Brain Dead is a psychological thriller about Dr. Rex Martin, neurosurgeon who is working to unlock the secrets of the human brain. One day, Jim, his old college roommate shows up with a proposition: a mathematical genius named John Halsey is currently languishing in a mental institution after a nervous breakdown which resulted in the murder of his wife and children. His mind contains three very important numbers. We don't know what the numbers are, exactly, but Jim's employer, the monolithic Eunice Corporation, values them very highly. Martin is hired to operate on Halsey with the intention of extracting the numbers, or, if that's impossible, preventing him from leaking the sensitive information.
Martin agrees. We meet Halsey, see his brilliance, and watch as it is snuffed. The operation is a success -- Martin can't retrieve the numbers, but he does lobotomize Halsey. That evening, Martin begins hallucinating. He begins to have the same visions described by Halsey, and he starts losing control of his reality. Eventually, Martin loses himself, blacks out, and awakens as Halsey. The two have switched personalities. Or perhaps "Martin" was created by Halsey as a mechanism for dealing with his actions. Or...
Martin/Halsey descends into pure nightmare, and we never get a real answer. At least, I don't think we do. Brain Dead is constructed as an elliptical, reality-bending psychological thriller. And it's pretty good.
I should explain why I said tried to resist it: the opening reel of the movie is an affront to my suspension of disbelief. It is totally implausible. Medical research facilities simply aren't stocked with jars of brains, like in Young Frankenstein, and no corporate boardroom has a wall that slides away to reveal a sterile operating theater whose purpose is to allow the execs to watch their former staff get lobotomized. Even worse is the science: the movie contains blatant scientific errors which could have been spotted by high school students in 1990, when the movie was made. Sure, Hollywood will always be full of bad science, but it's been more than half a century since movies have assumed that we would swallow it so eagerly.
In this way, Brain Dead feels like a throwback to the '50s. I should have known something was up when I saw that Charles Beaumont had a writing credit, but I assumed that it must be a different Charles Beaumont. Then, slowly, the movie won me over. Its premise may have serious structural problems, but it is well-told and tightly constructed, and by the end, I had decided that this must be a never-produced screenplay by Beaumont which had been rotting on a shelf somewhere since the '50s. And I was right.
Look, you don't know who Charles Beaumont is, so I'll tell you. Beaumont was a science fiction writer who came out of same mid-20th century era as Ray Bradbury, and wrote similar stuff. Like Bradbury, he wasn't crazy about hard science, but used the tools of sci-fi (space exploration, psychology, technology, etc.) to explore human nature. Beaumont leaned more toward horror than sci-fi, and he is most remembered today for writing a number of movies and episodes of The Twilight Zone. He was only 38 when he died in 1967, and he left behind an impressive body of very high-quality work.
I haven't found the story of Brain Dead's journey from concept to execution, but it certainly was written by the same Charles Beaumont and touched up by somebody named Adam Simon. Simon, presumably, added all the profanity. The bad science I was objecting to must be Beaumont's. Had this movie been made thirty years earlier, I wouldn't even give the bad science a second thought -- one makes allowances.
Anyway, the main thing is that it became engaging, exciting, and yes, scary, in spite of all my eye-rolling at the beginning. The performances are worth pointing out, though. Martin is nicely played by President Lone Starr himself, Bill Pullman, who handles the slow descent from doctor into paranoiac very well. The universally-hated Bill Paxton plays Jim as a smarmy yuppie. I'm not inordinately fond of Paxton, but I don't understand why people dislike him so much, and I like him here. The underrated Bud Cort doesn't have to stretch too much to find the right note to play Halsey. You'll also recognize an old George Kennedy, and a young Kyle Gass, for what it's worth, and to top it all off, Roger Corman has a production credit. Corman had pretty much released all of his good films well before 1990, but this one is a gem, and deserves a look.
Here's the trailer, and the whole thing is available on Netflix Instant.