Ari M. Roussimoff
Kevin Van Hentenryck
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Brain Damage (1988)
31st May 11
It's '80s New York and average dude Brian is remarkably cool about his dark and gritty surroundings, and why shouldn't he be? He's got his brother and hot girlfriend around for company. It's only when a brain-sucking alien named Aylmer attaches himself to Brian's back does he start to see the world for what it is--and the monster that he can become under the influence of Aylmer's drug-like injections.
Director Frank Henenlotter is quoted as saying that he doesn’t make horror films, but that he makes exploitation films, because they “have an attitude more than anything else... They’re a little ruder, a little raunchier, they deal with material people don’t usually touch on, whether it’s sex or drugs or rock and roll.” If his first masterpiece, 1982’s Basket Case didn’t get this view across, his sophomore effort Brain Damage most certainly did. Rather than giving up on the strangeness of Basket Case and entering the mainstream, Henenlotter instead delved even further into that depraved world of exploitation--touching on those very themes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll like no Hollywood production could ever do.
Resembling a far more lowbrow version of How To Get Ahead in Advertising, Brain Damage follows a young, fairly average New Yorker named Brian who becomes the host for a strange, parasitic worm-like creature named Aylmer, who just so happens to speak with the relaxing tones of TV horror host John Zacherle. Brian quickly becomes addicted to Brian’s brain injections, which he receives in exchange for transporting Aylmer around New York City in search of brains to satisfy the creature’s insatiable appetite.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Henenlotter movies is their originality. True, they all typically feature the same themes and introverted protagonists dealing with some horrible secret, whether that be a mutant conjoined twin, re-animated hookers, or a smooth-talking brain leech, but goddamn if they don’t differentiate themselves. Hell, if Martin Scorsese can pump out the same basic rise-and-fall crime drama time after time, why can’t Henenlotter keep on with his particular bag of tricks? While there were plenty of original and zany genre flicks produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Henenlotter’s stand out on account of their clever use of stop motion and puppetry in order to convey fairly humorous send-ups of classic monster movies and critiques of sex and drug culture with a trippy and refreshing New York grindhouse vibe. Also, they’re fucking crazy.
In the case of Brain Damage, the blanket theme is definitely drug use, even though we do get plenty of great erection jokes thanks to the Aylmer puppet’s phallic design. The symbolism is pretty forthright, with actor Rick Hearst spending most of the film in a druggie daze, covered in pale makeup and begging Aylmer for a quick dose of the brain fluid. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and brother find themselves shut off from Brian’s world, going so far as to accuse him of becoming a different person. This of course leads to some surprisingly dramatic tragedy, fulfilling Brian’s role as a metaphor for drug addiction.
Now, let’s discuss the real star of the film, Aylmer. Has there ever been a greater baddie in a monster movie? Seriously, move over Blob, take a seat the Thing, and just fuck off Frankenstein’s Monster, ‘cause this parasitic douche bag is just about the coolest and most disturbing of the bunch. This is the kind of character Charles Band wishes he would have thought of. Comprised of a slimy exterior with a deceptively cute pair of human-like eyes and a tiny mouth, and then opening up once he’s behind his host to reveal a terrifying, gaping maw of teeth and a single, dripping needle, there’s no mistake: this is Aylmer, and despite his trippy gift, he’s going to fuck you up along with everyone around you.
Admittedly, this isn’t a scary movie. There’s a plethora of gore and freaky moments, but they all tend to quickly leap into the realm of absurdity. Most scenes contain a jokey atmosphere, and Henenlotter seems keen on keeping that up, even going so far as to have Duane from Basket Case cameo during the film’s most dramatic scene just to amp up the weird atmosphere once it’s ventured into what some might consider a horror movie. Make no mistake: this is no horror film, and Henenlotter knows how to separate that genre from his own macabre, silly world.
If there’s any negativity to associate with Brain Damage, it’s that we really could have used more Aylmer. Sure, he’s given plenty of time on-screen, but it felt like there could have been more. Then again, more could always be less and result in the viewer feeling less connected with Brian, whom the audience must be able to sympathize with for the film to work. No one wants a classic plot like this to go the way of The Lovely Bones by overstimulating us with the villain and little else.
Effects-wise, this is definitely far superior to Basket Case while still using the basic techniques of that film. Overlaying Aylmer in the subway scene is a little wonky, but adds a delightfully creepy and nostalgic tone which only adds to the film’s particular brand of crazy. The puppet is perfectly designed, to the point where I’m surprised it hasn’t become a cultural icon by this point. Even the stop motion, easily the most embarrassing aspect of Basket Case, is here done with a masterful, Ray Harryhausen-esque touch. Simple, ‘80s perfection.
Brain Damage is not a complex film, but it does present an honest and gruesome portrait of drug addiction without seeming condescending in the process. The quintessential lowbrow comedy found in all Frank Henenlotter films is dispensed with great care, never going too far and always coming off with a thoroughly endearing, eccentric sense of humor. This is Frank Henenlotter’s greatest achievement, and it’s a crime that mainstream audiences will probably never appreciate what very well could be the best exploitation film of the late 1980s.
Versions Both UK and US versions are now uncut with all cuts waived recently to the UK version.