There’s a certain genius to Brain Damage (1989). Thousands of horror movies are made which simply copy the last popular one, doing the bare minimum to get a (in the past) theatrical release or (more recently) a DVD distributor. These movies feel like somebody is filling out a checklist. “Creative” kills, check. Some nudity, okay. Jump scares, gore shots, blah blah blah. Brain Damage is no less puerile, in a sense, but it is knowingly puerile. It isn’t copying somebody else’s bad ideas, it has a sackful of its own (and some good ones, to boot.)
Brain Damage tells the Faustian story of Brian, a young New Yorker who, by random chance, gets a neighbor’s ancient brain parasite attached to the back of his neck. It spits fluid into his mind (graphically portrayed as a needle spitting out blue liquid onto real brains, ick) which let him see amazing colors, lights, and things he could never perceive before. To keep the fluid coming the parasite (called Elmer) just asks for one thing – that Brian get it into situations where it can detach from him and rip out people’s brains. A simple bargain.
This leads Brian into a downward spiral of decadence that serves as a quick and dirty parallel with drug addiction. For a segment of the movie, Brian tries to quit Elmer, so he goes to a seedy hotel to detox. Elmer sits in the sink, talking to Brian while he withdraws and hallucinates, telling him how it would be so easy just to reattach. All the pain will be over.
The certain genius I mentioned earlier comes largely in the character of Elmer the Parasite. Elmer doesn’t don’t like a movie monster. He talks like a guy who wants to be your best friend. The voice acting is by John Zacherle, the East Coast dean of horror movie hosts (this used to be a thing, and I guess still is in some places in the country. The last one I saw was Zomboo in Lake Tahoe, watching a Reno station.) There’s nothing inherently creepy about the performance. It’s a completely mild-mannered, a calm and soothing voice coming from a phallic parasite.
The design of the parasite is, indeed, mostly phallic, which is highlighted in the most graphic and disgusting murder sequence in the movie. At a dive bar, a girl decides she likes the cut of Brian’s jib and decides to demonstrate her affection orally. She opens his fly, and Elmer leaps out and jams himself into the girl’s mouth. An insensate Brian grabs her head and keeps forcing Elmer in there. It is in monumental bad taste, which is the point of this kind of exploitation movie.
That is what director Frank Henenlotter says he makes: exploitation films, not necessarily horror movies. While Brain Damage contains horror style tropes, the point seems to be to show the audience things they haven’t seen before. Henenlotter is a devotee of Herschell Gordon Lewis, but with significantly more professional film-making skills. Brain Damage is a cheap movie (about a million dollar budget), and looks like a cheap movie, but one where every dollar was stretched to the limit. It’s fun to try to spot which location shots must have been done on the run and which ones they actually had to get permits and paid for.
And for a cheap movie, Brain Damage is loaded with special effects. The Elmer is sometimes a puppet, sometimes stop-motion animated. When it’s talking, it often has cartoony blue doll’s eyes and a friendly grin on its face, but when delivering its drug, its mouth would open up and enormous rows of nasty fangs twitch inside. Brian’s visions are odd, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes look like video color effects (the extras on the Blu-ray make it clear these were film effects that required extensive work, but for me they were not effective.)
A movie with a title and cover like Brain Damage has, I think, a self-selected audience: people who want to see weird stuff. As one of those people, I enjoyed the hell out of this nutty little film. It’s not a movie to take home to mom, but it’s got that mix of tawdry New York sleaziness and “Let Me Show You Something” spectacle that isn’t as common as one would hope in the horror/exploitation genre. It’s not brilliant, it’s not life-changing. But it’s not cookie-cutter, and in this genre that’s saying a lot.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Brain Damage comes with an Arrow-typical huge amount of extras. There’s a lively and entertaining commentary by the director with an interviewer to keep the track from being rambly or sparse, and a 50 minute documentary on the making of the movie with interviews from a number of key participants (though not, unfortunately, Frank Henenlotter himself) but there is a 20 minute Q&A session from a screening with the director. Beyond that, there are a number of short featurettes on special effects, on the script supervisor, on the locations that the film shot in, a short piece on a Brain Damage superfan and his collectibles, and a short animated film that contains John Zacherle’s final on-screen performance.