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Mill Creek Reviews: The Atomic Brain (1963)

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Published on May 15, 2012

Title: The Atomic Brain
Alternate Title(s): Monstrosity
Mill Creek Rating: **/**** (two out of four)
Year: 1963
Genre: Body-Swap Sci-Fi/Horror
IMDB Rating: 2.5
MCR Hall of Fame Nominee: Marjorie Eaton
Collection: Sci-Fi Classics 50-Movie Pack

A grainy made-for-TV flick from when the art was young, Atomic Brain comes across less like an ABC Movie of the Week and more like a Z-grade 42nd Street exploitation sleazefest. There's a variety of reasons for this. For one, the movie seems to be shooting for the patient, eerie building narrative of a gothic mystery. But because the story is simple and the characters not particularly well fleshed out, the movie can never establish the slow momentum it's plainly after, and instead just seems sluggish. One unanticipated advantage of this, actually, is that it feels full length despite its stingy 64-minute running time.

The other reason is Mrs. March's overtly sublimated chickenhawk lesbianism, and the perversity of the film more generally. When she pokes and prods the sexy lasses, these queasy scenes do unsavory work on numerous levels. First, they, like the camera that lingers on the sexy corpse in the movie's opening, are plainly meant to titillate even though their context is decidedly unerotic. Then there's the fact that the elderly Mrs. March is examining these women's bodies to judge their suitability as chassis for the engine of her mind, something the feminist crowd would reasonably call objectification of the crassest sort. And not least, composer Gene Kauer—who went on to score the notorious Faces of Death series—chooses for some reason to pepper Atomic Brain with inappropriately bouncy cartoon-style music. Perhaps he'd hoped his over-reliance on xylophone would put one in mind of bones, but it just makes the movie seem indifferent to the fate of the three imprisoned women and gives it an out-of-place jauntiness that's downright surreal.

The film's ultimate outrage, revealed in the first few minutes: Once in the pulchritudinous body of her choice, the corrupt matron plans to have sex with Victor (and perhaps the doctor as well) as a reward for his efforts to put her there. This conceit would better serve the foulest pornography than a made-for-TV film. It's a notion that shocks the conscience. But in a confessional mood, I can also understand both their rationales: Mrs. March's, to be beautiful and live forever. Victor's, to feel the warmth of a physical love that's plainly distant to the aged man. [insert]

Watching The Atomic Brain is mostly an ordeal, although it can grow on you. Its dreary, sleepy pacing tried my patience, but also created a unique mood of pervasive, slow, looming death, a sense the movie has of inhabiting Mrs. March's wobbling gait, her halting breath and unsteady words. There's an assonance in this that will grab you if you're in the right frame of mind. It gives the movie a deeper resonance that it might not otherwise have. Deep down, The Atomic Brain is a bit eerie, mostly despite itself. [insert]

Atomic Brain comes as a late entry in a genre, the brain-in-a-pan sci-fi shocker, that betrays a certain mid-century mentality about what it means to be a human subject. I mentioned chassis and engines before, and The Brain That Wouldn't Die, The Head, and countless other movies of the '50s and early '60s seem to work from something like this metaphor: the skull encases the gray matter of the soul, the body amounts to a mobile, enabling casement, a way for the driver or motor to work its will. This might have seemed like a transparent way of envisioning human essence at the time. Since then, movie metaphors for the soul have proliferated and dispersed—the replicable humanoid selves of The Terminator and AI, The Matrix's supple, electric messiah—these later movies confuse mind and body, reality and illusion, human and synthetic.

The Atomic Brain reminds us of a simpler time when the life was in the mind, the mechanics in the body, the servicing and operation of the human creature strictly modular. It's interesting to consider the movie's static view of the way man operates in relation to its fetishistic energy: this stasis enables the fetish, whereas later the human form and human essence intermingle, become difficult to fix, too changeable to ever hold in one's hand.
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An explanation of my rating system:

One Star: Utterly without value. A one-star movie is guaranteed to be horrible.

Two Stars: One or two interesting elements may make this movie worth watching to some, but odds are most will find it horrible.

Three Stars: Good, empty fun, but no deeper aspirations. Somewhat likely to be horrible.

Four Stars: A unique, ambitious, challenging movie, perhaps brilliant, definitely worth seeing. Might still be horrible.

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