Though he's often been called a balloon-headed freak himself, Judge Bill Gibron just couldn't get into this so-called cult classic from Mexico's monster movie legacy.
I vant to suck…your skull!
It's 1661 and Mexico is doing its own version of the Spanish Inquisition. As the overlords for this purging of heretics reads the charges against him, Baron Vitelius merely laughs. After all, he's in big-time cahoots with El Diablo, and no human court is going to condemn his immortal soul. As the judges deliver their death sentence and prepare to burn him at the state, Vitelius offers that medieval missive statement: the all-encompassing curse. He warns that he will come back in 300 years to avenge his unfortunate flash frying. Sure enough, with the arrival of an unusual comet in 1961, the Baron returns, ready to dig into the fleshy minds of the descendents of those who wronged him. Able to mutate into a vile, bloodthirsty beast with a hankering for gray matter, this brain-draining fiend finds the relatives of his tormentors to be rather easy pickings. Unless someone can stop him, the Brainiac (or as he's known in Latin circles, the Baron of Terror) will manage to make good on his ancient threat.
Brainiac is a moldy old monster movie that has a far more entertaining premise than any of the action that is actually up on screen. Boasting a beast so loopy that even Roger Corman would find him laughable and a narrative that's as by-the-numbers as a trailer park painting of the Last Supper, director Chano Urueta has a limited capacity when it comes to creating convincing creature features. His sequences of terror are overly talky (the opening inquisition has more rapid-fire dialogue than a David Mamet play) and the various revenge attacks are staged in the same stilted, static manner. In essence, one can boil down this flimsy excuse for a movie to a single sentence: A deranged warlock comes back from the dead and seeks payback from the various people who persecuted him centuries before. But this doesn't take into account the outrageous beast effects, the pointless bits involving comets and engaged astronomers, and a human version of the title villain who's so suave and sophisticated, you keep waiting for him to order all his cocktails shaken, not stirred. He's the original swarthy bad guy, beating out the current Middle Eastern motion-picture villains by a good three decades.
But what most fans remember about this cracked cult creep out is the shape-shifting fiend that represents the Baron's true inner self. The whole Mexican wrestler-like urbanity of the character actually hides a hideous balloon-headed organism with a freakish forked tongue that tends to sort of lay on the necks of its intended victims. We are supposed to believe that this nearly inanimate "thing" is capable of draining human beings of their brain matter. Even more impressive, the statue-like ogre then manages to regurgitate the gray stuff and keep it perfectly preserved in a readily-available chaffing dish. Whenever he feels a bit puckish, he sneaks off for a nasty nibble. Gotta calm that cranial craving inside. During these moments, Brainiac does achieve a kind of lunatic logic, making sense in ways that only a poorly-conceived foreign fright film can. Still, after the initial novelty has worn off, and the monotonous motions of the movie actually settle in, we grow bored very, very quickly. Heck, if you've seen the snake-tongued terror puff up his head like a salt-laden sea frog once, you've basically experienced the best the movie has to offer. Since we are introduced to all the victims at a plot point-convenient dinner party, questions over who's on the demon's spit list are never up for discussion. The only issues we have are who will die next and how silly will it all be.
The answer, at least to the second half of the inquiry, is very, very silly. This is moronic-level mediocrity, the kind of terror that tries to get by on costuming and commitment alone. Director Urueta has no real filmic flare whatsoever, and his point-and-shoot methodology does nothing to add suspense or significance to the story. The acting is all average, with the women doing their best scream-queen shrieks while the men stand around looking dull. The lack of mood or atmosphere really undermines Brainiac's ideals, since we are supposed to sense the sinister presence of the Baron every time he arrives onscreen. But Abel Salazar looks like he should be playing baccarat in Monte Carlo or running a hookah bar in Morocco, not skulking around trying to suck on the skulls of others. His demeanor is all wrong—he's a dandy Dracula whose fashion sense is of more concern than his maddening mental hunger. Besides, none of this is ever explained. You'd think that with all the exposition the opening inquisition scene tosses at us, they could at least add the reasons why the Baron is a monster, why brains are his food of choice, and how his eventual defeat is not just some idea that the director thought up right before the start of filming. There are those who defend this dopey South-of-the-Border bunkum as a crazed cult classic. Anyone in the sect who worships this film needs to drink the Kool-Aid and be done with it. They no longer have an aesthetic credibility.
Delivered by Casa Negra and Panik House Entertainment in a wonderful DVD package, the 1.33:1 monochrome image for Brainiac is a stunner. Usually, black and white can come across as gray-on-gray, with murky contrasts and fuzzy facets abounding. Not here, however. Mastered from stock elements, the shift between shadow and light is nearly flawless. Only Something Weird Video can provide a more pristine single tint transfer. Equally impressive are the Dolby Digital Mono mixes that offer both the original Spanish, and the silly English dub as part of the aural elements. The subtitles do a wonderful job of capturing the occasionally over-the-top dialogue, and the overall sonic situation here is excellent.
As for bonus features, Panik House offers up some film-specific features including a posters and stills gallery, a set of cast and crew biographies, a Loteria Game Card (?), a radio spot, and an interactive digital press kit. The creator of this clip-heavy item, a true fan of the film named Kirb Pheeler (ha-ha), also provides an engaging audio commentary. Here's a caveat, however. Though he knows a great deal about the film and provides wonderful details about the production and the people involved, Mr. Pheeler LOVES this movie—almost insanely so. If you don't like freaked-out fanboys fawning over something that probably requires a little more personal reproach, this track will try your patience. If you believe in the power of this peculiar little film, then by all means, join this amiable aficionado in his feature-length love letter to all things Brainiac. All others should just go with the obsessive flow.
Granted, about 30 years ago, when something like this would be playing at a local midtown kiddie matinee, or endlessly rerun on some Shock Theater style broadcasts, Brainiac would have appeared to be a winning foreign fright flick. Sadly a few decades have rendered the results redundant. Devotees can rejoice over the digital presentation provided. For everyone else, our title terror is not the only thing that sucks here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Casa Negra
• Commentary by Kirb Pheeler
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