October 19, 2016

REVIEW: THE BRAINIAC (1962)


Today’s film is a fun little oddity coming all the way from Mexico. I haven’t been able to find much information regarding The Brainiac, or as it is known in its home country, El Barón del Terror (The Baron of Terror), but the movie shares several major plot points with 1960’s Black Sunday, directed by Mario Bava (featured in a previous review here). Just as in Black Sunday, the film’s opening scene takes place in the past as the antagonist is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Before being executed, he calls down a curse upon the people responsible for his death, saying he will one day return to exact his revenge on them by murdering their descendants. Black Sunday predates The Brainiac by two years, so it is entirely possible that it found inspiration in Bava’s inaugural masterpiece, but for the most part, the similarities end there. Whereas Black Sunday is a legitimately terrifying gothic horror film, The Brainiac stands on its own two (wobbly) legs as a prime example of purely cheesy Mexican horror cinema, or as I like to call it, “Cine Queso.” Let’s delve into it, shall we?

The Brainiac is directed by Chano Urueta, written by Federico Curiel, Antonio Orellana, and Adolfo López Portillo, and features a wonderful, almost kitschy musical score by Gustavo César Carrión which is easily the highlight of the whole movie. The film stars Abel Salazar, Ruben Rojo, Rosa Maria Gallardo, Luis Aragón, Germán Robles, and René Cardona in the principal roles. Sharp-eyed readers may remember Germán Robles for his various roles in Mexican horror cinema as the vampire Count Karol de Lavud from 1957’s El Vampiro (The Vampire) and 1958’s El ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin). Abel Salazar, the villain of The Brainiac, also starred in these films as the protagonist.

We open in the year 1661 as a man, Baron Vitelius d’Estera (Salazar), is standing trial in the chambers of the Inquisition for the crimes of heresy, witchcraft, necromancy, and the seduction of married women and maidens, among a host of other accusations. In a classic case of “Tell, Don’t Show,” the Inquisitors read aloud the various torture methods that have been used on d’Estera prior to the movie’s opening, all of which have had virtually no effect. In fact, d’Estera is thoroughly enjoying their consternation, smiling smugly as each charge and torture method is recalled. Effectively, the movie has already gone out of its way to establish that the Baron is a complete jerk, and we’re not even three minutes into the runtime.

Much to the surprise of the members of the Inquisition, who, by the way, are all dressed in black robes with black hoods to obscure their faces, a supporter of the Baron has arrived to plead in his defense. This is Marcos Miranda (Rojo), who is given absolutely no backstory or purpose in the film other than to defend the accused, stating that he has known the Baron to be a respectable man of high virtue and intelligence, and a dedicated apostle to the sciences. Really, he just sort of shows up and says, “hey, this guy is A-OK to me.” The members of the Inquisition, of course, believe none of this, and sentence Miranda to two hundred lashes for his insolence. As Miranda is taken away, the Inquisition makes its final decision with the Baron...he will be relieved of all of his personal property and burned alive. Smiling, the Baron states, “that sounds fine...but not with chains.” Suddenly, the balls and chains binding him disappear and he casually walks out of the room. The two tribunal members closest to him attempt to give chase...but the balls and chains have somehow materialized around their hands and feet, giving them some difficulty as they struggle to capture him.

Wait...why on earth would he let them burn him alive if he had the power to escape the whole time? And why would he place a curse on them for killing him after he went along with the whole thing of his own accord? Man, this guy really is a jerk. Amusingly, this is the first of many, many inconsistencies within the story, but we’ll get to more of that later.

A bit later, while the members of the tribunal and Miranda watch, the Baron is tied up and set ablaze in what has to be one of the most laughable special effects shots I’ve ever seen, even for a movie from the 60’s. Basically, they just superimpose footage of fire over him in the shot, but it’s plainly obvious that it’s a small fire filmed at close range, because the tongues of flames are FAR too big to be convincing, given that this is a wide shot and the Baron is very tiny in the center of the screen. As if that wasn’t bad enough, both the Baron and Miranda look up to see a comet passing overhead...an unmoving, very still image of a comet, superimposed over a fairly obvious painting of stars which is being moved from left to right to insinuate the comet flying through the sky. Seriously, I have no words for how bad this looks, again, even for what was possible with 60’s era SFX.

Adding to the ridiculousness of this scene is the fact that both Miranda and the Baron take turns looking at the comet, then looking to each other, then back to the comet, then back to each other… And they do this a total of five times! The filmmakers could have established...whatever this was supposed to be...with a total of two cuts, max. Why on earth does it go on for so long? It’s so awkward!

Anyway, the Baron, who even though engulfed in flame seems to be completely unaffected as he is barely breaking a sweat, takes the opportunity to bring down the curse. Even though the members of the tribunal are wearing hoods to protect their identities, he uses his magic to see through the hoods and calls each of them out by name...Baltasar de Meneses, Álvaro Contreras, Sebastián de Pantoja, and Herlindo del Vivar...stating that he will return in three hundred years time, when this comet again passes by the earth, to exact his revenge on their descendants. They don’t seem too broken up about it, though, because the scene just lingers on with the Baron on fire for a few moments longer before we suddenly experience a time jump to the present day (1961 in this film), to a posh nightclub where several people are dancing and enjoying drinks.

It is here that we meet Reynaldo Miranda, a descendant of Marcos Miranda (played by the same actor, Rojo) and his girlfriend Victoria Contreras (Gallardo). They are both astronomers under the tutelage of Professor Saturnino Millán (Aragón), who is expecting them. When they realize they are about to be late, the excuse themselves from the club and head over to the observatory, which is merely a huge picture of an observatory plastered on the wall just behind their car as they pull into the scene. This effect is used a ludicrous amount of times for the rest of the film, as absolutely nothing was ever filmed outside (everything was apparently filmed on a sound stage), and there are even some scenes where the lighting is calibrated so badly that you can see their shadows on the backgrounds as they pass too closely to the wall. After the professor quizzes them and spouts a bunch of techno-babble about comets, he comes down to the reason he called them there—while poring over old manuscripts, he discovered that a comet which passes by Earth every three hundred years is scheduled to make an appearance any minute now. When they find it in the telescope, the Professor hogs it all to himself, forcing the other two to head to the roof and watch it from a much, much smaller telescope. Reynaldo and Victoria realize that the comet has mysteriously changed its trajectory and will fall to the earth, so they set out in their car to find it.

Yet another terrible special effect is in store for us as the comet, which is obviously made of a wooden framework and covered in cloth painted to look like rock, descends on wires and thumps clumsily to the ground. A man who just happens to be driving by sees the action and decides to investigate. Much to his chagrin, the comet disappears, revealing a strange, hairy beast with weird pincer hands, a weirdly pulsating face, and a long, forked tongue. The creature attacks the man and kills him by awkwardly poking him in the base of his skull with its forked tongue, which apparently is more akin to a pointy straw as it penetrates the man’s skull and sucks out his brain (lovingly referred to in this film as encephalic mass). Suddenly the man’s clothes disappear from the corpse, leaving him there in his underwear, and reappear on the creature, whose features have also now changed to reveal...dun dun dun!!! Baron Vitelius d’Estera, back from the dead...uh...or, comet, I guess. It doesn’t really make any sense, but let’s just go along with it. If I think about it too much, I may start foaming at the mouth.

Reynaldo and Victoria arrive on the scene and meet the Baron, who feigns that he saw the meteor himself, and the three strike up a conversation about their mutual love for astronomy, blah blah blah. Reynaldo gives the Baron his card, and he and Victoria leave. Even though the Baron has barely moved from the area where the passerby was killed, no one seems to notice a dead body lying on the ground in his underwear. Go figure.

The Baron then goes to a bar. When he arrives, he sees a lady sitting alone and starts walking in...and disappears! He then rematerializes standing directly behind her. What was the point of this little supernatural display? I mean, other than establishing the fact that he can make himself disappear? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. The lady turns to him and starts putting on the moves, but the Baron simply stares at her. She seems to take no offense to this, however, and we’re left wondering if this is just another of his many previously unestablished powers—the power to be a jerk and still have a woman fawning over him. It’s closing time and the manager tries to run him off, but the lady insists that he is an old friend, and asks the manager to pour him a brandy. The manager obliges, then leaves to put the cash from the day’s transactions into the safe in the next room. The lady continues trying to make conversation with the Baron, who remains mute, save for an odd light flashing across his face. Again, we are left to wonder if this is indeed a power of his...it appears that he can mentally control people, and the flashing light across his face is an indication of this power in practice...but since he does nothing to control the woman in this scene, there’s really no point for it to be there except to making him somewhat more menacing. Anyway, the lady gets “frustrated” and “pretends to leave,” meaning that she takes a whole two steps away from him and then waits with a smile on her face for him to respond. (To my female readers I ask, has this tactic ever worked for you?) While she has her back to him, he turns into the ghoulish, hairy demon monster with weirdo pincers for hands. She hears the growls behind her, turns, and screams as he attacks her and sucks her brain out. Meanwhile, in the next room, the manager is still putting money in the safe and looks up for a moment, wondering if he might have heard something before going back to counting his money.

Later, a forensic surgeon is spewing exposition on the condition of the two bodies found the previous night (the passerby and the woman from the bar) to a Police Inspector (David Silva) and his partner (Federico Curiel, one of the writers of the film), detailing in gruesome fashion how something sharp, possibly a drill, was used with surgical precision to remove the victims’ encephalic masses. The Inspector and his partner deliberate, stating that they believe the killer was the one who made the perforations. Duh! You think?! They also state that a bank on the same street as the bar was robbed on the same night of lots of cash and jewels. I had no idea that banks kept jewels in their vaults, but oh well.

The Baron, meanwhile, is out making the rounds, and comes across a prostitute who asks him to light her cigarette. They then kiss passionately. Dang, this woman gets down to brass tacks with a quickness. Unfortunately for her, the Baron starts the whole flashing-light-across-the-face routine before turning into the hair demon monster thingy, and sucks out her brain as well.

Back at the observatory, Reynaldo, Victoria, and the Professor are trying to figure what on earth happened to the comet (I thought it fell to the earth?) and Reynaldo states that it may have been some kind of hallucination, which the Professor vehemently rejects. All three admit to seeing the comet, but correspondence with other astronomers the world over show no evidence of a comet passing by the Earth at that time. Victoria notices an invitation from the Baron mixed in with the mail; it seems he has purchased a new house and is throwing a party. They all decide to attend, if anything, to save their sanity since no one seems to know what happened to the comet.

At the Baron’s party, there are several people of prominence in attendance, including (you guessed it!) all the descendants of the Inquisition members. These are, in no particular order, Indalecio Pantoja (Robles); Luis Meneses (Cardona) and his fiancée; Ana Luisa del Vivar (Magda Urvizu); and, of course, if you haven’t figured it out by now...Victoria, who is attending along with Reynaldo and the Professor. As with the first scene in the film, the faces of the original Inquisitors is superimposed over each of the descendants’ faces, just so we’re clear on who’s who and how they’re connected in this elaborate web of revenge. Also in attendance are the Inspector and his partner, who have been assigned to watch over the party and prevent any thieves from stealing any of the Baron’s precious jewels, yet it never occurs to them that these may be the very same jewels which were stolen from the bank...oy! The Baron offers the Professor, Reynaldo, and Victoria a drink, but when asked if he too will join them with a drink, the Baron responds that, due to an old ailment, he cannot have any liquor. Nevermind that he at least took a sip of the brandy ordered for him by the woman at the bar earlier in the film. The Baron then excuses himself to a corner of the room, which, mind you, is full of people, not to mention two police officers, all of whom fail to notice him open a wooden cabinet and pull out a huge, ornate silver bowl full of brains, and eat some. Nevermind that, where did he get these brains?! Are these the brains he sucked out from his victims earlier? If so, how are they still whole? Sucking them out of their heads with a relatively thin, hollow tongue should mean that they are in bits and pieces, but these are in such pristine condition that Victor Frankenstein would be proud. Does he go out and just remove brains from people with a mallet and chisel? It’s never established that there are any other victims aside from the ones in the morgue, so your guess is as good as mine.

Apparently, all of the guests at the party have had such a good time that all of the Inquisitors’ descendants invite the Baron to various events, weddings, homes, etc., which he happily obliges. The first he decides to meet with is Indalecio Pantoja, who along with his beautiful daughter Maria, presents the Baron with texts from the Inquisition days. And wouldn’t you know it, there just happens to be a passage about the execution of a convicted criminal with the name Baron Vitelius d’Estera! At first, Pantoja thinks this is merely a remarkable coincidence, but the Baron reveals that he is indeed the Vitelius d’Estera mentioned in the texts. He then uses his hypnotic powers (read: light flashing across his face) to render Pantoja immobile, and the poor man is forced to watch as the Baron compels Maria to make out with him before turning into the hairy demon beast, who then sucks their brains out. Adding insult to injury, the Baron-Monster then sets fire to their home, burning the corpses along with the Inquisition’s texts. Why does he do this? To cover his tracks by making it look like a tragic accident? Maybe throw off the police, who are looking for a killer who drills into the base of people’s skulls and suck out their brains? Well, it doesn’t matter, as even though the bodies are charred to a crisp by the next day when the Inspector and his partner arrive on the scene, it is still plainly obvious that both bodies have two perforations at the base of their skulls, so they know that it’s still the same killer.

Meanwhile, back at the observatory, the Professor, Reynaldo, and Victoria are feverishly searching for any sign of the comet. At this point, I don’t know why they bother, but in the old text from which the Professor first learned of the comet, he does come across a passage linking the comet with a sorcerer who was condemned to death three hundred years ago. Apparently, he never noticed that earlier.

The Baron is busy visiting Luis Meneses and his wife at a foundry. The Baron feigns interest in using the foundry to create a new type of metal, which sounds very interesting, but this is all quickly discarded as the Baron once again turns into the hairy demon thingy and sucks out the brain of Meneses’s wife. Using his hypnotic power to control Meneses, the Baron compels him to open the door to the foundry, which causes the man to quickly become engulfed in flames.

Well, at this point, the police are beginning to notice that the deaths are connected to the Baron’s party, which they were in attendance, as well, so that’s got to be pretty embarrassing. Nevertheless, the Inspector and his partner (the two forever remaining nameless in this film, as I might point out) decide to pay a visit to the Baron and question him. The Baron states that he couldn’t have been the killer, as he has only been in town for a couple of weeks. Why he thinks this will remove him from suspicion is anyone’s guess, but apparently it works, as the two cops accept that as a perfectly logical alibi and leave. Seemingly unnerved by being questioned by the police, the Baron then retreats to his Brain Corner, and removes the bowl of brains from the locked wooden cabinet, then takes them a few steps further away to a large wooden box, locking them inside. What purpose does this serve? “Oh no, someone may find my brains in the locked box...Ooh, I know, I’ll put them in another locked box!” (“And then I’ll put that box inside another box, and then I’ll smash it with a hammer!”)

The Baron attends the wedding of Ana Luisa del Vivar and her fiancée, Francisco Coria, wishing them much happiness. Or, at least, he would have attended had it not been for the fact that he is egregiously late, the wedding is over, and the bride and groom are on the way out of the church. They forgive him, however, and state that they will contact him later. After they leave, the Baron runs into Reynaldo and Victoria, who were also attending the wedding, the former reminding everyone that they’re still trying to locate that pesky comet because that part of the storyline just doesn’t know when to die.

Later that night, Ana Luisa is brushing her hair at a vanity in their honeymoon suite when the Baron suddenly walks in unannounced. Even with the hypnotic light flashing across his face, Ana Luisa starts to freak out when the Baron does not respond to her, and she begins to call for her husband, who is in the bathroom. She opens the door to find him hanging upside down in the shower, drowned in the bath water. How the Baron managed this little feat without entering the bathroom previously (there are no windows or doors in there) is beyond me. Maybe he can use his telepathic powers on people when they’re not even around him? Just how powerful is this dude, anyway?

Of course, he proceeds to make a quick meal out of Ana Luisa’s delicious encephalic mass, and just like that, we’re down to one descendant remaining.

The police, still feverishly putting clues together, decide to visit the tomb wherein lie the remains of the members of the Inquisition, and realize that the people being murdered are related to the members of the tribunal which sentenced the Baron to death three hundred years ago. Whoa, movie, calm down! How in the world did they arrive to the conclusion that all their questions could be answered by visiting the tomb? The world will never know. Realizing that Victoria is the final victim, they rush to the observatory and question the Professor, who states that Reynaldo and Victoria have been invited to the Baron’s house, and left about an hour ago. Does he know that the reason they’ve been summoned to the Baron’s is because the Baron has told Reynaldo and Victoria that he knows when the comet will pass over again that evening? I mean, to the audience, that’s obviously bull-honkey, but with the Professor being the most upset over not being able to find the comet, you’d think he’d jump at the chance to view it again, so why he’s at the observatory is a complete mystery to me. And Reynaldo must be one terrible astronomer to actually believe the comet would be passing over again after just a few weeks, when it’s already been established that the blasted thing only passes over once every three hundred years. But whatever.

At the Baron’s house, the Baron excuses himself to take some “medication” for his previously established “condition,” which still doesn’t make sense to me given that the dude already drank brandy earlier in the movie. Reynaldo spies the Baron opening a large wooden box and doing...something. When he returns, he offers to take Victoria...just Victoria...to another part of the house to pick out a jewel of her choosing as an early wedding gift (I think maybe somewhere down the line, it was established that Reynaldo and Victoria are getting married, but it’s mentioned so briefly I forgot to write anything about it), which instantly sets Reynaldo on edge. He reluctantly agrees to let her go with the Baron, deciding to use his alone time to inspect the Baron’s big wooden box.

The Baron takes Victoria to a room and presents her a box full of jewels, and then proceeds to tell her how conflicted he is because he’s in love with her, but he has vowed to kill her.

MOVIE. SLOW DOWN.

No matter...his hatred trumps his love for her, whatever that means, and he turns into the hairy demon beast thing.

Meanwhile, Reynaldo has pried open the box with a letter opener and is horrified to discover a big bowl of brains. At that moment, Victoria, who has somehow escaped the Baron, comes screaming into the room, followed by this weird monster thing wearing the Baron’s clothes. Confronting the monster, the Baron telepathically communicates with Reynaldo, warning him not to interfere as his ancestor defended the Baron during the tribunal three hundred years ago, and he has not forgotten that.

Now, I feel for Reynaldo at this point in the film...he has no intimate knowledge of what’s going on. All the guy knows is that there’s a big bowl of brains in a box, the Baron has turned into some kind of freaky, pincer-handed monster with a crazy tongue and a pulsating face, and now he’s being told that his ancestor was even stupider than he is. Nevertheless, he decides to face off against the creature, telling Victoria to run.

This is to no avail, however, as the Baron simply uses his disappearing powers to phase right through Reynaldo...and then re-materialize so he has to run around the furniture in order to get to Victoria. For all his previously established, albeit inconsistent powers, this guy is an idiot.

Fear not, though! The police have arrived with flamethrowers!

Wait, what?!

Nevermind! Too much going on! It’s the climax! They distract the Baron, giving Victoria a chance to get away from the creature, and then let the fire loose. Will the Baron use his evil mind control powers to make the police turn the flamethrowers on themselves?

No?

Oh. Yeah, they just burn him. And he dies. And then re-materializes his clothing from three hundred years ago. And then dissolves into a skeleton with no hands or feet.

Roll credits!

Well, that's The Brainiac. For all of its idiosyncrasies, this flick is totally fun to watch. It’s quintessential viewing for anyone who enjoys cheesy horror/sci-fi cinema from the 50’s and 60’s; I’m fairly certain one could even dream up a drinking game for it based on how many times the word “comet” is used or how many times the Baron’s powers make no sense, etc. In the end, if you’re looking for a great little gem of a black and white film to enjoy laughing at this Halloween season with some friends, look no further than this one. The Brainiac is currently streaming on Netflix, so what are you waiting for?

I hope you enjoyed this review. I had a blast writing it. Remember, if you have any suggestions for films that you’d like to see on this site, drop me a line in the contact form to the right. Until next time, readers!