Brain Damage

Brain Damage

***1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

One of the strange things about horror is the way it doesn’t really cross over into other genres. You love it or hate it. If you hate it, read no further. Even within the horror medium, Brain Damage is at the low-budget end - the grindhouse of horror. Its creative tension, daring storyline and genuinely unsettling dreadfulness however, separate it from the comedy-loaded outrage of John Waters or the excessive caricatures of Troma. As many have pointed out, it shares more with films such Bride Of Re-Animator or lost classics such as Thundercrack!

My first introduction to Henenlotter’s weird and wonderful work was probably in an all-night horror screening of a film he made couple of years after Brain Damage: Frankenhooker. I gasped at the sheer audacity of someone producing such black humour with such outrageous themes. A mad student’s girlfriend is mashed in a lawnmower. He keeps her head but is lacking the other bits. He wants to re-animate her. So he goes hunting in the red light district for missing body parts. By the time he made Frankenhooker, Henenlotter was already a legend to his fans. Partly because of his 1985 debut, Basket Case, and secondly due to this masterly film, Brain Damage.

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The soon-to-be-damaged hero is Brian (Rick Hearst). Brian inherits a monster from a nice little Jewish couple living nearby. The monster (named Elmer) attaches itself to the back of a host’s neck. It can then either inject the brain with a drug halfway between LSD and heroin. Or it can suck the brains out and eat them.

Our Jewish couple had tried to ‘tame’ the monster by feeding it mere animal brains. Elmer doesn’t let his new host get away with such meagre cuisine. He gets Brian high and then suggests they take a walk together. Elmer’s feeling ‘hungry’.

“I never intended to offend,” says Henenlotter on the DVD commentary. He made one version for home consumption and an unedited version (only now released on DVD) for the world outside of the USA. It might not be totally tongue in cheek. The two scenes that are most controversial are a graphic brain-sucking scene and a fellatio gag (pun intended). In the latter, Brian picks up a girl at a nightclub and she comes on to him in an alleyway. Instead of a mouthful of Brian, she gets a mouthful of Elmer. Elmer thrusts through into her skull until he can suck out the contents.

Apart from the clever drug references (“What if God gave earth as a drug?” asks the writer), Elmer is clearly a phallic substitute and a masterpiece of low-budget inspiration. Although very ugly in appearance (imagine an outsized, very diseased penis), it speaks in a normal, intelligent and soothingly charismatic voice. Elmer is cheeky and persuasive. Pulling off such incongruity (between looks and the voice) is a remarkable achievement. Henelotter manages it by clever suspense and keeping us endlessly curious about how plotline and story will develop.

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2007
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Brain Damage packshot
A man becomes attached to a parasite that gives him an unnatural high.
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Director: Frank Henenlotter

Writer: Frank Henenlotter

Starring: Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter

Year: 1988

Runtime: 84 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Dead By Dawn 2013

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If you like this, try:

Basket Case
Thundercrack!