In a memorable Brain Damage scene, a junkyard security guard, quietly and unseen, observes a nice young man in ecstasy, so transported by the mind-blowing, euphoria-inducing spectacle of a dirty pile of smashed-up cars that he can’t help but proclaim his rapture to the stars.
The look on that guard’s face––a kind of delighted, hypnotized stupor––is very similar to the look I had on my face the first time I saw this movie.
Essentially a horror-comedy about addiction, Brain Damage follows Brian––a perfect prototype of a late-80s-white-guy-creature-feature-protagonist––as he navigates the complexities of his troubled relationship with Elmer––an ancient, slug-like parasite who lives in the bathtub and eats brains. Even though Elmer is a manipulative, disgusting, veiny monster whose single aim is to murder people by eating their brains, he has a couple qualities that make him hard for Brian to quit: he’s very charismatic, has a great singing voice, and has the devil-may-care attitude and friendly demeanor of your favorite uncle the game show host. And perhaps more significantly, he is the sole source of a highly addictive drug that induces such a perfect combination of body high and transcendent mind-state that Brian would rather sign on as the long-term partner of a gruesome serial murderer than get clean.
But it’s a struggle for him, and lead actor Rick Hearst really commits. Brain Damage was his first job out of drama school, his first opportunity to use his classical training to inhabit the reality of this guy Brian, who from the moment we meet him, is under the thrall of a phallic turd monster. We don’t get to learn much about Brian, really––we know he lives with his brother, has a girlfriend named Barbara, has his own room, and might be into punk (there’s a brief shot of a Siouxsie and the Banshees poster in his apartment). Does he have a job? Is he a student? No one knows.
But the integrity with which Hearst immerses himself in Brian’s grimy, vomit-soaked, hallucinogenic reality gives the character more depth than any amount of expositional detail could. Throughout the film, Brian is caught in a psychological standoff between his conviction that murder is wrong and his desperate need to get high. This is perhaps most evident in the scene that shows Brian’s withdrawal from Elmer juice: we see him writhing on the floor, sweating blood in his own filth as he watches himself pull his own decaying brains out of his ear. It is intense, grisly stuff, not brought on by the usual horror movie culprits of haunting or demonic possession, but by plain old everyday addiction. Brain Damage,this bizarro 80s cult film, is on to something true and disturbing about humans’ overwhelming desire for pleasure, and it may make you squirm in your seat.
So it’s all the more jarring that Elmer himself is so goofy. Not because the effects are sloppy–– quite the contrary, the makeup and practical effects are fantastic––but because his entire character design is just silly. From the moment he appears, peeking out from behind Brian’s head with a friendly “Hi!,” Elmer is exactly the opposite of what you expect. With cartoonish eyes, an innocent grin, and a refined voice thick with wisdom and life experience, Elmer sings a jaunty song from his perch in the sink as Brian plunges deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. Elmer is so charming that he’s almost cute, which is extraordinary, since the film’s talented effects team were clearly emphasizing the similarities between Elmer and a poo-stained, penis-bodied leech.
Make no mistake, though, this leech is a hunter. By promising Brian hits of “his juice,” Elmer compels him to wander through the dangerous streets and back alleys of New York City during the drug-fueled crime wave of the late 1980s. This reality saturates the film, especially given the fact that most of the movie was shot in a studio built by the filmmaking team in a particularly rough NYC neighborhood. High as a kite and feeling no pain, Brian wanders through landscapes pulsating with synth beats and a maze of decaying infrastructure and forgotten corners washed over in neon light, ferrying Elmer to his next victim, whose brain he devours in increasingly creative ways. Writer/director Frank Henenlotter didn’t have quite enough material to fill up a full 90-minute feature, so to go the distance, he stretches out each shot, each scene, ever-so-slightly to fill the time––a technique that becomes more and more disconcerting the stranger and more demented Elmer’s attacks become. Once you see the scene in the alley behind Club Hell, I’m confident you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Strip away the layers of strangeness and the psychedelic punk-rock aesthetic that make Brain Damage so bombastic, and you’ll find an anxious downward-spiral-addiction-parable at its core that is riveting. However, the spirit of this film is emphatically fun, almost joyful. I left the theater after my first late-night screening bubbling over with things to say, enthusiastically gushing, surprised, energized, inspired.
Not unlike Brian freaking out in the junkyard, actually.
Brain Damage is screening at the Trylon Friday October 11th – Sunday October 13th; seeing this movie in a theater with other people is a special treat. Tickets available at trylon.org. Housebound types can rent it through iTunes, or stream through Shudder if you’re a subscriber.
In the same movie family as…
- Trainspotting – streaming on Netflix or the Criterion channel, rentable (Vudu, Google Play, iTunes).
- Evil Dead – streaming on Hulu, rentable (Vudu, iTunes).
- Bad Milo! – rentable (Vudu, Google Play, iTunes).
- Valley Girl – not available online; let me know if you want to borrow our copy.
- Basket Case – rentable (Google Play, iTunes).
Happy, happy birthday @justinmidnight!!!!
I love you so much!
Learn more about the great October line-up at the Trylon by visiting their blog, Perisphere.