I put this movie on last night, hearing a lot about it for a while and not expecting much, and I really enjoyed it. It's one of those movies that really doesn't ever slow down, it keeps the plot moving at all times, and the characters and actions are quite believable.
Doctor Patrick Cory is a scientist, the sane kind though. He is played very well by Lew Ayres (All Quiet on the Western Front). I loved that he is somewhere between a truly mad scientist and a man who is just possessed by a strong and unflinching passion. The script and the acting are done in a way that make it evident that he genuinely cares a lot about his experiment, he's doing it for all the right reasons, and though he lets it take over his life more than he should, he is filled with regret and is aware of what he's neglecting because of his work.
He is married to Janice (played by Ronald Reagan's future wife, Nancy Davis). This character, despite being a typical 50's housewife, is actually well written and strong. She provides a strong human tone to a story about inhuman things, and she is actually given several important things to do in the movie. Rather than being the typical clinging housewife afraid of everything, she has a role in the experiments, she supports and nurtures her husband at his low times, and she is a dependable focus of the film. That alone is something to be commended and worth noting in the pantheon of 50's films (especially horror/suspense ones).
Dr Cory is running an experiment to remove the brain from a monkey, but keep the brain alive in a jar post removal. He has this cool fish-tank kind of container with a murky white liquid in it which he keeps a monkey brain alive in. Then, a millionaire named WH Donovan is in a plane crash and dies. Well, turns out his brain is also in good shape so why not remove it, and see if it too can live in a fish-tank like the monkey brain?? It can!! Yay. So then the brain not only survives, but starts to grow bigger...and draw nutrients from the murky fluid...and pulsate. Turns out it can also eventually take over people, forcing Donovan's will and persona onto them. It first inhabits Dr. Cory himself.
In life, Mr. Donovan was a dime-tracking, shrewd businessman who didn't give away anything. He didn't even pay his taxes. It turns out he also kept dozens of bank accounts under false names, as to hide how much money he had from the government. So now that he has taken over Cory's body, he starts to go around collecting on all these bank accounts. Given that he can of course sign checks as these businessmen who opened the account (since they were his pseudonyms) he withdraws his money before the government can find and seize it. Meanwhile, Cory's wife Janice and his assistant Dr. Schratt see the effect the brain has had on Cory and plot to rid everyone of it's influence.
This movie as I said was quick paced and well done. The brain is genuinely creepy looking as it pulsates and glows in it's puddle of water. They also do a great job of clearly stating how they are taking care of it, and making it very clear exactly how Cory has set up the care of the brain- under the influence of Donovan. Once Donovan's brain senses that Janice and Schratt are against it, it takes pretty extreme measures to protect itself and everything is given clear reason and explanation and closure in the script.
The ending was a bit abrupt and perhaps not that well planned out. I felt like they tried to have too many different ways of killing the brain in one lump ending, and it felt sort of hackneyed to have one attempt fail and then another fail, etc. Additionally, I thought that maybe Donovan's brain's plan should have been a bit more explained. What is he going to do once he has all his money? Why does he need to get it in this way, and what's his goal? These points aren't elaborated much. It's typical in that way for a 50's movie, and the pacing covers the plot's holes very well, so these are just minor grievances.
All things said, I really liked it and it is a classic horror/suspense film absolutely. Wonderful acting by everyone involved and terrific effects with the brain, which we also get to see a whole hell of a lot, which is great. I regret feeling like it deserves 4 stars rather than 5, but that notion of giving it 4 has remained with me since last night so that is what I'll give it. Some other reviewers could easily give it 5 and I would not fight them on that choice.