Black Friday (1940)

Black Friday (1940) is a brain transplant crime movie from the nascent moments of horror cinema as an as of yet undefined genre, and it is a film that shared some thematic and technical elements with the emerging film noir style.

With no monster as such to boast of and little in the way of a full mad scientist trope Black Friday does imply the crime genre full on in its fantastic progress to a sane conclusion.

Excuses for maddened acting and raw death row fun combine realities which could only in essence be explored in 1940, with no fully developed tropes fully recovered and broadcast in the cinemas, trope combination produced no end of experimental forays into what could have been.

The brain transplant movie genre emerged during a period no doubt of fascination with medical advancements and the exploration of the human psyche in cinema. 

With roots in science fiction and horror, these films delved into the ethical dilemmas and bizarre and philosophical criminal and dramatic social possibilities, as well as scientific possibilities surrounding the transplantation of the human brain, often blurring the lines between science and fiction. 

Possibly the plainest and most noir appropriate entry in this genre is Black Friday, a 1940 film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which epitomises the themes and tropes of the brain transplant narrative, it does indeed.

In the murky depths of 1940s American cinema lurks Black Friday, a spine-relaxing science fiction horror crime flick that stars the legendary Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, penned by none other than screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who would later revisit this eerie theme in Donovan's Brain (1953) and Hauser's Memory (1970).

The concept of a brain transplant, also known as a head transplant or cephalosomatic anastomosis, is a relatively recent development in the history of medical science and as such fairly new in the whole to the cinema too. The idea of transferring a human brain from one body to another emerged in the 20th century, primarily as a speculative notion within the realm of science fiction.

Boris Karloff in Black Friday (1940)

Earlier mention of a brain transplant can be traced back to the 1920s in the works of science fiction writers such as H.G. Wells and E.E. "Doc" Smith. These authors explored the concept in their stories, often depicting it as a futuristic medical procedure with dramatic implications for identity and consciousness, although none as emphatically and dramatically and as monkily as in The Man Monkey of 1909.

Some of the finer and more curious top tip brain transplant drama horror movies of the day included:

The Man Monkey (1909): A man behaves like a monkey after its brain is transplanted into him.

The Bookworm Turns (1940): Poe's raven, not feeling well, goes in search of a doctor, and in a nearby book finds Dr. Jekyll. The doctor offers to transfer the bookworm's brain to the raven.

The Monster and the Girl (1941): After a young woman is coerced into prostitution and her brother framed for murder by an organized crime syndicate, retribution in the form of an ape visits the mobsters

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942): Frankenstein's unscrupulous colleague, Dr. Bohmer, plans to transplant Ygor's brain so he can rule the world using the monster's body, but the plan goes sour when he turns malevolent and goes on a rampage.

The Jungle Captive (1945): Once again Paula the ape woman is brought back to life, this time by a mad doctor and his disfigured assistant, who also kidnaps a nurse in order to have a female blood donor.

Return of the Ape Man (1944): The discovery of a perfectly preserved caveman prompts a mad scientist to attempt a daring brain transplant.

The Colossus of New York (1958): A brilliant surgeon encases his dead son's brain in a large robot body, with unintended results...

Amazingly it wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that the idea of a brain transplant began to garner serious attention from scientists and researchers. 

Anne Gwynn in Black Friday (1940)

In 1970, Dr. Robert White, a neurosurgeon, successfully transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another in a series of controversial experiments. While these experiments demonstrated the feasibility of connecting the blood supply between two severed spinal cords, the monkeys involved did not survive for long after the procedures.

Stanley Ridges in Black Friday (1940)

Since then, the concept of a human brain transplant has remained largely speculative and ethically contentious. While advances in medical technology have made significant strides in the field of organ transplantation, the complexities of the human brain present unique challenges that have yet to be overcome. 

The tale of Black Friday (1940) unfolds as Dr. Ernest Sovac faces the grim reality of his impending execution, yet manages to scribble down his harrowing account for a nosy reporter, all the while being escorted to his doom. 

Rewind to a time earlier, via the film noir practices of flashback and voiceover, and we find ourselves in a previous filmic iration where Sovac's quiet academic friend, Professor George Kingsley, gets mowed down in a street mishap.

In a desperate bid to save his buddy, Sovac pulls off a daring feat — transplanting a chunk of a gangster's brain into Kingsley's noggin. But alas, the gangster's past ain't so squeaky clean, and his unsavory personality starts to seep through Kingsley's scholarly facade.

Boris Karloff and Stanley Ridges in Black Friday (1940)

Intrigued by the prospect of a hidden fortune, Sovac eggs Kingsley on, hoping a jaunt to the Big Apple might jog his memory. But as Kingsley's transformation takes a dark turn, Sovac finds himself tangled in a web of revenge and betrayal. When Kingsley, now consumed by the gangster's persona, sets his sights on Sovac's daughter, there's only one way this twisted tale can end — with a bullet. And in the film noir fashion.

Fast forward to the present, where Sovac meets his fate on the electric chair. Karloff takes the helm as the enigmatic Dr. Sovac, while Stanley Ridges pulls double duty as the mild-mannered Kingsley and the gangster extraordinaire, Red Cannon. And who could ever manage to succeed in successfully managing to achieve the ability to forget Lugosi, cast as the sinister Eric Marnay, adding a touch of menace to the mix.

Behind the scenes, the story took on a life of its own. Universal Studios shuffled the deck hard if the metaphor is not too ridiculous, and with Arthur Lubin at the helm, Black Friday hit the silver screen and the rest is the history of this one movie.

The concept of a brain transplant, once a staple of science fiction and horror, has indeed been overshadowed by the more contemporary idea of brain uploading. In the classic trope of a brain transplant, a mad scientist takes a literal hands-on approach by surgically removing a person's brain and implanting it into another body. 

Stanley Ridges in Black Friday (1940)

The intricacies of how the transplanted brain integrates with the new body's nervous system or bypasses immune rejection are often glossed over, left to the realm of hand-waving.

While experiments and theoretical proposals for brain transplants have been explored, the technology to successfully connect one person's brain to another's spinal cord remains elusive. Attempting such a procedure would likely result in an terror and confusion brain scenario, as the brain may be left disconnected or unable to function properly in its new host body.

The image of a brain in a jar is a common motif in stories involving brain transplants, highlighting the eerie disconnect between the organ and its original body. If the transplant is successful between two living individuals, a beautiful cinematic body and brain flip occurs, where personalities are swapped along with bodies, leading to a host of comedic or tragic consequences.

Furthermore, the prospect of whole-body organ theft may come into play if the donor body is still alive or not yet brain-dead, adding another layer of moral and ethical complexity to the narrative. Ultimately, brain transplants often serve as a central element in tales of Frankenstein's monsters, exploring themes of identity, morality, and the boundaries of scientific advancement.

In 1940, the film Black Friday made its grand debut in the Windy City before hitting theatres nationwide on April 12, 1940, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Then critics had their say, with The New York Times praising Karloff's stellar performance but lamenting Lugosi's underutilization. Yet, despite the mixed reviews, Black Friday carved out a niche for itself, with Diabolique magazine dubbing it a cult classic that's crisp, no-nonsense, and packed with enough thrills to keep you on the edge of your seat.

And for those brave souls itching for a scare, Black Friday found its way onto DVD shelves as part of The Bela Lugosi Collection on September 6, 2005. Sure, the video quality might leave a bit to be desired, but when you're dealing with brain transplants and mad scientists, who's got time to nitpick?

Black FridaY (1940) is not entirely or in the least in fact film noir — yet it remains a tale of terror, intrigue, and the dark recesses of the human mind, all wrapped up in the celluloid magic of "Black Friday." So grab your popcorn, dim the lights, and prepare for a journey into the unknown—just don't say we didn't warn you!

During the early to mid-20th century, medical science was experiencing significant advancements, particularly in the field of surgery. Organ transplantation, although still in its infancy, captured the public's imagination and sparked speculative conversations about the potential for more radical procedures, such as brain transplantation. 

This scientific curiosity intersected with the burgeoning popularity of science fiction and horror films, providing fertile ground for filmmakers to explore themes of identity, morality, and the nature of consciousness through the lens of brain transplantation.

Black Friday, directed by Arthur Lubin and released in 1940, capitalized on madness crime science and the ongoing dramatic properties of a brilliant but morally ambiguous surgeon, Dr. Ernest Sovac, played by Boris Karloff. 

The film follows Sovac's descent into darkness as he becomes embroiled in a dangerous experiment to transplant the brain of a deceased gangster, Red Cannon, into the body of an ailing professor, George Kingsley, portrayed by Stanley Ridges. Bela Lugosi plays the role of a gangster accomplice, Eric Marnay, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the narrative.

The film's plot hinges on the concept of dual personalities resulting from the brain transplant, a recurring motif in the brain transplant genre. As Dr. Sovac successfully performs the operation, the professor's body becomes inhabited by the consciousness of Red Cannon, leading to a battle for control between the two personalities. 

This conflict drives much of the film's tension, as Dr. Sovac grapples with the consequences of his actions and the ethical implications of playing God.

Black Friday also explores themes of identity and morality, as the characters confront the question of what defines a person—his body or his consciousness. The film raises philosophical questions about the nature of the self and the potential consequences of tampering with fundamental aspects of human existence. Through its narrative, Black Friday taps into the anxieties of its time, reflecting broader concerns about scientific progress and its potential to disrupt the natural order.

In addition to its thematic hilarity, Black Friday is notable for its performances, particularly those of Boris Karloff and Stanley Ridges. Karloff, known for his iconic portrayal of monsters in classic horror films, brings a nuanced complexity to the character of Dr. Sovac, balancing intelligence with moral ambiguity. 

Ridges delivers a memorable performance as well, skilfully portraying the dual personalities of Professor Kingsley and Red Cannon with subtlety and depth.

Despite its critical acclaim and enduring legacy as well as its massive popularity in  the minority private problematic horror and crime fans of the movie world, Black Friday was not a commercial success upon its initial release. However, it has since gained recognition as a cult classic and a seminal entry in the brain transplant movie genre. Its influence can be seen in subsequent films and literary works that explore similar themes, including The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962) and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

In this tumultuous epoch of our existence, we find ourselves traversing the delicate balance between allure and revulsion, immersed in what can only be described as a veritable explosion of terror-laden creations. 

Bela Lugosi in Black Friday (1940)

The post-Vietnam era teems with horror—manifested in celluloid spectacles like "The Exorcist," "Carrie," and "The Omen"; it saturates the airwaves, from the nightly news to Saturday morning cartoons; it seeps into the pages of literature, echoing the cinematic horrors above; it even infiltrates the realm of music, with the eerie melodies of Alice Cooper and KISS. 

Great product placement for the Midtown Hotel in Black Friday (1940)

The political arena, too, bears the mark of horror, with its own brand of macabre theatrics—the White House Horrors, as it were. Yet, this surge of horror is not without precedent; it mirrors past epochs of unsettling shifts, from the science fiction frenzy and Hammer Studio productions of the late 1950s and 1960s, to the Universal Studio monster mania of the 1930s, and further back still, to the Gothic nightmares spun by the likes of Stevenson and Stoker at the turn of the century.

Indeed, the ebb and flow of horror seems intricately entwined with the anxieties of society, rising to the fore during periods of cultural flux. It serves as a conduit for collective unease, providing a tangible outlet for the intangible fears that haunt our collective psyche. 

Take, for instance, the 1950s, when the spectre of outer-space monsters loomed large amidst the burgeoning space race; or the 1960s, when ecological mutants emerged as harbingers of our planet's fragility; or the 1970s, when child-monsters stalked the screen, mirroring shifting attitudes towards population growth and dwindling resources.

Today, our fears may be for the sake of modern arguments and something intelligent sounding to say fixated on the female form — an unsettling trend epitomized by the surge in male sexual violence against liberated women in modern horror cinema. This misogyny, imagined, real, presented, hidden, implicit, explicit, forever-lasting, momentarily over and then naturally occurring while also being in fact born of societal anxieties, finds expression in our darkest fantasies, revealing the underbelly of a culture grappling with its own insecurities.

But what fuels this fascination with horror, particularly during the formative years of individual development? Freudian theory sheds light on this curious phenomenon, pointing to a stage of adolescence known as latency—a period of incubation, wherein the nascent adolescent grapples with the awakening of sexual desire. It is a time of profound transition, marked by the death knell of childhood innocence and the dawning awareness of sexual identity. During this tumultuous phase, horror serves as both a mirror and a guide, offering a narrative framework through which adolescents can navigate the murky waters of burgeoning sexuality. The monsters of fairy tales—once relegated to the shadows—emerge as potent symbols of sexual awakening, their narratives reflecting the anxieties and desires that simmer beneath the surface of adolescent consciousness.

Moreover, horror serves as a potent vessel for societal taboos and repressed desires, providing a safe space in which to explore the forbidden terrain of the unconscious mind. Through the lens of horror, we confront our deepest fears and desires, grappling with the shadowy recesses of the human psyche.

In the vast tapestry of horror mythology, two archetypes reign supreme—the vampire and the Frankenstein monster. Each, in its own way, embodies the dual nature of human desire and fear, offering a potent allegory for the perils of unchecked desire and the consequences of tampering with the natural order. The vampire, with its seductive allure and insatiable bloodlust, serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of sexual curiosity and wish fulfilment. 

For the adolescent male, the vampire saga represents a fantasy of conquest—a primal urge to dominate the maternal figure and assert one's masculinity. Conversely, for the adolescent female, the vampire narrative mirrors the journey of sexual awakening, as she is initiated into the mysteries of womanhood by the enigmatic vampire, her surrogate father. Yet, for both, the price of indulging in forbidden desires is steep—eternal damnation, both literal and metaphorical.

Thus, as we traverse the treacherous terrain of adolescence, we are drawn to horror—not merely as a form of entertainment, but as a means of grappling with the complexities of sexual awakening and the uncertainties of the human condition. In the dimly lit theatres and shadowy pages of horror literature, we confront our deepest fears and desires, seeking solace in the darkness as we navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence and beyond. 

For in the realm of horror, amidst the monsters and mayhem, we find not only terror, but also catharsis—a fleeting glimpse of understanding in an otherwise uncertain world.

Press pack at the execution in Black Friday (1940)

Black Friday, with its gripping narrative, thematic depth, and standout performances, exemplifies the essence of this genre. Through its exploration of identity, morality, and the nature of consciousness, the film continues to resonate with audiences, solidifying its place in the annals of cinematic history.

Black Friday (1940)

Directed by Arthur Lubin

Genres - Mystery, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Thriller  |   Release Date - Feb 29, 1940 (USA), Apr 12, 1940 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 70 min.  

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