Brain Dead (1990)

JUNE 9, 2008


After 550 movies or so, I’m having trouble remembering some of the older ones. When someone asks what I thought about a movie that I watched around the beginning of Horror Movie A Day, I sometimes have to go back and look at the review to remember. Kind of sad, but I guess there’s only so many critiques of obscure horror movies your brain is allowed to hold. However, some particularly sharp memories remain, which is why as soon as I saw a particular building in Brain Dead, I recognized it as the same location used in Dead Heat, which I saw (once) over a year ago.

It’s even more interesting when you consider the film’s subject matter, which deals with the brain and how it works, and a new technique that can be used to call up (and then destroy, if so desired) specific memories. Yes, all you folks who think Charlie Kaufman is an unparalleled genius who doesn’t have a single unoriginal idea in his head – Eternal Sunshine was preceded by a Roger Corman movie.

Actually Corman wasn’t personally involved with the film, as far as the credits are concerned anyway (he’s not listed anywhere, though his wife Julie is the film’s producer and the movie was released by his company New Concorde), and I think it shows. Because, despite the Corman ties and the cast of usually amusing folks like Bill Paxton/Pullman and Bud Cort, Brain Dead is a very serious, borderline depressing psychological thriller, with very little gore and almost no laughs. The “stretched face” image usually on the cover is only in the movie for like a minute, and there are no other real makeup effects to speak of other than the occasional exposed brain. I was under the impression that the film was more an update of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but it’s actually a sort of Jacob’s Ladder retread, with Pullman’s character spending the entire movie seeing impossible things, only to find out at the end that the whole movie is just the psychological episode he is having right before he dies.

Hey, two spoiled movies for the price of one!

The problem is, I’m just not a big fan of these type of scenarios (though I DO love Jacob’s Ladder), because to me it just seems like an easy way out of any scene. Write yourself into a hole? No problem, it’s all a dream/fantasy/whatever! The film makes less and less sense as it goes, since you’re never quite sure which is the dream and what is the reality, and even at 80 minutes it feels like some stuff is in there just to pad it out a bit. Ultimately, the real story isn’t as interesting or exciting as some of the subplots that are introduced and abandoned in the process of confusing the viewer, and that’s sort of a shame. I would have liked MORE of the memory wipe stuff, and thus fewer scenes of Pullman saying “I’m not crazy!” while doing crazy things.

That said it’s not a bad film in the technical sense (despite the awful full frame VHS transfer), and the acting is good (particularly Paxton, in one of his last sleazy roles before being the traditional ‘nice guy’ in pretty much everything he does). And Pullman is always more interesting in his ‘dark’ roles than he is in nonsense like Independence Day. In fact, halfway through the film his identity changes, foreshadowing his Lost Highway role that would come along 6 years later.

I should also point out that Paxton and Pullman are often confused, and I’m not sure why. Their names are a bit similar, sure, but they look nothing alike and never play the same type of roles. Paxton played jerks and then heroic everymen (Apollo 13, Twister); Pullman is most known for his romantic comedies, a genre I don’t think Paxton has ever really explored. However, this confusion has led to a great Simpsons joke, when Homer spoils a Julia Roberts movie:

Dr Hibbert: I thought she was going to end up with that rich snob!
Sea Captain: -Ably played by Bill Paxton!
Homer: It’s Bill PULLMAN, you fool!

Ah, the good ol’ days, when Simpsons had lines worth quoting.

What say you?


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