrupted when an urgent phone call informs them of a nearby plane wreck. Cory is forced to head out to the crash site as the local physician, Schratt, is too intoxicated to perform his duties. The only survivor of the event is a self-made millionaire named Donovan. Unfortunately, he is in bad shape. Cory rushes the body to his lab, where he is forced to amputate Donovan’s legs in a frantic effort to save him. He dies anyway.

Cory can’t resist the urge to make his patient the first human subject in his brain experiment and opts to adopt the grey matter and hopes nobody orders an autopsy. His wife and Dr. Schratt are less than thrilled, but they go along with the charade. Donovan’s melon does well in the tank and is soon showing signs of growth, as well as increased brain wave activity.

Desperate to establish communication with the organ, Dr. Cory decides to bone up on Donovan’s biography. He learns that the brain belonged to a selfish pig who made his millions with a mail-order business and was bound and determined to hide his profits from the government. He also had a bad kidney, a limp, was a left hander and favored silk suits. None of the research reveals that Donovan had any latent ESP talents, and that’s too bad, because he is soon controlling Cory like a sock puppet.

Trouble emerges when Cory begins writing with his left hand, speaking in a strange tone of voice, and starts favoring his kidney like Mike Tyson declared open season on it. Before you know it, he is jetting to the big city, where he raids secret bank accounts that Donovan used to hide his money from the IRS, as well as his family.

Meanwhile, a nosy reporter (played by B-movie tough guy Steve Brodie) gets wind of the experiment and starts coming around for a handout while the IRS gets suspicious, and Janice realizes that Donovan has taken control of her husband. Too bad the only way to stop this madman may be to kill the innocent doctor whose body has been hijacked by the insidious Donovan’s brain.

This is an excellent thriller that manages to impart its story in a timely hour and 20 minutes. It helps that they had an excellent novel, by Curt Siodmak, as their source material.

Siodmak was an interesting guy. He was German Jew who emigrated to the states at the insistence of his wife in 1939. The move probably saved his life. He was a busy screenwriter for monster flicks (like the original “Wolfman” and “Bride of the Gorilla”) and wrote several sci-fi books that explored characters with mind powers (like this one and its sequel and “Hauser’s Memory”). He died 13 years ago at the age of 97 from a bout with lung cancer. Ironically, he chose not to take any painkillers so his mind could stay clear.

Rigid censorship rules of the time kept this film from following the novel too closely. The book is pretty gruesome, from the monkey killing all the way up. Cory is also a more self-obsessed guy in the book and almost welcomes the evil influence of Donovan. That said, the movie is much more faithful to the book than the other two adaptations that were based on it.

Lew Ayres makes for a sensitive Cory, while Nancy Davis (soon to become Mrs. Ronald Reagan) is quite good as the lady who stands by her man despite his brain problems (a skill that would serve her well through two stays at the White House). The monkey doesn’t fare as well here as in “Bedtime for Bonzo” but this film does boast a rapidly growing brain in a tank that pulsates and throbs like a lump of meat on a hot plate but proves susceptible to the power of lightning.

Best line: “Call me when the brain goes to sleep.”

1953, unrated.

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