Tagline: Inside everyone’s head lurks an Elmer…
Director: Frank Henenlotter
Writer: Frank Henenlotter
Starring: Rick Hearst, Gordon McDonald, Jennifer Lowry, John Zacherle, Theo Barnes
18 | 84 min/86 min (uncut) | Horror
Sometimes a movie comes along that really takes you by surprise. Brain Damage is much more than trashy B-movie horror. It is that, but beneath the one-dimensional characters and schlocky special effects there is a film with a social conscience — a dreamy, often brutal commentary on the pitfalls of drug addiction which far exceeds its budget, displaying visual ingenuity one can’t help but admire. Shot on a mere $900,000, it is irresistibly grainy and charmingly cheapjack, but in a way that is wholly enchanting.
That being said, Brain Damage is as out there as its protagonist, and still more than qualifies for a place in the bad movie echelons, though, as is the case here, ‘bad movie’ can often mean great. This being Henenlotter, Brain Damage also has the capacity to deeply offend, a fact punctuated by the reaction of the movie’s crew, who walked out on a scene involving a messy death-by-fellatio. Personally, I found the moment in question rather amusing, amusing in a ‘what in the hell did I just witness?’ kind of way, but it must have been rather shocking back in 1988, and was one of many scenes cut from both the theatrical and VHS releases (though it does exist today).
The real star of the film is Aylmer, a parasitic creature who forms symbiotic relationships with its victims by injecting a highly addictive hallucinogen into their brains. Once that irresistible carrot has been dangled, the planet’s most unlikely purveyor of narcotics begins to establish its dominance, sadistically starving its victims to the point of insanity and continuing to do so long after they have submitted to its fiendish demands. Aylmer looks like something you might pull out of your arse and has a cretinous personality which only serves to reinforce that notion. His eyebrows wiggle suggestively at the very hint of human misfortune, and his dry, malevolent wit is delivered with a gentle irony that chimes like a lullaby in the subconscious. The creature has been around for centuries, enslaving some of history’s most prominent leaders, his lust for human brains behind some of civilisation’s bloodiest atrocities.
By the time we meet our bloodthirsty cretin, his glory days are well and truly behind him. Aylmer has come into the possession of a ‘juice’-addicted elderly couple who have learnt to keep him weak by serving him animal brains, just enough to feed their addiction and keep the alien at their mercy. All of that changes when Aylmer manages to slip down the plughole and finds himself some less accustomed prey in the neighbouring Brian (Hearst), who is soon enjoying the hallucinatory pleasures of the creature’s juice at the expense of an ever decreasing memory, as well as some rather worrying side effects which threaten to bleed into reality. Some of those trippy sequences are inspired, an incredible feat of low-budget chicanery that really put you inside Brian’s drug-addled brain. Henenlotter brings a tremendous sense of authenticity to his movies. They’re exploitative — unrepentantly so — but despite some intensely peculiar scenarios and gobsmacking instances of sleaze, they are also strangely relatable, human in the most inhumane sense.
Like any drug-pusher worth their juice, Aylmer convinces Brian that his life is about to change for the better, but in return he needs feeding, and in his latest victim he has an Earthly carriage for his carnivorous habit. All Brian has to do is accept Aylmer’s hallucinatory gift and he’ll do the rest, an arrangement that goes swimmingly until Brian begins to find unexplained splodges of viscera in his underwear (the results of that earlier scene), and the more addicted he becomes to the creature’s juice the more demanding and sadistic it becomes. So insidious are Aylmer’s intentions that it isn’t long before Brian becomes an unwitting accessory to murder, and with the pain far outweighing the pleasure, he finally stands up to Aylmer and decides to go cold turkey, but who will crack first?
Brain Damage is one of those movies they just don’t make anymore, the kind conceived during the home video boom that presented directors with an almost lawless canvas, and very few were able to take advantage of that situation quite like Henenlotter. These were low-cost, low-risk productions with that relied almost entirely on out-there charm, and Brain Damage is such a unique and wonderful oddity, an independent vision that values creativity above anything else, and in doing so forges the kind of sweet and sour treat that is nothing if not queerly satisfying. Brain Damage is the kind of movie that compels people to label it as trash without bothering to give it a second look — I mean, the title alone almost begs you to — but don’t let the title fool you, this is a real low-key treasure, one that will thrill and disgust and even marvel from time-to-time.
Morbid, grimy and starkly hard-hitting in doses, Brain Damage is also a cleverly conceived satire which dazzles with its bargain-basement artistry and mind-bending practical effects, giving us the most memorable phallic creation this side of the xenomorph. Aylmer is a cruel, unforgiving mistress, but one you might enjoy crooning with next to an open fire (providing you can supply the brains). There are even times when you feel like petting the little bastard; like all successful serial killers, you kind of dig the vaguely human facade.
Upon its release, the movie was ignored by most critics and disliked by the rest, which I’m sure came as no surprise to the director. It’s funny, I always imagine a theatre full of pompous naysayers cringing at the very notion of Henenlotter’s warped universe, each too scared to make the first judgement for fear of being embarrassed. With this in mind, let me be the first to say that this is a movie horror fans will not want to miss.
Go and see it.
This is the moment you’ll all be talking about once the credits roll, the money shot if you will, so approach with caution. After Brian (surely a purposeful anagram of brain) exhibits some of the worst dance moves this side of the Macarena, he is lead into a back alley by a leather-clad harlot looking for some after hours fun. Unfortunately for her, Aylmer seizes the opportunity of a midnight snack by leaping out of Brian’s zipper just as she is about to perform fellatio, an act that she still manages to go through with… well, kind of. Brian, loaded on juice and lost to euphoria, grabs the poor woman’s head and precedes to thrust Aylmer in and out of her, until finally the parasite pulls her brains out through her mouth. Nice!
Most Absurd Moment
The scene in which Brian finally attempts to go cold turkey is arguably the movie’s finest. It’s utterly crazy but also deeply disturbing, at times harrowing, far more engaging than your typical B-movie sleaze. It is also visually disgusting.
While in the throes of juice withdrawal, Brian imagines himself pulling a forty-foot rope of human tissue from his ear before vomiting his body’s weight in blood. Meanwhile, Aylmer cackles malevolently and croons to an eponymous ditty know as Aylmer’s Tune, safe in the knowledge that Brian will soon crack and give in to temptation.
During a scene on the subway, Brian sees another passenger carrying a padlocked basket. The character is Duane Bradley, the owner and sibling of latex sex-case and crazed murderer Belail, the mutated star of Henenlotter’s 1982 exploitation classic Basket Case.
Most Absurd Dialogue
After taking Brian out back for some oral titillation, the nightclub hussy feels like flattering her new feller, and begins to feel him up.
Girl from Nightclub: Hey, it feels like you’ve got a real monster in there!’
Be careful what you wish for.