ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Brain Damage (1988) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha (Lucille Saint-Peter) are an elderly couple living in a New York apartment who keep a strange creature named Aylmer. One night, when they come back home carrying his favourite nosh - some animal brains procured from the local butcher - they discover, to their horror, that he has disappeared. They frantically search the house high and low but to no avail.
Meanwhile one of their neighbours, a young punk named Brian (Rick Hearst), awakens from a nap to find that he’s too ill to go on a date to a local rock gig with his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) - so he asks his brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald) to accompany her instead. After they leave, when he touches the back of his neck he can see some blood on his fingers. He lies on the bed again in an attempt to recover from his groggy feelings. However, while he does so he starts to hallucinate the ceiling lamp as a huge eyeball and soon imagines himself being surrounded by lapping blue waters.
After his trippy experience he hears a commotion in the bathroom, and asks whoever/whatever is in the apartment to come out. When he looks in the mirror he sees Aylmer - a worm-like creature with a huge brain and blue eyes - peering over his shoulder. After a conversation Aylmer tells him that he will create a world of no pain filled with bright colours just for him, by injecting him in the brain through the back of his neck. Unfortunately, while he is in the euphoric haze brought on by the creature’s “juice”, the latter feeds itself by gorging on the brains of unfortunate nearby victims.
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A rather blatant anti-drug metaphor posing as a blackly comic horror flick, Brain Damage was New York exploitation director Frank Henenlotter’s second feature-length movie after 1982’s Basket Case. Henenlotter’s work is something of an acquired taste and, while he has some undeniable gonzo talent and visual flair, his films suffer from overdone or outright amateur performances as well as severe budgetary limitations. They also tend to feel like entertaining shorts stretched out to feature length without enough storyline to warrant the expanded running time, and this is the case here.
Mind you, both Brain Damage and the original Basket Case are arguably his most enjoyable films as the grungy production values, amateur-night hamming and unfettered splatter add a certain homegrown charm that works well in context; they are practically a cinematic kin to punk rock music in their audacious enthusiasm and DIY aesthetic. His later films (Basket Case 2 & 3, Frankenhooker), given comparatively lavish financial backing courtesy of producer James Glickenhaus, feel a bit too polished and anaemic to have the same impact despite their moments of bizarre humour and twisted visual imagination.
The psychedelic optical effects resulting from Aylmer’s juice are basic but effective, typically involving drawing on the negative with a dayglo pen, or using a composite colour layer processes. There’s a good deal of gore, with a heavy emphasis on the depiction of brain matter. Aylmer himself has been been brought to life via a somewhat variable mix of animatronics and stop motion animation, but despite any shortcomings in this department he has been imbued with a lot of suave character courtesy of John Zacherle’s uncredited voice acting. Director Henenlotter displays an undeniable energy in his camerawork via numerous dexterous Steadicam and dolly shots, but he also manages to use colour effectively. Many scenes have a curious innocence about them that resembles a children’s film more than an outright horror one, in keeping with the LSD-like heightened sense of colour brought on by Aylmer’s injections. During the cold turkey sequences the colour scheme becomes more washed out - a subtle effect that’s picked out more starkly on the HD format.
Unfortunately, while the film has its lo-fi charm, it runs short on fresh ideas well before the 86-minute running time is up. There are a couple of great moments of warped humour here, the first involving Brian being picked up by a nymphomaniac at a punk rock gig, who then receives a nasty surprise when she attempts to give him a blow job. There’s also a pivotal cold turkey scene that features our main protagonist imagining himself pulling his own brains out through his ear, and a hilarious song entitled “Aylmer’s Tune”. On the whole though the film tends to settle into a rather repetitive pattern of Aylmer injecting Brian through the brain in close-up, cheap hallucinatory optical effects and lengthy brain-eating death scenes accompanied by a chugging synth motif. In a way it represents the repetitious cycle of a junkie’s endless and intensely selfish quest for a fix rather well, but cinematically-speaking it wears thin towards the end.
Still, Brain Damage is definitely worth a watch for those who like their horror grungy and quirky.
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Frank Henenlotter
Script: Frank Henenlotter
Starring: Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter, Vicki Darnell, Kevin Van Hentenryck, John Zacherle (voice)
The picture sports some grain and artefacts, but this is undoubtedly the fault of the original film’s low budget rather than this HD master. As is usual with Arrow the colours are as rich as a Mexican festival, and the background details easy to pick out. Just look at the books on Morris and Martha’s shelves during the early scenes in their apartment.
Some of the voices, in particular Jennifer Lowry’s, tend to sound a bit too faint in the mix (again perhaps due to the original low budget nature of the audio recording). Still, the screams of victims and the accompanying synth pieces fare better, jumping out quite dramatically at the listener.
The essay “A Mind and a Terrible Thing: The Story of Brain Damage” by Michael Gingold. He discusses his initial experiences watching a heavily-cut VHS screener, as well as the film’s production, utilising quotes from interviews with Henenlotter. We learn that John Zacherle, the uncredited voice of Aylmer, was a TV personality known for hosting horror films during the 1950s and 60s - and Henenlotter was so in awe of the man that he paid him twice his asking price. As well as the essay there’s a gallery of video and poster artwork.
On the disc itself are the following:
Audio Commentary by Frank Henenlotter
Frank gabs away excitedly throughout, talking about how the various effects shots were done, the material the MPAA insisted on cutting for the original release, his long-standing fandom for John Zacherle and mucho trivia about the various sets and locations. He describes the production as being a home movie-style affair, with family and crew members playing background characters in the punk rock gig scene and a few others. We also learn that Zacherle wasn’t credited on the release print (despite his cult following) because he was a Screen Actor’s Guild member working on a non-union film, and would have been fined by or expelled from the organisation had they found out. Frank reels off the commentary with such infectious enthusiasm that it’s a joy to spend an hour and a half in his company.
Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage
A 54-minute documentary featuring interviews with various people involved in the production including makeup FX artist Gabe Bartalos, producer Edgar Ievins, actor Rick Herbst and assistant director Greg Lamberson. An extra even more entertaining than the film itself, it delves into the low-budget production circumstances and reveals how a number of key effects sequences were created. The interviewees regale us with plenty of enjoyable anecdotes and stories: Greg reveals that Frank Hennenlotter used to visit the video store on 42nd Street where he worked to procure Basket Case tapes for his friends; the converted factory where the film was produced was situated in an area heavy with hookers and junkies; the hotel where part of the film was shot was hired from some rather intimidating mafia types; Kevin Van Hentenryck had to wear a wig for his cameo to be recognisable as Duane Bradley from Basket Case - and ironically ended up being mistaken for rock star Eddie Van Halen by an onlooker. Well worth a watch for an eye-opening insight into the hilarious and often scary world of shooting low budget films in New York during the era.
The Effects of Brain Damage
A hugely enjoyable featurette presented by Gabe Bartalos. With the help of archive studio footage and stills, he talks us through how the various elaborate animatronic and makeup effects were created. He ends by showing us some old prosthetic pieces retrieved from storage.
Visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti talks about the Aylmer scenes that used stop-motion, the sparks going across Brian’s brain during the injection scenes and a couple of FX that weren’t used either due to budgetary limitations or because they didn’t work within their specific scenes. He also reveals that he got so bored drawing the brain sparks on the negative that he added in some subliminal letter shapes spelling out “GREAT FX HIRE AL MAG”. As with Gabe’s featurette it’s a lot of fun, especially for aficionados of practical effects.
Karen Ogle: A Look Back
An interview with Karen, who performed still photographer, script supervisor and assistant editor roles during the shoot. She talks about her experiences shooting stills on set, as well as working with Gabe Bartalos and Frank Henenlotter. She also reveals that when her mother went to see the film she didn’t like it - but this was something Karen was glad of as she is “more of a Sound of Music person” than a horror fan.
Elmer’s Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage
Horror journalist Michael Gingold visits the film’s locations, briefly interviewing Frank Henenlotter in the process. As he retraces Brian’s footsteps it’s fascinating seeing the differences between the locations then and now.
Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession
An interview with superfan Adam Skinner. He talks us through his insanely huge collection of memorabilia - everything from posters, to T-shirts, to a copy of the script received from Frank Henenlotter himself, to a few items hand-made by his girlfriend. He finishes with a couple of tracks from his band The Statutory Apes, who based an entire album of songs around the Brain Damage DVD chapter listing. When the featurette finishes we also get a few extra selectable songs from some guest bands (ranging from in genre from punk to electro-pop) that he invited to play on the album. Great fun!
Frank Henenlotter Q & A
Recorded March 2016 at the Offscreen Film Festival, Brussels. There’s a lot of overlap with his commentary on the Blu Ray, but nonetheless there are a few interesting things of note here, such as the fact that Rick Hearst’s belly gurgling was used as a sound effect in the film.
An animated short by Harry Chaskin, featuring John Zacherle in his final onscreen credit homaging his old horror presenter days. It’s a charming B & W affair, mixing stop-motion with a little live action, about a washed-up Godzilla-like movie monster reminiscing over better days.
A gallery, trailer and isolated score round out this exceptional collection of extras.
In my view the film’s more of a lo-fi curiosity than a bona-fide classic. Still, it’s easy to see why it has gained its cult following, and the extras are so good they make the disc an absolute must-buy regardless.