DONOVAN’S BRAIN (1953) Blu-ray
Director: Felix E. Feist
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

One highly doubts that the decidedly non-psychedelic DONOVAN'S BRAIN will, as Kino Lorber's wonderfully hyperbolic ad copy screams, "blow your brain and fry your mind," but it is nice to have this venerable classic out on HD Blu-ray. Lorber's KL Studio Classics line, along with MGM, has released DONOVAN'S BRAIN, the 1953 sci-fi horror shocker from independent producer Allan Dowling (released by United Artists), based on Curt Siodmak's novel, scripted and directed by Felix E. Feist, and starring Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy (Reagan) Davis and Steve Brodie. A pre-cable TV staple from the 1950s to the 1980s, DONOVAN'S BRAIN won't induce newcomers to even bat an eye, since its downright wholesome Eisenhower-era chills have since been carbon copied to death over the decades. Fans, though, will want this nicely cleaned-up transfer. Extras include an exhausting exhaustive commentary track and some vintage trailers.

The high desert hills of Green Valley, California. Scientist/mad doctor Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres, YOUNG DR. KILDARE, TV's 'SALEM'S LOT) takes delivery of a medical monkey, his next victim. Pat's wife, Janice (Nancy Reagan, THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR, HELLCATS OF THE NAVY), thinks it's pointless and cruel for Pat to kill another monkey because his previous four experiments all failed. You see, Dr. Cory is trying to keep a brain alive outside of its head — specifically in a ten-gallon aquarium filled with what appears to be skim milk. He hits pay dirt with this particular primate's scrambled eggs, and he's all set to monkey around with them before he's notified that a plane has crashed into the nearby mountains and his help is desperately needed with the survivors. Pat takes along his former mentor-turned-rummy stooge Dr. Frank Schratt (Gene Evans, THE STEEL HELMET, SHOCK CORRIDOR) as they then transport mortally wounded multi-millionaire businessman Walter H. Donovan back to the lab (there's no time to shoot for a real hospital). Pat loses the tycoon but saves his brain — against the moral and legal protestations of Janice and Frank — and soon, Dr. Frankenstein has a new pet for the fish tank...a pet that grows and glows and sends out increasingly strong negative waves. Pat seeks to communicate with the cognitively active brain, using telepathy to establish a link, but that link becomes deadly when Donovan's brain begins to control Pat, using Pat to not only screw over the IRS (yay!) but to also take over the world's economy. The jig may be up for Pat, though, because cheap hustler Yocum (Steve Brodie, OUT OF THE PAST, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY) is wise to the whole scam.

I haven't seen DONOVAN'S BRAIN since the last fifty times I saw it, way back on Detroit Channel 50's "Sir Graves Ghastly" or "Chiller Theater", so there were certainly no surprises for me as this sparkling new Blu-ray unspooled. As director Joe Dante rightly asserts in his "Trailers from Hell" segment, DONOVAN'S BRAIN was on constantly during the pre-cable TV days, a time when television offerings were still pretty antiseptic, and when a glowing, pulsating rubber brain in an aquarium was definitely worth a look. If you've never seen DONOVAN'S BRAIN before, don't come expecting a "shocking horror-fest" or a "terrifying film experience" (that KL ad copy kid deserves an extra double sawbuck). It's scrupulously clean and well-scrubbed, with no blood letting and a neat, tidy production design that's the complete antithesis of the dirty, gory, salacious grunge of another perennial pre-cable TV hit, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, with its strippers and strangulations and Leslie Daniels' bloody arm stump being smeared all over the walls. Nothing remotely like that happens in DONOVAN'S BRAIN, and quite honestly it's all rather silly...but it's still a surprisingly effective mid-level programmer.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak's (THE WOLF MAN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) same-named novel from 1942 had already been adapted twice prior to DONOVAN'S BRAIN's production, including Republic Picture's 1944 adaptation, titled THE LADY AND THE MONSTER, with Vera Hruba Ralston and Erich Von Stroheim, and by Orson Welles for the radio program, Suspense, also in 1944 (another later direct adaptation in 1962, THE BRAIN, would feature Anne Heywood and Peter van Eyck). The notion of a disembodied brain being kept alive and somehow exerting some kind of influence or force over someone else wasn't new by the time of producer Tom Gries' (NUMBER ONE, TV's HELTER SKELTER) 1953 adaptation. However, it's certainly defensible to suggest that the anonymously competent, journeyman skill that director Felix E. Feist (THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF) and his cast and crew brought to DONOVAN'S BRAIN influenced countless subsequent riffs on Siodmak's formula (it seems obvious, but if it played all the time on hundreds of TV stations over a period of three decades, it only did so because ratings had to have been consistently good — and that means viewers, as well as future writers and directors, consistently responded to it favorably).

Unless there's some upcoming groundbreaking advancements in the study of ESP and telepathy, I would imagine DONOVAN'S BRAIN's central story element is going to remain fairly hard-to-swallow for most viewers (I can't get bars for my phone inside a building, but Donovan's brain can control Pat like a marionette in a city hundreds of miles away?). The first half of the plot, though, has some interesting themes that nag at the viewer, before that rubber brain starts throbbing and glowing and pushing people around. Contemporary critics want to label Ayres' character as some sort of well-meaning, altruistic scientist who falls dupe to Donovan's marauding capitalist brain. That too-easy interpretation, though, ignores a lot of Dr. Cory's own serious shortcomings. Director/screenwriter Feist is careful to first show us Dr. Cory as unsympathetic on an immediately accessible level: his loving, caring wife agrees with our silent assertion that that cute little monkey shouldn't have his brains scooped out like a melon ball — who doesn't love an expressive little monkey? — but Pat all but sneers at her sentimentality. That monkey is going to get it in the neck in the name of science, regardless of how cute he is, or how much his wife protests, and that first small sign of Pat's ruthlessness sticks with us. Back at the lab, Pat doesn't garner any more sympathy for his medical pursuits when he orders around his wife ("Get with it, baby, will ya?" as she's scooted into the kitchen), and unconcernedly rousts his drunken assistant, bucking up the hungover Frank just enough to get him to perform the surgery (Frank, hip to Pat's selfish hypocrisy, replies, "You're brilliant but not normal,"). When the monkey brain retraction is successful, all that interests Pat is studying it; he doesn't care at all about the plane crash survivors until his wife guilts him into helping. His disregard for not only his friends and loved ones, but also of society's ethics, morality, and laws, continues when he desecrates a corpse to poach, without permission and outside of legal and ethical bounds, Donovan's brain for his own experimentation (a sober Frank, finally taken aback at Pat's phony declarations of selfless research in the service of man, flatly states, "You're wackier than I ever was crocked,"). Worst of all, God-playing Dr. Cory has no concerns at all for the inherent horror that would be a fully functioning brain deprived of a body and sensory organs. Pat's thrill at seeing alpha waves on the oscilloscope is purely a technical appreciation; he never expresses any dismay or pity (or revulsion) at the thought that Donovan's consciousness is still active, still working unwillingly in a terrifying, nightmarish void. He's a fairly reprehensible "hero" who hardly deserves the breaks most critics give him.

I'm surprised no one has suggested that when Donovan's brain takes over Pat both physically and psychically, it's suggestive of a Freudian liberation of Pat's own scientific fascism (I've always thought that, with a little tweaking, DONOVAN'S BRAIN would have been more interesting if they had actually indulged in Janice's and Frank's first thoughts: that Pat was imagining and projecting his obsession with Donovan into some kind of self-imposed, phony "mind control," much like Oliver Stone did with THE HAND, where we're led to believe Michael Caine's disembodied hand is going around killing people...until we're shown it's really just Michael Caine). When Pat is Donovan, he's only just a little bit more ruthless and pushy than as Pat alone. Sure "Donovan Pat" kills...but so does Pat, ironically, in reverse: he unethically keeps Donovan's brain alive, when he should have let it die with Donovan's body. What's so different about Pat's manipulation of Janice and Frank for his own smaller-scale needs, as opposed to Donovan's machinations to first permanently ensure his brain's viability, and then, to take over the financial world...just the way Pat wants to bestride the history of science with his groundbreaking, and morally reprehensible, experiments?

Indeed, we may not like "Donovan Pat" anymore than we did plain old Pat...but at least "Donovan Pat" is open and forthright about his motives. When DONOVAN'S BRAIN's second half turns into a familiar but smartly laid-out little noir suspenser, as alpha male "Donovan Pat" confidently starts muscling people that get in his way, we can't help but vicariously enjoy that display of power (that's why we love movie villains, after all). Who doesn't wish they could deliver the kind of "F you" slapdown "Donovan Pat" delivers to the arrogant Treasury agents when they threaten him with legal action lest he not fully cooperate with their investigation (and who doesn't laugh outright at Donovan's dimbulb kids who passionately defend the government's right to Donovan's back taxes?). As to taking seriously (as Joe Dante seems to) the notion that Donovan is some kind of "proto-terrorist" and that DONOVAN'S BRAIN is anti-capitalism at its core, there's exactly one sentence in the movie that indicates Donovan intends on taking over the world economy. How is he going to do that? Why is he going to do that? Good luck finding out because the movie couldn't care less telling you; it's the movie's McGuffin that has nothing to do with the story itself. To suggest the moviemakers were actually making that political point is laughable, considering how that one-sentence exposition is so lightly thrown out there. Donovan (as well as the movie itself) is more a Sax Rohmer cartoon evil genius than some stand-in for 1950s anxiety about potential fascism in America (those kind of critical overreaches are fun parlor games, no doubt, but only if you don't take yourself too seriously, being aware enough to realize all those old moviemakers would probably laugh right in your face if you told them your serious little theories). Seen on that basic, entertaining level — a lightly intriguing mix of horror/sci-fi cartoon and snappy little noir, executed with professional and pleasantly impersonal ease — and on that level alone...DONOVAN'S BRAIN hits its mark.

The Blu-ray 1920 x 1080p 1.37:1 black and white transfer for DONOVAN'S BRAIN looks terrific. Grain structure is nicely filmic, gray scale is subtly varied, blacks reasonably deep, contrast well balanced, and image fine detail quite good. Screen anomalies like scratches and dirt are only occasional, and not worrisome. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is acceptable, with a bit of hiss noticeable in the quieter moments, and a decent re-recording level. Bonuses include a commentary track with blogger Richard Harland Smith. It's filled with lots and lots and lots of Wiki and IMDB and Tom Weaver-gleaned trivia...which means you could look most of it up yourself if you're of a mind to, and probably have more fun doing so. When he sticks to regurgitating all of this, it's a mildly diverting commentary. For a while. But when he shoots for "performance," it doesn't work (when he calls Pat "Donovan's bitch" at one point, it wasn't so much the obvious attempt to sound cool or tough or whatever he was going for there that bothered me; it was that the line was delivered so poorly). Next, Joe Dante comments on the original trailer for "Trailers from Hell" (see above). And finally, original trailers for DONOVAN'S BRAIN, THE BLACK SLEEP and THE MAGNETIC MONSTER are included. (Paul Mavis)