Thursday, October 31, 2013

Radio Greats: Donovan's Brain (Suspense)

I don't know if anyone reads Curt Siodmak's works anymore, but he has influenced the horror genre in a very large number of ways. The German mathematician, who had left Germany at the rise of the Nazi party, wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man, which is the formative werewolf movie. It is Siodmak who invented the idea that werewolves are marked with pentagrams; it is Siodmak who invented the idea that werewolves are vulnerable to silver bullets; and it is Siodmak who gave us the famous verse:

Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night
May become a Wolf when the Wolfbane blooms
And the autumn Moon is bright.

He also wrote the screenplay for one of the more famous zombie movies, I Walked with a Zombie. That enough would make him a major influence. But he also wrote a novel, Donovan's Brain, which was a bestseller in 1942. It was made into three different horror movies (The Lady and the Monster in 1943, Donovan's Brain in 1953, and The Brain in 1962). It was also made into a radio play, twice, for Suspense, one of the most important radio series in the Golden Age.

Suspense, billed as "radio's Outstanding Theater of Thrills", ran for twenty years and 945 episodes. It usually followed a basic formula, in which ordinary people were dropped into bizarre and harrowing situations, and the aim was exactly what the title said -- keep 'em guessing what will happen, how the problem will be solved -- or devastatingly not solved -- until the end. Obviously over that length of time one gets a considerable variation in quality, but the entire series had very high production values and access to the finest stories and the best actors in radio. Even weak episodes are usually at least listenable. Toward the end of its run, it was having difficulties (as all major radio programs did), and was often borrowing scripts (usually from Escape or The Mysterious Traveler, although not uncommonly it also recycled its own scripts) to save money, and the overall quality was in general less. And when it ended in 1962, its end marked the end of the Golden Age of Radio.

Donovan's Brain, however, is from its heyday. It's an unusual episode; the early Suspense did very few science fiction stories, but this was an exception, probably because the story allowed for an unusual amount of psychological drama. It was also a rare two-parter, the first the series did. It stars none other than Orson Welles in a very chilling portrayal. If you really want to know what chills up and down your spine are, listen to Welles, and by the end you'll be getting them every time he starts saying, "Sure, sure, sure, sure...."

The story is about a medical researcher, Dr. Cory, in Phoenix, Arizona who is trying to probe the mysteries of the brain. When an opportunity comes along to try a human brain, that of William H. Donovan, he does not hesitate, and finds much, much more than he bargained for. This is not a story for the faint of heart or weak of stomach; we get a detailed description of a brain surgery at one point, under rather awful conditions. But it's not a nihilistic story, either; perhaps, just perhaps, there is some small divine spark in us that eludes manipulation....

You can listen to both parts of Donovan's Brain. And if you're a little over-chilled by it, you can also hear Welles's brief parody of the episode (and Suspense, and Golden Age radio in general).

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