After more than three decades, Frank Henenlotter’s putrid parable for drug addiction hits harder than ever with tons of self-aware bite.
“Splatstick” is an exaggerated horror subgenre that explores grotesque gore that’s so over the top that it begins to border on the point of comedy. Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and even more contemporary voices in horror like Sion Sono or Terrifier’s Damien Leone are names that are often associated with this bold, bloody genre. Frank Henenlotter is a pivotal name in splatstick low-budget indie horror whose work often goes overlooked, despite its decidedly more outlandish energy. Henenlotter’s greatest claim to fame is his Basket Case trilogy, but it’s Brain Damage that’s actually the deepest film in his oeuvre.
All of Henenlotter’s horror films have very obvious analogues and they aren’t especially deep in their subtext, but there’s still subtext all the same. Basket Case tackles loneliness, codependence, and parenthood. Frankenhooker looks into the masculine gaze, objectification, and capitalism, while Brain Damage is Henenlotter’s gritty examination of addiction and how to escape the confines of one’s self as Brian copes with having a literal monkey on his back. Now, on its 35th anniversary, Brain Damage makes just as strong of an impact as it did upon its initial release. It presents a level of fun and fearlessness that can be sorely absent in modern horror movies.
The beginning of Brain Damage almost suspiciously feels like it could be a remake of Basket Case. A man, Brian (Rick Hearst), wakes up with remnants of murder around him and zero memories of what happened or if he’s the one who’s responsible. Brian quickly learns that his predicament literally stems from a parasitic worm named Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) who forces a symbiotic, toxic transactional relationship with the confused human. It takes 14 minutes for the audience to get their first real sight of Aylmer, but it’s a transformative experience, especially with Zacherle’s quaintly comic voice coming out of this aberration.
Hearst delivers an increasingly heightened performance where he’s barely present when the movie begins, only to mature into a grandiose caricature of what it means to be a human. It’s a layered performance that really goes for it, despite–or perhaps because of–Hearst’s inexperience as an actor. Additionally, Brian’s scenes of relief whenever he’s able to indulge in his “drug” of choice reflect someone who’s truly at ease and rid of the baggage that haunts him in most scenes.
Brain Damage has personality–and fluids–to spare, which makes it particularly impressive that its budget supposedly came in at under $2 million. It’s remarkable that Brain Damage looks as good as it does, especially 35 years later. Curiously, this bare bones budget is still astronomically higher than the approximately $35,000 budget of Henenlotter’s debut feature film, Basket Case. Brain Damage doesn’t squander its budget and this movie feels bigger and more ambitious than Basket Case in every regard.
Brain Damage particularly excels through its inventive display of special effects that range from stop motion, optical effects, animation, and the use of miniatures to make all of this monster madness come to life. Al Magliochetti was the mastermind here, alongside makeup effects artist Gabe Bartalos, who previously worked together on 1986’s Spookies. These two were instrumental in not only the look of Brain Damage and Aylmer’s iconic design, but also guaranteeing that Henenlotter’s wild whims were doable. Brain Damage is a tight horror movie, but one that’s not lacking in gruesome set pieces that showcase Henenlotter, Magliochetti, and Bartalos’ creativity.
An internal look into Brian’s brain and organs as Aylmer’s blue juice seeps into his bloodstream and takes him over becomes a running motif through the film. Brain Damage plays with not just practical effects and monsters, but internal dioramas, miniatures ,and inspired uses of limited animation that amplify these ideas. James Wan’s Malignant has been compared to Basket Case, but it has just as much in common with Brain Damage. Wan’s gonzo horror movie would have even benefitted through the use of several of the unnerving tools that Henenlotter puts to use with Aylmer and Brian here.
There is no shortage of ridiculous Aylmer moments throughout Brain Damage. However, the craziest of the lot–and one that actually prompted crewmembers to walk out during the shoot because they were so uncomfortable with the imagery–involves Brian, Aylmer, a poor clubber, and one of the most extremely absurd acts of simulated fellatio that’s ever been committed to film. It’s a surreal sight that makes tentacle porn look tame in comparison. The sequence is a grotesque testament to the boundaries that Henenlotter was delightedly ready to push and fully laugh at while doing so. It’s a scene that’s completely over the top, but at the same time it manages to shine a light on the disturbing relationship that’s shared between drugs, addiction, and sex. Another horrific highlight includes the withdrawal-triggered hallucination where Brian spends close to a full minute yanking brain tissue and ropey organs out of his head until litres of blood gush out of his brain-less noggin.
Brain Damage rubs the audience’s face in its brutality while it simultaneously blows raspberries on their bellies. This trippy experience grows increasingly surreal through kaleidoscopic displays of light and a much more inspired use of color than any of the other films in Henenlotter’s oeuvre. At times the washed out hues and musical score combine into dreamlike visuals that feel downright Lynchian, or that they’re out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky or James Wan film. Brian is bathed in blue light for most of the movie. It’s really quite special. Henenlotter attempts something greater here–and succeeds–amidst all the silly, slapstick blood and guts. It’s just a shame that these impressionistic influences and the ambitious color palette doesn’t inform Henenlotter’s subsequent movies and that he instead goes back to the “safety” of Basket Case, albeit on a significantly grander scale.
Horror is a genre that’s ideal to deconstruct addiction and there are evocative movies like Hellraiser, The Shining, The Stuff, and even 2013’s Evil Dead that effectively use grim subject matter as a parallel for pain, guilt, and helplessness. Brain Damage explores addiction and if we’re strong enough to defeat it, albeit through fantastical, horrible circumstances. Even Henenlotter’s decision to change the film’s title from its original “Elmer the Parasite” label to Brain Damage, a name that’s more reflective of the real-life cautions that surround recreational drug abuse, speaks volumes for the film’s goals. Henenlotter admits that this is a rather glib and surface level reading of the film and that these ideas are meant to trigger grander discussions on escapism, but they’re still undeniably present throughout the movie.
Aylmer directly acknowledges the parallels here and blatantly tells Brian that he’s in control of him now and the one who calls the shots. This works and creates tension because Brian is literally under Aylmer’s spell and the withdrawal from not being under his influence is tantamount to torture. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying, not to mention such a creative spin on the evil alien parasite trope. This reaches its apex when Brian’s body begins to decay during the film’s final act, which seems like an intentional nod towards the crack epidemic and AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s as individuals watched their bodies change and wither away.
Aylmer tells Brian in a chilling proclamation: “This is the start of your new life Brian. A life full of colors, music, light, and euphoria. A life without pain, or hurt, or suffering.” It’s exactly the type of narcissistic diatribe that gives an addict strength. Brian complains that he can’t think or feel while under Aylmer’s influence. He’s numb. He’s unable to even remember his actions, as if he’s acted in a drunken or drug-filled stupor. He’s devoid of the color, music, and light, only to be left with confusion and guilt.
Funnily enough, 1988’s Brain Damage draws several parallels to the larger drug campaigns of the late ’80s. The shots of Brian’s malfunctioning brain while Aylmer’s blue leaks into his lobes feels reminiscent of the “this is your brain on drugs” commercials that started in 1987. Furthermore, Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign that gained momentum in the mid-’80s was still fully in swing during Brain Damage’s release.
Brain Damage covers a lot of ground and in addition to how it succeeds as a drug and addiction parable, there are also shades of Little Shop of Horrors and even Let the Right One In when it comes to the selfless sacrifice that’s required to care for and feed a creature, as well as deal with the repercussions as an attachment forms…although Brain Damage is infinitely grosser than both of these films combined. Brain Damage even has flashes of Brechtian black box dream sequences that echo what would later define Jonathan Glazer’s distinct body horror film, Under the Skin.
There’s an intimate moment in Brain Damage where Aylmer sings an original jaunty tune while Brian weeps in fear and pain. It’s bizarrely comical, yet the sequence certainly isn’t played for laughs. “Please help me,” Brian croaks out while Aylmer continues to croon. This all culminates into a disturbing sequence that makes the audience question if they’re perhaps losing it, just like Brian. Brain Damage’s singing sequence shouldn’t work and yet it’s one of the best moments in the movie, and one that’s purely character-driven.
There’s an equally auteur-like moment where Henenlotter decides to connect the dots between his movies and forge his own cinematic universe when Basket Case’s Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) meets Brain Damage’s Brian. These two parallel characters run into each other on the subway in a sequence that’s so brilliant, but completely confounding to anyone who hasn’t seen Henenlotter’s previous picture. Henenlotter doesn’t care and this unnecessary sequence speaks to the filmmaker’s fearless and playful energy where he just wants to play with all of his toys in the same sandbox. Brain Damage is fueled with the gleeful joy of a kid who’s just having fun.
Brain Damage is a movie that consistently goes for broke with every scene, particularly its ambitious, cosmic ending. Brain Damage’s bleak coda also implies that the only true cure for addiction is death. Henenlotter was able to persevere through his own addictions, but in Brian’s case there’s no possibility for a happy ending. It’s a conclusion that provokes much more debate than Basket Case and this stylized finish would have been exciting for Henenlotter to attempt to follow-up in subsequent Brain Damage films. It’s tempting to consider where these ideas and lore could go considering how ridiculous Basket Case 3 becomes. Ultimately, the biggest disappointment about Brain Damage is that there aren’t more of these movies.
Frank Henenlotter has slowly gained the respect that he deserves over time even if that means it’s taken Brain Damage decades to be fully appreciated and readily available. 35 years later, Brain Damage is both a twisted snapshot of the changing state of horror–and society–in the 1980s, as well as an ahead of its time body horror buddy comedy extravaganza. Both Aylmer, and Brain Damage, promise “a life without pain, or hurt, or suffering,” but a life without Brain Damage is one that’s missing out on a brilliant horror cult classic.
‘Brain Damage’ is now available to stream on SCREAMBOX.