31 Days of Horror: "Brain Damage"

by Sean McTiernan

At first, things are pretty rosy for our hero Brian. As long as he brings Aylmer for a “walk,” the charming slug will inject blue juice directly into his brain, giving him odd hallucinations which mostly seem to involve everything glowing like the car at the end of “Repo Man” and the feeling that he’s being covered in neon liquid. However, there’s a sting in the tail. Not only has Brian been neglecting those around him, he has also been helping this mutant slug eat people’s brains. That’s not so great. What follows is Brian’s attempts to give up, the pensioners’ campagain to reclaim Aylmer (depsite their age, they take their brain parasite trippin’ very seriously) and finally Brian’s final surrender and slide towards destruction. Even better news is that the leap in craftsmanship here between “Brain Damage,” Frank Henenlotter’s second film, and his first, “Basket Case,” is quite noticeable. This probably mostly has to do with the six-year gap betweeen the two movies.

While “Basket Case” gets by mostly on winning charm and unrepentant zaniness, “Brain Damage” manages to combine those things with superior production, performances and visual intelligence. It’s not very often a movie featuring an attempt at backstreeet fellatio that ends in brain eating can have the words “best work” applied to it but “Brain Damage” makes a good case for just that.

Unlike lead actor Kevin Van Hentenryck’s oblivously chipper turn in “Basket Case,” this time around Henenlotter gives us a leading man whose strength is acting as opposed to eccentricity. Rick Hearst manages to make Brian a relatable everyman. In a movie that has a serious point but also exploding heads, this is key. No matter how extreme the weirdness being inflicted upon Brian gets throughout “Brain Damage,” you never loose the sense that this is just some poor regular dude and we’d act the same way if put an identical situation.
And if it’s not pretty clear already, that siuation is drug addiction.

Against all odds, “Brain Damage” actually works pretty well as a parable on addiction. All of Henenlotter’s movies tend to have a point to make, in their own way, and Brain Damage goes to great pains to illustrate how amazing drugs can be, how this can makes you oblivious to what’s really going on and that by the time you realise you’re hurting people it can be much too late. It even shows that in the end, you hurt the ones you love the most. The personification of an addict’s needy interior monolgue as a camp slug is spot on, especially when things turn nasty and Aylmer becomes Brian’s master.

Special mention goes to the cold turkey scene. Harrowing as “Trainspotting”’s cold turkey scene was, that never featured a sassy rubber monster and projectile brain hemorrhaging. Step your game up, Danny Boyle.

Still, the star of “Brain Damage” is the monster. Aylmer is unusually charming for a brain-eating monster, possesing the voice of a gently sarcastic theatre instructor and the admonishing, wry sense of humor usually found in wiley grandparents. He’s even got a showtune worked out about his Brain Juice: talk about being all class. A lot of this clearly comes from the man who gave him his voice: legendary tv horror host John Zacherle. Aylmer’s transformation from mischivous uncle into murderous monster in the eyes of Brian happens gradually, his whimsical voice becoming more and more contorted with rage as the film progresses. His method of attack (full-on forehead bites: no funny business) is consistently hilarious, as is his bemused facial expression. Between Aylmer and the heavy handed message, It can often seem like PG Woodhouse decided to write a particularly brutal Goosebumps book.

“Brain Damage” also looks and sounded great. The seedy and blue New York nighttime is a perfect venue for Brian’s multicoloured drug fuges and Joe Renzetti’s Clutch Reiser
and Gus Russo’s score alternates perfectly between trippy and creepy. The quality of the gore and violence also far outstrips “Basket Case,” the practical effects managing to be both gross and hilarious without looking the bad sort of cheap. The film also begins Henenlotter’s tradition of having the last shot of every one of his movies being aggressively weird and shocking, even compared to what came before.

For an intentionally schlocky exploitation movie, “Brain Damage” gets a lot of stuff right it didn’t need to.

Oh and I should mention “Brain Damage” also features one of my favorite cameos in any movie. While on the subway, Brian ends up sitting across from a man holding a large wicker basket. With a padlock on it. Everybody’s got problems.

Sean Mc Tiernan has a blog and a twitter. So does everyone, though. He also has a podcast on which he has a nervous breakdown once an episode, minimum. You should totally email him with your questions / insults/ offers of tax-free monetary gifts.