Synopsis: Brian (Rick Hearst) is a punk rock kind of guy but that doesn’t mean he’s a jerk. The room he lives in, a shared place with his bro Mike (Gordan MacDonald), is decorated with plenty of posters for the kinds of bands punk rock fans from the eighties would recognize (and Slayer because hey), but might leave others scratching their heads. He has a low paying job we don’t see, he has a nightlife in the swinging, sexy NYC when Times Square was mostly porn palaces. His style might be more pop than punk, but how he keeps his room is how he keeps his head. Upstairs, he is a product of his time – rebellious (but not too much) and trying to figure out what he wants to change about the world. He might wear a suit from time to time, but he is no protagonist from BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY (1988) or VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988). However, one truth connects Brian to those sorts of yuppie douchebags: they are all human under their costumes. Punk rock kinds of guys can get sick the same as anyone else. And a case of feeling rotten is what kicks off Brian’s encounter with the supernatural.
When Brian’s gal Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) swings by for date night, she finds him stuck in bed and feeling bad. So she and Mike head out for a show instead. Little does anyone realize Brian would have been better served by a night out. Our punk rock type guy hero wakes up later to learn that while he slept, a strange creature with a phallic body, a mellow voice, and the ability to spit up some of the finest hallucinogens in human history has latched onto the back of Brian’s neck. It offers to give him great highs if only he will take it for walks and thus allow it to hunt for the brains it likes to consume. Before long Brian discovers he is addicted to the weird substance. It is zapping his brain and making him a slave to the monster’s desires, but it also gives him the wildest illusions he’s experienced. Will Brian be able to overcome his addiction, his weakness, and the creature responsible for both before he sustains some permanent BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)? Only writer/director Frank Henenlotter and his weird puppet monster Aylmer (not Elmer) knows for sure!
Frank Henenlotter has quite a few interesting, sleazy flicks in his oeuvre. With titles like BASKET CASE (1982) as well as the off-the-wall FRANKENHOOKER (1990) to his name, he is anything but mainstream. In an era known for its excesses, few horror flicks hit some of the highs of BRAIN DAMAGE. This picture is his second feature (a follow-up to the aforementioned BASKET CASE, which preceded this piece by almost six years), but this has more on its mind than simple bloodletting. BRAIN DAMAGE draws on anti-drug material. It’s a Say No flick that isn’t afraid to go some unsettling places as it demonstrates its theme. However, it’s also not afraid to laugh at itself sometimes. In Henenlotter’s strange but entertaining catalog, BRAIN DAMAGE plays as a sort of a low brow David Cronenberg flick (and I saw that as praise) or even a non-Lovecraftian Stuart Gordon.
BRAIN DAMAGE is a tonal mixed bag. Funny, gross, weird, and kind of amazing. The film has the no holds barred sensibility of the good old grindhouse or drive in theater flicks. It’s the kind of movie where anyone can die at any time. However, it’s got a few things to show us that we may not have seen before. More often than not, those things are kind of squicky but they are more often than not also hilarious.
Take Aylmer (please!) the monster in this piece. It looks like a prune that has been stretched into a turd, and it jive talks with its junkies about making them want to crawl and beg when it isn’t offering to be their best friend imaginable. Or, well, eating victims brains by biting through their foreheads or even by invading their mouths, as in the case of a poor, pretty club gal played for a few minutes by Vicki Darnell.
Take the weird hallucinations, the first of which is a doozy. Brain is laying on his bed, tripping out at sudden white flashes. Meanwhile, the light dome on the ceiling starts to take on the aspects of an enormous eye, while a weird blue fluid (not dissimilar to the “sanitary solution” found in Port-a-Johns across the nation) fills the bedroom. Soon enough, Brian is completely submerged and then the trip gets weird.
Fans of the director’s works (particularly Henenlotter’s first film) will be surprised to see a familiar wicker basket carried onto a subway by a guy with an all too familiar wig. Yes, this film seems to share some space in the same fictional universe as BASKET CASE, making this a Henenlotter-verse. There are some thematic touches to his previous film, as well, including the destructive relationship between an enabler and his deformed companion. However, where the previous film left me feeling gritty, grotty, and in full need of a shower with a Brill-O pad after I watched it as a teen, BRAIN DAMAGE fools me into feeling less scummy. Perhaps I have grown a callus as I’ve grown older.
BRAIN DAMAGE is gross, sure, and there is a sequence when Brian tries to go cold turkey, which is harrowing. However, as I mentioned the sense of humor associated with the rest of the movie lightens the mood. As well, Rick Hearst ‘s performance of Brian as he experiences his emotional journey from normal life to extraordinarily rotten on is pretty solid. He knows how to play the wide eyed wonder of a hallucinating fool, he sells the disbelief at his own crimes, he gets the audience rooting for him to conquer his addictions, and he applies the proper levels of gravitas and heart when he offers warnings to his flatmate and gal pal about their safety. In short, he sells the role. As I mentioned before, Brian is not a jackass. He’s a normal dude with normal problems, but who is destined for far greater problems.
In the first paragraph of my take, I dropped a couple of names that some might consider to be bold statements of comparison. With his early series of films, Cronenberg set the high bar for gross out flicks with philosophies. THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (1975), THE BROOD (1979), and VIDEODROME (1983) had more on their minds than simple dead teenagers or haunted families in spooky little towns. Even though DEAD RINGERS (1988) saw Cronenberg leaving the more-or-less straight ahead version of horror pretty much behind him in favor of more psychologically rich veins, one topic has continued to make its way into his works. Addiction was a strong component in the works of William S. Burroughs that Cronenberg has cited as one of his early artistic aspirations/influences. You can see it in the early body horror films as well as in his turning point film NAKED LUNCH (1991) and even in more recent works like A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011). People can and will become addicted to just about anything. Drugs, the secretions of parasites originally intended as organ replacements, kinky sex, car crashes, and more populate Cronenberg’s flicks.
BRAIN DAMAGE is Cronenbergian from this perspective. While the flick doesn’t necessarily flaunt the cerebral power to go toe-to-toe with Cronenberg’s works, it is about more than a brain eating parasite.
As with Stuart Gordon’s pictures, the subtleties are perhaps overwhelmed by the gross out effects and laughs. There is a distinct lack of tonal seriousness in a flick like BRAIN DAMAGE just as there is in Gordon’s Lovecraft inspired films like RE-ANIMATOR (1985). The tone seems light despite the subject matter and therefore it might seem easy to dismiss the film of having any merits other than kewl gore effects and funny as hell monster puppets. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is no meat at all here.
There is more going on under the hood, including episodes that tackle topics like Brian’s sexuality – a lengthy shower piece, where he watches a nude body builder (Joseph Gonzalez) soaping up and rinsing off, while dreadfully waiting for the parasitic brain sucker to get on with the brain eating is a touching moment that is suspenseful for the monster but also psychologically interesting for the character: He has a girlfriend, sure, but their relationship is kind of sexless. Is Brian grappling with his own homosexuality or bisexuality. The one scene Brian is involved in involves receiving oral sex (by the aforementioned blonde in the club), and that is interrupted before he can climax by Aylmer.
The one moment of consummation Brian and his gal pal share is when he has lost himself to Aylmer’s influence. It too is sexual without being erotic and without leading to a climax other than destruction.
In fact, Brian’s journey seems to be both about a rejection of one’s own sexuality as well as an attempt to escape the whole issue through addictive tendencies. Addiction is terrifying at its essence because it marks a loss of control over our own bodies and wills. However, the things addicts do while either jonesing or high on their drug of choice is also judged less harshly: “So and so didn’t know what they were doing. They were high and out of their minds.”
The most deeply explored physical and emotional relationships in the movie are those between uneven partners. One has all the power, and abuses the hell out of it. Of course, I mean Aylmer and his string of “lovers” or addicts. An old couple in another apartment (Lucille Saint-Peter and Theo Barnes) in Brian and Mike’s buildings are eager to have the little freak back. They would do just about anything to reclaim him and the feelings he provides. Likewise, Brian and Aylmer’s relationship is thoroughly explored. Brian and Barbara are there because they are expected, but there’s no real spark from him. Barbara has sex with friend Mike, and it seems more like a momentary bad decision (on Barbara’s part) than a consummation (what Mike is hoping for). Heterosexual coupling is empty or one sided in this flick . . .
For the naysayers, there is plenty of interesting subtext here, after all.
BRAIN DAMAGE is an odd little slice of cautionary tale and disgusting comedy with a good head behind its story. It is well worth a watch and some consideration.
BRAIN DAMAGE has been given a nice DVD/BLU-RAY release via Arrow. It is worth a buy or a video streaming.
Next week, we will take a little trip through Japanese cinema. As it turns out, I’ve been able to program a flick at the Alamo Drafthouse in Katy, Texas and my pick is AUDITION. It is screening at the cinema on May 25th. Come one, come all to check out Miike Takashi’s fabulous rom-com gone to hell!