I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
“Who let Adam Simon on the lot?” – Griffin Mill, The Player
Unless his career takes a massive upswing at some point in the future, the legacy for writer/director Adam Simon will be his cameo as himself and that piece of dialogue from Robert Altman’s caustic Hollywood satire. I suppose there are worse things to be remembered for than being the punch line of a film industry inside joke, but after watching Brain Dead (not to be confused with the international title of Peter Jackson’s classic known in the United States as Dead Alive), I can’t help but feel that Simon, if he had caught a few breaks, could have been—and may still be—a decent genre filmmaker.
Rex Martin (Bill Pullman) is a brilliant scientist researching the human brain. Rex’s old college friend Jim (Bill Paxton) comes to him for help when a mathematician at the global corporation Jim works for goes insane. Halsey (Bud Cort), the mathematician, was working on a project that was nearly complete, but the corporation needs his final equation. Jim wants to know if Halsey really is insane and if there’s any hope of recovering the equation using Rex’s cutting-edge research. Rex is reluctant to get involved, but Jim pressures him into meeting with Halsey, setting off a chain-reaction of events that includes multiple brain surgeries, hallucinations, dreams within dreams, and what looks like at least five gallons of hair gel used by Paxton during the film’s production.
This was only the second film I’ve seen that Simon had a hand in writing or directing. The other was the atrocious Snoop Dogg vehicle Bones. On that film, Simon was merely a co-writer and how much blame he deserves for that abomination is unclear. With Brain Dead, he’s working from an idea penned by the late Charles Beaumont, writer of several Twilight Zone episodes and Poe adaptations for Roger Corman in the ‘60s. While Simon rewrote Beaumont’s script, there is more than a touch of old Twilight Zone feel to the finished product with its clear morality-tale setup to its twist ending. Unfortunately, it also has the camp factor and bare-bones look of other ‘80s New Horizons (Roger Corman’s production company) films.
All of which is to say that I am of two minds when it comes to how I feel about the film. The stagey setup and forced comedy of the first act is poorly directed and acted to the point of being unwatchable. But once Rex meets with Halsey, the film suddenly leaps forward in quality with Simon taking surprising storytelling chances and showing off his geek credentials through nice nods to H.P. Lovecraft, Young Frankenstein, and homage to an infamous scene from Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor.
At the same time that Simon takes confident steps forward in plotting and editing, the acting improves. Pullman makes subtle transitions from comedy to paranoia and back again, ably carrying the film. He gets fun support from Cort and veteran character actor Nicholas Pryor as a man who may be a killer or a doctor, depending on the view of the character with whom he is interacting.
I don’t want to give the impression that Brain Dead is a good movie. It’s sloppy in places, the dialogue is stilted, and the “science” at the heart of the film is laughable. But it is an entertaining film. Pullman and Cort are obviously having fun and that translates to the viewer. Simon adds some macabre, mad-scientist touches to the brain surgery scenes that are entertaining even if the film around it seems ready to fall apart at any moment. It’s the type of movie that you enjoy at the time, but feel silly for watching when you think about it the next day. I guess that’s called a guilty pleasure, but I don’t see any need for guilt. I don’t suggest seeking it out, but if you stumble across it one day on cable or streaming online, it has its charms.
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