As a young boy, Michael Brower (Edward Furlong) was in a horrible car crash that claimed the life of his mother and severely injured his leg. We catch up with him in his teenage years where he runs an in-school horror club and not-so secretly pines for the classic girl next door, Kimberly (Amy Hargreaves). With his father always away on business, Michael, a loner by nature, passes most his time by playing the most horrific video games on the market. But his constant exposure to the genre has left him desensitized, so when his best friend Kyle calls to tell him about a new experience called Brainscan, Michael passes the advertorial language off as hype. Still, he's intrigued enough to call the customer service number for information, yet without any committal to purchase, shortly receives the first of four game discs in the mail. Brainscan informs Michael that it works by putting its players under a form of hypnosis to ensure the most realistic experience in horror to date. An hour or so later and the young teen is thoroughly impressed. He got to murder someone, and by his own admission when gushing about it to his friend, it felt quite real.
And then he sees the allegedly virtual murder he committed reported on the news.
Michael now finds himself in a grave predicament. Game and reality blur when he's introduced to a mischievous character known only as The Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), and he convinces the boy that the only way to escape the law is to play the other three discs. They're supposed to give Michael the opportunity to cover his tracks and silence witnesses, but the consequences of following Brainscan's progression prove to be quite severe.
By the beginning of 2018, it seemed like nobody would ever put this film on a high-def disc. I myself have gone to Shout/Scream Factory's Facebook and Twitter pages to request they release Brainscan, because if anyone had a shot at licensing this film from Sony for distribution, it was them. I never expected my wish would come to fruition, yet was pleasantly surprised to see the distributor had followed through. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to plant the idea in their brains, but hey, I'll take a little credit.
Despite my love for the film though, I'm not going to sit here and gush about it to an audience that has yet to see it. The concept of being sucked into a video game and then having the lines of reality blurred will seem old-hat to newcomers, and the way the plot plays out is as predictable as it gets. It's also a little weird, even as someone who's always appreciated Brainscan, to see the Michael character stalking Kimberly. He films her from his window and she seems to want him to, but still, this behavior isn't exactly endearing, regardless of how the plot attempts to justify it. It was a head scratcher for me back in 2014 and remains so to this day.
That said, Brainscan has some undeniable strengths that still make it a compelling watch. Regardless of how you feel about Edward Furlong (Terminator 2) these days, he does a wonderful job at portraying a teenager that rides on the edge of being damaged and even haunted by the night his mother died, but especially at how freaked out he gets when his character is absorbed by the grotesque entertainment he's always sought out. But the real reason to keep watching is T. Ryder Smith's The Trickster, who brings a brilliant blend of maniacal, yet horrifically playful madness to the screen. The interaction between the two leads are some of the best parts of the film:
Michael: This doesn't make any sense!
The Trickster: It doesn't have to make sense! All these horror movies you watch... does 'Death, Death, Death' make sense? No. It's not about sense. It's about death, death, death.
Michael: I didn't kill the man. I didn't even know him!
The Trickster: There lies the beauty! You had no motive. It was totally random. Like in the animal world, prey doesn't have a name. It was primal. I can't wait to see what you do next.
Furthermore, despite the film's predictability, director John Flynn still managed to make the audience feel the intended squeeze of tension throughout its runtime. This is also due in large part to Frank Langella's effective performance as the intimidating Detective Hayden.
Brainscan is quite far from being a perfect film, and I think anyone who enjoyed it back in the nineties will continue to do so today. But if this release marks the first time you'll have the opportunity to see it, just take the plunge and keep your expectations in check. I really dislike aggregate review scoring systems, but Rotten Tomatoes seems to reflect what I've come across in my day-to-day life. While the critical aggregate rests at a dreadful seventeen percent, the audience score is at a fairly healthy sixty-one percent. There's a reason why this film has a small cult following, after all!
Brainscan finally comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Shout (Scream) Factory at a resolution of 1080p and an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 via the AVC codec. By now, people have grown accustomed to the label doing their own scans for the films they distribute, but there's no language - in neither the press release or cover art - to indicate they've done that for this one. That means the only logical conclusion is that Shout were at the mercy of whatever materials Sony had provided them, and considering there hasn't been a home video release since the DVD from 2003, the prospect of having no fresh scan had worried me for months.
The saving grace, I suppose, is that Sony has always treated its catalog quite well. The video on this release isn't revelatory, but it's decent, especially coming from what I assume to be an old scan.
Brainscan looks mostly drab by design. Both indoor and outdoor shots skew towards blues and grays. It's odd because while this film takes place in summer (and was even shot between July and September of 2013), the visual aesthetic screams fall. Skin tones are a tad on the cooler side, but not so much that they look unnatural. Colors are replicated quite well, everything from The Trickster's yellow eyes, his red and black jacket, the reds in Michael's bedroom and especially the special effects. All are great examples.
Contrast is a bit of a mixed bag, but it all seems inherent to the source. Sometimes black levels are deep and inky as they should be while others are heightened to the point of muddiness, the latter seemingly done to increase visible detail during night scenes. In concert with the blue/gray hues overall, there's an adequate, but not exemplary level of depth.
Closeups reveal an impressive amount of detail, from the makeup that's used to transform T. Ryder Smith into the Trickster, to the beads of sweat over Michael's face and even the clothing on display. Medium-to-long shots during the day are also no slouch, the small mansion Michael lives in serving as a prime example. Night shots are far less impressive due to reasons already stated above.
Grain is presented respectably, and as a matter of fact, the encode is competent overall. The only time I noticed anything amiss was when there were strong wafts of fog on/across the screen. Most wouldn't notice anything unnatural in motion, and it's not even that noticeable during a freeze frame unless you're looking for itů but compression does suffer in these instances to a minor (and I do mean minor) degree. Viewers can also expect to see some print dirt (black specks), but it's never obtrusive enough to distract.
Overall, Brainscan looks better than expected. In fact, it's pretty darn good considering the (assumed) age of the scan. I think if Shout Factory were able to do at least a 2K scan (they've apparently begun to do 4K scans as of late), they'd probably be able to squeeze a little more out of the source, but probably to an extent that'd be negligible to all but the most eagle-eyed film aficionados. This, honestly, is probably the best we can expect Brainscan to look until someone cares enough to do a 4K scan for UHD, and with HDR implemented at that. That's not to say you should expect to be blown away, but what we've been provided with represents the source quite well. Anyone with reasonable expectations shouldn't walk away dissatisfied.
Unless my memory has forsaken me, Brainscan had a fairly limited theatrical run and probably made its biggest splash on home video. Even so, I was surprised to learn the film was mixed in Dolby Stereo (hey, I hadn't watched the DVD in a long time). It's disappointing that this film wasn't given the surround treatment to help enhance a handful of key scenes, but it is what it is and I can't fault Shout/Scream Factory for that.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track does an excellent job at prioritizing dialogue. That says quite a bit considering it has to share the front end sound stage with effects as well as its unique and often creative score. Panning and even discrete effect placement is quite good, and the score also seems to separate components from channel to channel. Speaking of the score, I think it probably could have used a little more emphasis at times, but I understand the intent to not have it overpower the dialogue. The Trickster has a tendency to speak to Michael while he's experiencing Brainscan, so that was pretty important. Dynamic range is decent but never goes crazy. Bass is minimal.
A respectable stereo track for sure, and I doubt this film could ever sound better than it does here. Much like the video presentation, any deficiencies should be attributable to the source.
The list of supplements on this release aren't quite as expansive as on other Scream Factory titles, and that includes the packaging. Most of their products get a slipcase and commissioned artwork, the paper art slip itself is usually reversible in case you'd prefer to display the original poster art. However, Brainscan gets no slipcover and just the original poster art. The inner-case artwork is a single shot of Edward Furlong and not suitable for being reversed.
Director John Flynn had passed away eleven years ago, so Shout recorded a commentary with his son, Tara Georges Flynn. He served as the assistant to the director, and so is able to share stories about the film's production as well as some interesting facts about his father. There are some fabulous interviews with the screenwriter, make-up effects artists, the composer, and best of all, actor T. Ryder Smith (Trickster). The latter includes some VHS footage of the actor having his makeup and prosthetics applied. There's also VHS footage of a deleted scene, as well as some official behind-the-scenes footage. While not as robust as other Scream Factory offerings, this package still delivers more than I would have expected.
-A Virtual Debut
-Talking with Trickster
-Trickin' with Trickster
-Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
If this release marks the first time you'll sit down to watch Brainscan, keep your expectations in check. It feels dated in a handful of ways and the story beats are predictable, but between its interesting premise, charismatic antagonist, great acting from its leads and entrancing direction, this underrated gem has always deserved a larger cult following than it had. The Scream Factory label has amassed a number of fans over the years itself, so here's to hoping their choice to distribute it earns the film a bit more love. As far as people who are already fans and want to know if this transfer is worth the money, there's simply no question about it. The video could be a little better but seems to be a solid representation of the source. The same can be said for the audio too. Despite not having custom artwork like most the other Scream Factory titles out there, the distributor definitely did their best with the supplements. I highly recommend this release for fans, but for everyone else, I'll temper that down to recommended, mainly because I can understand how it may not be everyone's cup of tea.