(1988) Written and directed by Frank Henenlotter; Starring: Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald and Jennifer Lowry; Available on DVD
Writer/director Frank Henenlotter described the relationship between man and monster in Brain Damage as a “Faustian bargain with drugs.” As in his earlier film, Basket Case*, Henenlotter explores similar themes of co-dependence and the inevitable destructive consequences. After a fight with the MPAA over the rating, and a general lack of enthusiasm (if not outright contempt) from the distributor, the film was forced to undergo several cuts. When Brain Damage was eventually released in its compromised form, it received mostly bad reviews and vanished quickly from theaters. It gained a second life, however, through home video, albeit in its R-rated form. Thankfully, the unrated version is now available on DVD, so we can see the movie, for better or worse, as it was intended.
* Watch for a nod to Henenlotter’s 1982 movie, with a cameo by its star, Kevin Van Hentenryck.
In the opening scene an eccentric old couple arrives home to their New York City apartment with fresh calf brains from the butcher shop, presumably for their pet. We soon realize that it’s more than just a traditional pet/owner relationship as they begin to freak out when they discover that “Elmer” is missing. In a subsequent scene, they appear to be suffering withdrawal symptoms as they froth at the mouth and writhe on the floor.
The story shifts to a different apartment in the same complex, where 20-something Brian (Rick Hearst) lives with his brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald). When Brian’s girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) arrives for their date, she finds him hiding under his bedcovers. She just chalks it off to being sick, but Brian is already under the influence of a parasitic creature living inside his body.
Brain Damage’s slug-like “Elmer” (aka: Aylmer) is suitably charismatic and repugnant. Brought to life by 50s/60s TV horror host Zacherley (in an uncredited vocal performance), he’s funny and likable in a perverse sort of way. Aylmer offers Brian the opportunity to experience new realms of perception, with the seductive power of the drug that he produces. As Brian falls under Aylmer’s control, the old man from the first scene confronts him (in a scene that Henenlotter based off of The Maltese Falcon) to discuss Aylmer’s ancient origins, and to establish his place as the creature’s rightful keeper. Aylmer evokes comparison with H.P. Lovecraft’s “old ones,” only with a better sense of humor. To paraphrase Sam Spade, he’s the stuff that nightmares are made of.
It’s hard playing second fiddle to a puppet. In contrast to the oddly likable Aylmer, Brian isn’t a fun person to live with as he follows the slippery slope of addiction and tunes out the rest of the people in his life. Rick Hearst does a good job with the role he’s given, managing to make his character watchable, even in his darkest moments. Brian is stuck in a trap of isolation and despair that he can’t escape, favoring Aylmer’s blue hallucinogenic drug to human companionship. Brian makes a feeble attempt to explain to Barbara what’s going on, but he’s suppressed by Aylmer, as his plate of spaghetti and meatballs throbs and pulses.
While there’s no doubt that Brian’s relationship with Aylmer is self-destructive, Brain Damage ends on an ambiguous note. Brian’s ultimate fate is left to our interpretation, seeming to suggest that he was transformed into something else. The dysfunctional relationship between Brian and Elmer reminded me a bit of Little Shop of Horrors, with the alien entity gaining the upper hand. Brian must continue to do the creature’s bidding if he wishes to remain in a drug-induced state of bliss.
Brain Damage works well as a cautionary tale about drugs, as an unconventional monster movie, or as a dark comedy. Its many tasteless gags are designed to offend (In Henenlotter’s DVD commentary, he quipped, “Bad taste is eternal.”) and amuse – often at the same time. It’s not quite as fun or focused as Basket Case, but it’s a worthwhile addition to Henenlotter’s bizarre resume.