Jarv’s Schlock Vault Brain Damage
Oh my. Well, well… ready to beg for it, Brian? Ready to crawl across the floor and plead for my juice? No? Not yet? Well, give it a few more hours, Brian. Whenever you want the pain to stop, I’ll be here. Whenever you want to stop hurting, you come to me. When the pain gets so great you think you’re turning inside-out, just ask for my juice.
I have now nearly completed something that every single B-movie junkie should aspire to finish. Today is a very special day, as I am now only 1 film from reviewing every single Frank Henenlotter film! This is some achievement, and what’s surprising is that I seem to have managed it by accident. Honestly, I wasn’t intending to intentionally watch every single one of his films, even if the subject matter did appeal to me, but nevertheless, I am on the verge of completing this miraculous achievement. Today’s effort, Brain Damage (Called Elmer in some places) is the penultimate one, and what an absolute cracker of a film.
Contains “Drugs are Bad” messages and spoilers below.
Henenlotter isn’t the most subtle human being on the planet. Frankly, he’s a schlock hound, and makes what can only be described as gleefully nasty little films. What is surprising, though, is that this one is more of a message film than the illustrious Basket Case trilogy. Well, I suppose they’re message films as well, but in their case the message is “don’t fuck with mutant rubber telepathic conjoined twins”. Brain Damage, on the other hand, is a clear “drugs are bad” message film, and while it is astonishingly, incredibly unsubtle, it’s also completely twisted and damned entertaining.
Brain Damage opens with an old couple going frantic in their apartment, tearing the place apart searching for something. Repeated cries of “where is he”, and it’s apparent that they’ve lost something very dear to them. Perhaps a nice hamster, or maybe a pet gerbil of some description. In Brian’s (Rick Hearst) room, in the next flat down, he’s meant to be preparing for his date with Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), but he’s not feeling well. So, he retreats to his bed, and allows his brother Mike (Gordon McDonald), who is obviously in love with Barbara to take him for her. Waking in the middle of the night, he’s aghast to discover he’s bleeding from the back of his neck all over his bed. However, he feels, frankly, magnificent and is undergoing some seriously psychedelic hallucinations. Unfortunately for him, a penis shaped worm pops up and starts talking to him about “the colours” and so forth. Now, if this were me, I’d run away, because I’m like that, but Brian really digs the trip, so allows the worm to attach itself to the back of his head and inject blue fluid directly into his cortex so that he can experience more of the same. Wandering around the streets, he comes across a junkyard, and unfortunately his worm eats the security guard’s brain.
Fast forward a few weeks, and Brian is exhibiting signs of increasingly bizarre behaviour. He’s filled his room with buckets of water, refuses to go to his job and spends days sitting in a bubble bath. He’s, basically, constantly wasted on the worm’s juice. In the meantime, the old couple have tracked the worm down to Brian, and give him a brief history lesson. Apparently, it’s an Alien leech called Aylmer (NOT ELMER), and is both millennia old and highly desired. Of course, they want it back. Brian, being undeterred by their warnings about feeding him human brain (He’ll get too strong), jacks up again and goes out clubbing. Despite being obviously wasted, Brian scores a local tart with disastrous death-by-fellatio consequences. I’m not joking about this, she unzips his fly, then Aylmer shoots into her mouth to chew through to her brain, while Brian, with a look of sexual rapture plastered across his face, grips her head in the manner of one trying to pierce a basketball with one’s fingertips.
We now pass into the more unpleasant section of the film. Brian dumps Barbara, and runs away to a seedy motel to try to get clean. Putting Aylmer in a sink, he chains himself to the radiator to try to go cold turkey to get off the blue juice. Aaylmer, by now, isn’t even pretending to be Brian’s friend any more, he’s obviously a parasite, and taunts the suffering junky with how much he needs a fix. Eventually, inevitably, Brian cracks, and we move into the messy finale, which ends pretty much as expected with gallons of bloodshed and a few deaths.
This is a great film. It’s actually legitimately good, rather than just being schlocky good. Hearst is on fire as Brian, able to pass a range of emotions transparently across his face, and playing the various stages of addiction to a tee. Lowry is sweet as sugar as Barbara, but the character is more than a bit underwritten. Nevertheless, the star turn here is the demented voice work from John Zacherle as Aylmer. Fluctuating between being persuasive and threatening, Aylmer clearly holds the keys to Brian’s sanity and he knows it. This is one of the least subtle dealer metaphors ever filmed (he is, literally, a leech), but it’s downright hilarious and the voice work is in no small way responsible. On the acting front, it’s kind of fun when I spotted Kevin Van Hentenryck with his wicker basket on the subway, but that’s just a minor note.
As a horror movie, Brain Damage is a strange beast. The ending is, yes, horrific and also kind of sad, but by then we’ve come through a veritable gamut of bizarre images. The psychedelic effects are odd, and don’t look particularly fun to begin with, but the brains in the spaghetti is downright repulsive. Aylmer himself, actually, is kind of goofy looking, with cartoonish eyes and a big daft grin (until his head hinges back to reveal the proboscis), which adds to how disconcerting the film is. Admittedly, the death by blow job is a particularly grim scene, and intentionally so, but Brain Damage mixes absurdity and nastiness without skipping a beat. I think the overall effect is to mirror intoxication, and if this is the case, then full marks to Henenlotter. The detoxing scene is both comical and painful to watch, and the nearest equivalent I can get is the cold turkey sequence in Trainspotting, but the ending, above all else, is actually kind of sad. There’s a real sense of pathos to Barbara’s demise, and a feeling that it’s utterly unfair and unearned. The final scene of the film itself is grotesque as Henenlotter lays out the metaphorical consequences of an overdose with Brian’s skull literally being blown off and pouring white light into the room.
Obviously, this is a “Drugs are bad” film, but it’s interesting in that it deals more with the relationship between Brian and Aylmer than the usual addiction screeds do. In this case, the dealer is a parasite, seducing him with false promises and honeyed words, before eventually isolating him from his nearest and dearest and sucking the life from him. Aylmer has a certain charm and his seductive lies hold a clear appeal, but Brian is also obviously weak willed and unable to act until in far over his head, a point which the film (for a change) unsubtly makes with a big visual image. I can’t think of any other drugs films where the nature of the relationship between an addict and his supplier is laid out as starkly as it is here.
Overall, this is an excellent film. It’s gory and entertaining, blackly humorous on more than one occasion, and although so unsubtle it could almost be a Romero effort, I had plenty of fun with it. I do, as I always do with Henenlotter films, recommend it, as it may be a tad obvious, but when the blatant is as entertaining as this, who gives a shit?
I just need to get my hands on Bad Biology, and then I’ve completed the entire Henenlotter catalogue. Huzzah!
Until next time,