I somehow missed out on Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage when it was first released back in 1987, but it’s been on my very long list of films to see for quite some time. Arrow Video’s recent restoration is pretty awesome and is filled to the brim with some great bonus features. Depending on your tastes this is one of those outrageously creative films that you’ll love or hate, but like Henenlotter’s other exploitation flicks (the three Basket Case movies, Frankenhooker, Bad Biology), your best bet is to jump in feet first and enjoy the wild ride.
When a somewhat phallic-shaped brain-eating parasite named Aylmer (or Elmer) escapes from the apartment of the elderly couple keeping it as a twisted addiction source and ends up a few doors away with a new host, Brian (Rick Herbst), things get gory quite quickly. The old couple had been feeding Aylmer fresh from the meat market calf brains thinking they could sate his hunger, but you know how these things go in movies like this, right? Yes, there’s an explanation for how the parasite ended up in the apartment of that couple, but that comes later on in the film and I’m not telling.
Anyway, Aylmer (voiced by horror host icon John Zacherle in an uncredited role) starts in on wrecking Brian’s life by injecting him with some sort of venom that’s highly addictive and leaves no trace of memory about the night’s evil events. Brian sees pretty colors everywhere he walks and seems very nonplussed after his icky traveling companion kills a junkyard security guard on their first trip out together. Brian’s weird behavior in other areas makes his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) think he’s cheating on her or is on drugs (or both), which eventually pushes her away and into the arms of Brian’s brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald).
Meanwhile, the Aylmer/Brian show does a brief whirlwind tour of the NYC of the era and while shot at night or on some cleverly constructed sets, you get a little taste of the downtown scene vibe as well as a quick look at the subway system back then. Yeah, it’s a New York movie when all is said and done. Back in ’87, the film had two scenes excised for strong content, but both are back now and manage to be shocking yet somewhat hilarious in their excess. That said, the film also paints a pretty grim portrait of addiction at all costs. Aylmer might be able to sing up show tunes like a champ, but he’s a total pain in the brain to anyone unlucky to have him as a host.
Brian temporarily moves away from his brother and girlfriend and tries to go cold turkey, but as he takes Aylmer with him, this turns out to be a pretty bad decision. It’s not too difficult to figure out what happens next, but this is a film that works quite well despite the small budget thanks to a director who knew what he wanted to do and with his cast and crew did it as well as he could. Interestingly enough, a great film to double this up with would be Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s very offbeat 1982 sci-fi flick (also set in NYC) that has to be seen to be believed. Fortunately, I’ve read elsewhere that Vinegar Syndrome has acquired and restored a print which will be made available before the end of the year on Blu-Ray.
Meanwhile, back at the review ranch: As noted, Arrow’s bonuses on this disc are pretty awesome and include a nice hidden surprise unlocked by watching one (the superfan interview) until the end credits. For such a low-budget film that was ignored upon its initial release, there’s a load of cool stuff to check out here:
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
Original Mono and 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround Audio Options
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Brand new audio commentary by writer-director Frank Henenlotter
Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage – brand new documentary featuring interviews with actor Rick Herbst, producer Edgar Ievins, editor James Kwei, first assistant director Gregory Lamberson, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti and makeup
The Effects of Brain Damage – FX artist and creator of ‘Elmer’ Gabe Bartalos looks back at his iconic effects work on the film
Animating Elmer – featurette looking at the contributions of visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti
Karen Ogle: A Look Back – stills photographer, script supervisor and assistant editor Karen Ogle recalls her fond memories of working on Brain Damage
Elmer’s Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage – featurette revisiting the film’s original shooting locations
Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession – an interview with superfan Adam Skinner
Brain Damage Q&A with Frank Henenlotter recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival
Original Theatrical Trailer
Bygone Behemoth – animated short by Harry Chaskin, featuring a brief appearance by John Zacherle in his final onscreen credit
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck
Limited Edition O-card with exclusive artwork
Collector’s Booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold, illustrated with original archive stills and posters
So yep, this one’s a winner and despite the obvious budgetary constraints Henenlotter had to work with, what I’d call an essential 80’s genre flick. The restored print looks fantastic, you get your gore fix and yeah, the two added scenes also provide an already killer film that extra oomph and a half it needs. Brain Damage won’t give you brain damage at all, but it might make your eyes pop out of your skull from the mix of cracking up and cringing you may find yourself doing.
Score: A- (90%)
Review copy provided by the publisher