When Appellate Judge Tom Becker starts hearing colors and seeing music, he doesn't automatically think, "mind-altering parasite." Maybe that's a mistake.
"This is the start of your new life, Brian. A life without worry or pain
or loneliness. A life filled instead with colors and music and euphoria. A life
of light and pleasure."
Brian (Rick Hearst, General Hospital) wakes up one day feeling like hell and is horrified to discover blood all over his pillow. His horror turns to delight, however, when he experiences a blissful hallucination that includes blue water gently washing over him.
Brian has been "juiced" by Aylmer, a seemingly friendly parasite that has escaped from his neighbors, an elderly couple. By attaching itself to one's neck, boring a small hole, and injecting a blue fluid into the base of the brain, Aylmer can cause a person to achieve a wonderful euphoria, so glorious that it's addictive.
Unfortunately, as with any high, this doesn't last forever. And—as the elderly couple could tell you if they weren't writhing on the floor and frothing at the mouth—coming down is a bitch.
Oh, one other thing: Aylmer's diet consists of brains. Preferably fresh, human brains. And if he wants to keep that buzz on, Brian will have to do whatever he can to see that Aylmer is fed.
Brain Damage is certainly not the first horror movie to use addiction as its motif, nor is it necessarily the best, but it's gruesome and funny and subversive and in the context of its time and place, it gets it right.
Brain Damage was shot in New York City in the late '80s. This is not Scorsese's New York of gangs and classy gangsters or Woody Allen's Manhattan, with romantic neurotics and lovely cityscapes. This is New York City in the time of crack, that cheap, nasty, and addictive cocaine derivative that laid siege in the waning years of the Reagan administration.
Brian is a typical and goofy young '80s guy, thrilled with this newly discovered high. Although he lives with his brother and has a girlfriend, he ditches those relationships for Aylmer, who looks like a phallus but speaks with authority (voiced by famed horror host Zacherle). His brother and girlfriend notice changes right away: Brian stops going to work, puts multiple locks on his bedroom and bathroom doors, and distances himself from them. He's having much more fun with Aylmer.
As played by Hearst (credited here as Rick Herbst), Brian is a guy who apparently never saw an Afterschool Special—or maybe he's just starring in one a little late in life. He's more than willing to accept the personable, persuasive, drug-administering Aylmer into his life, and he doesn't think twice when the parasite asks to be taken for little walks, during which it attacks people and eats their brains while Brian is too stoned to notice. By the time the dim Brian realizes he's made a deal with the devil, the devil's already come to collect.
Director Frank Henenlotter, who'd previously scored with Basket Case, takes the conventions of a cautionary addiction tale and turns them inside out. The casually graphic gore, perverse humor, and take-no-prisoners approach help vault this one near the top of '80s indie cult heap. Brain Damage boasts an extremely clever and literate script (don't miss the Maltese Falcon joke), a solid and sympathetic performance from Hearst, and production values that belie the $600,000 budget (this was shot on glorious 35mm, and it shows). Aylmer is an engaging little sociopath, and while the parasite and gore effects are somewhat crudely rendered (no CGI in the low-budget '80s), that roughness just adds to the film's overall charm.
Brain Damage was heavily cut for its theatrical release and initial home video distribution. Synapse gives us the uncut version, and in at least one scene, it's obvious that this would never have gotten the coveted R rating. This is Synapse's second release of Brain Damage on DVD. The extras here are ported over from the 1999 release. The big changes are in the audio and video presentations.
We get a terrific, sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer with great colors, particularly the all-important blues. The print is far from pristine, but it's unlikely that this low-budget film ever looked perfect. For audio, there's the original Dolby Mono track and a great, revved-up, 5.1 surround track. The 5.1 is definitely the way to go here, offering a stronger and cleaner presentation of dialogue and ambient sounds and a rich music track.
The score, by Clutch Reiser and Gus Russo, is very good, and as a bonus feature, we can watch the film with an isolated music track. Unfortunately, Synapse didn't isolate the scenes that feature music, so there are long stretches of silent video. That there are no subtitles doesn't help matters.
Subtitles also would have come in handy to follow the film during the excellent commentary featuring Henenlotter, Bob Martin, a former Fangoria editor who wrote the novelization of Brain Damage, and indie filmmaker Scooter McCrae, who also wrote liner notes for this release. This is a great track with the animated Henenlotter front and center. The three talk about the wild ride that was the making of Brain Damage and give a window on what New York City was like 20 years ago.
Rounding out the set is a trailer for Brain Damage and one for Basket Case that is accessible from Henenlotter's filmography.
Brain Damage is one of the great New York drug/horror/comedy/cult films.
Henenlotter makes "guilty" fun.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Frank Henenlotter, Bob Martin, and Scooter McCrae
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