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  Donovan's Brain Dread To ThinkBuy this film here.
Year: 1953
Director: Felix E. Feist
Stars: Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Reagan, Steve Brodie, Tom Powers, Lisa Howard, James Anderson, Victor Sutherland, Michael Colgan, Peter Adams, Harlan Warde, Shimen Ruskin
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: Dr Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) is working in the field of brain transplants out in his countryside laboratory, which happens to double as his home. He shares it with his wife Janice (Nancy Davis, soon to be called Nancy Reagan) and his research assistant Frank Schratt (Gene Evans) who is having trouble staying sober recently; when Cory and his wife arrive home with a new test subject, a live monkey, Frank is huddled under a blanket on the floor and in a booze induced haze. Nevertheless, his friend and colleague has faith in him, and soon they are setting about taking the monkey's brain from its skull and trying to make it live independently...

Nothing to do with the head of any particular Scottish folk rockers, this was another version of Curt Siodmak's celebrated science fiction thriller, a novel which has proven influential in its own small way, mostly in the manner science fiction and horror treats the brain. It had been made most memorably before this as The Lady and the Monster back in 1944, but this is probably the most celebrated incarnation of the tale of a rich industrialist's second favourite organ being removed after a plane crash and used by the scientist to demonstrate his theories that it is possible to preserve a thinking brain, in this case in a fish tank half-filled with goop, and even communicate with it.

But this would be a listless movie if it was simply Lew Ayres playing games of chess with his new friend, so once he has had the idea that it is likely a psychic bond can be created between him and Donovan, the stage is set for sinister happenings for the rest of the plot. Interesting for the period this was crafted, the millionaire illustrates all the worst aspects of capitalism, that is a dedicated self-interest and a willingness to ride roughshod over anyone who gets in the path of his profits, not a message that you would have thought would go down very well in fifties, anti-Communist U.S.A. if it hadn't been attached to a minor classic of sci-fi writing, and rendering the results all the more subversive.

Not that this was a rallying call under the red flag for Americans to throw off their chains, but its critical nature of the status quo as exemplified by Donovan was one which added a little depth to what was essentially a brisk fantasy with suspense sequences liberally applied. The brain itself was rather marvelous in that once it was infused with Cory's experimentations it began to grow, pulsate and even glow, thus setting in stone the most indelible image of the supermind in this genre for decades to come, whether it be the exposed brain of the Metaluna mutant in This Island Earth, John Agar's nemesis The Brain from Planet Arous, or even Steve Martin's improbable love affair in The Man with Two Brains, every one of those organs had a macabre quality thanks to the sense that we were seeing what we were not supposed to: they should have been concealed in the skull.

Once Cory had made his psychic link with the evil Donovan, he finds his will being sapped as the corporate monster takes him over, to the extent that Cory even starts limping and holding his aching kidney just as his mental invader did when he had his own body. What Donovan gets up to in this guise is to set about securing his fortune to do with what he pleased, which mostly involved generating more of it, plenty more, and not allowing anyone else to get their mitts anywhere near the moolah, not the tax man, not charities, and especially not his family who start to wonder who this Cory chap is and how he has the blessings of their relative - Donovan commands his handwriting to pen notes in his recognisable scrawl. Whether by this time the filmmakers were basing the villain on Howard Hughes is intriguing to ponder, but in the main the film was a slightly daft but pacy march through a predictable plot, plus you got to see the future First Lady of the eighties in her previous career, dull but a shade more credible than she was opposite her husband in Hellcats of the Navy. Music by Eddie Dunstedter.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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