Brain Damage, 1988.
Directed by Frank Henenlotter.
Starring Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Kevin Van Hentenryck, Lucille Saint-Peter, Theo Barnes, and John Zacherle.
A young man unwittingly enters into a bargain with a parasite that feeds on human brains to provide victims in exchange for having his own brain injected with an addictive blue liquid.
Despite having only a handful of directorial credits for ‘proper’ films Frank Henenlotter has certainly made his mark on the horror/exploitation genre, laying out his stall with 1982’s brilliantly grotesque Basket Case and not looking back as he managed to pile more and more obscenities into each successive movie. Brain Damage was his follow-up to Basket Case and arrived six years after that excursion through the seedy underbelly of New York, and thankfully Henenlotter managed to keep things just as grimy and dirty in this movie, although there is a marked improvement over the quality of the production despite the budget clocking in at a measly $90,000 (Basket Case was estimated to have been done on $35,000, and it shows).
Essentially a retelling of the classic Faustian tale about selling your soul but for a price and also a commentary on the nature of addiction and the drug culture of the time, Brain Damage hits all the right spots when it comes to gloopy ‘80s splatter horror, featuring weird creatures, brains being pulled out of heads, sex, punk rock and a warped sense of humour. It would also make a nice pairing with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff if you were so inclined to watch a double bill of ‘80s addiction culture metaphors, although Brain Damage is less about consumerism than Cohen’s film and more about the desperation and isolation that comes with addiction.
But the substance that causes the addiction in Brain Damage is not one of your conventional drugs but a strange blue liquid that gets injected straight into the brain through the back of the neck by Aylmer, an odd phallus-like creature with longing eyes and a silky smooth voice (courtesy of TV horror host John Zacherle) who has escaped from the home of his elderly dependents and has now attached himself to Brian (Rick Hearst – General Hospital), a young man who lives in the same apartment block. In exchange for providing Brian with his addictive psychedelic liquid, Aylmer demands that Brian carries him around so the knobbly slug with the soothing voice can feed on people’s brains while Brian is smashed and totally oblivious to what is going on. As Brian becomes more dependent on Aylmer’s drug he begins to lose grip with reality, losing his girlfriend to his brother who has been dating her while Brian has been under Aylmer’s spell, and also falls foul of Aylmer’s original owners who have become enraged now that their supply of blue juice has been taken away.
So there is a morality tale buried in there somewhere but this is a Frank Henenlotter film so expect any subtext to be hidden amongst the bodily fluids being flung at the screen and the dark sense of humour that is as much a part of Henenlotter’s filmmaking style as the New York locations that he shoots in (most of the time without a permit). This is also the movie that has one of Henenlotter’s most notorious gags (literally) as Brian picks up a young lady in a nightclub who offers to use her mouth for more than talking with when Aylmer makes an appearance from Brian’s trousers and proceeds to pull her brains out, which sounds pretty gruesome but such is Henenlotter’s way that he makes such a gross scene into something hilarious purely by going completely over the top with it; he does the same thing in a dream sequence when Brian starts pulling out his own brains through his ear (but watch the movie before you watch the special features as the filmmakers show you how the gag was done – simple but effective).
The supporting cast is full of the usual Frank Henenlotter extras, which is basically anybody he knows from New York, but if you have seen Basket Case and/or Frankenhooker then faces like Beverly Bonner and Joseph Gonzalez will be familiar to you, although the acting level barely gets above amateur but what do you expect? Rick Hearst, however, is a fairly strong lead, especially when compared to Basket Case’s Kevin Van Hentenryck who makes a cameo appearance sitting opposite Brian on a subway train with his ever-present basket. It is a fun little nod and could easily have triggered an Aylmer vs. Belial spin-off trash-fest but, alas, it was not to be.
The disc comes packed with extras, the best of the bunch being an audio commentary by the always entertaining Frank Henelotter and a 54-minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with Rick Hearst, producer Edgar Ievins and various crew members that cover the whole production process and how most of the special effects were done. Strangely, Henenlotter himself is absent from that one but Edgar Ievins has more than a few stories to tell to make up for it. There are also additional interviews with stills photographer Karen Ogle and visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti, a featurette about Brain Damage superfan Adam Skinner (which, if you play until the end, reveals some hidden goodies not found on the main special features menu), a 2016 Q&A with Frank Henenlotter plus a few other nuggets to feast your eyes over. The picture on the film quality isn’t amazing but it does scrub up nicely when compared to previous DVD releases and you will likely discover how most of the gore gags are done just by the reveal of having a clearer picture.
But overall, it’s a superb Blu-ray edition of a pretty underrated film that should get more credit than it gets. Ultimately, like all of Frank Henenlotter’s movies, it is grimy and trashy but with a heart and probably with a bit more to say than Frankenhooker, the totally out-there Bad Biology or any of the Basket Case movies so on that level you could say that this is probably the best introduction to the director’s catalogue of work as it is likely the most accessible, but then again, an underappreciated and accessible Frank Henenlotter movie is still a riot, especially if you’re not totally prepared for the joys it can bring.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★