Brainscan (1994)

NOVEMBER 19, 2011


Someone on Twitter was amused that I referred to "14 year old BC" as if he was a different person, but in many ways "he" is. Not only have my sensibilities changed, but my entire life is different. Case in point: I couldn't convince my mom to drive me to the theater to see In The Mouth of Madness when it came out in theaters, and thus the first time I got to see it in 35mm is when I hosted a screening with the film's producer (Sandy King, who came again for last night's Vampires - thanks to everyone who attended!). Thus, when I revisit movies I didn't like as a kid, I often find myself appreciating them more, because not only is my life completely different and my tastes have vastly changed/"matured", but I'm also looking at them from the perspective of someone who at least knows WHY a movie can turn out bad. However, Brainscan is not one of those movies.

It was rare I didn't like a horror movie at that age, especially one with a kid roughly my age as the hero. But I watched Brainscan once or twice when it hit VHS and it just didn't work for me; only Edward Furlong's phone calling robot and impressive collection of Fangorias made any sort of impact. Of course, that was over 15 years ago and I can barely remember what happened to me last week, so apart from the aforementioned phone calling robot ("Igor, dial 555-FEAR." "YESSSS Masssterrrr!") I couldn't remember anything about the movie, and thus figured it was time to give it another look. After all, the writer of Se7en (Andrew Kevin Walker) and the director of Out For Justice and Rolling Thunder (the late John Flynn) surely created something that 14 year old me just wasn't able to appreciate yet, right?

Nope. The movie just doesn't work for me, and I'm not gonna try again when I'm 50. The main problem I have with it is that almost nothing happens on-screen, and what little that does takes place in a small radius around Furlong's house (which is one of those anonymous upper-middle class neighborhoods you've seen in a million Canada-shot horror movies - i.e. boring). There are four discs to the game, and each time Furlong puts one in it plays out in one of two ways: we watch him creep around his neighborhood until the game snaps him out of it, or they just skip the sequence entirely. Either way, only one of his alleged killings occur on-screen, which is a slap in the face to the movie's R rating. In fact I wonder why they bothered - with the teen hero and emphasis on his crush on the girl next door, this probably should have been a PG-13 movie without any strong violence. At least then there'd be an excuse for not having any action.

Plus (spoiler) it's all a dream, making the lack of action even MORE obnoxious. If you're building toward a "but none of it happened anyway so it's OK!" ending, why not go all out? Have Furlong kill the ever loving shit out of the entire supporting cast! Maybe they assumed people would hate the ending anyway so why rub salt in the wound by showing them cool stuff that didn't happen? I guess it makes some sense; I get a lot more annoyed waking up from a "I won the lottery" dream than a "I went to work and for some reason my friend Chris from grade school was now my boss" one.

They also don't seem to understand how games work, which is a problem for a movie built around a video game. Furlong gets the "interactive CD-ROM!" (that's another thing, it's woefully dated) in the mail and pops it in his computer, and somehow this allows him to be sort of electrocuted as well as hypnotized. So this stuff already existed in his computer, I guess? You can put whatever you want on a CD-ROM, but a PC would have to have those capabilities to begin with in order to work. Nitpicky, sure - but when you're trying to tap into the gamer market, wouldn't it be wise to at least TRY to make your concept plausible in even the slightest way? Hell even Nightmares did a better job at this sort of thing.

Then there's The Trickster, who is quite possibly the lamest attempt at a horror icon ever conceived. For starters, he doesn't DO anything; just talks to Furlong in a mocking tone and occasionally eats his food. I guess they were going for a Freddy style wisecracker, not really taking into consideration that by 1994 the horror fans had realized that "funny" Freddy wasn't so funny, and at least he had a couple of legitimately scary movies in his history to buy him some goodwill. What the hell did the Trickster ever do for us? Nothing. He LOOKS cool, I'll give him that, but without a single good moment (no, sucking Furlong through his mouth with the cutting edge CGI of 1994 does not count), he might as well just be some random weirdo on the cover of a cheesy metal album.

Another nitpick - too many moments that make no sense in the context of the fact that the entire thing is Furlong's dream. At one point he goes downstairs to talk to the police, and we stay with Trickster, who turns on Three Stooges and makes himself comfortable. That alone was a bit of a stretch, but then after the cops leave, rather than stay with Furlong (inside), we stick with the cops as they go outside and discuss things that Eddie would have no way of knowing, plus a cute little argument about who should drive. As I was saying yesterday, a good twist only works if you can go back and feel silly for not catching it - these sort of scenes have no business in a narrative that should be entirely from one person's POV in order to make sense. To put it bluntly: it's a cheat.

I'm truly baffled what Flynn saw in this thing. Walker's resume is consistently spotty, and everyone's gotta start somewhere anyway (this was his first feature credit), but what's Flynn's excuse? His previous feature was Out For Justice, which was one of Seagal's bigger hits (and it was fucking AWESOME), but from there he did a couple of TV movies and then this, something that should have been given to some hack or even a newcomer. This was before it became fashionable to hire video directors to make this sort of stuff; I can't help but wonder if a young guy with a lot to prove would have at least made this more visually interesting than Flynn, who I guess was just cashing checks at this point.

Speaking of music videos, I did chuckle at the fact that everyone had an Aerosmith "Get A Grip" poster in their room; Furlong was the star of one of the videos ("Living On The Edge") from that album, and then their video for "Amazing" dealt with similarly ignorant "this is what technology can do in the near future!" ideas. Also a year later would produce the first Michael Bay film, who is the most commercially successful music video director to break into film, with future Walker collaborator David Fincher probably being the most acclaimed. And hey, they both have directed Aerosmith videos! I don't really have a point here, just reproducing my train of thought while watching the movie, since nothing on-screen was doing its job of keeping me focused. The soundtrack was also occasionally worth acknowledging, full of era-centric alternative acts like Mudhoney, Primus, and Butthole Surfers, in addition to George S. Clinton's cool but repetitive main theme, which plays roughly every 23 seconds over the 95 minute film.

Oh well. As an example of what 90s teen horror was like before Scream, I guess it's worth putting on in the background and glancing at every now and then while you catch up on your Farmville or something, but overall it's just too dull and silly to maintain my interest. So the audiences that ignored it in 1994 (it only grossed 4 million bucks) were right to do so; this isn't some lost gem or "before its time" movie that should be rediscovered. Rest assured, I will NOT be hosting a midnight screening of this one at the New Beverly.

What say you?


  1. Great review - I saw this back then and reviewed it for the local entertainment guide I was writing for back in those days - didn't like it - and gave the movie a couple of the same smacks in the mouth you did. Good to know I don't need to revisit this one!

  2. You didn't mention the best part of the movie (and the only thing I can remember about it): Criminally overlooked 90's grunge band TAD has a song near the beginning.

    1. Re: Anon1

      HA- Tad! Thought I was the only one who remembered that song. The song was "Dig," and yes, it was a good tune (actually, a few good ones on the Brainscan sountrack, including "Welcome To This World," by Primus). Actually, my love of that song provoked me to go pick up their album, and you are 100% correct with "criminally overlooked," as that entire album was very listenable, catchy (if slightly formulaic) 90s grunge.

      That being said-- while I completely agree with your take on "Tad" I really have to disagree with the author of this review.

      Was "Brainscan" the greatest movie ever made? Of course not. It probably wasn't even the best movie to come out THAT MONTH. But I loved the film the first time I saw it, and I still love it to this day.

      Yes, it is horribly dated. But being a 14 year old outcast horror-fan at the time the film came out, I was pretty precisely the target audience. And yes, the author is right about the seeming glaring technical inaccuracies. Anyone with half a brain and any technology experience whatsoever is left wondering just how a plain old computer can do that.

      I think the premise, that we are kind of supposed to understand by implication (but which the movie does a poor job of explaining --- Secondary SPOILER WARNING) is that the game was doing some kind of weird digital hypnosis. Some type of computerized entrainment, where he is made to BELIEVE he is experiencing these things. If you think about it that way, it becomes slightly less implausible. After all, we have the most powerful Virtual Reality unit in the universe, already inside our skulls. We can see this is true via dreaming (and even our day to day perception hinges on our brain's ability to create vivid displays of perception from SOME type of exterior "signal")

      So it's not THAT bad, in the implausibility department.

      I do agree that it could have been taken a little further, and the premise could have been more effectively milked.

      But I loved the ending. And I'll admit, I'm an absolute sucker for a cheap twist. But 14-year-old-me didn't see it coming-- and that's really all I need from a plot twist.

      I still say Brainscan is a decent flick. If you go into it, expecting to see the greatest film ever? Sure, you'll probably be disappointed. If you go into it expecting cheap entertainment from a borderline B movie? Not too bad. Especially if, like me, you're a sucker for the cheap twists, and stories that explore the notions of reality and consciousness.

  3. I just watched this for the first time a couple of months ago and could not BELIEVE how bad and boring it was. You're right on the money about the "Trickster" (faux-Freddy-from-later-Nightmare-sequels) being insufferably lame. But I also feel like Edward Furlong is just such a non-presence with negative charisma. Let's face it: he was...fine in T2, but was helped by that being a great movie. The only person who ever really knew what to do with Furlong was John Waters. Plus, the girl love interest in this was hilariously not attractive.

  4. Haha, I wanted to mention that but couldn't figure out a way to say it without sounding mean! She's actually fairly attractive now, but yeah - it actually kind of hurts the movie, he's so obsessed with her and she's just NOT the kind of girl you get like that over. Should have been some cheerleader type.


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