When it was released back in 1982, Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case represented a kind of landmark in genre cinema. It was clearly the last of a dying breed of exploitation entertainment, celebrating the sleazy excess of New York's 42nd Street while simultaneously referencing the grindhouse offerings of the past. But there was more to it than that. Said story of conjoined twins, separated at birth but linked psychically – and more important, psychotically – to each other, announced the crest of the slasher cinema wave. Since Halloween in 1978, and Friday the 13th a year later, fright films were balanced precariously on the edge of a knife…and an axe, and a cleaver, and a chainsaw. Humans were considered far more horrifying that the classic creatures who used to shiver our terror timbers. Basket Case brought back the monster, made it a viable member of the macabre again, and proved that low budget indie fare could be just as effective as its big studio brethren. Six years later, Henenlotter delivered another drive-in classic with his take on addiction. But there was much more to Brain Damage than hallucinogens and horror. In this fine film, another classic fright icon was born – a creature as cunning as he was creepy...and clever.
Brian is your typical young New Yorker – living with his brother in a small Manhattan flat and dating the doting Barbara. He is completely unaware that an elderly couple in his building is keeping an ancient brain-eating creature in their apartment as a 'pet'. When the slimy little bugger escapes, it makes a beeline for Brian. It attaches itself to his neck and injects him with a powerful, highly addictive hallucinogen. Where once there was the joylessness of everyday life, now there's a synaptic party in Brian's baked brain. Unfortunately, one of the side effects is a mental inability to resists the monster's requests. Brian must take the beast out into the Manhattan night, for as he's tripping, the 'thing' – known as 'Elmer' – begins ripping out the gray matter of the surrounding populace. Hopelessly lost in the powerful fluid filling his head, Brian will do anything for Elmer, just to get more. Naturally, the bodies start piling up like Bowery bums on a soup line. Mike and Barbara begin to worry about Brian. He sure is acting peculiar – aggressive, antisocial – and spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. What they don't know is that the more Brian helps Elmer, the more he falls under its fatal spell. He doesn't just risk irreversible Brain Damage – Brian's close to losing his soul as well.
Long available in slick special edition DVD versions, this latest repackaging of Frank Henenlotter's masterful follow-up to his already classic Basket Case is strictly for fans of the film. Glancing down to the tech specs section of this review will quickly answer all inquiries as to whether or not a trip to your local brick and mortar – or to eBay - is mandated. But it's safe to say that if you don't care about bonus features and added content, you'll be more than satisfied with this release, and the goofy, gory delight contained herein. Brain Damage is not a hard film to figure out. Obviously a veiled analogy to drug use and its resulting paranoia/problems, it definitely demands attention for all the formulas it rejects, as well as praise for all the imagination and innovation it suggests. Buried deep inside Henenlotter's love letter to psychedelics and psychosis is a brilliant satire on addiction, a wonderful exploration of the "relationship" between junkie and his juice, and a novel way of working both into the standard scary movie. When tied together they deliver an intense expressionistic exercise in personal prostylitizing mixed with a joking, jaundiced jolt of 'Just Say No'. It's possible that this filmmaker is merely having a loony laugh at the expense of the whole War on Drugs, but Henenlotter's narrative clearly wants to demonize narcotics. Our hero doesn't have that much fun while he's riding the parasite's potion, and the consequences are always dire.
In addition to all its feed your head hazards, Henenlotter also seems to be riffing on the recent rising, circa 1987, in all manner of monster movies. When the decade began, the slasher was saving the scary film from cultural oblivion. Fright fans had solid entries in the genre of choice – that is, as long as they didn't mind the strict slice and dice dynamic. But as home video took hold, and filmmakers like Charles Band found an outlet for their crazy creature features, beasties returned to small screens everywhere. With his Basket Case helping to set the trends, Henenlotter found himself stuck creating another eerie icon as instantly accessible as his previous deformed twin blob named Belial. The result was 'Elmer' (the phonetic pronunciation of the wicked worm's real name – Aylmer) a talking turd with a mouthful of malevolent teeth and a telescopic needle ready to deliver a shot of purple-blue poison directly into your gray matter. As a being, Elmer is a hoot. Voiced by an uncredited Zachary (the noted horror host) and given an erudite, almost suave demeanor, this slick slug is the perfect metaphor for dope's deceptive allure. The fact that it also loves to snack on human brains makes it even more memorable.
Indeed, Brain Damage is good, gory fun, a complete and utter throwback to the days when motion picture macabre really laid on the vein gravy to get the fans good and grossed out. Remember, this film was released in the middle of the video revolution. There was a glut of gratuity in the marketplace, and scary movies had to go overboard in order to get noticed. Some did it with killings, other did it with blood's bunkmate – boobs. But many simply piled on the pus and let the consumer consider the claret-soaked consequences. Brain Damage has several of these brilliant, bile-inducing moments: a little alleyway oral action gives new definition to the term "deep throating"; a horrifying hallucination renders a plate of appetizing spaghetti and meatballs into a dish of evil, throbbing brains; Brian believes he is losing his mind, and while fidgeting with his ear, said situation literally occurs. There are other amazing make-up effects in this film, from Elmer's unhinged jaw to the final OD freak out. Henenlotter even throws in a few old school visual tricks, using animation, solarization, and other post production optical elements to sell the perception-altering aspects of Elmer's "fluid". What we end up with is a rip roaring splatterfest with occasional comic moments courtesy of a talking stool sample.
Naturally, one needs a competent cast to handle all this hokum, and Brain Damage has one of the dandiest. Specifically, future soap star Rick Herbst (he would go on to appear in Days of Our Lives and The Guiding Light soon after) literally carries this film. He is surrounded by the excellent supporting work of a mostly novice company, including fine turns by Gordon MacDonald as Brian's brother Mike, and Jennifer Lowry as the dour dowdy girlfriend Barbara. Henenlotter even has a little fun, inviting back a previous pair of fan favorites for a sensational subway cameo. Unlike other exploitation aficionados who talk a good game but couldn't for the life of them deliver on the directorial goods, Henenlotter is no cinematic slouch. He has an interesting way with the camera, creating controlled compositions as well as moments of impromptu cruelty to continually keep the audience off guard. He loves colors and enjoys amplifying the pigments to raise the level of unreality in his scenes. When combined with the gritty New York locales (Henenlotter surely loves the Manhattan of the pre-Disney/Giuliani era) and the simple, straightforward storytelling, you have a remarkably effective film. It's a lost gem inside an overflowing field of Greed decade direct to video dumbness.
Having never heard of Mackinac Media before entering into the review, this critic was skeptical of the transfer quality available for Brain Damage. Synapse Films and Image Entertainment have released previous, highly praised versions. In this case, any fears were unfounded. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, drawn from a near pristine print of the film, looks incredible. The colors are vibrant and the detailing delightful. Several of the psychedelic sequences now resonate with a kind of high artistic clarity, while the night scenes are devoid of grain or compression. And just like prior presentations, this is the uncut version of the film. The "fellatio" gag is still in place, as is the "brain drain" sequence. For those of us who've enjoyed this film on VHS for decades, this new offering is excellent.
It's standard Stereo for us fright film fans – no remixed or remastered 5.1 Surround soundtracks or mood enhancing aural elements. All the conversations between man and monster are easily decipherable, and the cheesy sci-fi inspired underscoring is captured in crystal clarity. For a no budget production with limited time and talents, Brain Damage actually sounds great.
Welcome to bottom of the barrel, bare bones DVD distribution. The lack of added content here is truly depressing. While the theatrical trailer option is a nice touch, it's a meager bonus. Granted, Brain Damage wasn't exactly tricked out when it was available previously. Frank Henenlotter contributed his typically insightful and witty commentary, and aside from some isolated music tracks, there wasn't much else to brag about. But in this day and age, when ordinary digital is trying to remain the media standard, the simplistic approach to supplements just won't work. Maybe there will be a massive Collector's Edition somewhere down the line – Brain Damage does deserve it. If you don't mind the lack of bells and whistles, this is still a technically sound presentation.
Wonderfully inventive, expertly realized and as addictive as Elmer's cranial Red Bull, Brain Damage easily earns a rating of Highly Recommended. Had the DVD package provided more than just the barest essential elements, we'd have a possible DVD Talk Collector's Series title on our hands. Sadly, such a score will be saved for a future, fully fleshed out, version of the film. Since moving on to work with Something Weird Video in the preservation of exploitation's past, Henenlotter has been relatively inactive, at least when it comes to moviemaking. His last effort behind the camera was a second Basket Case sequel, though rumors are rampant that he plans something called Sick in the Head for 2006/2007. It would be nice to see him return to his roots, so to speak. Of all the grindhouse-inspired auteurs, Frank Henenlotter was a clear fan favorite. Maybe one day his films will be championed for what they are - the brave bastard stepchildren of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dave Friedman, and Harry Novak. Until then, we clued-in compatriots will have our own copies of Brain Damage to remind us of just how satisfying schlock can be.
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