Brain Damage Review
An old couple return home, one with a package fresh from the butcher. "He'll enjoy these!", they say, running into the bathroom to feed the contents to someone in the bathtub. But whoever - or whatever! - was in there is now missing. The package falls to the floor were fresh brains tumble out and the Abernathys collapse, their mouths foaming. In a neighbouring apartment, Brian (Rick Herbst) is sleeping through the evening before a date with his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry). When she calls round, she finds that Brian is in no state to go out. Not quite sleeping, Brian is in the first hour of a night of bizarre hallucinations in which water washes through his apartment onto his bed and the ceiling of his bedroom breathes as though alive. Waking up, Brian finds blood has stained his bed and that a fresh wound on the back of his neck is the cause of his injury. Looking in the mirror, Brian sees a monster looking over his shoulder that introduces itself as Aylmer (John Zacherle). And Aylmer is hungry...for brains!
We're back in the world of Frank Henenlotter and monsters. Actually, one character, a leather-pet in a nightclub, goes so far as to say, "That's a real monster!" but her hand has discovered Aylmer's latest hiding place and confuses Brian's penis for Aylmer. It will be last thing she is confused over as Aylmer pops out of Brian's trousers and through a visceral and bloody take on fellatio, has her brains sucked out through her mouth. By any consideration, Aylmer is a fine monster. Witty, urbane and with a taste for a very specific part of the human anatomy, Aylmer sings, dances, flatters and happily munches on brains while supplying Brian with a juice that has him experiencing wonderfully psychedelic visions any and every minute of the day or night. As Aylmer tells him, "This is the start of your new life Brian...a life without pain or worry or loneliness...A life of light and pleasure!" Like any good dealer, Aylmer gives Brian his first taste for free.
The particularly brilliant part of Aylmer's creation is his ability to secrete a hallucinogenic substance directly into the brain. At least in the first day or two, until dealing with the brain matter that he leaves in Brian's underpants or on his shirt, it's hard to think of anything particularly awful about owning and keeping an Aylmer. Indeed, at a certain time in my life - those student days! - I would have been pushed to think of anyone who wouldn't have wanted an Aylmer of their very own and would have happily fed him brains, fresh or otherwise, or a supply of his juice.
Of course, what Henenlotter is warning us about here is drugs. He doesn't actually say that drugs are bad - Brian's experiences in a breaker's yard psychedelically lit up by Aylmer are portrayed far too temptingly for this to be an anti-drugs rant - but that drugs will eventually tear you apart. In Brian's case it literally splits his head open. However, with Henenlotter writing and directing, Brain Damage is less a warning than an explosion of blood, brains and psychedelia on the screen. Aylmer crunches through bone in search of brains and pops out of Brian's mouth amidst the flashing lights of a subway train only to leave him with the comedown of a brain-stained suit jacket. Even the scene of Brian going cold-turkey in a seedy hotel is lit up by his tearing his own brain out through his ear, which plops to the floor as a final note of insult to Brian, while Aylmer sits in a wash basin and belts out Elmer's Tune. "Why are the stars always winkin' and blinkin' above?...It's not the season, the reason is plain as the moon...It's just Elmer's Tune!" In a nod to his own Basket Case, Duane Bradley and a wicker basket make a brief cameo appearance, there's a suitably dingy nightclub and lashings of blood.
But you only need look at a Syd Barrett or Roky Erickson to know that Brain Damage will end badly with a alley-side tussle leading to Brian's brain frying under the influence of Aylmer's juice. However, there isn't the impression that Henenlotter is actually making a serious point in this. His heart, as it was in Basket Case, has more of a place for the grisly horror, the laughs that come so very easily and the colourful visual effects, trails and rippling walls and ceilings that are the friend of everyone who trips on acid. Aylmer is just a very literal friend but it's he who Henenlotter likes most and this film gives a drug-pushing, brain-eating worm as sympathetic a place on the screen as one can imagine.
Anamorphically presented in 1.85:1, Brain Damage looks washed out. Colours are not as bright as they could be, the picture looks a little too dark and the most prominent colours are not the red of blood and brains but the dingy blacks and greys of the streets were Brian and Aylmer go hunting. Unfortunately, that's the greatest impression that, other than the film itself, one takes away from watching Brain Damage on DVD. The picture doesn't look as clean or as bright as it could and while the original production must bear some responsibility for this, the DVD mastering could have been improved had the picture been cleaned up and presented to flatter. There are even a couple of obvious faults when audio tracks are visible, including one very noticeable one as Brian pulls an ear off, when the frame lurches first to the left and then the right showing the analogue optical audio track.
The original stereo soundtrack has been remixed for this release into DD5.1 (optional), which really does the film no favours at all. It sounds as though Second Sight haven't done very much more than delay the stereo signal to create a surround soundtrack, something that they didn't really have to do as the original track is absolutely fine as it is. There's a small amount of background noise - noticeable but not that annoying - but certainly very little to complain about. Some of the dialogue can sound mumbled but, having seen this film in the cinema and on VHS, that's been the case with previous presentation and points to problems in the original production. Finally, there are no subtitles.
"So it is a penis and not a turd?" The tone of the Commentary is established very early on with writer/director Henenlotter being joined by Bob Martin and Scooter McRae and having to answer questions of just what it is that Aylmer is meant to resemble. Actually, this question is remark is almost as tasteful as this commentary gets, which includes a story that, whilst repeatable here, ruins the complete surprise about Henenlotter bringing it in out of nowhere. For those who've heard this track, it concerns a limo, a $50 bill and what is charmingly described as a cumsucker.
However, that aside, this is a great commentary track. Henenlotter talks a little about the use of sets and locations but his real interest are the stories that he can remember from the shoot, the kind of places they found themselves in and, with so much of Brain Damage being shot on the street, the people they met while making the film. Without any aspirations to making a classic horror, Henenlotter still had a tough time from distributors, reviewers and the MPAA - he tells a story about the MPAA phoning up the film company prior to the release of Frankenhooker and telling them that the film had gained the first ever S-certificate, "...for shit!" - but reminds the viewer that he simply got on with making a film that would entertain him and, he hoped, an audience. This commentary track is the perfect accompaniment to that. As well as a commentary, this DVD offers a Photo Gallery and a Trailer (1m16s).
It's not a particularly definitive thought on the two films but I have a slight preference for Brain Damage over Basket Case. Like The Evil Dead II, which saw Raimi reining in the more grisly moments of his debut feature, Brain Damage is a less bloody, less sleazy affair than Basket Case but he still has time for drugs, sex, a plate of pasta'n'brains and a spectacular and literal final blowout.