If you're sick and tired of showing your favorite serious science fiction film to ( friends / wives / relatives / all of the above ) because they sneer, laugh, and tell you you're a hopeless nut, The Brain From Planet Arous is the solution. Obviously made for the drive-in necking & petting crowd, Arous is a silly film that also happens to be great entertainment - it may be played straight, but at heart, it knows it's a comedy.
Cheerfully bland nuclear research scientist Steve March (John Agar) and his research assistant Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller) take a few days off to investigate a mysterious source of radiation at the aptly named Mystery Mountain. There they encounter a yard-wide floating brain named Gor, who gloatingly lets them know that he's here to conquer the Earth. Gor fries Dan with a blast of light from his glowing eyes, and then invades and takes possession of Steve's body. Delighted at having a real human body to inhabit, Gor wastes no time in enjoying ("Heh Heh") some aggressive passes at Steve's faithful girlfriend Sally Fallon (Joyce Meadows), and making megalomanic speeches to Sally's father John (Thomas Browne Henry). Using his mental powers, Gor/Steve blows up an airplane, and prepares to inform the authorities that he's taking over the world, with the aim of enslaving humanity to build an armada of spaceships with which to invade his home planet. More than a little suspicious of 'Steve's' odd behavior, Sally and John go to Mystery Mountain themselves, find Dan's burned body, and meet up with Vol, another Brain from the Planet Arous. But Vol is soft spoken and benign ("Nice dog, nice dog") and announces that he's come to capture the criminal Gor and save the Earth, but needs a little assistance - in the form of another living body to possess while on the job ...
As you can hopefully tell from the synopsis, this isn't The Day the Earth Stood Still. Any broader, and Arous would be an episode of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Those looking for a movie to laugh at will find no end of mirth herein, what with giant floating brains (just like ours, but with headlight-like eyes up front) chortling about how much fun it's going to be to snuggle up to Earth women. Other movies of this ilk, like Invasion of the Saucermen, had teenagers engaging in some necking, but this film takes the cake, with a possessed John Agar so hot for poor Joyce Meadows, he's tearing her clothes. This no doubt hastened a lot of happy copycat behavior in drive-in back seats. Lots of monster movies talk about space aliens planning to mate with Earth women, but Arous dares to show us the real thing!
This is the film in which to appreciate the singular talents of John Agar, who was near the end of a string of ever-worsening science fiction roles in Arous. Agar indeed carries the film, with a pleasant personality and a winning smile for every occasion. As just plain Steve, he's not too interesting, but when possessed by the delinquent party balloon from Arous, he's terrific. Agar never had a facility with dialogue, but he sure gives the comic-book threats he delivers to the Army brass and foreign representatives some snap, ending almost every sentence with a Simon Legree chortling laugh. The effect is as if Agar himself really did go nuts - it's funny and weird at the same time. Agar's a little inconsistent with his characterizations, which might be a weakness of the tight script. Sometimes Gor-in-Steve is hostile and blatant, and at other times he acts almost like 'normal' Steve. It looks as though they could only talk him into donning the painful-looking silvery contact lenses once or twice, because most of the cutaways to Agar's grinning face as he uses the super eye-power to zap planes or simulate atomic explosions, appear to be the same shot!
Elsewhere, the production values are quite polished. Nathan Juran hides behind his middle name in this feature, as he did for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, but his direction of this minimal budget picture is nothing to be ashamed of. The shots are blocked expertly and Ms. Meadows and the other actors are never stranded in awkward positions or stage waits. Juran very successfully sets up several scenes with Agar facing us with his back to other actors, giving knowing smirks every time some puny earthling (Gor actually uses the exact words) says something that strikes him as funny. In the film's best moment (and one of the freakish highlights of the genre) Juran uses a water cooler bottle to distort John Agar's face for one of his insane power-mad speeches. Agar's warped grimace perfectly overstates the essence of megalomania. It's even more effective than its antecedent in The Wizard of Oz. There it's Margaret Hamilton who is distorted in a witch's magic ball.
Just about every scene not in Steve's lab or Sally's back yard is really shot in Bronson Caves. The poverty stricken conference room that doubles as a mini-United Nations when Gor delivers his Ultimatum, is practically the only other set. Producer / Cameraman Jacques Marquette can be proud of his sharp b&w photography. Normally the lighting is a bit flat but pretty Meadows always looks nice. You don't feel like you're watching anything made by amateurs here, as with the likes of Robot Monster.
The reason Arous stands apart from the Ed Woods is its smart script and its earnest playing. The writing and production knows the whole enterprise is ridiculous, but refuses to surrender. Meadows and Agar go at their noble profession even when swinging axes at Gor's 'fissure of Rolando', as if the inflated-looking brain were a party Piñata. Meadows in particular does a good job of being distressed when her boyfriend is lustfully pawing her, knowing he really isn't her boyfriend (a thought that surely was going through a lot of pony-tailed heads at the drive-in). Perhaps this was the inspiration for I Married a Monster from Outer Space!
The Brain from Planet Arous was a reasonable hit in 1958, enabling Howco to follow it up with with half a dozen features that just got worse and worse. (We called them "How Come?" movies.) Variety gave it a positive review, as opposed to its total slam of the superior Enemy From Space just a few months before, indicating that by late 1957, funny monster movies were more welcome than serious ones in a Hollywood overdosed with horrors from all directions.
Image's DVD of The Brain from Planet Arous is one of Wade Williams' better releases. Savant only saw a few marks on the print used, which is far sharper than anything seen before. The simple soundtrack is also clear ... for basic production values, this movie is a showcase of quality with modest means. The film was shown recently at the American Cinematheque in a Nathan Juran retrospective, and Gary Teetzel reports that the two minutes missing from the print shown there are intact on the DVD. There's a raggedly-edited trailer that does a pretty good job of making the film look exciting. One not-so-crucial gripe is the box art, which originates with Williams, not Image, and looks just as tacky as most of Williams' previous releases.
A lot of '50s low-budget, low-brow monster romps are pretty disappointing affairs, once you get past the misleading advertising and exciting posters. The Brain from Planet Arous, thanks to its sense of humor and spirit of oversexed fun, is one of the most entertaining of the bunch.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Brain from Planet Arous rates:
Movie: I'd say Excellent for Entertainment value ... but I'm deeply prejudiced
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 5, 2001