When I think of cult filmmakers, one of the first names to burst from my brainpan is Frank Henenlotter. From Basket Case (1982) to Bad Biology (2008), his horror films are always loaded with qualities that elude mainstream appeal, such as bizarre humor, over the top gore, and a crazy circus geek aesthetic that almost dares you to look away. Speaking of splattering cranium matter, his second feature length film, Brain Damage (1988) checks off all the Henenboxes and even one more – a trenchant social message about addiction (if you want it).
Produced by Palisades Partners and given a limited release in April, Brain Damage was Henenlotter’s long awaited follow up to Basket Case; well, long awaited at least for horror fans of that legendary micro budget wonder. While the ultra low budget ($35,000) of that gem gave it a unique and gritty charm, Brain Damage’s considerably deeper pockets ($600,000) allowed Henenlotter to upgrade his vision to a nicer grindhouse theater with less dubious liquids on the seats and floor. (Okay, same liquids, perhaps just cleaned up quicker.)
Meet Morris (Theo Barnes – Big Thumbs) and Martha (Lucille Saint-Peter), an elderly couple in an apartment building desperately searching for…something they’ve lost, upending everything in their abode in a desperate and frantic search. The neighbors haven’t seen their thing either, even though they insist on looking in the bathtub of Mike (Gordon MacDonald – The Brave One) and Brian (Rick Hearst, here as Herbst – General Hospital), two brothers from next door. Brian asks Mike to take out his girlfriend Barbra (Jennifer Lowry – The Down Boys: It Could Happen to You!) since he’s sick, and for good reason; it turns out the something Morris is looking for has grown quite attached to Brian – literally.
Meet Brian’s new friend Aylmer, a parasitic being who induces states of euphoria in his hosts on one condition: they must allow him to consume brains, preferably human ones. Brian, reluctant at first, soon gives in to Aylmer’s demands so he can get another hit of the blue juice Aylmer squirts into his brain stem, causing psychedelic bliss and aqua-tinged orgasmic delights. The pair hit the town, with Aylmer giving Brian just enough of a hit to keep him riding a perpetual high as our psychotropic sex toy (he’s very phallic looking on purpose) finds his way to people’s brains through any way possible, including the film’s most notorious scene which gives new meaning to the term “head”. As much as Brian is hooked on Aylmer’s Kool-Aid (and tries unsuccessfully to go cold turkey), he’s worried the singing syphilitic salami will go after Barbra and Mike. Can Brian kick the habit for good before it’s too late?
The biggest difference the increased fundage makes between Henenlotter’s first and second film is having the means to bring his creatures to life; while Basket Case’s Belial certainly holds a lot of herky stop motion charm, Aylmer, through the incredible effects work of Gabriel Bartalos (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and his crew lives, breathes, and interacts with the cast. This is crucial; Aylmer has to be at least halfway believable to sell the concept, which he is, coming across like a particularly demented Rankin-Bass critter. (I’m picturing him attached to Sam the Snowman’s head sucking out icicles. Try to play that banjo now, Sam.)
Henenlotter was able to film on 35mm this time around, and it shows; the cinematography by Bruce Torbet (who also gave Basket Case its splendid squalor) is bright and vivid, especially during Brian’s hallucinations which crackle and hum with a vibrant colorfast. But blue is the primary tone in Aylmer’s juice (didn’t they play the second stage at ‘97’s Lollapalooza?) as well as Brian’s visions, offering a reflection of the detachment that comes with addiction; from friends, loved ones, and ultimately, reality.
But hey lest we forget this is a Henenlotter, the film is loaded with great big gobs of greasy grue that was unfortunately excised when Paramount released it on tape back in ’88. (This may also have contributed to the film’s somewhat muted response on release.) But the real joy comes from the voice work of Aylmer by legendary TV horror host, John Zacharle, AKA Zacherley. His calming, sing-songy refrains to Brian are, I suppose what an addict may hear as the voice of reason; but Zacharle brings an extra charge to Aylmer, a cheery yet malevolent lilt that puts the character in the upper echelon of unique villains.
Some people will point out that the film is a bit episodic, therefore collapsing somewhat as a narrative; but perhaps being an addict is all about getting to the next hit and nothing else? In that regard then, the structure is very effective, and with Brain Damage Henenlotter cemented his status as the pusher of bizarre cinema with a good heart; and when you head to 42nd street, he’s guaranteed to spike your treats with something profane and humorous. Just remember, if you find yourself glued to the seat, it’s probably because the film is so damn riveting. Probably.
Brain Damage is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.Next: Class of 88: Revisiting the “Ghost with the Most” in BEETLEJUICE