Brain Damage (1988)

JUNE 2, 2011


In a way, I kind of watched Frank Henenlotter’s films in the best possible order, with Brain Damage being the last and possibly my favorite. Had I watched them in chronological order, it would just be depressing, because his later films are not very good (due to budget restraints, mainly), and I'd just be more or less watching a promising talent deliver weaker and weaker results. Instead, I jumped around, starting with one of his pretty good efforts (Frankenhooker), then his worst (Bad Biology), followed by the uneven Basket Case series, and finally finishing up with this, his most accomplished film.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea – this isn’t some classy horror film. It’s still very much like his others: unknown actors, grimy New York locales, disgusting and phallic FX, kitchen-sink storytelling, etc. But it actually tells a real story (one that’s paced nicely to boot), instead of feeling like a loosely connected series of gags. Hell there’s even a strong metaphorical slant to it – in its own perverse way, it’s sort of a typical “rise and fall” movie about a drug addict, except the drug is administered not through a needle, but from a little talking worm/slug thing named Aylmer.

I’m not going to lie – I want my own Aylmer. He sings about food, and injecting him into your neck allows you to more or less “suffer” from temporary synesthesia, or at least, a really good acid trip. Now, I’m against drug usage, but I DO suffer from anosmia (no sense of smell, diminished sense of taste), and my eyesight is terrible, so the idea of a little singing dude hanging out with you and occasionally improving your senses is kind of awesome. Only downside – he will make you black out and help you kill people so he can eat their brains. Of course, this is where the drug metaphor comes into play; Brian (hey, same name as me!) feels great when injected, and then terrible when he finds out what he’s done, only to feel better when injected again, and so on. By the end he’s more or less a burnt out junkie, barely expressing emotion at all and seemingly willingly helping Aylmer out. It’s the sort of thing folks have done with vampires on a few occasions, but I like the idea of telling this sort of basic story with something so outlandish.

The FX are also quite good. Henenlotter still employs some occasional stop motion, but for the most part Aylmer is brought to life via puppetry and split-screen or diopter shots. He’s also a pretty animated creation; unlike Belial in Basket Case, he’s constantly swaying about and making facial expressions (his little eyes are a wonderfully creepy touch); I didn’t catch a lot of corner cutting like in some of his other flicks. Apparently the VHS release was cut to remove a lot of the gore, which is a shame; not only is this stuff wonderfully over the top (and thus easier to understand as a joke), it’s just really solid work for such a low budget production.

The humor actually works, too. Maybe because the actors are better than usual, but when Brian exclaims “When it comes to blood in my underwear, I want to know how it got there!” I laughed for a solid 15-20 seconds. And when the film’s human villain stops the movie cold to explain Aylmer’s entire history, it actually works like gangbusters – none of it is necessary, but the idea that he’s been around for so long is just delightful and hilarious. There’s also a great cameo by another Henenlotter character, which you probably know about (or can guess it if you don’t), but it was a charming little surprise all the same (if a bit late – the movie is kind of dark/serious by that point).

If I had one complaint, it would be that the movie starts off in an almost impenetrable way. Brian has a cut on his lip for the entire movie, from a scene that was never filmed, but they make no mention of it, nor any real attempt to make up for the loss of what was essentially the opening scene/introduction to the characters. So you just get sort of dropped into a story that’s already happening, and on top of that, the movie (otherwise thankfully) doesn’t take too long to get Aylmer and Brian together, so all of a sudden this guy you don’t know is tripping out and seeing eyeballs and getting submerged in what looks like mouthwash. So I guess if you haven’t seen the movie yet – stick with it, it gets better. And eventually you can tell Brian apart from his brother.

Unlike some of the other FH discs, the only extra feature here is a commentary track, featuring Frank and some other folks whose names escape me (the back of the DVD only lists Frank). It’s a pretty good track, featuring all of the hilarious low-budget shortcut anecdotes you’d expect from this sort of production, along with some wonderful surprises, such as the revelation (exaggeration?) that the MPAA guy who originally gave the film an R rating was fired for his decision. He also points out the rather sad fact that back then, the various unions would respect indie productions that couldn’t afford to use them (as this film was); a far cry from their behavior nowadays. There’s also a trailer, which I don’t count as a bonus feature, though it is worth a look since it was seemingly done by Paramount (one of the original distributors), as it has one of the usual trailer voice guys and makes efforts to look like a typical horror movie.

Granted, Henenlotter’s films aren’t for everyone, but I think even those that were turned off by his others would enjoy this one. It’s got the gross stuff, sure, but there’s a real movie built around it, and even if you hate it, you have to appreciate that he does things his own way instead of catering to the norm, but not in a way that’s seemingly just trying to shock people or get a rise out of folks like the Bill Zebubs of the world. Hopefully he’ll be able to get another film going and done his way (and without rap songs) while he’s still spry enough to do so (gotta be in his late 50s/early 60s by now, no?).

What say you?


  1. Hiiiiiiiii Brian!

    MY FAVORITE! Now you can send it back to me!

  2. So thrilled you enjoyed this one. It's definitely his best, although I love FRANKENHOOKER for it's wonderful entertainment value and those Long Island accents! The ending of BASKET CASE 2 is still my favorite ending to a horror sequel ever.

  3. It's funny how everyone thinks this movie is about drugs, while it's obviously about masturbation. You want a phallic fellow occasionally singing and ejaculating stuff that makes you euphoric? You already have one, man.

    That's the beauty of Henenlotter's films, touching much more universal subjects than the cartoony presentation might suggest.

    Just sayin'...


  4. just watched this tonight.
    loved the puppetry.


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