FANTASIA OBSCURA: ‘The Brain Eaters’ Serves Up Horror with a Side of Gunfire

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, there are innocent victims underfoot when the bullets start to fly…

The Brain Eaters (1958)

Distributor: American International
Director: Bruno VeSota

It’s a year after Sputnik and two years after Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so of course, this was going to happen!

We see (and have over-explained to us through laborious narration) the discovery of a metal cone outside of Riverdale, Illinois. (No, not that one!) The discoverers, Glenn Cameron (Alan Jay Factor, credited as Alan Frost), the mayor’s son, and his fiancée Elaine (Jody Fair), alert the authorities, who send from Washington Senator Walter Powers (Cornelius Keefe, credited as Jack Hill, in what would be his last acting role) to get on-the-ground, first-hand information.

When the Senator gets there, he finds the scientific examination going on, led by Dr. Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson, credited as Edwin Nelson). As part of the exam, Kettering, egged on by Powers, fires his revolver into the hole in the side of the cylinder for whatever semi-verifiable data of limited use he could get from that.

He has as his assistant the mayor’s secretary Alice Summers (Joanna Lee), who’s showing some very unprofessional attention to this guy from out of town she’s seeing instead of working for the mayor. Mind you, we learn in passing mayor’s been missing for over a day, at which point the group decides to check out the mayor’s office, where we find the mayor has reappeared and is ready for a gun battle with everyone.

The mayor dies in the fight, which is advantageous, as it allows the investigators to find on him a creature that was latched onto the base of his neck. An autopsy of the bug leads to the discovery that these things are parasites that can control their hosts, which explains the mayor’s actions and why subsequent requests of important position holders in town meet with resistance.

As the parasite-infested humans ready their plans, including claiming Alice as one of their own, as well as revealing their plans through one of their hosts (Leonard Nimoy, as a kind of a dry-run for his appearance in the second Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the fellowship responds with fists and guns of all kinds, anything they can to end this threat and put this film out of our misery.

There are more bullets flying in this film than you usually see in a genre picture; hell, there’s more lead flying around than in most gangster pictures before or since. One wonders if the NRA had a program for product placement in Hollywood like the one Big Tobacco had for characters smoking in pictures; knowing that that was going on here would be more comforting than the fact that we have a weak script being shot by a very inexperienced director, which is the case, sadly.

Nelson, who also produced the film (with a lot of uncredited help from his executive producer Roger Corman), packed his project for his acting friends to have something to do together. VeSota, despite years as a character actor, would never demonstrate that he learned any skills as a director (his other three films were worse than this one), and scriptwriter Gordon Urquhart only did this film before his sudden demise, so it was likely that seeing the end result convinced Nelson to stick to acting.

That, and the lawsuit.

As recounted by Corman years later, it turned out during discovery for litigation that the story was a rip-off of the classic work The Puppet Masters written by Robert Heinlein in 1951. Given a choice between a potential drawn-out court case and staying on good terms with a giant in the science fiction field, Corman reached a settlement with Heinlein, paying $5,000 for damages.

The fee was likely derived by the fact that the budget for The Brain Eaters was a mere $28,000 (which showed on screen) and that if there had been any profits, they were likely to come to just about that paltry sum.

There was a casualty out of all this, however: Negotiations Heinlein had with actor John Payne for an adaptation of The Puppet Masters, most likely to be shot by a major studio, broke off after The Brain Eaters was released and bombed. As a result, there would not be an effort to adapt the classic book until Stuart Orme’s film in 1994, a missed opportunity for a potential classic.

Which is always why, no matter how dire the situation, you need to calm down and use your head during a firefight.

NEXT TIME: What would you do if I made a weird film; would you stand up and walk out on me?

About James Ryan 118 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…