Disembodied human brains were featured in a number of science fiction and horror movies from the 1950s and 1960s, although the concept is much older. Probably one of the most famous was Donovan’s Brain (1953), based on a novel of the same name by Curt Siodmak, published in 1942. Siodmak also wrote several horror and science fiction screenplays in the 1940s and 1950s, among them The Wolf Man (1941), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Creature With The Atom Brain (1955), The Beast With Five Fingers (1946) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), among others.
Donovan’s Brain may be credited with establishing the now familiar notion of a human brain kept alive outside the body. W.H. Donovan, a ruthless millionaire, is nearly killed in an airplane crash, but luckily is found by Dr. Patrick Cory, who happens to have a fully equipped operating room at his nearby laboratory. Donovan’s brain is kept alive in a fish tank, where it soon grows and begins to pulsate. Dr. Cory begins to experience lapses of consciousness and take on the physical mannerisms of Donovan—it becomes clear that Donovan is gaining increasing psychic power over the scientist.
Through the hapless Dr. Cory, Donovan is able to control the affairs of his estate and carry out murder, blackmail and tax evasion. More ominously, Donovan has contrived to order such equipment as an automatic feeder (for the brain), brain output amplifiers, temperature controllers, and most important, a generator to ensure uninterrupted electric power. The brain continues to grow in size and influence, but an act of God brings an end to its evil machinations.
Speaking of good and evil, one of my favorite brain movies from childhood was The Brain From Planet Arous (1957). This film should have been named The Brains From Planet Arous, because there were two: a criminal brain named Gor, and his nemesis, the good brain called Vol. Gor takes over the body of one of the male characters, while Vol takes up residence in the family’s dog. Because the alien brains must periodically leave their physical hosts to obtain oxygen—this made perfect sense to me at age 10—the evil Gor has a vulnerability that can be exploited. Vol and his human allies must strategize in a desperate struggle to keep the Earth safe from domination by the evil alien brain. The climactic scene of one of the men taking an ax to Gor’s cerebrum is a classic. I remember being completely unsuccessful at explaining this movie to my glassy eyed parents.
The Fiend Without a Face (1958) is still disturbing to watch. The monster, finally made visible near the end of the film, turns out to be an animated central nervous system, a slithering, leaping brain and spinal cord, somehow created as a result of atomic radiation. There are dozens of them, invisible at first, and when they latch onto people they suck out their brains and nervous systems. At the end of the movie, the main characters are trapped and under siege by swarms of hopping brains. Unlike other brain movies, here the creatures are stand ins for a relentless new predator, not so much concerned with thinking or plotting as capturing and devouring.
A final example of a disembodied brain running amok is “The Brain of Colonel Barham”, an episode of the original Outer Limits that aired in the second season, in 1965. The story is set in the middle of the Cold War, during the space race. Colonel Alex Barham is a top notch scientist and member of a Mars project. Knowing that he is dying of leukemia, he volunteers to have his brain connected via neural implants to the computer that will coordinate the mission.
But once his brain is floating in the tank, Barham loses interest in the particulars of the mission and shifts to a new focus—world domination. I remember watching this for the first time as a child: people who got too near the tank were zapped by cerebral lightening and made to do the bidding of the evil brain. The story is an interesting take on the disembodied brain motif. Barham’s brain, while physically separate from its human origin, is still integrated with a much larger human system, in this case, the “military industrial complex”.