May 21, 2009

BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) - Henenlotter's most cerebral outing

(1988, USA)

Grindhouse pre-cursor to Requiem for a Dream

Funny, horrifying, tightly-plotted, unique. I love Brain Damage, but it's probably the director's least well-known film.

After enjoying Frank Henenlotter's first two Basket Case movies (reviewed here and here) and Frankenhooker, I was further rewarded by his next film, Brain Damage, which proved to be his best film in many respects. It actually has a meaning behind all the mauling. In fact, there's an awful lot of subtext going on here, but here's the story so far...

Brian is having trouble getting up one morning. He feels drained and dizzy and finds blood on his bedsheets. He discovers a weird-looking parasite has attached itself to his body. It looks like a turd, or maybe a large penis, and it talks! It persuades him to place it on his neck and injects a blue liquid into his brain, giving him powerful and colourful dreams. What Brian doesn't realise is that while he's dreaming, the parasite uses his body to carry him to its next meal... brains...

This would be grim material for a horror film, but Hennenlotter and his team use a large amount of humour, especially with the parasite glibly talking back to its host. The fairly basic special effects look a wacky as well, with Elmer the parasite looking a little like a cartoon character, especially the eyes. We get to see inside Brian's brain as the needle delivers its hallucinogenic load! I'd say that this is also the goriest of all his films and easily contains the most powerful shock moment, all in the same scene.

With Brian unable to resist further injections and his health and reliability rapidly declining, it's easy to see the parallel with drug addiction, but there's no preachy message, just a horrifying glimpse of a downward spiral, suitably portrayed against the backdrop of Manhattan.

The other subtext is more complex, as my 'gaydar' goes off the scale with this film. The two well-built brothers are always wearing tight white underwear. The parasite often looks and acts like a penis and even gets confusingly pulled into sexual activity. Brian appears to enjoy his drug like an orgasm, while his neck is being penetrated from behind (ahem). There's more male nudity than female (usually Hennenlotter balances the two) and while there are no explicitly gay characters, there are several possibles, and even a fantasy threesome. Again, like the drug parallel, this subtext isn't part of the story and there's no explicit message - quite an achievement considering AIDS hysteria was everywhere at the time.

Like his other films, the low budget means that the quality of acting is variable, which is a shame during the more maniacal moments. The limber parasite puppet, together with Zacharle's melodious voice, proves to be one of the best performances in the film. Though Rick Hearst does an incredible and difficult job in the lead as Brian.

My Synapse DVD (cover art pictured at top) restores the censored scenes that were missing from the UK and US versions of the film. It's presented in widescreen, which looks accurately framed, but the DVD is non-anamorphic (the black letterboxing is part of the picture). The extras are a trailer and a commentary track from
Frank Hennenlotter. I'd guess that the more recent UK and US DVDs are anamorphic widescreen.

Right, now to track down Bad Biology, Frank's first film in years...


  1. This movie looks like fun..

  2. Oh yes. It's lots fun. In a gory, trippy, parasitic sort of way... Enjoy!