Donovan’s Grief


A beautifully-crafted, low-budget gem melding sci-fi and horror, 1953’s DONOVAN’S BRAIN comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the top medulla oblongatas at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

While a common theme now, transplanted for such guilty pleasures as The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (aka Jan in the Pan) and the comedic delights of The Man with Two Brains, DONOVAN’S BRAIN, the original sourcework, hailed from the most-talented cranium of author/screenwriter Curt Siodmak, whose scary 1942 novel was adapted for the movies by Hugh Brooke, and scripted by director Felix Feist.

It’s an extraordinary idea involving high-tech (for then) brain surgery, the burgeoning concept of telepathy and basic themes from Shelley’s Frankenstein (some things Man just shouldn’t futz around with – and, if he does, get the right brain, damn it!).

Dr. Patrick J. Cory is a brilliant scientist married to Janice, an equally accomplished egghead.  They conveniently live off the main road of a typical suburban community; many think they’re a bit off the main road themselves.  Recovering alcoholic Frank Schratt, a once-promising professor/doctor, is a close friend and works with them on their groundbreaking experiments.

All good, so far.

The crash of a private plane brings the grim news for 1%-ters that billionaire Warren H. Donovan has perished.  Carting the corpse to the nearest home (guess who?) until the authorities can claim the body provides the Corys with the perfect op to advance their work on thought and thought progression.

Turns out that Donovan’s brain wasn’t damaged in the crash – it was demented way before then.  A cruel, vicious psychopath, the oligarch got his way by terrorizing those around him – making them rich along the way.  He raped companies, ravaged women, destroyed men – totally believed he was above the law.  Sound familiar?  Except he wasn’t an idiot, merely pure evil.  Donovan’s brain does respond slowly to the lab work…then begins to look for a host, selecting the liberally progressive Patrick as his latest victim.  Soon, Dr. Cory is adapting Donovan’s mannerisms, figures of speech, and fits of violence.  His misogyny emerges as he brutally mistreats Janice.  Now occupying Cory’s body, Donovan’s brain begins a nationwide assault on his competitors, and former partners (who were relieved that he was dead).  When a reporter guesses the unbelievable truth, Donovan/Cory resorts to murder.  And he likes it.

Can Janice and Frank reverse the process before they become the maniac’s next victims?

As one might expect, this is one wild 86-minute ride.  The performances are excellent, particularly that of lead Lew Ayres (essentially inhabiting two personas).  Nancy Davis (soon to be “Reagan”), as Janice even comes off unscathed, giving a respectable account of herself.  The always-reliable Gene Evans is another plus (he does, pre-DeForrest Kelley, get to utter the line: “I’m a doctor, not an electrician!”).  Other support is valiantly provided by sleazy Steve Brodie (as the unethical reporter), Tom Powers, Lisa Howard, James Anderson, Harlan Wade, Shimen Ruskin, Don Brodie, and John Hamilton.

Director Feist was an underrated force in Hollywood, known for doing a lot with a little; his noirs 1949’s The Threat, 1951’s Tomorrow is Another Day, etc. are quite good, and worth seeking out.  DONOVAN’S BRAIN is likely Feist’s most famous movie, and definitely worthy of a spot on your library shelf.  The crisp black-and-white photography is by Robert Aldrich fave Joe Biroc, and a suitable music score is provided by Eddie Dunstedter. 

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray looks and sounds swell, and comes with the original theatrical trailer, as well as a short “Trailers from Hell” segment, hosted by Joe Dante.

Adding this tense item to one’s collection is…well, a no-brainer.

DONOVAN’S BRAIN. Black and White. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K20068. SRP: $29.95.

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