In Season 5 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show debuted its second host – writer Mike Nelson – with a showing of camp classic The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. Leonard Maltin gave it only 1.5 stars, meaning it’s nowhere near Laserblast good. The bots and Mike called its lead character “Jan in the Pan.”
No one respects poor Jan, and no one respects The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. To be fair, one of the reasons is that it’s simply not a very good movie. The music is the kind of ponderous, plodding orchestral score you’d expect from an early-sixties horror movie, the special FX are cheap, the pacing isn’t exactly snappy. But there’s something to the movie, something that’s caught people’s attention beyond the silly catfights and the cheap jokes about a talking disembodied head.
And I think Jan in the Pan is the key.
Jan spends about 80 minutes of a 90-minute movie (there are varying cuts of varying lengths) not getting what she wants. She wants to get married, but her mad scientist fiancé Bill has been putting her off for a while. She wants to know more about her fiancé’s projects, but he refuses to tell her about them, only relenting when an experiment has gone wrong — and then, disaster strikes, and she’s decapitated in a horrible (and horribly staged) car accident.
And then she’s not allowed to die.
Jan’s voice is heard before the movie even properly begins, before the title credit, begging: “Please, let me die.” But Bill salvages her head from the wreck, runs it back to his secret lab in the countryside, and restores it to a strange half-life in his laboratory. “What’s done is done,” he tells his assistant, “and what I’ve done is right.” As Jan wakes, her first words are “let me die.” Bill, not listening to her at all, immediately announces his quest to get her a new body. He finds a model who has been horribly scarred by a man she had trusted “all the way,” and is shocked to see that Bill isn’t repulsed by her damaged face; but of course he isn’t. He’s only interested in her body. (Bill spends the whole movie not listening to anyone, but it’s particularly obvious when it comes to women; he claims to love Jan, but it’s not the kind of love anyone should want.)
The movie spends a lot of time with Jan after the accident, awake, angry and just as beautiful as a disembodied head as she was in the early scenes hoping she could finally get married. She encourages the strange monster behind the door, taunts Bill’s loathsome lab assistant, and when she whispers get him to the mysterious mutant, the strings tell us we’re supposed to be horrified…but Jan’s face is pure triumph.
The last twenty minutes are the real fun of the movie, as Jan laughs merrily at the chaos she’s created, the lab assistant bleeds stage blood all over the set, and the strange beast locked behind the laboratory door finally comes out to play — just as Bill comes back with his prospective victim. Jan tries to do things the nice way, begging Bill to not go through with his bananapants plan for a head transplant, but he tapes over her mouth so he won’t have to listen. (There are some hilarious shots of Jan trying to chew through the tape.) And then, in true B-movie fashion, he gets what he deserves.
Jan has the last words: “I told you to let me die.”
She laughs her way through the end credits.
It’s pulp, of course, it’s ridiculous and poorly staged, and yet Jan’s laugh always stays with me Her anger fuels the movie, and I think that more than anything else is what kept the movie hanging on, through a second life on MST3K, a musical version (really!) and an appearance on Scream Queens. For more than fifty years, she’s been a vivid, unforgettable image: a reminder that maybe, just maybe, you should think about giving the woman what she actually wants.
Happy Valentine’s Day!