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Donovan's Brain

Kino // Unrated // March 22, 2016
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 14, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Nancy Reagan versus a disembodied, telepathic, murderous brain -- sold!

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The call couldn't have come at a worse time. Dr. Patrick Corey (Lew Ayres) and his wife Janice (Nancy Davis) are engaged in an experiment that could forever redefine medicine...our knowledge of the human brain. Still, the park rangers can't raise the drunken Doc Schratt (Gene Evans), leaving Dr. Corey the only person around these parts with any chance of saving the survivors of a devastating plane crash. The situation turns out to be more dire than anyone could've expected. Corey and the rangers drag out what's left of one badly battered body, and there's no chance of this man -- W.H. Donovan -- enduring the lengthy trek to the hospital. Then again, Corey's lab isn't too far away. As infinitesimal as Donovan's likelihood of clinging to life may be, at least there's a chance. Schratt sobers up enough to help out in the operating room, but it is indeed hopeless. Donovan's body is too far gone to salvage much of anything. His body may be dead, but his brain...? We're picking up alpha waves. It's still in this fight. As it turns out, the Coreys' recent experiments have revolved around removing the brains of test subjects and sustaining them in a electrochemical solution. As ghastly as performing surgery on a corpse may be, ready access to a human brain this fresh is an opportunity that may never present itself again. Schratt and the Coreys set aside their misgivings and pick up a cranial saw.

A delicate, surreptitious experiment like this demands around-the-clock observation, and Dr. Corey proves all but unable to step foot outside his lab any longer. He's obsessed with Donovan's brain. He's awoken early one morning to find that he's fallen asleep at his desk, and under his sleeping head is a note in Donovan's own handwriting. The disembodied brain has asserted its will on Corey, picking up where the miserly tax cheat Donovan had left off: custom-tailored suits, ritzy hotel suites, Cuban cigars by the fistful, fraud, blackmail, and, yes, murder.

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Plenty of people would sneer at this Blu-ray release of Donovan's Brain as a cure for insomnia on a five-inch platter, and I get it. The rest of Donovan aside, the body count stands at one: a two-bit photographer (Steve Brodie) that Corey inexplicably lets photograph his secret lab and then blackmails him about the living brain on open display within its walls. The cover art of a man possessed as he strangles a beautiful young woman has nothing even close to an equivalent in the movie. Donovan-slash-Corey trying to force his/their wife to gaze upon the brain is the closest things come. If you storm into Donovan's Brain aching for a campy genre flick about bloodthirsty gray matter, then Donovan's master plan about manipulating international financial markets is probably going to disappoint. There are few overt thrills. The plane crash early in the film takes place off-screen, without even so much as a peek at the smoldering wreckage. Hell, even with as much as Donovan postures about killing anyone who gets in his way, only those who directly gaze upon his brain can fall under his thrall. Since the goal is to meddle with financial markets the world over, that's kind of a lot of people to trick into visiting Corey's lab, especially when something as simple as flipping off the power would bring an end to the whole mess.

Donovan's Brain, as influential as it's proven to be, hardly goes down as one of the greats. By any measure, at least, it benefits from some key casting decisions. The late, great Gene Evans invariably proved to be the highlight of everything he touched, and Donovan's Brain isn't any different. Lew Ayres is an inspired choice to play essentially two entirely different characters, juggling both the kind, immediately likeable Doctor Corey and the cold, scheming, egomaniacal man he becomes as Donovan pulls his strings. Nancy DavisReagan is fine as the embattled wife trying to pull Doc Corey back from the brink, but she's saddled with a somewhat bland role that only gives her so much to do. (...and I realize the era in which this was made and all, but even before Dr. Corey's descent, there's a shut-up-and-make-me-dinner line directed towards her that makes my skin crawl.) Although Donovan's Brain never approaches the heights its premise teases at, the transformation of Corey and the parade of dark decisions he soon makes, the suspense of what exactly it is that Donovan is trying to accomplish, and a finalé that isn't quite as tidy as it initially seems held my interest just the same. I actually love the idea that Donovan isn't hellbent on murder or the typical '50s genre cinema flavor of world domination, but I can certainly see how that could discourage quite a few viewers. This is too polarizing a movie to recommend as a purchase sight-unseen, but for those who know and love Donovan's Brain, breathe a sigh of relief that it's finally scored a worthy release on Blu-ray.

Rolling into production just before Hollywood began the transition towards widescreen, Donovan's Brain is presented on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This is generally a handsome remaster: crisp, detailed, and devoid of any intrusive speckling or wear. The grain structure on this BD-25 disc is no great shakes, disappointingly, tending to clump together or buzz around rather mosquito noise-y. There's one point just past the half-hour mark where the pattern on Frank's shirt shimmers somewhat, and the text on a newspaper he has draped over his head later on suffers from a similar effect. At the end of the day, though, this is still a significantly better than expected presentation of Donovan's Brain, and longtime admirers of the film are going to be astonished.

The 16-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for Donovan's Brain isn't quite so clean and clear. Light crackling, pops, and clicks do rear their heads, and the top-end exhibits some strain. The lossless audio still hits the marks I'd hoped it would, though.

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A commentary track aside, there are no other audio options.

  • Audio Commentary: Movie Morlocks' Richard Harland Smith contributes a very strong commentary track for Donovan's Brain. Of particular interest is the way he compares and contrasts this film with Curt Siodmak's source novel as well as the many, many adaptations (official or otherwise) that have followed in the many decades since its publication. Smith's knowledge of film is encyclopediac. He's readily able to point to actors with even the most minor parts, rattle off highlights from their filmographies, and generally make them and their careers sound like the most fascinating things I've ever been told. It's a gift. Smith also speaks at length about Siodmak's often frustrating career in Hollywood, including penning the screenplays for I Walked with a Zombie and the original version of The Wolfman. As scholarly, informative, and insightful as this commentary so often is, it's teeming with scores of unexpectedly fun nuggets as well, such as how awkward things must've been between on-screen spouses Ayres and Davis. You see, Ayres had just a few years earlier engaged in a very public affair with Ronald Reagan's first wife. From the history of brainsploitation to a reported CIA assassination-by-suppository to a voodoo remake of Jane Eyre, Smith's commentary is well worth setting aside the time to give a listen.

  • Trailers (5 min.; SD): The trailer for Donovan's Brain is presented twice: once in its original form and a second time with Trailers from Hell commentary by Joe Dante. Considering the lean runtime in which Dante has to speak, he sure covers a hell of a lot of ground. Definitely worth a listen, especially if a feature-length commentary seems a little daunting.

How amazing is that cover, by the way? Kudos to Kino Lorber for using the original poster art, and I'm starting to feel compelled to hang a reproduction up on the wall.

The Final Word
Reactions to Donovan's Brain run the gamut from "wildly influential genre classic" to "over-the-counter sleep aid". Considering how divisive a film as this is, the uninitiated should probably consider streaming or renting it first. If you know what you're getting into, meanwhile, this release of Donovan's Brain is easily recommended, boasting a reasonably robust presentation and a solid commentary track. Recommended.
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