Friday, August 3, 2018

Brain Eaters, The (1958)

... aka: Attack of the Blood Leeches
... aka: Battle of the Brain Eaters
... aka: Brain Snatchers, The
... aka: Keepers, The
... aka: Keepers of the Earth
... aka: Las sanguijuelas humanas (The Human Leeches)
... aka: Les Mangeurs de Cerveau (Brain Eaters)

Directed by:
Bruno VeSota

While on a pleasant Sunday drive through the country near the small town of Riverdale, Illinois, mayor's son Glenn Cameron ("Alan Frost" / Alan Jay Factor) and his fiancée Elaine (Jody Fair) are blinded by a white light and startled by a loud noise. They pull over to investigate the woods nearby and find not only a bunch of dead dogs but also a 50-foot high, metallic, cone-shaped object. Soon after, several of Riverdale's leading citizens are found dead. Dr. Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson), principal scientist for something called "Project Damper," does a preliminary investigation that reveals both the origin of the craft and whatever materials it's composed of are completely unknown to man. Whatever it's made of, it's resistant to heat, pressure, fire and even acid.

It takes just 48 hours after the cone's discovery for the "U.F.O. Committee" to organize in Washington D.C.. Skeptical state Senator Walter K. Powers ("Jack Hill" / Cornelius Keefe) decides to head to Riverdale to look into matters. He insists no press be informed about what's going on, which he believes to be nothing more than a "spaceship fairy tale."

Upon arrival, the Senator and his quiet assistant Dan (Robert Ball) are met at the airport by Glenn, who immediately takes them out to see the cone. When they arrive, they're introduced to mayor's secretary Alice Summers (Joanna Lee), Dr. Kettering and his colleague, Dr. Wyler (David Hughes), who are all taking vitals on the ship. Kettering has tried everything, from sonic waves to metal-eating acids to diamond drill bits and nothing seems to penetrate it. Having exhausted all possibilities, he grabs a pistol and climbs into it through an open port hole. He emerges hours later none the wiser as the insides appear to be nothing more than a labyrinth of empty tunnels.

Receiving a phone call from the Sheriff (Greigh Phillips), everyone rushes to the court house to meet up with the Mayor (Orville Sherman), who's been missing ever since the ship landed. When they arrive, he's frantic, waving a gun around and then turns violent. The police have no choice but to kill him. An autopsy reveals he has something strange on the back of his neck. That something is a little parasitic critter that latches onto victims, pierces into the skin with two fangs and then secretes an acidic substance that destroys the nervous system. Had the Mayor not been put down he'd have been dead in less than 24 hours, anyway. However, dead isn't exactly dead when someone is infected by the parasite. Victims continue on as zombie-like henchmen for the creatures.

The henchmen carry around the parasites in a glowing orb fishbowl and either sneak them into people's rooms or attack victims and attach them themselves. An elderly and nearly-dead professor who disappeared five years earlier suddenly comes crawling out of the cone with the parasite marks on the back of his neck. He mutters something about the Carboniferous Period (which occurred hundreds of millions of years ago) before passing. Leonard Nimoy (misspelled "Nemoy" in the credits) appears in just one scene as another long-missing professor and is unrecognizable behind a big white beard and layer of thick fog.

Considering this was shot for just 26,000 dollars over a six day period, it's a minor miracle it's at least OK. But OK is basically all it is. Things feel really rushed in the final third and the Body Snatchers-like premise needed more fleshing out than what this 60-minute film can accommodate. Narration has been added to try to fill in the blanks but there are just too many loose ends left unattended to at the end. Especially annoying is that a large portion of the townspeople (including police officers, the telegram man, the radio station engineer and the phone operator) have been taken over by the parasites yet their fates are left completely up in the air. Instead, this concentrates solely on our heroes killing the parasites and their controller inside the cone. I suppose we're to assume this also somehow kills the parasites / zombies not there. 

This was one of just three feature film directorial credits for hefty character actor VeSota, who passed away in 1976. Nelson, one of the most underrated sci-fi leading men of the 50s, also produced and came up with the (barely-seen) parasites. Hampton Fancher, who went on to co-script Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), appears uncredited as one of the zombies. Gordon Urquhart is credited with the script but the makers (including executive producer Roger Corman) were sued for 150,000 dollars by writer Robert A. Heinlein, who claimed it ripped off his 1951 novel The Puppet Masters. Heinlein settled out of court for just 5 thousand and opted not to receive a credit on the film as he didn't like it.

This played as the second half of an AIP "Double-Dare Double Feature" along with The Spider (1958; aka Earth vs. the Spider) and was also sometimes paired with Terror from the Year 5000 (1958). There were numerous VHS releases, including a 1993 one from Columbia TriStar and a UK VHS through Hendring on the "Drive-In Classics" label. A DVD from UK DVD Ltd. followed and came with a 50-minute audio interview with distributor Samuel Z. Arkoff.

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