A comparison of I Married a Monster from Outer Space and The Brain from Planet Arous.
Content warning: this essay discusses sensitive topics, including sexual assault.
In 1957 and 1958, two genre pictures were released with remarkably outlandish titles: Nathan H. Juran’s The Brain from Planet Arous and Gene Fowler jr’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space. From the brilliant image of a giant, floating brain, to the sight of alien invaders impervious to bullets, both films deliver on sci-fi melodrama.
However, these films also offer something else. The crux of both narratives is the idea of an alien possessing the body of a man to control and conquer. What these aliens do with their human vessels is of particular interest, and is where key similarities and differences can be identified. Indeed, it is these differences that mark the separate focus of either narrative. Whereas The Brain from Planet Arous emphasises the spectacle of power, Gene Fowler jr’s nuptial nightmare is about the terror of power.
In I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Gloria Talbot plays Marge, whose fiancé, Bill (Tom Tryon), falls victim to an alien on the night before their wedding. Bill’s body is used by the creature, whose race plans to use the bodies of men to mate with human women. Their aim is to produce offspring and, theoretically, save their dying species. However, the process is not straightforward, and the aliens are desperate to alter human chromosomes for alien-human procreation to even occur. At first, Marge is merely unsettled by her husband’s changed demeanour, but the growing number in her community who share Bill’s unearthly manner convinces her that something sinister is afoot.
Meanwhile, The Brain from Planet Arous follows Gor, an evil brain from the planet Arous, who takes over the body of a scientist, Steve March (John Agar). With Steve’s access to nuclear facilities, Gor is able to hatch his plans for conquest. Gor, in Steve’s form, destroys a plane mid-flight, explodes an atomic bomb to prove his power before a cohort of scientists, and repeatedly enacts sexual violence over Steve’s fiancé, Sally (Joyce Meadows).
This essay looks to examine the differences between these features, with particular focus on their presentations of power, sexual violence, and the interaction between the two.
Both films present violence against women. However, the ways in which this is explored reveal where these films place their emphasis. Much of Brain’s narrative revolves around Gor (in Steve’s body) frightening the audience with displays of tremendous power. In one such scene, Steve pulls up as he drives through the desert. He looks up at the sky and spots a plane. Steve’s eyes glaze over with a grotesque sheen – the physical signs of Gor’s power – and his expression breaks into a creepy smile. As the music swells, the plane explodes. This scene involves just Steve on his own, meaning the action is presented for the audience’s reaction – as opposed to the reaction of other characters. Gor’s power is meant to impress and astound.
This scene is replayed later on when, at an atomic testing ground, Steve explodes a nuclear weapon in front of several military officials. Steve also kills one of them when they try to shoot him. Once more, the music swells, Steve’s eyes glaze over, and a scene of wanton destruction plays out.
In these scenes, the terror lies in what Gor can inflict. His power is sensational, stunning in its scale and a neat addition to the contemporary cultural landscape of nuclear paranoia.
The Brain from Planet Arous is all about that spectacle of power. This spills over into how the film depicts sexual violence. When Gor properly introduces himself to Steve and explains his diabolical plans, Steve says, “leave Sally out of this!” Gor laughs and asks, “Why? She appeals to me.” Much of Gor’s language suggests that he will commit acts of sexual violence against Sally. This actually transpires when, intermittently, Steve (under Gor’s control) lunges at her. He claws at her clothes, holding her close despite her palpable verbal and physical protestations.
These scenes are deeply uncomfortable, but they seem so, again, because of the film’s sensationalist approach. We recoil in revulsion at what Gor intends to do to Sally, and indeed what he does to her, but these moments are built upon physical displays of aggression. Much like the plane crash and atomic explosion, Gor’s attacks on Sally (through Steve) are a visual spectacle of terror. Once these scenes end, there is little rumination on what’s taken place.
Sally’s place in the narrative also changes the dynamics of the violence. While Sally is involved in stopping Gor (by helping a benign brain, Vol, who has been sent to catch Gor), the action is mainly spurred on by Steve and his possessor. Sally, though important, is secondary in terms of narrative progression. Consequently, the visual language of the attacks on her is the same as that for the atomic explosion and the plane crash. That is to say, we view Steve’s assaults on Sally as just another display of Gor’s power – rather than as a distinct act of interpersonal terror.
This is where the differences between these two films begin to appear. In I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Marge is the film’s protagonist. We experience the film’s events through her eyes, and she stirs the narrative. It is her desire to have children that highlights the aliens’ inability to do so, and it is her desperation for someone to believe her that eventually leads to a revolt against the invaders.
This difference in character/narrative placement changes the meaning of each film’s terror. In The Brain from Planet Arous, the terror of Gor’s power is directed at Sally. We watch as terror is overtly and loudly inflicted upon her. Meanwhile, in I Married a Monster from Outer Space, terror is felt by Marge. We do not see Bill (or indeed any of the other aliens) actively attacking her. Instead, we’re presented with an intimate exploration of sexual assault, of the suggestion of what these fiends have in store for her (and countless others). By contrast, while Steve/Gor’s violence in The Brain from Planet Arous is immediate and shocking, it rarely lingers insofar as narrative focus is concerned.
In I Married a Monster from Outer Space, the interweaving of Marge’s desire to have children with the similar – but ultimately destructive – need of the alien imposters is significant. A scene in which Bill (under control) talks to Marge about his race’s plans is terrifying precisely because of how understated it is. There are no explosions, no swelling music, no sensationalism. The scene is just a conversation between two people, but its implications are both horrifying and tragic. As Bill reveals how his race operates, and how cold and isolated their normal mode of being is, it begins to dawn on Marge just what she’s been used for. The terror that Marge faces is drawn from the knowledge of what will happen, and what has already happened, to her. It is the realisation of her diminished autonomy, and that she is reduced, essentially, to a machine of procreation.
That director Gene Fowler jr. allows this scene to play out in still wides emphasises this. The camera rests, meaning we focus on dialogue and delivery – rather than action and movement as in The Brain from Planet Arous.
From Gloria Talbot’s performance early in the narrative when she first visits her doctor regarding having children, we know that Marge’s want of them is earnest – a desire of love. Contrast this to the cold need of the aliens – who openly admit that males and females of their species only come together for breeding – and questions of procreation are brought to the forefront. Do we have children out of love, or just to survive? Even more unpleasant is Marge’s realisation that the aliens’ plans aren’t some eventual horror, but that they’ve already been inflicted upon her. The structure of the narrative reveals Marge’s maternal yearning early, and so the revelation of this alien perversion of that desire is heart-wrenching.
This is the emphasis of I Married a Monster from Outer Space: the terror of being under someone else’s power.
What makes Marge’s experience much more nuanced than Sally’s is her isolation. Marge, even early on, is acutely aware of the changed character of her husband. As the story unfolds and she learns more about his true identity, she remains alone. Most of the people she turns to reveal themselves as alien imposters, sceptics, or both. So, with the knowledge of what the aliens have in store for her and others, she has to act by herself. Her home also becomes a trap because she knows of the thing that lurks within calling itself her husband. The cultural safety of the suburban home corrupts to become a dangerous cage. Intentionally or otherwise, I Married a Monster from Outer Space articulates the harrowing phenomenon of abuse’s entrapment and isolation. There is nowhere to run.
Importantly, in Brain, Sally has someone she can turn to: her father (played by Thomas Brown Henry). He also meets with the good brain, Vol, and is clued in on how to confront Gor. Meanwhile, Marge is completely alone until the climax, when she is finally able to convince someone (her doctor) that something is wrong. For most of the narrative, Marge has to confront horrors on her own with nobody to confide in.
This feeds into the difference in these films’ focus. In having her father to turn to, there is a brief alleviation from the terror inflicted upon Sally. We can rest a little easier because we know that at least somebody else knows; there is somebody else who can help her. Marge has nobody who she can confide in. She carries the weight of knowing what the aliens have planned for humanity on her shoulders – and her shoulders alone. We can’t relax at a comforting placation that someone else might come in and save her. It is this difference that allows The Brain from Planet Arous to focus on spectacle, because the film dispenses with much of its worries for Sally by situating her father and Vol as allies in her fight. Seemingly nobody is coming to save Marge, so we, the audience, cannot let go of the worries we share with her. There is no need for spectacle when we feel her constant dread.
Both I Married a Monster from Outer Space and The Brain from Planet Arous communicate ideas about abuse and sexual violence, but as we’ve seen, they do so in strikingly different ways. Their focus is separate, with The Brain from Planet Arous indulging in the spectacle of terror while I Married a Monster from Outer Space ruminates on the perpetual anxiety of being under power. Whatever one takes from this essay, I hope it is a renewed appreciation for these films, if not a curiosity to see what other meanings lay hidden beneath ‘50s science-fiction cinema. Sadly, these films and their contemporaries are often described with broad, general statements. To many, these films are simply Cold War parables about the personified red menace, but that reading often avoids looking at these films on an individual basis.
The Brain from Planet Arous and I Married a Monster from Outer Space not only demonstrate the thematic and narrative heft that this period of genre cinema has to offer, but also a nuanced and complicated approach to difficult topics specific to these two films. Different though their focus may be, both pictures articulate the anxiety of living under an oppressive force. And though I Married a Monster from Outer Space certainly does so in a more mature and poignant manner, there is still value in the sensational aesthetics of The Brain from Planet Arous.
A huge thank you to Revised Fiasco Design for creating the stunning header image to accompany this essay. Please visit their Instagram page to see more of their impressive work.