When the film begins, Brian (Rick Herbst) isn't feeling too well. He cancels on a concert with his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) and stays in bed, only to wake up a few hours later with an alarming amount of blood on his sheets. The culprit: a strange, grinning worm creature he will eventually learn is named Aylmer (pronounced "Elmer"). Aylmer is perpetually upbeat, and happily provides Brian with a feeling he'll never forget: a euphoric state of mind in which he claims he can feel colors. The only catch: while Brian is tripping, Aylmer finds and feeds on human brains. When Brian learns what's been going on while he's been out of his mind, he tries to put a stop to it, but Aylmer's chemical grip on Brian and his poor brain matter only begin to tighten.
The follow-up to writer/director Frank Henenlotter's infamous debut feature, Basket Case, Brain Damage is a movie that goes big on the gore and the special effects, but doesn't have much meat on the story to keep the audience engaged beyond the splatter. Horror fans will probably declare my review sacrilegious, but Aylmer, voiced by beloved TV horror host John Zacherle, is one part of the problem. Although he has an amusing look, with his googly eyes and Venus flytrap grin, and the effects sequences where he drips an electrified blue goo directly onto Brian's brain tissue are skin-crawlingly satisfying, his actual personality is kind of one-note. Both Zacherle and Herbst give strong performances, but they don't necessarily have any chemistry together, which is what the film needs in order to work.
There's also very little in the way of story beyond the basic premise. Brain Damage is a pretty short movie, clocking in at a mere 86 minutes, and yet it feels like it doesn't have enough story to sustain itself. For over half of the film, there is no central conflict, because Brian remains clueless about his status as an accomplice to murder. In fact, it's likely that audience members who stay engaged are held by the opposite desire: to see Aylmer kill a few people, as gruesomely as possible. With the "bizarre" factor of these sorts of cult horror movies muted by their mainstream popularity and no other appeal but the gore, these sequences are more tedious than entertaining, and even irritating when characters just won't stop screaming (I might be crazy, but I can't remember any other cult classic with so much sustained screaming -- the uninterrupted length of each howl is the what gets tiring, not either type of volume). A subplot about a historian and his wife (Theo Barnes and Lucille Saint-Peter) sort of sets up the story (and Barnes has a good speech about the history of Aylmer's ownership), but it feels like a drag, and there's not much sincerity to the crumbling relationship between Brian and Barbara. (I also can't help but note the film's victims are almost exclusively women and black men -- it's not particularly bothersome, but it does stand out).
In the extras, producer Edgar Ievins notes that Brain Damage is a riff on Faust. The comparison makes sense, but also points to the reason that Brain Damage doesn't quite grab hold: there's not enough sense of Brian's soul being corrupted. His addiction to Aylmer's fluid is a thing that happened to him, and it even happened before the movie actually begins. Although Herbst commits to Brian's pure joy during the drug sequences, it is revealed that his addiction may be unconquerable, adding to the sense that Brian is helpless rather than succumbing to some sort of evil. There's no character journey in the movie, and thus, not quite enough for the film to really -- sorry, can't resist -- get inside one's head.
The Video and Audio
The gem of the video features is the extensive "Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage" (54:13) documentary, which reassembles producer Edgar Ievins, effects artists Gabe Bartalos and Al Magliochetti, makeup artist Dan Frye, first AD Gregory Lamberson, editor James Kwei, and star Rick Herbst to go into the history of the film from beginning to end. This is chock-full of fun behind-the-scenes stories about the history between the crew members from working on other projects and coming up in the same area, their love of Basket Case and meeting Henenlotter, and more. Be sure to stay through the credits for a fun tidbit with Ievins. Oddly, Henenlotter is not a participant, but the commentary is a pretty good concession prize, not to mention there is a "Brain Damage Q&A" (20:36) from the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival, and "Elmer's Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage" (8:48), which finds Henenlotter and Michael Gingold visiting some of the movie's filming locations.
"The Effects of Brain Damage" (10:00), which also features Bartalos, and "Animating Elmer" (6:40), which also features Magliochetti, both dive into the creation of the movie's star attraction. The short film "Bygone Behemoth" (5:08) also gives viewers a final taste of Aylmer, sort of, in the form of Zacherle in his final role. "Karen Ogle: A Look Back" (4:29) is a brief chat with the script supervisor and assistant editor on working with Henenlotter. Finally, "Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession" (10:00) is a fun featurette with "superfan" Adam Skinner, which also unlocks some additional audio extras once you watch it.
The disc rounds out with three photo galleries, an isolated score in LPCM 2.0, and an original theatrical trailer.