Brian (Rick Herbst) lives in a sparse but modern New York apartment with his older, cooler brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald) and has a pretty girlfriend in Barbara (Jennifer Lowry). Things could be worse.
He could be his elderly neighbours, for a start. We first meet this couple - Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha (Lucille Saint Peter) - as they ransack their apartment desperately in search of ... something. They're distraught when their hunt proves fruitless, to the extent that they begin foaming at the mouths.
The object of their desire is a phallic-shaped parasite with a friendly smile and a smooth, deep voice. Its name is Aylmer (voiced by an uncredited John Zacherley). And, guess what? The reason they can no longer find Aylmer is because they grew sloppy in providing his required steady diet of fresh brains, and so he's now moved on to another of the tenement block's tenants: Brian.
Brian is, of course, more than a little alarmed when he's first introduced to Aylmer. But the odd-looking creature soon reveals its benefits when it latches on to the back of Brian's neck and emits a sharp pin-like protrusion from its mouth, from which a luminous blue fluid secretes itself into Brian's brain. The trip he receives as a result is like nothing he's ever experienced before.
This new friendship is kept secret, but Barbara and Mike don't take long to start noticing a change in Brian as he becomes ever-more dependent upon Aylmer's fix - and less and less interested in spending time with them. He starts to look like shit too.
Then comes the crunch: Aylmer needs brains to feed upon, in order for him to continue to thrive. Unbeknownst to Brian, he's already assisted his parasitic drug provider in a couple of murders while high as a kite - but now he's being asked to be a willing accomplice. Naturally, Brian refuses. And that's where their relationship begins to sour...
BRAIN DAMAGE is arguably writer-director Frank Henenlotter's best film. BASKET CASE was an auspicious feature debut; FRANKENHOOKER is a whole lot of fun. But BRAIN DAMAGE ... it just gets everything right.
Firstly, there's the casting. The chemistry between the three leads is palpable, it feels true and relatable. We care for Brian: he's a good, albeit misguided, geek. Aylmer is a funny beast, simultaneously charming and sinister. A later sequence in which he taunts Brian during a bout of cold-turkey abstinence by singing a song is as creepy and unsettling as it is mordantly funny.
Visually, this is Henenlotter's strongest offering by far. The blue-hued artificial lighting and keenly framed compositions ensure this is always subtly striking fare (that is, it looks great - but not too great so as to draw you out of the unfurling drama), lending the film a timeless visual quality which belies its 1988 heritage. Cinematographer Bruce Torbet deserves a special nod here.
The atmospheric electronic score is memorable and effective. Henenlotter's script is smart, snappy, often amusing, and cruel precisely when it needs to be. It's perfectly pitched, and delivered with professional glee from the aforementioned excellent cast. Tonally, this feels like an unusually dark, bloody John Waters film: the array of quirky characters, the often pithy one-liners, the homoerotic undertones, the bad taste comedy...
Then there are the effects. From the charmingly crude stop-motion animation of Aylmer's movements and Brian's first trip to Brian's gory brain-leaking hallucination and a show-stopping blowjob set-piece which belongs to the realm of "once seen never forgotten" moments in exploitation cinema, Al Magliochetti and Gabe Bartalos deliver the goods in spades.
It's hard to believe that the film was initially met with lukewarm responses, and only began to gather a cult following on video a few years after release. It's a classic, and stands the test of time exceptionally well.
In short, if you don't like BRAIN DAMAGE, you are wrong.
BRAIN DAMAGE comes to UK blu-ray and DVD in a stunning dual format release, courtesy of Arrow Video. We were sent a copy of the DVD for review purposes.
The region 2 disc contains the uncut film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The 16x9 transfer is struck from a print which is in impressive shape, free from blemishes throughout. The remastered picture looks fabulous even in standard definition: bold colours which are true to Henenlotter's highly stylised original vision, strong sharp detail and deep, solid blacks throughout. A healthy sense of depth is achieved for that authentic filmic experience, ensuring this is by far the best BRAIN DAMAGE has ever looked on home video.
English audio is presented in both mono and 5.1 mixes. Both are well-rounded and evenly balanced affairs. Optional English subtitles exist for the hard-of-hearing. These are easy to read and well-written during playback.
An animated main menu page gives way to a static scene selection menu allowing access to the movie via the customary 12 chapters.
Bonus features are in abundance here.
These begin with a brand new audio commentary track from Henenlotter. He's flanked by moderator by Mike Hunchback and speaks about loving being able to shoot on sets in 35mm for the first time. The director has a whole wealth of information to impart, in fact, from discussing his aborted production INSECT CITY, to problems on set during certain FX sequences, to the thematic metaphors running throughout, to the actors concerned, to the reason why Zacherley was never credited, and so much more. Henenlotter speaks at 100mph and is never boring as a result. This is one of the best commentaries I've heard in quite some time, and a veritable treasure trove of trivia for fans.
There's also the option of playing the film with an isolated score track, accentuating the ambient electronic strains of Clutch Reiser and Gus Russo's sublime compositions.
The above supplemental materials can be accessed via the main menu's "Set-Up" sub-folder. For the remainder of the extras on offer, you'll need to negotiate the same page's "Special Features" sub-menu.
"Listen to the Light" is an all-new documentary containing interviews with actor Rick Herbst, producer Edgar Ievins, editor James Kwei, first assistant director Greg Lamberson, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti, special FX artist Gabe Bartalos and make-up artist Dan Frye. This 54-minute Arrow production takes an in-depth look into the making of BRAIN DAMAGE, starting with each Ievins explaining how he met Henenlotter and how the film came about.
Comprising of a great deal of talking-head interviews interspersed with a generous spattering of archive behind-the-scenes photographs, this is an engaging and enlightening documentary. We get the odd clip from the film too, but unfortunately no director contributions. There's a shortage of footage from the shoot too. Still, what we do get is most worthy indeed.
Bartalos returns for the 10-minute "The Effects of Brain Damage", in which he tells of how he first became attached the production in 1986. He focuses mainly on the creation of Aylmer (or "Elmer" as Arrow's menu text will have it). Bartalos is an interesting host, generous with the reveal of his techniques and blessed with an immaculate memory. It helps, of course, that in this instance we do get some very nice (VHS-quality) behind-the-scenes footage to accompany his recollections.
"Animating Elmer" (Arrow's words, not mine - see what I mean!) is similar to the above, but as told from Magliochetti's point of view. This looks more into the stop-motion animation involved in bringing Bartalos's creations to breathing, moving life. This featurette runs just shy of 7 minutes in length.
"Karen Ogle: A Look Back" affords the stills photographer, script supervisor and assistant editor 4 enjoyable minutes in which she shares her fond memories of working with Frank on the film.
"Elmer's Turf" sees journalist Michael Gingold revisiting several of the New York locations used in BRAIN DAMAGE. Henenlotter turns up too to offer added insight, in this entertaining 9-minute offering.
Super-fan Adam Skinner is predictably enthusiastic while discussing the merits of the film in the 10-minute "Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession". This guy is serious about BRAIN DAMAGE - his devotion goes far beyond merely turning up for his interview wearing a T-shirt of the film: he's met with Henenlotter several times, and even formed a band based on his favourite movie. Yes, we get to see the two-man band perform too - in front of a projector sheet showing a screening of ... guess what?!
A 20-minute audience Q&A session with Henenlotter follows, recorded in March 2016 at the Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels. "I wanted to do a Faustian film" the director explains near the start, before answering a string of questions from compere Ewan Cant in typically energetic, candid fashion. You want to know about the film's budget, locations, visual effects, sound effects, and how the location streets were littered with used condoms? You've come to the right place!
Three generous galleries follow - between them they cover stills, behind-the-scenes photographs and ephemera - and include some photos taken on the shoot by the aforementioned Ogle.
The film's original 75-second trailer scrubs up very well thanks to an exceptionally clean print being utilised. It's a fun retro ride.
Then there's "Bygone Behemoth", a -minute animated piece from Harry Chaskin. This is notable for containing a brief appearance from John Zacherley in his final onscreen credit. It's a witty monochrome love letter to 50s B-movies and, in particular, Ray Harryhausen creatures.
Also available on blu-ray.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|