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“[It’s in the] contemporary LSD/monster-movie genre. On second thought, I guess there’s no such thing. Let’s just call it a bizarre monster movie.”–Frank Henenlotter, asked to describe the film’s genre in 1988
FEATURING: Rick Hearst, Jennifer Lowry, Gordon MacDonald, voice of John Zacherle
PLOT: Young New Yorker Brian wakes up one morning to find that a small snake-like creature, “Elmer,” has escaped from his neighbor’s apartment and drilled a hole in the back of his head. Elmer secretes a powerful euphoric hallucinogen, which he injects directly into Brian’s brain; the young man is quickly addicted to the rush. But Elmer also requires human brains to function, and plans on using Brian to harvest them.
- Frank Henenlotter made has debut, Basket Case, in 1981 for $35,000. For seven years he was unable to raise funds to make the kind of follow-up film he wanted, until Cinema Group put up a reported $1.5 million for Brain Damage.
- John Zacherle (the voice of Elmer/Aylmer) was a noted horror host in Philadelphia and New York City who went by the moniker “the Cool Ghoul.” Henenlotter, a fan who grew up watching Zacherle, convinced him to join the production. Zacherle wasn’t credited because he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and this was a non-union set.
- Crew members reportedly walked off the set during the “blow job” scene. This bad taste sequence was also cut from early theatrical and television prints to preserve an “R” rating.
- The movie was partly inspired by Henenlotter’s experiences with giving up cocaine.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: With all of the crazy hallucinations, brain cam footage, and grossout gore scenes, it’s almost easy to lose sight of the strangest image in this movie: the Aylmer itself, a talking cross between a penis and a turd with cartoon eyes.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Blue juice at the synapse; pulsing meatball brains
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The psychedelic trip sequences, intriguingly urbane penile villain, and a general sensibility of depraved unreality elevate this gore-horror into something stranger than the usual VHS exploitation dreck.
Original trailer for Brain Damage
COMMENTS: As an allegory, Brain Damage couldn’t be more obvious—or apt. Indeed, if drug addiction could talk,it would sound just like Aylmer: suave, friendly, taunting yet persuasive, and supremely confident in the knowledge that it’s the one in charge. And it would deliver the same spiel that Aylmer does as he sits in the broken sink of a fleabag hotel while Brian shivers and vomits, hugging the rusted radiator in the dusty corner, withdrawing from the Aylmer’s juice but convinced he can wait the thing out and regain control of the situation. “You’re a wreck Brian, you’ve got to relax. Why don’t you put me on your neck and clam down?,” Aylmer suggests. “You’re not strong enough, your chemistry his changed,” he calmly reminds him. “The pain is going to get so big that only my juice will stop it…. Whenever you want to stop hurting, you come to me,” he offers. Aylmer’s tone is always comforting and gentle, even when he’s talking about how he could eat the brains of a hundred hookers that night.
The “cold turkey” scene is about as straightforward and believable a demonstration of the intractability of drug addiction as you’ll ever see. And there is no Aylmer’s Anonymous program set up to help Brian. What is this narcotic? The creature, whatever it is (his prior owner named him after the Old English for “the all-inspiring famous one”), synthesizes the drug within its own body. Inside its maw is a wriggling mass of teeth, hooks, and a needle that drips blue liquid. He squirts this juice directly into his host’s brain: through the magic of Henenlotter’s cranium-cam, we see it pool in the folds of Brian’s cerebrum, generating little electric sparks. While in the withdrawal stage the juice’s effects perfectly mimic heroin, it’s sensory effects are hallucinogenic. Brian’s first “trip” is a long one, beginning with his ceiling light slowly transforming into an eyeball, while blue liquid slowly fills his bedroom. An organ and bass combo meanders on the score, never finding a melody but without a care in the world. Aylmer will later promise Brian permanent bliss: “a life without pain, or worry, or loneliness; a life filled with colors, and music, and euphoria.” That first hallucination scene is fairly long, so that we don’t need to go through it again and again: a few glowing rainbow colors in a junkyard and some psychedelic solarization will recall the drug’s appeal. And besides, you can never match that initial high; you’ll chase that first feeling forever after.
While Brain Damage explicitly deals with the hedonistic pull of drugs, it doesn’t ignore the prospect of sleazy sex, either. Aylmer’s phallic presence, and the fact that he literally penetrates his host and squirts inside of him, make sure of that. Brian’s actual sexual experiences are constantly frustrating. He has a girlfriend, but we never see them make love; in fact, he’s cuckolded. A drunk punk girl wants to make it with him in an alley, but Brian’s too high to be turned on by that prospect; again, it’s Aylmer who does the penetrative honors. And when Brian goes to the fleabag motel to try to go cold turkey, the place seems to be inhabited entirely by burly homosexuals, including a slab of prime beefcake lathering himself in the shower who promises Brian “it’s cool, no one’s going to bother you.” Brian’s repeated failures in heterosexuality, provocative shots of him in his tightie-whities, and the fact that he’s tormented by a talking penis who pleasures him by jabbing him in a new orifice and filling him with fluid, have made some read a homosexual repression subtext into the film. It’s slightly more hidden than the drug abuse allegory—but perhaps only slightly.
As shown by his fanboy hire of horror host Zaherley for the voice of Aylmer (a choice that, incidentally, proved to be brilliant), Henenlotter was part of a 1980s movement of upcoming directors who had grown up on classic horror movies, but came of filmmaking age at a time when the bar on the shock value hurdle had grown exceedingly high. Horror audiences had grown increasingly jaded and aware of the genres tropes and cliches. To stand out from the crowd, this new breed of exploitation directors made movies that pushed the boundaries of sex and gore, but softened the nastiness with smarter-than-expected scripts that were blackly comic and sometimes even satirical. (Other filmmakers in this camp include Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, Sam Raimi, and early Peter Jackson). Brain Damage was a financial failure when released—as a horror with a strong grindhouse stench rising from it, it barely screened in theaters patronized by decent folk—but it became a cult hit through VHS rentals and late-night cable screenings. In fact, it’s now regarded as Henenlotter’s best (or at least, most popular) feature. Brain Damage might be simple in its scenario, but it is gritty and textured in its execution. Aylmer, Mephistopheles as a penis-puppet, is legitimately nightmarish because of his serious allegorical weight; but he never looses his essential googly-eyed ridiculousness. It’s tricky to balance the scary, the shocking, and the ludicrous, but Henenlotter pulls it off, creating a surprisingly brainy movie that isn’t ashamed to revel in hedonism and gore.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Frank Henenlotter is an utterly bizarre talent… ‘Brain Damage’ (MPAA-rated: R, for nudity, language and horrifying violence) represents a step forward in his ability to organically incorporate what is visually shocking with the psychological terror that informs his work.”–Leonard Klady, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
“Frank Henenlotter is a weird dude… This is all… well, weird. It borders on being too weird to buy into, actually, almost edging into camp… In a word, Brain Damage is just weird.”–Bob Cram, Screenage Wasteland
IMDB LINK: Brain Damage (1988)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
AFI Catalog | Brain Damage – Brain Damage‘s entry in the American Film Catalog, with production history and other details
From ‘Basket Case’ to ‘Brain Damage’ – Contemporaneous article in the New York Daily News about the film’s release
“Keeping within the Guidelines for Films” – Pearl-clutching 1988 essay on Brain Damage getting an “R” rating in Australia from Melbourne’s The Age
More Than a Headrush: Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988) – Matthew Sorrento takes a deeper dive into the film’s themes for Film Journal, finding in it a parable of liberation
HOME VIDEO INFO: Brain Damage has been reissued in many editions over the years, but the Arrow Video release (buy) is the gold standard. It includes a bounty of bonus content: a Henenlotter commentary track; an isolated score; the documentary short “Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage“; two featurettes on the special effects; reminiscences from script supervisor/assistant editor Karen Ogle; a tour of the NYC locations; a glimpse of superfan Adam Skinner’s Brain Damage memorabilia collection (and songs from his tribute album); a 20-minute film festival Q&A with Henenlotter; “Bygone Behemoth,” a cute stop-motion short film with an appearance by Zacherle; and the trailer and a stills gallery. Arrow restored the film in 2017, and it looks as fine as a shot-on-35mm 1980s B-horror should.
Streaming availability of Brain Damage may change, but it’s free on Tubi at the time of this writing.