Leonard Nimoy Got His Start Acting With a Pipe Cleaner Monster in a Roger Corman Thriller
Everyone has to start somewhere.
It’s fair to say Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy had an inauspicious start to his career. He was required to say little more than “Yes, sir” while playing a Martian sidekick in the zombie-less Zombies of the Stratosphere. He went uncredited as a sergeant in the nuclear monster movie Them! And then he was miscredited as Leonard Nemoy in his first substantial genre role, a missing professor possessed by a parasitic life force blatantly constructed from pipe cleaners, in the Roger Corman-produced The Brain Eaters.
Even the most ardent Trekkies would have trouble spotting him in the schlockfest, now celebrating its 65th anniversary. Not only is the future Spock sporting a Gandalf-esque beard and robes, but he’s largely filmed from afar while shrouded in a mysterious fog. Only his distinctive baritone, heard pontificating about the wastefulness of human civilization (“Ironic that Man should obtain his long-sought utopia as a gift, rather than as something earned”), gives any indication about the Godlike figure’s true identity. Still, as the man tasked with explaining all the madness that’s gone before, Nimoy’s late-in-the-day cameo is a pivotal one. And his big reveal makes The Brain Eaters one of the more intriguing sci-fis to emerge from the golden age of black-and-white B-movies.
Typically shown as a double feature with either Terror from the Year 5000 or Earth vs. The Spider, Bruno VeSota’s second directorial effort initially looks set to recapture the film noir tone of his 1956 debut, Female Jungle. There’s a silhouetted man walking in a deserted city street, a scuffle with a pedestrian who accidentally breaks his mysterious glass container, and an ominous voiceover from leading man Glenn (Alan Jay Factor) to help set the scene.
But things take an otherworldly turn when Glenn and Elaine (Jody Fair) stumble across a 50-foot-tall metal cone on their way home from their engagement announcement. And after being inspected by a team that includes top UFO investigator Dr. Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson), cynical Senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe), and the mayor’s secretary Alice Summers (Joanna Lee), it’s determined the complex spiral structure is both indestructible and of potentially extra-terrestrial origin.
The evidence further stacks up thanks to the autopsy of Glenn’s father, Mayor Cameron (Orville Sherman), a normally mild-mannered man who, after brandishing a firearm at his Riverdale town hall office, is shot in front of his son. It turns out the strange blemish on his neck was caused by a leechlike alien whose poisonous bite would have felled him within 48 hours anyway.
You might be getting Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibes, but The Brain Eaters was actually accused of pilfering from some much earlier source material: Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 book The Puppet Masters. Although Corman claimed he’d never encountered the novel, he did acknowledge the similarities and subsequently settled with the author out of court. Heinlein decided against asking for a belated screen credit, believing VeSota didn’t do his story justice.
That’s a bit unfair to a film that makes a little — it was shot in just six days on a budget of $26,000 — go a long way. Sure, the bloodsucking, mind-controlling creatures look like they’ve been assembled by kindergarteners, but there are enough creative flourishes here to elevate this far beyond the so-bad-it’s-good territory of Ed Wood.
Take the surprisingly ahead-of-its-time scene, for example, in which we see a parasite scuttling up to Alice’s bed from its perspective. It’s the kind of unnerving Peeping Tom shot you’d expect from a Hitchcock thriller, not a low-budget drive-in. There’s also something unexpectedly subversive about the cause of all the body snatching. The critters aren’t from another planet, but have burrowed their way up from the center of the Earth over the course of 200 million years in an attempt to build a utopia in which all human autonomy is eradicated. (“We shall force upon Man a life free from strife and turmoil,” claims Nimoy’s Professor Cole). It doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny, but it’s a novel twist on the “call is coming from inside the house.”
The Brain Eaters isn’t afraid to boldly go where other sci-fi capers wouldn’t dare, either. It knocks off its hero, for one thing, with poor Kettering fatally shot by a possessed Alice just moments before his incredibly elaborate plan of attack — a combination of a harpoon, an abandoned truck, and a high voltage transmission line — comes to fruition. Conversely, the character you’d most expect to meet a gruesome demise, the irascible, overly demanding senator who spends most of the film barking orders at his more practical underlings, makes it to the end credits.
Of course, at just 60 minutes long, The Brain Eaters doesn’t have anywhere near the necessary time to flesh out its characters; the senator is the only one given a semblance of personality. The story is similarly bare bones, often asking viewers to answer questions that didn’t make any sense in the first place. Good luck trying to decipher what happened to the possessed who weren’t electrocuted in the rushed denouement, for instance. And in continuing Nimoy’s early habit of starring in films that don’t match their titles, not one brain is shown being devoured. Yet while the accidental knockoff remains only a minor footnote in the pop culture icon’s career, it’s still worthy of a Vulcan salute.