The Brain Eaters is a 1958 AIP science fiction/horror release based on Robert A. Heinlein’s classic paranoia novel The Puppet Masters. No-one at AIP bothered to get Heinlein’s permission and he promptly sued them and won. He received $5,000 and a promise his name would not be used on the credits since he hated the movie. Heinlein may have been right in feeling this was not much of a movie but like so many of AIP’s offerings it’s actually quite a bit of fun.
The small town of Riverdale Illinois is the scene of several murders after the landing of a mysterious spaceship. The spaceship, like all good 50s science fiction movie spaceships, is impervious to heat, explosive and in fact it’s impervious to just about everything. It does however have a circular entrance but when scientist Dr Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson) crawls inside to investigate he finds that the passageway just spirals around and comes back out at the same place.
The mayor of Riverdale is an early victim. He goes crazy and a sheriff’s deputy shoots him. The autopsy reveals something rather disturbing - something very strange affixed to the back of his neck. As well will learn later it’s a kind of parasite. We assume it’s from the spaceship but actually the story is a bit more complicated (and cleverer) than that.
The parasite turns a person into a kind of zombie and just as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers the scary bit is that these zombies seem quite normal. They could be anywhere!
Senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe) has arrived on the scene determined to debunk the whole affair but he soon realises the spaceship scare is no hoax. He and Dr Kettering must find a way to defeat the parasites but although they recruit a few allies from the townspeople it’s soon apparent that the parasites have already taken over a lot of people so no-one can really be trusted.
The plot more or less follows the standard pattern for these kinds of “invaders amongst us” movies although it does slip in a couple of interesting twists. The basic idea was clearly lifted from Heinlein’s novel but the movie’s plot differs quite a bit from that of the book.
The big question is - what do the parasites want? The answer to that is not going to surprise anyone familiar with 50s American sci-fi.
Ed Nelson is quite adequate as the hero. Some of the supporting actors aren’t too great but they’re no worse than you expect in a low-budget movie. Look out for Leonard Nimoy in a small part. You won’t recognise him but you should recognise the voice.
The special effects are about as good as could be managed on the very very tight budget. The spaceship is quite interesting with its spiralling passageway. The sets are basic and there was certainly no money for spectacular set-pieces although the climactic scenes around the spaceship are fairly well done.
Bruno VeSota had a long career as a character actor and a much shorter one as a director. He did however helm one excellent little low-budget film noir, Female Jungle, in 1955. He obviously decided that The Brain Eaters was the type of film that would benefit from copious use of Dutch angles, a sometimes very effective technique that he does at times go rather overboard with. VeSota was however a competent director and within the limitations of the very very small budget he had to work with he does a fine job and he manages to pull off some effectively creepy and scary moments.
This is a movie that is obviously going to be compared to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The premise is very similar and the atmosphere of paranoia is almost identical. Viewers do need to bear in mind that Don Siegel was a great director and had a bit more money to play around with. VeSota is no in the Siegel class but he gives it his best shot and he certainly doesn’t disgrace himself.
The Brain Eaters is available on DVD in Region 2 in the Arkoff Film Library series from DVD Rights. It’s barebones but the transfer is good.
The Brain Eaters is the sort of movie that trendy snarky film buffs love to rubbish but it’s actually not a bad little movie. It has a decent premise, it has a certain amount of atmosphere, it’s quite well-made and it has its creepy moments. Considering the minuscule budget it’s an entertaining and fairly effective sci-fi/horror tale and there’s no reason why fans of 50s sci-fi should not thoroughly enjoy it. Recommended.