Brain Damage

Brain Damage (1987)
Synapse Films
Cast: Rick Herbst
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer, Director’s Filmography

When consulting any reference guide on cult films, rest assured that Frank Henenlotter will be mentioned. Despite the fact that he has only made five movies and hasn’t had a release out since 1992, Henenlotter is still seen as a guiding force among cult fans. Why? Simply put, no one else makes movies like Frank Henenlotter. And while "Brain Damage", which hits DVD this month, may be one of his most marketable movies, it is a far cry from being mainstream.

"Brain Damage" opens with a nice-looking older couple frantically searching for something in their apartment. We don’t know what it is, but judging by the way that they are destroying things in their search, it must be important. We then meet a young man named Brian (Rick Herbst), who is feeling under the weather and can’t leave his bed. Brian then discovers that the back of his neck and his bed are covered in blood. Then, Brian’s ceiling turns into a giant eyeball and his room is flooded with blue liquid. I am not making this up. Upon investigation, Brian discovers a tiny hole in the back of his neck. He discovers that he has been bitten by Aylmer, an ancient worm-like parasite that has beautiful blue eyes and a soft, silky voice (provided by horror host Zacherle in an uncredited performance).

It turns out that Aylmer has injected Brian with a hallucinogenic fluid (which explains the eyeball). Brian asks for more of the fluid. Aylmer makes a bargain with Brian – he will get continued injections of the fluid if he will provide Aylmer with food. The catch is that Aylmer likes to eat human brains!

All of this is introduced to the audience in the first ten minutes of the film. From then on, we watch Brian become addicted to Aylmer’s fluid, and quickly become Aylmer’s slave. Even though Brian catches his girlfriend in bed with his brother, and the old couple (who turn out to be Aylmer’s original slaves) are pursuing him, Brian doesn’t care. He simply sinks further and further into a life of dependency.

You don’t need to be a film school graduate to see that Brian and Aylmer’s relationship represents drug addiction. Allow me to self-disclose here and tell you that when I’m not reviewing DVDs, I work with the chemically addicted and I can tell you that although "Brain Damage’s" story is highly fictionalized, it is deadly accurate in its portrayal of addiction. Actually, I find this film harder hitting than some "true life" films about substance abuse. All of the attributes of a real addict are there. Notice how Aylmer injects Brian the first time for "free." After that, Brian must "pay’ for the drugs. Brian stops going to work, stops caring for his hygiene, although there is a disturbing scene where Brain and Aylmer play in the bathtub! Freaky! He stops caring for his family, and ultimately, stops caring for living. Brian is solely focused on getting his "fix." Despite the fact that we have the inherent silliness of a talking worm, the anti-drug message in "Brain Damage" is very clear, and according to Henenlotter’s comments on the <$commentary,audio commentary>, very intentional.

So, the movie has a strong message, but is it any good? A film like "Brain Damage" is hard to classify. Some may find it difficult to watch, and not necessarily because of the violence and gore. As I mentioned, this is an accurate portrayal of addiction and we have to watch some tough scenes, such as when Brian attempts to detox. Still, at times the serious tone of the film is balanced by Henenlotter’s wicked sense of humor. Brian…brain…get it? There are some funny lines from Aylmer and a great cameo of Kevin VanHentenryck, of "Basket Case" fame. As for the gore, the Synapse DVD of "Brain Damage" features the original uncut version of the film, which has scenes that have never been available in America, including the brain-pulling scene that was completely excised from American prints, although the image was in the film’s advertising, and the infamous blow-job scene, which is only hinted at in the domestic cut. While it’s nice to be given the opportunity to see these scenes, the extra gore really doesn’t add much to the film. The brain-pulling scene is a nice touch thematically, but it goes on for far too long.

"Brain Damage" was written and directed by Henenlotter and shot on a budget of $600,000. Despite the budget restraints, Henenlotter succeeds in making a film that looks fairly polished. I, however, don’t like Henenlotter’s style of holding a take. Some scenes, such as a security guard putting on his hat, go on far too long and feel like padding. Also, I would have liked to have seen Brian before he was injected. What was he like? Can we assume he was "normal?" On the <$commentary,audio commentary>, Henenlotter defends this stance, stating that he’s sick of seeing "normal" in movies and didn’t want to show Brian "before." And though some of them don’t work, for the most part the Aylmer effects are good, especially when he’s singing (!). No matter what, Aylmer is definitely a unique creation.

As I mentioned earlier, the Synapse DVD of "Brain Damage" is the uncut version, presented in it’s original <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is a high-definition digital transfer, and looks very good. However, it is not <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs, which seems a bit odd given the source. The picture is very clear throughout the film. At times, some defects in the source print are visible, but these are seldom and minor. The color balance is good and is especially apparent when the blue water floods Brian’s room. Interestingly, the clarity of the picture does reveal some flaws, especially in the lighting of the film. Take a look at the shower scene where Brian is clearly overlit so that he appears paler. Something like that could have been corrected in the transfer process. The audio mix on "Brain Damage" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono, offering no surround or spatial information.

"Brain Damage" does feature some good extras. The theatrical trailer for the film is presented at 1.85:1 and looks as good as the movie transfer. There is also a hidden trailer for "Basket Case", that is accessed by highlighting that film in Henenlotter’s filmography. I’ve mentioned in past reviews that an <$commentary,audio commentary> can make or break a DVD, and "Brain Damage" has a good one. The commentary features Henenlotter, Bob Martin, who wrote the novelization of the film and was once editor of Fangoria, and Scooter McCrae, an independent filmmaker (Shatterdead) who has worked with Henenlotter. Henenlotter is very funny and tells some great anecdotes about the making of the film. He tells how the crew overcame the small budget and did the best that they could. He also has some strong things to say about the MPAA that are rather timely in the wake of the summer film season ratings debate. McCrae acts as moderator, asking Henenlotter questions and making observations about the film. Martin is mute throughout most of the movie, although he does share two very depressing stories. This is Uncle Bob? This is a prime example of how a commentary can be both enlightening and entertaining. And isn’t that what we’re looking for?

Kenneth Turan of the LA Times recently wrote an article stating that filmgoers are looking for alternatives to the standard Hollywood product and that is why "The Blair Witch Project" is doing so well. I don’t know if that explains the success of "The Blair Witch Project" – I certainly don’t know why anyone would like it – but I do agree that people want alternatives. And trust me, it doesn’t get much more alternative than "Brain Damage". If you’re already a fan of the film, get the DVD. If you’re curious, check it out. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.

Here are some additional comments on this review from Synapse’s Don May Jr.:

Regarding the shower scene: Mr. Long, the overlighting was COMPLETELY intentional. At this point in the film, Brian is portrayed as a fanatical, addicted person. In the previous scenes, we see Brian frantically trying to open doors to find someone to kill for Elmer… it’s pretty obvious he’s past the point of being physically sick.The shower scene now shows a gaunt, overly pale (because he was sick) Brian, contrasted with the overly muscular (and VERY tanned) other actor. That was totally intentional and his paleness was no mistake in the transfer’s timing. Looking at the background image of the walls during each of their individual shots is all you need to see that the film is timed properly… the consistency of the walls behind both actors is correct and basically the same. The shower scene was corrected properly according to director Frank Henenlotter’s suggestions, to visually show how sick Brian had become.

Also, your review does not mention the isolated music track on the DVD, a feature that was very important because no soundtrack album for "Brain Damage" was ever released.