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Brainwaves
(1982)
 

Director: Ulli Lommel                                 
Cast:
Suzanna Love, Keir Dullea, Tony Curtis


Not only is Brainwaves unable to decide what kind of movie it is, it's not even able to competently do whatever genre it chooses to do at whatever particular moment it's at. This is a really hard movie to describe. If I really had to describe it in a condensed form, the only way I could classify it would be to call it a science fiction horror medical drama mystery with overtones of Hitchcock. And even then, I feel I'm missing some key descriptive words in that label. It's a real mess, so much so that not long after I stopped caring about the characters, I just stopped caring about the movie completely, except in how much longer it had to run until the end.

It's really a shame how badly the movie fails, because of the promising setup. In San Francisco, Kaylie (Love, the wife of the director) has a very happy marriage with her husband Julian (Dullea), with a son completing her content life. The family's happiness is all of a sudden shattered; while walking home from the grocery store, Kaylie is hit by a car and suffers a severe blow to the head during the accident. At the hospital, the doctors manage to save her life, but are unable to reverse the effect the trauma had on her brain. As a result, Kaylie lies in a catatonic state.

Someone has been watching her closely, however. Enter Dr. Clavius (Curtis), who proposes using a procedure that has been successfully tested on animals. What it boils down to is feeding Kaylie's brainwaves into a computer, which will analyze them and find what waves are wrong. The computer then will feed new brainwaves into her brain, which will replace the damaged brainwaves, resulting in her brain being repaired. Julian agrees, and the operation is enacted, which results in a complete success. (One of the few smart parts of the screenplay occurs here, showing the operation is not an instant cure, and that Kaylie still has to ongo months of physiotherapy.)

Fully recovered, Kaylie goes home. Then problems start - she has a horrifying vision of someone trying to kill her in the bathtub, and she starts having memories of places she has never been. After a little investigating, she and her husband discover that a donor brain was used for the operation, and the donor brain belonged to a murdered woman. Kaylie decides that the only thing that may bring peace to her mind will be to investigate the woman and discover who her killer was.

Now, I never said this was an original story; we've all seen variations of this story in other movies before. Even Hitchcock himself had plans at one time to do a movie about a blind man who undergoes a eye transplant to make him see, and discovers he was given the eyes of a murdered man. But it's an irresistible premise, perhaps because it seems a bit plausible. Transplant operations are now routine, for one thing, and using a computer in a situation like this seems reasonable. Plus, there's a lot about the human mind and body that is still a mystery, including evidence of extra-sensory powers humans may have (such as twins that can communicate intentionally or unintentionally with each other.) But the movie takes all of this potential intrigue and more or less throws it out of the window with its incompetent execution.

Let's look again at the setup for the movie. How much of the movie do you think has gone by at the point when Kaylie is finally discharged from the hospital? If I hadn't seen the movie, I would guess about 1/4 of the movie. But believe it or not, it's actually at the halfway point when it happens. And there was no need for it to go that long, since there are plenty of scenes that could have been cut out. Do we need to see lengthy scenes of Kaylie walking to and back from the grocery store? Several minutes of footage showing Kaylie in her wheelchair or lying in bed in her catatonic state? Her endless physiotherapy sessions? All of these situations, and several others, could be shown briefly without hurting the plot in the least, and would seriously improve the pacing.

On the other hand, there are a number of scenes that also go by too quickly, mostly in the second half of the movie. More than once, we cut to a new location, a few words are exchanged, and poof! we're suddenly taken to a different place. Sometimes several scenes go by so fast, you think you're seeing Night Train To Terror, which had three segments that were each a separate horror movie cut down to around a half hour. It's all very confusing, especially since there also seem to be scenes missing. What, for instance, was the point of seeing that strange device on Calvius' chest if it's never seen again? Why is the grandmother character around when she doesn't do anything for the plot? Why does the killer hang around the hospital to be near the donor's body for such a long time, anyway? Since I timed the movie to have a running time of just 80 minutes (including the end credits), this and the countless scenes that run too long or too short suggest that there were some severe problems trying to piece the movie together in the editing room.

Even better editing wouldn't have been able to help an ersatz Bernard Hermann score that's really shrieky and annoying, especially when it's played during sequences that couldn't possibly justify music even in a better made movie. Or all the times when the boom dips into the top of the screen. It's also the same with the characters. Being the center of everything that happens in the movie, it's obvious that the character of Kaylie needed the most work, and the most focus. We need to have a good feeling for her, so we can understand her actions and sympathize with her, so we feel that we are on her side and cheering for her to succeed. But the movie gives us nothing to hang onto; we learn little about her before the accident, and then she is in a coma for a long time. Then she almost immediately starts having visions after she leaves the hospital. How can we get involved with what she subsequently decides to do? Though the script is clearly the key to this flat character, Love's bland, uncharismatic performance also has some blame to share.

The other performances in the movie are either forgettable or terrible, the worst belonging to Nicholas Love (as a friend of the deceased), and Tony Curtis. Tony Curtis is one of my favorite actors, and even in the most dreary dreck, he usually gives off a little spark or has a gleam of sarcasm in his eye. Here, it's embarrassing just to look at him. Made during the height of his drug addiction, Curtis looks absolutely ghastly. If you see him today at 75 years of age, he looks healthier and more energetic than he did here at 57. Obviously looking at cue cards offscreen, Curtis sounds like he has a bad case of laryngitis when he talks, which isn't that often. In fact, a lot of the dialogue that seems to have originally been written for his character is in fact spoken by another actor, playing Clavius' assistant, resulting in several odd scenes where the assistant blathers on to great end while Curtis looks on feebly.

The only positive attribute to note about Brainwaves is the photography; whether the scene takes place indoors or outdoors, at night or during the day, it always manages to look good enough to stand proudly beside the cinematography of major studio films of the period. Good looks can't hide a bad script, so most of the movie you are not admiring how the movie looks, but trying to readjust after the movie starts off with a violent murder (seemingly the only reason why this movie was rated "R", by the way), jumps to a domestic situation, shifts to a medical drama, then twists into a murder mystery. Actually, it's a "mystery", for the supposed "big twists" will be easy to guess long before they happen. The only real mystery that surrounds this movie is how it got made and then shown in theaters.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)Check Amazon for "Tony Curtis: The Autobiography"

See also: Lifeform, King Cobra, Crawlspace

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