At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (WB Archive)

By • Feb 17th, 2015 •

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When I originally saw this energetic comedy back in ‘83, I may have picked up on just how referential it was, but no one could have known how many future films would be influenced by it. Today it’s a repository of reflexive hot spots, a conduit for films past to reach the 80s, and for later films to display their inspirations.

Steve Martin is Doctor Michael Hfuhruhurr (and the pronunciation of his last name gives rise to countless jokes, few of them even amusing), a renowned neurosurgeon, who saves Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) after nearly killing her with his car, by using his own methodology – cranial screw-top brain surgery – and then marries her, but he’s being duped by the money-hungry vixen, who keeps dodging his attempts at sexual intimacy. At a Viennese medical conference he meets Dr. Alfred Necessiter, a fellow brain expert (flawlessly played by David Warner – he’s the Ernest Thesiger counterpart – with just the needed gravitas to balance Martin’s antics) who gets him involved in some pretty dastardly experiments, and one in particular that might restore balance in his life.

The film’s first half is an adequate piece of comic celluloid, its high point being a wonderfully conceived and executed scene with a child actor (6-year-old Mya Stark) who’s the spitting image of the Plaza Hotel’s Eloise. But the second half, particularly after the introduction of Warner, opens the floodgates to some risky slapstick inventiveness that pays off.

The references to earlier horror classics are easy to spot – Doctor Pretorius’s life forms in glass jugs, the gothic castle set (which is just wall paper in this version), dubious methods of gathering fresh brains, actual footage from DONOVAN’S BRAIN, etc. But even more fascinating are the prefigurations of horrors to come. Jeffrey Coombs appears at the 7-minute mark, two years before he starred in REANIMATOR, and he’s up to the same weird stuff in the operating room. A lot of nods turned up in Frank Henenlotter’s FRANKENHOOKER (1990): the colorful liquids, the hokey brains, some of the music, the fat suit, and even the high-pitched voice of the stitched up street-walker. All these germinate here. The high voice also shows up in Woody Allen’s MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995). And some of the music cues reappear nearly identically in Dario Argento/Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS (1985). This must have had quite a genre fan base. And it’s a genuinely funny, and often witty film, particularly on repeat viewings.

One thing that is lost to time is what, in 1983, was the film’s biggest gag – more than that, the biggest gag of its year – the reveal of the infamous Viennese elevator killer’s identity. People of past generations like myself can revel in the hilarious moment. But for the two most recent generations it is no longer possible. Shocking. A recently released 12-disc collection of this mystery man’s TV talk show from 1962-1986 features said elevator killer with lots of star power guests. It would be amusing to show at least part of TMW2B as a run-up to any of those TV installments.

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