Brain Damage (1988) Blu-ray Review: The Greatest Drug Parable Never Aired

While it has been something of a long time since he brought us a new feature film, it’s still safe to say no one can make a horror movie like Frank Henenlotter. Sure, a countless many may have tried, but no one has ever truly succeeded in emulating Mr. Henenlotter’s bizarre form. From that glorious moment in 1982 when his first feature film, Basket Case ‒ the story of a man (as played by the great Kevin Van Hentenryck) who keeps his deformed killer Siamese twin in a wicker basket, letting the little rubber bugger out as they track down the doctors who separated them ‒ horror and exploitation filmgoers knew they had found a one-of-a-kind gentleman.

It is also safe to say Mr. Henenlotter single-handedly raised (or lowered, depending on your point of view) the bar for outrageous horror-comedies in just the first two years of the ’90s alone, which saw the release of two Basket Case sequels as well as an ironically iconic spoof of a certain Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley legend ‒ the jaw-dropping urban cult classic “delightmare” Frankenhooker ‒ before vanishing from the industry shortly thereafter. And while Frank Henenlotter did return to filmmaking in 2008 with a minor hit entitled Bad Biology, he (sadly) did so at a point in time where the entire home video market had become heavily saturated with an overabundance of inferior imitations.

Needless to say, when word that the last film from Mr. Henenlotter’s original cinematic universe radios was landing on Blu-ray (as Frankenhooker and all three Basket Case films have already done so), many a cult horror movie aficionado cleared up space on their shelf for it. Made a few years after the original Basket Case hit theaters (at the same time said film was making its rounds on the NYC midnight film circuit), Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988) offers jaded and disbelieving viewers alike another opportunity to possibly question the filmmaker’s sanity. As well as their own once the initial shock of seeing the film starts to wear off!

Here, in what is without a doubt the greatest drug parable never made (for it often quite difficult ‒ if not downright impossible ‒ to say if there really is one, or what its message is trying to convey if such a parallel actually exists), future soap opera hottie Rick Hearst stars as a young lad in the Big Apple who wakes up one fateful day to discover he has made a new friend. Having escaped from an elderly couple in the apartment down the hall, a mysterious parasitic life form ‒ one capable of secreting a euphoric hallucinogenic into its host, and which resembles male sexual organs crossed with a secretion of an entirely different kind ‒ has crept its way right into Brian’s very life.

Alas, the blissful escape granted by the Aylmer ‒ or “Elmer,” as it seems to prefer ‒ comes with a price. Firstly, Elmer (who not only talks, but sings, too!) needs to eat brains in order to survive in this world; a minor annoyance which becomes much more cumbersome as inexperienced user Brian discovers his newfound pal prefers grey matter from human beings. Secondly, and perhaps most dire of all, the withdrawal symptoms from having experienced Elmer’s unique effects only seems to lead to a bad case of death. Of course, that minor, trivial factoid becomes slightly inconsequential as it becomes clear using the Aylmer’s deadly gift will kill you anyway.

And so, as Brian begins to see the world in a swirly new light (several of ’em, at that), Elmer takes full advantage of its host’s trance-like status and helps himself to any poor bypasser who happens across the pair. This, naturally, paves the way for an assortment of shamelessly shocking death scenes replete with mucho blood and guts. Holly Hunter’s baby daddy Gordon MacDonald co-stars as Hearst’s brother, playing opposite Jennifer Lowry as Brian’s very confused girlfriend. Late great TV horror movie host John Zacherle (aka Zacherley) provides the uncredited voice for the Aylmer, thus ensuring Brain Damage‘s darkly comical side is executed properly.

Needless to say, this anti-drug parable never aired on TV.

Also appearing in this alluring low budget gross-out comedy from the cocaine-fueled era of Reaganomics are Theo Barnes and Lucille Saint-Peter as the old couple down the hall jonesin’ for a fix; a busty actress named Vicki Darnell, whose eye-opening encounter with the Aylmer is the sort of thing Lifetime Achievement Awards are made for; and cameos from Henenlotter film alumni Beverly Bonner, the muscle-bound Joseph Gonzales, and one very familiar looking fellow holding a big basket on the subway. But the real stars in Brain Damage are, without a shadow of a doubt, the gruesome special effects from one very talented crew of social misfits.

Following its (as you can imagine, very limited) theatrical run in the late ’80s, Brain Damage first hit home video courtesy Paramount, wherein a good two minutes of gory and/or just plain offensive material was excised to obtain an R rating. Such censorship was later lifted when Synapse Films became the first distributor to welcome the cult classic onto the digital home video medium, who released it uncut and in its intended widescreen aspect ratio for the first time. Now, ten years after its DVD debut, Arrow Video has unveiled a Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo with a beautiful new High-Definition transfer being the first of its many amazing features.

Looking about as crisp and clear as it will ever be, Brain Damage makes a triumphant return to its faithful flock of jaded and disbelieving viewers. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer is presented in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with two main audio selections to choose from. The first is an LPCM Mono (bless you, Arrow Video) variation of the original one-channel sound, the second being a DTS-HD MA 5.1 redux. Both tracks get the job done, whether they’re making you subtly squirm from the intestinal sound effects the Aylmer makes, or highlighting the films soundtrack, which includes a song (as well as an appearance) by The Swimming Pool Q’s.

Bonus material for this Arrow Video release kicks off with a 54-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, which interviews many key cast and crew from the film (minus Frank Henenlotter himself, for some reason). FX guru Gabe Bartalos is up next in another making-of interview, which is followed up by a featurette about the Aylmer’s design and an interview with Karen Ogle, who served several roles in the film’s production. Though he was strangely absent in the making-of documentary, Mr. Henenlotter does indeed show up in the next special feature ‒ a look at several NYC shooting locations as they appear (or do not appear, depending) with Michael Gingold.

Collectors will no doubt enjoy the next featurette, which finds super fan Adam Skinner showing off the many items he has accumulated over the years. This particular extra segways into an Easter Egg menu which should tell you how much effect the film had on certain artists. Mr. Henenlotter shows up again for a Q&A which was recorded at a Brussels film fest in 2016. Lastly, there’s a trio of galleries, the original theatrical trailer, and an animated short (which happens to have been the last project the late John Zacherle worked on). Additional aural support for the main feature is provided via a new commentary with Frank Henenlotter and an isolated score in LPCM 2.0.

Wrapping up this bloodily handsome release from Arrow Video is a collectible booklet featuring additional contributions from Mr. Michael Gingold and additional photographs hailing from the production. Another item for collectors related to this release is an “O-Card” slipcover for the set, which features different artwork and is only available for a short time. Arrow even had a limited edition enamel pin of Elmer issued for this release, but that is quickly becoming hard to find. Fortunately, Arrow Video’s release of Brain Damage itself is not difficult to lay your mitts on. But be careful: it just may prove to be very addictive.

Highly Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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