This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK.
NB: The following contains spoilers for The Brain from the Planet Arous and Prometheus.
For some reason we’ve yet to discover, cinema has, for decades, been home to all manner of sentient, disembodied heads and floating brains. Note that we’re not talking about decapitations here—though goodness knows that cinema is home to plenty of those, from Japanese samurai epics to modern slasher horrors.
No, we’re talking about movies where heads and brains remain sentient even when they’re stuffed into jars or colossal things made of stone. Sometimes used for comedic effect, at other times for shock value, they’re a surprisingly common phenomenon in the movies. Here, we celebrate a few of our absolute favourites—though you’re sure to have a few of your own…
The Brain from the Planet Arous (1957)
Providing all the promise of its title, The Brain from the Planet Arous features a large disembodied alien brain—a criminal brain, no less—which comes to Earth to control the population with its psychic powers. Called Gor, the brain seizes control of a nuclear scientist named Steve, who becomes a randy “regular caveman” under the alien’s influence. With Steve as his puppet, Gor blows up an airplane in mid-flight (it kind of just pops, like a tiny firecracker), kills a sheriff, and threatens to wipe out entire cities.
Fortunately for the people of Earth, another big brain arrives from planet Arous. This one’s a friendly brain called Vol, who possesses the body of a dog in order to stop Gor from blowing anything else up.
The film concludes with a final, epic battle, in which Steve finally gets to exact his revenge on Gor. Seizing a conveniently located axe, he hacks the evil cerebrum into oblivion. It’s a moment where acting, special effects, and excitable music all come together to create one of the most unintentionally funny fight scenes in movie history. In spite of its superior intelligence, the evil brain loses.
Oddly, after everything else he’s seen (exploding aircraft, floating brains), Steve refuses to believe his wife when she tells him that she was helped by a talking dog. “You women and your imaginations,” he says. The sexist swine.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)
A film far less exciting than its title, The Thing That Couldn’t Die opens with a psychic teenage girl warning a group of adults not to dig for gold beneath a tree. When they begin digging anyway, she screams, “You’re all horrible! I hope you all die! I hope a tree falls on you!”
Remarkably, a tree does fall on someone straight afterwards.
Unperturbed, the group carries on digging, and eventually unearths an iron coffer dating from the 15th century. Within, they find the disembodied yet still sentient head of a sorcerer. With the lid open and its powers operating at full bore, the head begins controlling everyone close to it, and forces them to murder each other in surprisingly uninventive ways.
The psychic teenager, bringing all her deductive powers to bear, eventually decides that the blinking, scowling head in the box is evil, and eventually finds a way of killing the thing with the help of an ancient talisman. As Mystery Science Theatre pointed out many, many years ago, that lovely title is, in fact, a blatant lie.
An otherwise entirely forgettable 50s B-movie, The Thing That Wouldn’t Die is at least distinguished by the fact that the disembodied head looks uncannily like Vincent Price.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
A film violent enough to warrant a mention in British Parliament on release, Fiend Without a Face could very well be the finest disembodied brain movie yet made. The film’s low budget means that director Arthur Crabtree keeps his monsters largely invisible until the final reel, when they’re finally revealed as floating cerebra with snail horns, a dangling spinal column, and nasty tentacles.
Brought to life with some great stop-motion effects, the fleshy fiends are eventually dispatched by heroic Major Cummings and his associates, who gun them down mercilessly in a shower of sticky gore. That’ll teach those pesky aliens for starting an invasion at a heavily armed Air Force base.
They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968)
A great title for an extraordinarily bad film, They Saved Hitler’s Brain has been repeatedly parodied since, most notably in The Simpsons, but also a series of Superman comics (“They Saved Luthor’s Brain”). The film may also have provided inspiration for one of writer Dennis Potter’s final TV dramas, Cold Lazarus, in which Potter’s own disembodied head (played by Albert Finney) is thawed out in the distant future.
More recently, Psychoville series two appeared to pay its own homage to They Saved Hitler’s Brain, with a plot that contained the revived head of a Nazi war criminal, played by Steve Pemberton. Oh, and let’s not forget Futurama, which has been using heads in jars as a means of sneaking in celebrity cameos for years.
All these references are quite flattering when you take into account just how laughably bad the original movie was. Nazis sneak the late Hitler’s head off to South America, where they plan to revive it using mysterious scientific techniques—as a result, all kinds of unconvincing hi-jinx ensue.
Cobbled together from two lots of footage filmed seven years apart, the movie’s regarded by many as one of the worst ever made. It’s just about worth watching for the incredibly weird sight of an actor doing a ranting Hitler impression inside a massive jar. Great side parting, though.
John Boorman’s freaky sci-fi fantasy, Zardoz, will probably be memorable for two things. One, Sean Connery running around in nothing but a tiny pair of red underpants for pretty much the entire movie, and two, gigantic, flying stone heads.
Zardoz offers up a post-apocalyptic future inspired by HG Wells’ The Time Machine, except filtered through a 70s haze of drugs, disco, and fondue. Connery plays a moustachioed member of an underclass known as the Brutals, or the Exterminators, who are ruled over by an elite group of people called the Eternals, who float about in a shouting stone head that floats across the land, occasionally spewing out great torrents of guns.
The Eternals use weapons to keep the underlings occupied, so when they’re not providing their masters with a steady quantity of grain, they’re controlling their own population by shooting each other. (“The gun is good. The penis is evil,” the flying head rumbles.)
If all this sounds weird, this only covers what happens in the first few minutes. It’s when Connery stows away in one of the big stone heads, and is carried to the land of the Eternals that the film gets really, really strange. There, he’s treated as an amusement by his masters, who laze about like it’s the last days of Rome. He’s shown images of women mud wrestling, goes blind beneath a weaver’s loom, gets attacked by pensioners, wears a gorgeous wedding dress, and is later pressed into service as a carthorse.
After more than 35 years and numerous re-runs on television, it’s easy to forget how shocking Alien once was. Yes, there’s the now legendary scene where John Hurt gives birth to a screeching entity that looks like a cross between a skinned ferret and a horse’s member, but there’s also the shock reveal that—spoiler alert—the ship’s science officer Ash (Ian Holm) is actually a robot. Although repeat viewings give away a few tiny clues about Ash’s identity, it’s only when he goes berserk and gets hit over the head by fire extinguisher-wielding Parker (Yaphet Kotto) that the truth is revealed.
As director Ridley Scott observes, the moment has enough momentum and shock value that the variable quality of the practical effects are barely a distraction. There’s something irresistible, too, about the sight of Ash’s disembodied head planted unceremoniously on a table, weird bits of internal wiring and white goo tangled and oozing around him. Even in this parlous state, Ash remains as aloof and passive-aggressive as ever. “I can’t lie about your chances,” he says with a grim smile, “But you have my sympathies.”
Even a few blasts of a flamethrower can’t wipe the smug grin off his face.
The Thing (1982)
Few films made before or since 1982‘s The Thing can touch Rob Bottin’s creativity in terms of practical effects. When he was preparing to make this new adaptation of the novella, “Who Goes There,” director John Carpenter stipulated that he didn’t want his monster to be just another monster in a suit. Well, thanks to Rob Bottin’s genius, Carpenter got precisely what he wanted.
The Thing‘s shape-shifting alien, capable of disguising itself as any living creature, whether human or otherwise, is a creature of menacing power. An apparently normal dog can abruptly grow gigantic tentacles. A friendly colleague can suddenly sprout snapping jaws. Trapped with this abomination in a remote Antarctic research station, MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his cohorts are faced with the realization that this creature could be any of them—or worse, all of them.
In the film’s most celebrated scene, the body of one character—the geologist Norris (Charles Callahan)—undergoes an explosive transformation. Lying on a table following an apparent heart attack, his chest springs open to reveal razor-sharp teeth, while his head quietly oozes to the floor and detaches itself. With a spectacular flourish, the alien-infected head sprouts eyes on stalks and arachnid legs before scuttling off towards the nearest exit.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Palmer gasps as he spots the entity lurking in a doorway. It’s a sentiment that was surely shared by anyone lucky enough to see the movie in a theatre back in 1982, and it remains a classic moment in big-screen horror.
The Man with Two Brains (1983)
Carl Reiner’s 1983 hit, The Man with Two Brains is one of Steve Martin’s finest comedies, serving as both a gentle spoof of mad professor-filled B flicks, as well as a genuinely funny movie in its own right. Martin plays Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, a pioneering neurosurgeon who falls in love with a disembodied brain in a jar.
Many of the film’s best jokes revolve around Dr. Michael’s desire to find a new body for the homeless brain and his inability to kill in order to get hold of one. The funniest scene in the entire film, though, is surely the bit where Dr. Michael takes the brain out on a day trip. It’s perhaps not the most high-brow comedy moment in cinema, but the sight of Steve Martin in a rowing boat, casually chatting to a brain in a jar, which he’s decorated with a hat, scarf, and a pair of wax lips, is both sublime and ridiculous.
Gory, tasteless, needlessly violent, and very, very funny, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, in spite of its age, remains an enduring classic of comedy horror. It’s impossible to say what writer H.P. Lovecraft would have made of this wilfully schlocky reworking of his 1920s short story, Herbert West: Reanimator, but Gordon displays a genuine affection for the original story, even as it descends into camp insanity.
Mad medical student Herbert West (a startlingly charismatic Jeffrey Combs), develops a serum that revives dead bodies, which display an unnerving desire to attack and kill. Ploughing on with his research regardless, the bodies soon mount up, leading to a key moment in which West decapitates his nemesis, Dr. Hill (a seething David Gale), the dean of his medical school. West then has the bizarre idea of injecting Hill’s separated head and body with his life-giving serum, resulting in what is surely the film’s most comic and memorable image: that of Dr. Hill’s body carrying its own disembodied head in a metal tray.
Re-Animator‘s low-budget status means its special effects aren’t exactly seamless. Throughout the film, poor David Gale was forced to wear a dreadful grey wig (which looks like a hat) in order to match the fake head that would be brought in later on. The effects are, however, good enough to sell the frankly brilliant notion of a once haughty dean carrying his own head around, and the filmmakers’ cash-strapped creativity reaches its zenith at the film’s climax, which is a veritable carnival of blood and guts.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Terry Gilliam’s expensive, sumptuous fantasy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was a notorious flop in 1988, making back a little over $8 million on its huge $46 million budget. This is a shame, since this glossy, eccentric rendering of the Baron’s tall tales of adventure is one of the most interesting and vibrant family movies of the 80s.
While stuffed full of great actors, including Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, and Eric Idle, one of the most memorable performances in the whole film comes from the late, sorely missed Robin Williams. He plays The King of the Moon, a gluttonous villain who can detach his head and send it spinning through the air. As a tender youth, the sight of Williams’ cackling head flying around the big screen was the stuff of nightmares.
Total Recall (1990)
The briefest instance of a disembodied, talking head on this list, the one in sci-fi classic, Total Recall, deserves a mention simply because it’s so memorable. On the run from a snarling villain played by Michael Ironside, Arnold Schwarzenegger is told he must get his ass to Mars by any means necessary.
Given that Arnie’s a gigantic bodybuilder, it makes perfect sense that he’d sneak past Martian security dressed as a woman. In fairness, it’s a pretty good disguise, with Arnold’s distinctive features cunningly obscured by an electronic, fully animated mask. Then the mask malfunctions at precisely the wrong moment and goes completely nuts. Arnold, realizing the game’s up, dramatically removes the mask and throws it at a nearby guard like a hand grenade.
Admittedly, you could use CG these days to make the scene look convincing, but considering the limited resources available at the time, it’s a superb, memorable piece of special effects work, and the mask’s garbled utterance of “Two weeks…” has been endlessly quoted by film geeks since. Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake of Total Recall, although containing some pleasant sci-fi flourishes, was a far cry from its 90s predecessor. Containing several nods back to Verhoeven’s classic—including a reference to the “Get ready for a surprise!” bit mentioned above, it contained little of the earlier Total Recall’s dry humor, excitement, or filmmaking brio. It’s proof, if any were needed, that a disembodied head makes any film better.
Hewing to the adage that two severed heads are better than one, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, contains a brace of disembodied bonces. The first belongs to an Engineer, one of those creepy giants Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her crew find on the other side of the galaxy.
Taking the head back to the good ship Prometheus, Shaw and her cohorts decide to start sticking probes into the thing to see if they can jab it back to life with Dr. Frankenstein-like blasts of electricity (or something). After a while, the head really does start to blink and twitch its upper lip like a distressed Elvis, before it finally does what any frightened cranium would do in this situation—it spontaneously explodes.
Next up we have the sneaky, David Lean movie-obsessed android David (Michael Fassbender) who spends the whole movie quietly causing havoc aboard the Prometheus before he’s finally held to account by another one of those freakishly tall Engineers. Well, we say held to account—what we actually mean is that his head’s pulled off like a champagne cork and used to batter an old man to death. That’ll teach him.
Because David’s an android, the decapitation proves to be a mere flesh wound, and the movie ends with Shaw collecting up his disembodied head, putting it in a bowling bag, and blasting off in a space ship. Together, the pair will travel around the galaxy solving mysteries. That’s what we’re hoping will happen in the three Prometheus sequels Scott currently has planned, anyway.