Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage suggests a 1980s-era anti-drug TV special that’s been taken over by the people it’s seeking to reach, as its moralizing is laced with cynicism and impudent comic-horror whimsy. The film follows a hideously cute and preachy little mascot, suggestive of a debauched cartoon character from Schoolhouse Rock!, as it leads a young man to decadence rather than purity, encouraging him to check out of his life in a dangerous yet caustically alive New York City. Said mascot is Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle), an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park‘s Mr. Hanky—if such a thing were to be fashioned out of aluminum foil.
The particulars of this Faustian tempter are poetically lurid in a handmade, garage-band sort of fashion. Aylmer’s head is topped with a visible brain and its face has goofy plastic eyes that could be purchased at a 99-cents store. Its mouth opens to reveal a hauntingly elaborate and cheesy series of protuberances, one of which resembles a sewing needle that can pierce the back of a human host’s neck, injecting a “juice” that’s shown to short-circuit the brain, triggering a high that suggests a low-intensity acid trip. Aylmer uses this juice to quickly enslave a host who can help the creature feed on human brains, which it usually accomplishes by brutally burrowing through the front of a person’s skull or, even more unsettlingly, through their mouth.
The film thrives on the contradicting responses that Aylmer elicits from us. The creature is quite knowingly ridiculous yet nonetheless disturbing. Henenlotter doesn’t help us sort our reactions with overt tonal editorializing, which is a risky game, as audiences may assume that Brain Damage is a primitive horror film not entirely in on its own joke. If there’s any doubt as to the film’s sense of humor, though, there’s Zacherle’s voicing of Aylmer, which allows the creature to speak like a smug and erudite game show host. Aylmer quickly enslaves Brian (Rick Herbst) with his juice and the two forge a classic pusher-buyer relationship, with Aylmer as both drug and dealer.
The film belongs to a tradition of ‘80s-era NYC-centric horror that suggests the cinematic equivalent of graffiti and has a foot rooted in the outrage voiced by British punk. Both arts are reactions against conservativism: Does one succumb to apathy or fight the power? The existence of the arts themselves represents an act of retaliation, while their content often concerns enraged surrender. We pointedly learn nothing about Brian before he becomes both a literal and metaphorical drug addict, as he’s invaded by Aylmer within the film’s first few minutes. This elision could’ve been a dramatic compromise, as we don’t know precisely what’s lost as Brian changes to accommodate his new habit, but, as orchestrated by Henenlotter, this gap connotes a stinging hopelessness, implying that Brian was already a cipher. He’s us, and he’s easily knocked off the grid, resigned to a life of myopic scavenging.
Aylmer’s loopy grotesquerie is played against an otherwise earnest story of addiction—a discord that might’ve inspired director Guillermo del Toro’s similarly themed Cronos. Brian tries to go cold turkey, locking Aylmer and himself up in a sleazy motel while the creature sways back and forth in a sink and sings show tunes as Brian goes through a kind of heroin withdrawal. Aylmer knows he has the upper hand in this fight, as his juice allows Brian to see colors while riding a wave of blackout tranquility.
A junkyard isn’t merely a dump while on this drug, but a wonderland of neon auras. Much of the film is bathed in the blue color of Aylmer’s juice, achieving a Mario Bava-lite expressionism. The first time Brian gets high, he envisions his room as being slowly engulfed with inky liquid, as his overhead bedroom light becomes an eyeball. We also memorably see Brian lying in bed next to a lake that suggests a portal into another dimension.
Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Brian’s degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the ‘80s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness.
This transfer boasts gloriously rich colors that call attention to the overlooked artistry of Brain Damage, particularly those inky blues and blood reds. Texture and detail are often vague though, and it's hard to discern whether or not these issues are inherent to the source materials. Facial surface contours often look washed out, as do the backgrounds and mid-grounds of compositions. This image is generally stable and competent, and it's an improvement over any home-video presentation that I've personally seen, but it's not definitive. The various soundtracks are more consistent, but they do lack a certain oomph, a resonance of depth, that one expects from a new remix of an older film. The mixes tend to better serve the subtler diegetic effects than the big sonic flourishes, such as the score. For instance, the creature sound effects are rendered with particular precision and tangibility. This presentation is a mixed bag, in other words, that might clear the purchasing fence with the help of the terrific extras.
The supplements in this lovely package, most notably the audio commentary by writer-director Frank Henenlotter and the short interview featurettes with FX specialists, offer a detailed portrait of the nuts and bolts of making a horror film on a low budget, and of the larger community that exists among similarly minded artists. (Jim Muro, the director of Street Trash, operated the Steadicam on Brain Damage.) Henenlotter's a frank and funny guy who provides sharp and succinct reasoning for the decisions made during filmmaking, including the origin of the premise, which fused a notion of a modern Faustian bargain with an image of a friendly human/monster co-habitation. Many of the other interviewees have similarly vivid presences, particularly Gabe Bartalos, an FX artist who did much of the work on Aylmer, making the creature while Henenlotter often stood over his shoulder. Other assorted nerd-centric grace notes include Bygone Behemoth, an elegant and moving short animated film featuring John Zacherle in his final on-screen credit, an interview with "super fan" Adam Skinner, and a collector's booklet featuring new artwork and writing by Michael Gingold, who perceptively describes first seeing Brain Damage.
This gnarly gem of 1980s-era punk horror still looks and sounds a little rough, but the film and the supplements justify the plunge. Aylmer, that little enabler, wouldn't have it any other way.