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A Head Game from Hell
on March 29, 2004
1988's BRAIN DAMAGE is the second film from low-budget Grand Guignol writer/director Frank Henenlotter, his first being the grisly over-the-top cult favorite BASKET CASE (1982), and both films established him as the master auteur of bad-taste horror cinema in the 1980s. But despite the excessive gore and crude sexual elements, Henenlotter's films are a cut above the average trash pics because his well-written scripts are weaved around a daedal subtext that offers wry comments and observations on certain elements or aspects of modern society. With the visceral horror comedy BRAIN DAMAGE, Henenlotter is satirizing the Western propensity for addiction.
BRAIN DAMAGE relates the "mind-blowing" tale of the Faustian bargain made between a young man named Brian and an enigmatic, snake-like parasite named Aylmer (pronounced like the name ELMER). Aylmer dispenses an addictive pleasure-inducing drug directly into Brian's brain, but as payment for each "fix," Brian must transport Aylmer around the city so the parasitic pusher can obtain his favorite food--human brains. Though Brian is generally a nice young man who wouldn't hurt a flea, he finds it impossible to resist the demands of the deceptively cute parasite because of his need and desire for the psychedelic "juice," and he ultimately becomes Aylmer's accomplice in murder.
With a meager budget of circa $600,000, Henenlotter and crew have nonetheless succeeded in crafting BRAIN DAMAGE as a polished, professional-looking film. Yes, the violence is graphic, sophomorically comic, and often over the top, and yes, the film has a crude, puerile sexual element (snake-like Aylmer is obviously a phallic symbol). But these elements actually enhance the film's earnest anti-addiction subtext, as they vociferously underscore the negative effect that addiction has on an addict's personality, his personal life, and the lives of others with whom he has contact.
The acting in the film is rather a mixed bag. As Brian, future soap-opera regular Rick Hearst--then billed under his birth surname of Herbst--does a great job of portraying a boy-next-door type whose life is spiraling out of control due to his addiction. And in an uncredited role, actor John Zacherle--better known to some horror fans as Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul host of New York TV's SHOCK! THEATER--does an outstanding job voicing the smarmy Aylmer. Gordon MacDonald plays Brain's brother, Mike, and Jennifer Lowry his girlfriend, Barbara, and both do an adequate job. Most of the other performances are a bit wooden, but they don't detract too much from the film's overall production quality.
Being a Juvenalian satire of sorts, the often biting humor in BRAIN DAMAGE is dark, off-color & often bawdy, and outrageously offbeat. Much of little Aylmer's dialogue is sarcastically witty, and in one eerie but funny scene, Brian lies writhing on the floor hurting for a "fix" while Elmer sits by and jovially belts out the Glenn Miller standard "Elmer's Tune." Also, in a hilarious homage to Henenlotter's previous film, BASKET CASE, the star of that film, Kevin VanHentenryck, gets on the subway with a familiar wicker basket in hand and takes the seat opposite Brian.
The Special Edition "Limited Availability" DVD from Synapse presents a high-definition transfer of BRAIN DAMAGE in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer appears vibrant, clean, and relatively free of digital artifacts. This is the unrated restored version, so all of the gore and innuendo that was cut for the U.S. theatrical release has been put back where it belongs. There are also some cool extras, including a very witty feature commentary featuring writer/director Henenlotter, former FANGORIA editor Robert Martin, and filmmaker Scooter McCrae (who has worked with Henenlotter). Also included is the theatrical trailer (in 1.85:1 aspect ratio), a "hidden" trailer for BASKET CASE, and an isolated-musical-score audio option.
To sum up, BRAIN DAMAGE is a movie with a somber subtext, but writer/director Frank Henenlotter doesn't let that get in the way of all the cheesy fun. Sure, the anti-addiction allegory can't be missed, but Henenlotter also knows that the monkey on his antihero's back is an ideal springboard for lots of offbeat and bawdy gallows humor, and he milks it for all it's worth. Admittedly, BRAIN DAMAGE will not appeal to every viewer's tastes, but those seeking a Family Film or a Chick Flick probably shouldn't be perusing the listings for the horror DVDs anyway.