This year, Artsweek will be trying out some new columns and features as a way to better serve you, the student. This column is the first in a series designed to alert students to films that they might otherwise miss. Generally, the films discussed in this column will correspond with one of the week’s major releases and act as an alternative.
“Brain Damage” is a weird little movie. It is a lesser known film by Frank Henenlotter, a guy whose most financially successful effort, “Basket Case,” told the story of a man who carries his monstrous Siamese twin in a large wicker basket and seeks revenge on the doctors who performed their separation surgery. He also went on to direct a movie titled “Frankenhooker.” I wasn’t kidding when I said the films discussed in this column would be off the beaten path.
“Brain Damage” begins in the home of an elderly Jewish couple. They complain about the price of meat and bemoan the loss of the city’s last honest butcher. But they aren’t making brisket for the grandkids; instead, Morris and Martha are serving raw cow brains to a wormlike creature they keep prisoner in their bathtub. In exchange for the food, the monster, who goes by Aylmer, provides the couple with a potent hallucinogenic that he injects directly into their brains through a hole in the back of their necks that he has dug with what appears to be a needle at the end of his penis.
Aylmer is a mean little bastard. Think of a mutant drug pusher with the voice of Larry David and a face that looks like the head of a penis. He is as eloquent as he is condescending. After Aylmer escapes from the elderly couple he quickly finds himself a mark in the form of Brian (daytime TV stalwart Rick Hearst in his first ever role), a sensitive and naïve teenager who seems to have no concept of the symbiotic relationship between a dealer and a junkie, or even of addiction itself.
Aylmer quickly hooks Brian on the drugs. At first it seems like a reasonable deal. Aylmer makes Brian feel good so long as Brian takes him out of the house every now and again. But as Brian’s habit grows, Aylmer’s patience shortens. Once Brian is past the point of no return Aylmer reveals the full extent of the drug’s control on the adolescent; if Brian wants his next hit, he will have to help Aylmer get his favorite food — human brains.
From here, the film turns into a gory parable about the destructive nature of drug abuse. Brian tries to quit but the withdrawal pains make a junkie foam at the mouth within hours of going cold turkey. In one especially grotesque scene Brian hallucinates pulling his own brain out of his ear until it shoots blood at a horrific velocity. The strung out retirees return to the mix, threatening to kill Brian in order to retrieve their precious creature. But it is too late, Aylmer has grown too strong and he won’t be going back to the bathtub any time soon.
Ninety-five percent of “Brain Damage” is delicious black fun. Though the gore scenes are unusually shocking, the film still manages the enviable task of mixing laughs and horror. It is decidedly below the level of “Ghostbusters” or “Shaun of the Dead,” if only because the micro-budget prevents Aylmer from ever looking very good, but it’s still well above par for this troubled subgenre.
Unfortunately, the film is marred by the other 5 percent. For some reason, Henenlotter decided to include a sequence where a drugged-up Brian picks up a new wave girl at a club and takes her to the roof to fool around. She feels his pant leg and thinks Brian has a real monster, but when she unzips him she finds out that her guess was far more accurate than she realized. The scene itself is sort of funny on a structural level, but in practice it looks more like an especially vicious Sasha Grey vignette. The fact that it ends with the new wave girl’s brain being pulled out of her mouth does nothing to lessen the misogynistic blow.
But this is a film that exists to break rules. I admire it because it pushes buttons that are usually avoided at all costs, and I think there is something to be said for this approach. “Brain Damage” is not a film for everyone. In fact, all but the most hardcore of B-movie fanatics will probably find it more puzzling than anything else, but this is a film far more deserving of its cult status than most and after a few rounds, it makes for a really great time with friends.