Brain Damage - Limited Edition
Arrow Video // Unrated // $22.23 // May 9, 2017
Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 11, 2017
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
A crucial part of my journey toward becoming a film lover and critic was Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 Cult Movies of All Time issue. Thanks to that issue, I saw a great number of classics, including Evil Dead II, Repo Man, Brazil, and Hard-Boiled. However, through the influence of DVD as a massively popular home video format and the power of the internet, most of the movies on that "cult" list have since become mainstream successes (number 9, for example, was Blade Runner, a movie that now has a highly-anticipated $150m+ sequel opening this year). Watching Brain Damage in 2017, I'm stuck wondering if my relatively passive reaction to it is really indicative of the film's shortcomings, or if it's down to the way my tastes have changed over the years.

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 Blu-ray
Arrow brings Brain Damage to Blu-ray in the United States and the UK as a two-disc set. This edition is noted as a "Limited Edition", although as no standard edition yet exists, it's hard to be sure what parts of this are exclusive to the Limited Edition. However, based on my reading of the Arrow website, I might guess that the matte slipcover with foil title lettering and booklet are among the extras. The slipcover and sleeve feature art by Sara Deck (different illustrations), and the sleeve is reversible, with the original poster art on the back (which I prefer). The two-disc case houses the Blu-ray, booklet, and DVD copy. Arrow's website also mentions an exclusive enamel pin that may be part of the LE materials, which I did not receive.

The Video and Audio
Arrow Video gives Brain Damage adequate HD treatment with a 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer. This image does not appear to be newly remastered but generally looks pretty good, with a reasonable amount of detail for a 29-year-old independent feature. Grain fluctuates from decent-looking to chunky, and lighting on both extreme ends of the spectrum can sometimes look a little blown out or crushed. There is some amount of print damage throughout the film in the form of minimal flecks, scratches, and lines, none of which are intrusive. Colors appear fine, with the caveat that pretty much every night or low-light scene takes on a similar shade of blue. Sound is available in two iterations: LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I viewed the film with the original audio track, which is more or less on par with the picture, offering a decent central experience. Dialogue can be hit-or-miss depending on the source material, with it occasionally sounding muffled or on the echoey side. Music offers the most spread and sound effects have a nice sharpness to them, although the track is not particularly immersive. A sampling of the 5.1 remix does not reveal any particularly notable or meaningful differences, and it seems likely that most viewers would prefer to hear original mixes over modern remixes anyway. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also provided.

The Extras
I may not have enjoyed Brain Damage as much as I'd hoped, but fans will be very pleased with the special edition that Arrow has produced for this release. First up, there is an all-new audio commentary by writer/director Frank Henenlotter, who seems like an incredibly pleasant and upbeat fellow, much like Aylmer -- although one hopes that Frank does not eat human brain in his spare time. This is a lively and extremely detailed track in which Henenlotter is assisted by someone named "Mike Hunchback" as a moderator, who asks questions and provides information to keep Henenlotter talking. The only shame is that there was a previous commentary from the out-of-print Synapse DVD, featuring Henenlotter, novelization writer Bob Martin, and independent filmmaker Scooter McCrae, which is not included. Hang onto those discs, completists.

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.

Conclusion
Maybe I missed my moment with Brain Damage, a film which has fun spraying blood on the walls and features an impressive special effects character, but comes up a bit more anemic in other areas. In any case, Arrow Video's presentation of Brain Damage offers up the best A/V presentation the film has likely ever had, and a wealth of extras to boot, so the disc still earns a recommendation.



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