I love it when I go into a movie knowing little to nothing about it. Really, truly nothing about it. All I knew before I popped in Arrow’s blu-ray to Brain Damage was that it has a cult following, and growing up, it was featured on a lot of lists for most disgusting horror movies. One of the things that I love about Arrow’s releases (something I first experienced with their recent Re-Animator release — and, yes, I’m behind on their game) is the palette of clips playing on the menu screen. While I set up my specs before I pressed play, the little bit I saw already shook me. I thought to myself, “This isn’t going to be pretty, is it?”
This 1988 nasty starts off with an older couple: the husband’s complaining about overpaying for the brains he just bought. “Surely he means something else,” I thought. Nope, he literally meant fresh brains for their unknown pet. But to their surprise, he’s flown the coup. It’s at that point we meet Brian (Rick Hearst), who’s not feeling good for some reason. His girlfriend and brother are concerned, but they go to a show while letting him rest. What he thought was an aliment like the flu turns out to be a sort of leech/parasite/abomination that’s attached himself to Brian. It gives him some good sensations by putting its own blood into his brain, acting as a drug that makes Brian see life in colorful ways (still, better than the flu!). And just like a drug, Brian gets hooked, and the craving takes over. The little bastard bug, named Alymer (there’s a good joke about his name in the middle of the movie), tells Brian he’s more than happy to keep making him feel good. All he wants to do is feast on human brains. So, basically, a conundrum. “Yeah, I shouldn’t be eating during this,” I thought (I thought a lot during this movie).
And all of that’s just in the first ten minutes. Brain Damage is trippy as hell, in the most affectionate sense. The first drug trek Brian goes on is unexpected, and surprisingly beautiful in its presentation. This movie was made for very little money, and yet the filmmakers all had the best sense of how to use each penny to their advantage. The lights Brian sees, the blue water that engulfs him…it’s all hypnotic (and it looks gorgeous on blu). Honestly, it’s just as impressive as the animatronics/puppetry that went into creating Alymer. That is, until the next scene where Brian has a conversation with Alymer, chilling in a bucket of water, and — wait, Alymer can talk?! Of course the little bastard can! Voiced by the legendary horror host John Zacherley (who had to go uncredited for union reasons), Alymer is freaking sinister in all the right ways. He’s a smooth-talking carefree soul that sees nothing wrong with exchanging services (his blue serum) for goods (the lives of humans). He’s grotesque and charming all at the same time, just like all of Brain Damage. Did I mention all of this is just in the first ten minutes?
All of this has a certain feel I couldn’t point my finger on. Then I realized this film was from former English professor-turned-writer/director Frank Henenlotter, who’s also responsible for Frankenhooker and the Basket Case trilogy. Henenlotter (who, at this point, reminded me of another filmmaker I was already familiar with by the name of Gregg Araki, look him up) made an impression on me with the first Basket Case, which is also alluring and stomach-churning at the same time. His films create a euphoria that manifests into cloud-like hands that wrap around your brain to massage your sanity, making you feel like the insanity you’re about to ease into is perfectly normal. Basket Case is especially soul-wrenching because of its brilliant imagery. As I stated earlier, it’s impressive what Henenlotter and his crew did with the money they had, setting up locations and set pieces that are simple enough to obtain, yet feel like a far-away world that’s completely jacked.
As things get progressively worse for Brian, Hearst’s acting gets better. As much as I’ve praised Henenlotter’s filmmaking and the crew’s dedication to creating a monster and his surroundings, all of that is glued together by Hearst, and he’s batshit giddy about his acting debut. The supporting cast are decent only because they give him something to bounce off of, but the main performance forms a perfect marriage with the madness surrounding him. The first time he’s on the juice, he explores a regular junkyard, where he’s let loose to see the colors around him. Hearst lets it all loose, and it’s noteworthy. I also love this scene because this is the best example of the kind of drug Alymer puts him on. Brain Damage isn’t subtle about its winks towards showing drug addiction incarnate, but being subtle isn’t anybody’s strong suit here, and thank goodness for that. They just go for it. The scenes where Brian does everything humanly possible to get his, well, humanity back, Alymer simply sings an original tune and laughs it off. I would imagine actual drug addiction plays out like this. That moment of singing was the creepiest, most cringe-inducing part of the whole movie…that, and the infamous (and previously unavailable) fellatio scene. Gross.
Brain Damage goes for the kill, and frankly doesn’t really care about logic or any attempt at logic. This is a fever dream of a horror movie, zigging and zagging through the fabric of decency and humanity, and giddily laughs as it tears it all to shreds. Seriously, once you see Alymer, imagine him just enjoying your brain stem while he stares at you with those small, yet ginormous blue eyes. And he’s smiling.
Don’t forget to check out the episode of Horror Business that covered this very movie! Justin and Liam discuss Henenlotter’s commentary on addiction, as well as how Guillermo del Toro addresses the subject in Cronos. Click here!