“This is the start of your new life Brian, a life full of colors, music, light and euphoria. A life without pain, or hurt or suffering.”
Frank Henenlotter is a weird dude, to use a phrase from Blacula. All of his films are weird and he’s dedicated to preserving weird films in general (often through Something Weird Video). His most well known films involve a murderous lump in a basket, a woman sewn together from the body parts of prostitutes and an immortal slug that eats brains and excretes an incredibly addictive hallucinogen. These are his mainstream hits. He also does documentaries – including one about Herschell Gordon Lewis, which makes sense, and another about Banksy doesn’t seem like it would be in his wheelhouse, but totally is.
There’s a lot that’s off-putting about the movies Henenlotter makes – they often feature broken people on the fringes of society, forced by circumstance or biology to engage in acts of murder, rape and worse. And yet they all seem to have this warmth to them – this affection for their subjects, as broken and, yes, weird as they all seem to be.
I watched Basket Case for the first time recently and I ended up really liking it. This is a film that has a scene featuring a lumpy puppet grinding on a corpse, by the way. Maybe I’m just weird too.
Streaming on Shudder. Brain Damage looks about as good as a Frank Henenlotter film can, which means everything looks to be covered in layer of grime. There’s a Blu-ray release from Arrow Films that looks to be packed with extras.
Brain Damage is a movie made at the height of the 80’s “war on drugs.” A time when “Just Say No” was a marketing thing that people said as if it actually worked for anything. In that context Brain Damage can be seen as a both a statement against drug use and also as a condemnation of those who thought kicking drug addiction could ever be easy.
A young man named Brian (Rick Hearst) wakes one day to find he’s high. Like… really high. This is because he’s come into contact with a diminutive worm-like creature named Aylmer – a centuries old parasite with a horrible appearance, a soothing voice, a manipulative mind and, oh yeah, the ability to inject people with a powerful drug that’s hallucinogenic, mood altering, capable of suppressing memories and is highly addictive. Despite looking like a purple cousin of Mr. Hanky, Aylmer is able to convince Brian to keep him around because of the effects of his sweet, sweet ‘juice.’ All he wants in return for keeping Brian doped to the gills (check out those colors, man!) is the occasional human victim.
‘Cause Aylmer eats human brains.
This is all… well, weird. It borders on being too weird to buy into, actually, almost edging into camp. The thing Henenlotter has mastered, though, is to play everything absolutely straight, avoiding the post-modern self-awareness that would probably make you realize just how low budget and crappy this all looks. The characters, even Aylmer, play it straight, and so – after an adjustment period – you buy in. And it’s easier to do the worse things get for Brian.
Brian has a brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald) and a girlfriend, Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) who are worried for him and concerned about his changes in behavior. He’s out at weird hours, acting strangely, letting responsibilities lapse and lashing out when called on this. He’s behaving, in other words, like an addict. Henenlotter doesn’t get all after-school special about it – and after all, Brian’s addicted to the juices of a monstrous brain-eating worm, not smack – but he doesn’t shy away from showing us the toll Brian’s addiction takes on himself and those who love him. (And his victims – not that he remembers any of them at first.)
At first Brian attempts to maintain these relationships – even going out on a dinner date with Barbara. This proves to be a disaster as withdrawal symptoms lead him to hallucinate that his meatball marinara is full of pulsating, multi-colored brains. And the sad fact of the matter is that being high is becoming more important to Brian than anything else. To the point where he’s willing to disregard underwear soaked in blood rather than deal with the sordid possibilities. (And sordid they are.)
It’s at that point that Brian is confronted by Morris – one half of a couple that used to keep Aylmer in a tub in the same apartment building. Morris, an older man who has been going through dreadful withdrawal since Aylmer escape, gives Brian the info-dump on what Aylmer really is (an ancient creature sought after by the great and powerful for centuries) and what it really does. Faced with the reality of what his addiction costs, Brian flees his apartment in an attempt to go cold turkey.
The thing that makes this more than just a low-budget exploitation film on the dangers of drugs – a Reefer Madness by way of Herschell Gordon Lewis – is Aylmer. The erudite blue slug is voiced by John Zackerle, a 50’s horror TV host whose smooth and mannered delivery makes the monster seem civilized and reasonable, even as it’s tormenting Brian with a song and dance routine from a filthy sink. Aylmer is a puppet, an obvious one for much of its appearance, and yet it’s also – not unlike Belial in Basket Case – effective.
In the end, the lure of Aylmer’s ‘juice’ is too strong, and Brian begins to give willingly what Aylmer had allowed him to forget before. That, too, is familiar to long term drug addicts – the wearing away of the will to hold off, to deny yourself. The high becomes all encompassing and the search for the next a quest that you’ll make all kinds of sacrifices for. You’ll lose your will, your moral center, and eventually everything you care about, just to keep from coming down.
Brain damage is an exploitation film, so there’s a lot that just doesn’t work or works so cheaply that you feel slightly dirty for letting it get to you. But it’s got that Henenlotter magic that pulls you in anyway, makes you care and want to find out what happens to these people and that one slug-like thing. So I forgive dodgy animation and clunky puppet work and let the psychedelic effects wash over me like the spray of blood in that one public toilet.
The Bottom Line
In a word, Brain Damage is just weird. It’s cheap and tawdry and full of strange and gross situations that may make you wonder why you’re bothering with this crazy film, but it’s also got a draw to it, a kind of warmth that’s not easy to understand, but does make it something you can invest in. It’s also gory, gross fun on top of everything else, so you’ll be entertained at the very least. (And look for a Basket Case cameo near the end on a subway train.)