Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's a surprise to find a low budget direct to video horror film with more ambition than the hundred or so slasher/zombie/satanic epics that come out every year. It's even more surprising to come across a horror/Sci-Fi fantasy with a truly imaginative concept. Magdalena's Brain has both. We may think we're headed for the umpteenth revisiting of Curt Siodmak's Donovan's Brain, but the script by Massachusetts filmmakers Marty Langford and Warren Amerman spins off into its own bizarre dimension. Even better, the deceptively simple story has a third-act twist that's a real kicker: It takes a couple of minutes to recover, and even after the film's over one is forced to mentally back-track to decipher the meaning of it all.
Former surgeon Magdalena (Amy Shelton-White) takes care of her quadriplegic husband Arthur (Sanjiban), who was injured in a terrible experiment five years before. She also is continuing Arthur's interrupted research to develop an organic substance that can emulate the function of a brain -- artificial intelligence. The unorthodox project is being done in secret, as the accident resulted in both of them losing their medical licenses. Living in a corner of Magdalena's lab is Andrew, her former cancer patient (David Joseph). Magdalena diagnosed Andrew and he's doing little more than awaiting his imminent death. Just as Andrew and Magdalena's experiment begins to succeed, her brother Jim (Robert Weingartner) returns, behaving like a criminal living under cover. Arthur thinks Jim can be a helpful assistant, and he stays on to help Magdalena transfer Arthur's memory and consciousness to the new liquid brain matter, an organic 'hard drive' that can process information up to 1,000 times faster than the human brain. Magdalena also hopes to use the new substance to augment and repair Andrew's diseased brain -- the new brain matter has the potential to perform intellectual miracles.
Magdalena's Brain is a Sci-Fi and horror thriller with a deceptively simple premise. We're pulled into its little world through some excellent technical exposition about the brilliant Arthur's synthetic brain experiments. Because Magdalena is a surgeon, we expect the film to become a mad surgery story with a human brain floating in a glass jar or a disembodied head sitting uncomfortably on a tabletop. Curt Siodmak's classic Donovan's Brain embraced fantasy by having a powerful man's brain telepathically control people like a Sci-Fi Doctor Mabuse. Subsequent efforts in the subgenre (Die Nakte und der Satan aka The Head; Ein toter sucht seinen Möder aka Vengeance and The Brain; The Brain That Wouldn't Die) moved from seriousness to self-parody, until Madmen of Mandoras used the gag to revive a decapitated Adolf Hitler.
This modest film may be just an HD direct-to-video offering, but it dodges that entire subgenre to go its own direction. We indeed see a possible dangerous situation developing at Magdalena's secret laboratory, but there are no mad geniuses, fanatic ex-Nazis or power-mad characters in the mix. Magdalena is psychologically isolated despite the fact that she has four very different men in her life. She communicates with the paralyzed Arthur by means of a throat sensor he wears, that transmits to some kind of neural hook-up device that she appears to attach or plug into her head behind her ear. As only she can hear what Arthur has to say; the setup is reminiscent of the Curt Siodmak telepathic concept. Young Andrew has simply moved in to await the onset of his cancer, a process that has taken five years. He's stricken with headaches and an inability to concentrate, and he and Magdalena must cope with their mutual attraction when she wants to remain faithful to her husband. Brother Jim sneaks back into Magdalena's life under cover of darkness and appears ready to do whatever she asks. He's reasonably dependable but has shifty eyes and tends to interpret her instructions rather than follow them. Finally, Magdalena visits a therapist to unload some of the pressure of her complicated life. She tells the therapist much too much about her husband's secret project, which, after all, got them both booted out of the medical profession five years before.
Magdalena's Brain is part technological Gothic and part The Twilight Zone; the paralyzed Arthur regards his new brain like one of Peter Cushing's monsters staring hopefully at a promising new body in a Hammer Frankenstein film. We also realize that things are more complicated than they seem when flashbacks to the first, mostly unexplained accident don't entirely match what we're told happened. After a slow first few minutes, the curiosity factor rises sharply -- we really want to know what happens.
Cameraman Mark Devin invests the visuals with atmospheric qualities unexpected in such a low budget effort. Director Warren Amerman's camera angles are well chosen; the movie never looks like it's trying to cheat an angle or make do with insufficient means. Some of the dialogue editing is a bit on the choppy side but this is perhaps due to the acting. Amy Shelton-White is terrific at giving shades of meaning (and shady hidden meanings) to her performance. Sanjiban's mostly silent presence as the stricken husband can't be faulted but David Joseph is thin as the demoralized cancer victim. Robert Weingartner's creepy character holds our attention with a very interesting style of line delivery, but for some reason his work doesn't mesh as well with the other actors.
Ms. Shelton-White is in almost every scene, and keeps us riveted to the story.
Heretic LLC's DVD of Magdalena's Brain is a bona fide sleeper, if the term can be used with direct-to-video fare. It's not going to be frenetic enough to satisfy the average ADD-ridden horror film fan, but Sci-Fi adepts keen for a more cerebral approach are going to be intrigued. If it makes a difference, let me add that one demented ad hoc brain surgery scene will definitely raise a hackle or two. The director also handled the film's moody audio track, which in a few instances makes some dialogue difficult to hear.
Heretic lends Magdalena's Brain a reasonable selection of extras. Amerman and co/writer and producer Marty Langford provide a rather sober commentary that sticks to the making-of issues, and a few deleted scenes are offered as well. A behind-the-scenes selection shows us three difficult sequences being filmed, for moderate interest. A gag reel and some music videos were not sampled.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Magdalena's Brain rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by director and writer/producer; deleted scenes, BTS coverage, 'music videos' and gag reel
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 6, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson