We horror movie fans, and we shitty movie fans, are blessed whenever a filmmaker like Frank Henenlotter comes along. A man who was practically raised by the grindhouse theaters of Times Square, Henenlotter brought that aesthetic, that sleaze, and, yes, that mystique, to the small number of films he made. His films breathe in the grit of New York City in a way only one of its true freak denizens could capture.
Henenlotter began his feature film career in 1982 with Basket Case, a tale of a parasitic relationship of incredible bizarreness. He followed that up in 1988 with Brain Damage, a tale of a parasitic relationship of incredible bizarreness. It’s almost as if Henelotter took a look at his earlier film one day and said to himself, “I can do weirder.”
Written and directed by Henenlotter, Brain Damage stars Rick Hearst, who would go on to a prolific career in soaps, as Brian. There’s nothing all that special about Brian. He’s just a regular dude sharing a small apartment with his brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald).
One evening, Brian is supposed to go to a concert with his girlfriend, Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), but he’s come down with a bad case of the flu, or something. That something is a parasitic creature named Aylmer (voiced by legendary horror TV host John Zacherle). Aylmer looks something like a turd dipped in blue paint. The work of Gabriel Bartolos and David Kindlon, Aylmer has a tiny mouth and a tiny set of doll’s eyes, and is, without doubt, one of the strangest, and most hilarious, horror flick monsters that viewers will ever see.
Horror veterans with hundreds of bloody films behind them will be hard-pressed to think of any creature as wild as Aylmer. Aylmer attaches to the back of Brian’s neck and injects his brain with blue juice, causing euphoria and hallucinations. Brian’s life breaks down as he comes more under Aylmer’s sway. Aylmer gets Brian high as a Georgia pine, and then they go out into the seedy streets of New York City to find human brains for Aylmer to eat.
There’s enough blood and gore in this flick to satisfy the neediest bloodhounds among the audience, and one scene of outrageous excess that solidifies Henenlotter’s bona fides as a horror extremist (Vicki Darnell, wherever you are, I salute you for being game for this scene). I won’t spoil that moment, here. But, I will suggest watching this flick somewhere the neighbors can’t see. Not everyone out in the world would be so understanding at the type of film it takes to get one’s horror jollies.
Brain Damage is a polarizing film. It doesn’t leave much room for a blasé attitude about it all. It’s a spectacle that one cannot ignore. Henenlotter also packed the film full of irreverent humor. Aylmer is a bloodsucking monster, but it looks so absurd, with a voice to match, that I was going back and forth between laughter and revulsion at whiplash speed while watching. It just blows my mind that Henenlotter and company came up with this…thing…and then put it to film! That’s much the same reaction I had to Basket Case, now that I think of it.
This is a rollicking film. There are sequences that approach the sublime, and others that are absolute trash. It wallows in the underbelly of New York City, which is the best way to film that town, I believe. Its cheapness is also its glory.
Brain Damage is essential viewing for those who enjoy the bizarre. It doesn’t make one feel worried about one’s personal taste like a Herschel Gordon Lewis flick, but it circles that same drain. Move over, Robot Monster. Brain Damage has taken your spot at #12 in the Watchability Index. It’s shitty gold.