Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Brain Eaters (1958)

By Orrin Grey

The Brain Eaters (1958). Directed by: Bruno VeSota. Starring: Ed Nelson, Alan Jay Factor, Cornelius Keefe.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film bore enough of a resemblance to the Robert Heinlein novel, The Puppet Masters, that producer Roger Corman settled out of court for $5,000 and the agreement that he wouldn’t put Heinlein’s name on the movie, since the author found the unauthorized adaptation “lacking.” (Apparently, his standards slipped in the intervening years, since his name is posthumously all over the equally lackluster 1994 version starring Donald Sutherland.)

Released as part of a double-bill with Earth vs. the Spider, The Brain Eaters is only marginally better than what that would lead you to expect. It isn’t currently available in the United States on DVD – at least, not that I can find – and I tracked it down on YouTube, mostly thanks to an old review I read that claimed that the monsters in it just had pipe cleaners glued on for antennae. (It wasn’t wrong.)

Said monsters – which look like remote-controlled Tribbles with pipe cleaners stuck on the front – come from a mysterious cone found in the woods outside of town. They can take control of local authorities by attaching to their backs and hooking into their central nervous system. So, you can see why Heinlein had some objections. What unfolds is pretty typical Cold War paranoia, of the sort that had already been done better in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and various others, only salvaged by the hilarity of the monsters, and a few intriguing bits sprinkled here and there.

Mixed in among the dry narration and the usual shots of people standing around talking – including a scientist whose whole job appears to be to say, “I don’t know” – there are moments that are very nearly effective, including a scene of the mayor trying to kill himself, or an early sequence in which a police officer is turned. These bits are almost as chilling as the movie wants them to be, hampered mostly by an apparent lack of confidence in their effectiveness, or by the banality of the surrounding scenes, including the least-menacing house fire ever filmed. Even the actors trapped in the blaze can’t seem to muster up enough energy to care about it. One of them spends most of the scene just staring at a wall and has to be reminded several times to pay attention to the peril.

The other thing that sets The Brain Eaters apart is the final-reel plot twist of just where the mysterious cone comes from. For those of you who don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. For everyone else, it turns out that the invaders aren’t aliens from another planet, but are instead super-evolved parasites from the Carboniferous Period of Earth’s geologic history that have been proliferating underground and have drilled up to the earth’s surface via the giant cone. Which is, admittedly, pretty awesome. The film’s climactic moments also have a brief appearance by a young Leonard Nimoy, mis-credited in the closing titles as “Nemoy.”

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we thaw out another threat from the earth’s prehistoric past.