Brian is a terribly average guy. He lives in a passable New York City apartment with his brother and spends most of his free time with his loving girlfriend. Unfortunately for Brian, the neighbors in the apartment above him are neither average nor are they passable human beings. For years, they have been harboring an ancient parasitic brain worm named Aylmer who injects a highly potent narcotic directly into the cerebral cortex of those who in turn offer him delicious brains as tithes. Aylmer derives his strength from human brains but the neighbors have been feeding him animal brains to keep him weak enough to control but strong enough to get their fix from his venom. Unfortunately, for everyone, Aylmer escapes and finds his way onto the brain stem of poor Brian who instantly gets addicted to the venom. Will his craving drive him to commit murder to satisfy Aylmer’s hunger for human flesh?
Brain Damage was among the first cult films I sought out upon moving to Austin. During Fantastic Fest 2008, I attended the 100 Greatest Kills Party and someone submitted a rather raunchy, but wholly amazing, demise from this film. To be completely honest, I did not enjoy Brain Damage at all upon my initial viewing shortly thereafter. I found it to be dull and overly goofy. It is incredible how ceaseless exposure to obscure cinema can alter a viewpoint in less than three years.
There is no part of me that didn’t love Brain Damage. I’m sorry to say it is the only Frank Henenlotter film in my knowledge base, but Basket Case has been sitting on my must see list for ages. Frankly, I’ve seen so many snippets of Basket Case and listened in on so many conversations about it that, while I don’t assume to know everything about it, I do feel warm familiarity with it. This served me well when Frank tossed in a very clever Basket Case reference near the climax of Brain Damage. More than that, this cursory knowledge allowed me to notice overarching thematic elements that cast Henenlotter in a very favorable light.
Henenlotter’s films routinely deal with horror gleaned from physical trauma; body horror as you may have heard it called. Though operating on a grittier level, and often with a smidgen of the budget, Henenlotter is in this way very similar to the incredible David Cronenberg. With Basket Case, the story revolves around the painful removal and subsequent wrath of a deformed conjoined twin. Brain Damage is about a brain worm that itself eats brains and injects venom at the base of your neck. It’s almost as if Frank Henenlotter is the K-Mart version of David Cronenberg. As much as that sounds like a slight, it allows me to appreciate the guy’s work on a completely new level that makes him thoroughly endearing. I love Cronenberg, but I also love movies that don’t take themselves too seriously. The happy medium? Henenlotter.
The film itself is actually awash in sloppy, silly fun. Though the Synapse DVD release is the only version of the film to feature the full blowjob death scene, my first introduction to the film, there was plenty of gory dispatching to slate our bloodlust. I actually think Rick Hearst who plays Brian is a terrific actor and one of the more sympathetic characters in cult horror. But the real hook of the film, the force that drives the film, is the Aylmer puppet. Despite looking like a turd that fell out the back of a muppet, Aylmer is oddly cute and his laughter is infectious; all credit due to late-night TV horror legend Zacherly who provides the voice. He’s just so happy-go-lucky in his wanton savagery. His constant bobbing from side to side, more than likely the only movement possible for the puppet, is so whacky and visually amusing that you can’t help bobbing along.
I do think the film needs a massive cut at the end of the second act. The storyline involving Brian’s girlfriend cheating on him with his brother is an important story point. What isn’t important is the extended sex scene wherein Brian lies in the next room staring into space and exhibiting no reaction whatsoever. One or two cutaway shots of the couple in the next room and then back to Brian would have more than driven the point home, but 12 is utterly absurd and grinds the film to a needless halt.
But otherwise, a fantastic film.
Aylmer was definitely working his magic on the audience that night. Every line of dialogue that spewed from his rubber lips had us in stitches. Every time he launched into a gleeful laugh at the most inappropriate instances, the crowd joined in kind. This is the perfect film for Terror Tuesday and I only wish there were a way to insert that evidently controversial shot back into the print. I know the audience reaction would have been deafening as would be the buzz in the lobby afterward.