Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Off the Shelf: Brain Damage (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
'80s horror doesn't get much crazier than this.

Between Basket Case, Frankenhooker and Brain Damage, there are very few voices more distinctive in '80s horror than Frank Henenlotter, the New York-born exploitation filmmaker whose work is consistently gross, funny and completely outrageous. His movies feel like no others of the period, and though he's rarely named among the major genre auteurs of the decade (Carpenter, Craven, my boy T. Hoops), he has as clear and unique a voice as the masters. Henenlotter's body of work may not be as classically well made, but there's no denying that his films are real originals.
Though perhaps not as well known as Frankenhooker or Basket Case (and its sequels), Brain Damage is texbook Henenlotter. It stars Rick Hearst as regular guy Brian, who wakes up one day with a hole in his head thanks to Aylmer, a giant worm-like parasite that has taken up residence inside his body (and is hilariously voiced by horror host Zacherle). Brian gets a euphoric high and hallucinates from the liquid Aylmer secretes, while Aylmer uses Brian as a host and feeds on the brains of any victims unlucky enough to come in proximity with them. Symbiosis works!

There are obvious connections to be drawn between Brain Damage and Henenlotter's breakout movie Basket Case, namely in the relationship between a tall, dark-haired caucasian man and a little mutant blob of latex upon which he begins to depend. Brain Damage lacks the sleazy 42nd Street griminess of Basket Case, though, having more in common with the sequels: it's more polished, brighter, more colorful. Henenlotter still gleefully trashes the lines of taste, particularly in a shocking and graphic sequence in which a prostitute comes face-to-mouth with Aylmer, but there's something that feels more broadly commercial about the way the movie is constructed, even though there is absolutely nothing broad or commercial about it.
The big selling point for me, besides Henenlotter's usual demented sense of humor, is Aylmer. Between the puppetry of his face and mouth and the voice work by Zacherle, literally every moment that Aylmer is on screen is a fucking hoot. There is a scene in which Aylmer, shades of Boris Karloff in his voice, matter-of-factly explains all the things he did and murders he committed while Brian was drugged out on blue juice. Moments later he's singing an entire song he wrote about himself. It's so weird and inspired and sublime, and it's a joke that never gets old for me. Every time Aylmer talked, I was giggling.

Though the VHS cover box has stuck in my head for all these years, it wasn't until Arrow Video's new Blu-ray of Brain Damage that I was finally able to see the movie. They do their usual impressive job restoring the movie for 1080p HD, but where the disc really shines is in the bonus features. Henenlotter is a fun listen on any commentary track because he has so much energy and personality and he does not disappoint here. Perhaps even better is the nearly hour-long documentary about the making of the movie, featuring interviews with many of the participants. I love watching these kinds of retrospective docs almost as much as I love watching the movies on which they're reflecting, and at a time in my life when it has become increasingly difficult (almost impossible) to work my way through extra features on most discs, I always make time for pieces like this.
Like so much of the horror I love from the 1980s, Brain Damage combines cool practical gore effects (and even some stop motion!), twisted sexuality and a massive dose of humor into a package that's so fun and entertaining that it's almost impossible to not enjoy watching. As a Frank Henenlotter fan, I can't believe it's taken me this long to get around to finally seeing it, but #Junesploitation provides the perfect context in which to enjoy a batshit crazy movie like this one. Plus, Aylmer has become one of my favorite new characters in the month. Dude's a riot.

Blu-ray release date: May 9, 2017
86 minutes/1988/NR
1.85:1 (1080p)
LCPM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

Blu-ray Bonus Features:
Frank Henenlotter Commentary
"Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage" Documentary
"The Effects of Brain Damage" Featurette
"Karen Ogle: A Look Back" Featurette
"Elmer's Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage" Featurette
"Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession" Featurette
"Bygone Behemoth" Animated Short
Frank Henenlotter Q&A
Image Galleries
Isolated Score


  1. I've never even heard of this movie. When I can cobble together a few bucks I'll purchase it using the Amazon link. Arrow is giving Scream Factory a run for its money, and we all win. :-)

  2. I think the more and more these classics are being released on Blu Ray that I rented as a kid, the more I am cautious to revisiting them. It's stupid, I know, but I have had mixed reactions to seeing a movie that has been restored to pristine condition. On one hand, I am really happy that the filmmakers finally get to have their vision presented in the best quality possible but on the other side of that are the memories I have of watching them in all of their VHS glory. Nostalgia really plays a part for me in this. It's memories of aesthetics as much as it is the film, unfairly, really. That being said, I don't have a problem for films I haven't seen before. I saw "Eaten Alive" last year for the first time and it looked incredible and was such a rewarding experience.

    1. It probably depends on the movie. Eaten Alive should look great because T. Hoops put thought into the photography and lighting. On the flip side, I'm watching Hobgoblins on Blu-ray and that's not a movie well-served by the HD treatment.

    2. This definitely plays a part in it as well. A movie like "Things" wouldn't work at all in HD! :)

  3. I've owned this on VHS for ages, so dragged it out of storage and watched it again for the first time in about fifteen years. It is a hoot. Now I want to own the Blu-ray just for the extras. To parrot Chaybee's point, I hope the movie isn't too cleaned up in the transfer. It feels like this is the sort of thing that should be viewed on a grainy old video tape while you're holding your breath and wondering if you'll get to see it to the end or whether it will snap or get chewed up by the player's mechanism at some point. I got lucky this time.

    I don't usually pay much attention to music in films, but I could swear there was a bit of a variation on the Gremlins theme going on in certain scenes, particularly towards the very end when Brian and Aylmer have a parting of the ways.

    Loved the cameo from a certain other Henenlotter alumnus, and the visual gag about New Yorkers' indifference to what's going on around them.

    Phallic, millennia-old monsters are bad. M'kay?

  4. I have a friend called Elmer, and because of the creature Aylmer in the film and the infamous line "Aylmer, you Fu##ing named him Aylmer!" I have tortured my friend with that line for over 20 years now