Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Director Report Card: Frank Henenlotter (1988)

2. Brain Damage

“Basket Case” does not strike a viewer as the kind of movie that immediately turns a profit. The film wouldn’t truly find its audience until video, which might explain why it took five years for Frank Henenlotter to get his follow-up released. Or maybe he was honing his craft. “Brain Damage,” his second feature from 1988, is far more polished then his lovably rough debut. Despite the clearly bigger budget, “Brain Damage” doesn’t lack any of “Basket Case’s” weirdness, grit, sleaze, or graphic violence. If anything, it may actually be the more twisted movie. Naturally, “Brain Damage” would develop a cult following of its own. Looking at his overall career, it may be my favorite Henenlotter film.

Brian is not having a great night. He has to cancel a planned date with his girlfriend Barbara, after suddenly coming down with a serious cold. The next morning, he wakes up with blood leaking from his head. Brian soon realizes something strange is happening. A parasitic creature named Aylmer has attached himself to Brian’s neck. Aylmer injects a blue fluid into Brian’s brain, an intense and highly addictive hallucinogen. In exchange, Brian indirectly provides Aylmer with victims, the worm-like critter tearing through people’s heads and eating their brain. This, naturally, puts a strain on Brian’s relationship with Barbara.

“Brain Damage” is, without question, the strangest drug metaphor I’ve ever seen. The story is about addiction. As soon as Brian gets a dose of Aylmer’s blue juice, he’s hooked. His behavior obviously recalls that of a junkie. While high, he hangs around in a blissed out state, barely aware of what’s around him and often slipping in and out of consciousness. His friends notice something is wrong quickly enough, as Brian spends hour in the bathroom and starts hoarding buckets of water. Soon, he becomes totally disconnected from his friends and loved ones. His addiction takes over his life. Aylmer manipulates him, soon having him doing his business. Brian attempts to fight the parasite. He walls himself up in a sleazy hotel and decides to go cold turkey. Within hours, he’s on the floor, vomiting, deeply sick. He gives into his addiction because it’s stronger then him. Henenlotter deciding to incorporate such a serious subject into his sicko horror/comedy shows the pure balls he has as a writer. Better yet, it actually works.

In “Basket Case,” Henelotter and his team managed to make an unconvincing blob of flesh like Belial into a bizarrely lovable antihero. “Brain Damage” had a higher budget then “Basket Case,” which means Aylmer is a slightly more convincing special effect. His design is phallic and excretal, his worm-like body recalling both a penis and a turd. This seems to link Aylmer with Brian’s base desires and the nasty bodily fluids junkies leave behind. His face, meanwhile, is cartoonish, allowing for far more expression then Belial’s stiff puppet face. The stop-motion that mostly brings Aylmer to life is solid, as the monster moves with emotion. How Aylmer injects his natural drug shows a return to “Basket Case’s” body horror elements. The worm’s extra-long mouth opens up, revealing a maw of fleshy muscle, squirming nerve ends, and pointed teeth. It’s effectively gross. While certainly cheesy, the effects in “Brain Damage” remain charming.

Yet even the best special effects in the world would only matter so much if Aylmer wasn’t an interesting character. Luckily, Henelotter has already shown a talent for creating captivating monsters. Aylmer is voiced by John Zacherle, otherwise known as Zacherley the Cool Ghoul. The classic New York area horror host brings a sense of refinement to the part of a blue worm that looks like poop. He makes it easy to believe that someone could fall so easily to Aylmer’s pleasures. Zacherle also provides his sense of humor to the part, letting Aylmer crack cruel jokes about hookers or smoothly manipulate the addict. The combination of clever special effects and Zacherle’s performances makes Aylmer a truly memorable horror villain. (Zacherle goes uncredited in the film, not because of the movie’s extreme content as is often assumed but because of union obligations.)

When “Brain Damage” slithered onto home video, it was heavily cut. In its uncut form, viewers can see some truly demented gore. When Aylmer goes after someone’s brains, the creature leaps into his victim's face, digging into their heads. Blood sprays wildly, the attacked person swinging back and forth. Some times, the violence borders on farcical, such as when Aylmer attacks a guy in a public bathroom. The amount of blood that spurts out of the stall is probably more then the human body actually contains. “Brain Damage’s” sickest gags are isolated to two scenes. While attempting to kick his addiction, Brian has a nightmare where he yanks a long strand of bloody tissue out of his ear, followed by a comical fountain of blood. The second is more notorious. While at a punk concert, Brian meets a horny groupie. She attempts to go down on him but, instead, Aylmer leap out of Brian’s fly into her mouth. The murder scene that follows combines the sexual and the grotesque, creating an unforgettably sick gag.

“Basket Case” happily recalled the sleazy atmosphere of 42nd Street grindhouse fare. By the time “Brain Damage” surfaced, that type of theater was quickly dying out. Henelotter’s second feature instead looks for inspiration in another New York subculture. After a dinner with Barbara ends abruptly – following a truly stomach turning gag involving spaghetti and meatballs – Brian wanders into a punk club. There, a band named the Swimming Pool Q’s performs a nasty ditty called “Corruption.” Brian sees faces similar to his own in the doped up and zonked punks around him. “Brain Damage” doesn’t just utilize punk music in that one scene. The greasy and nihilistic but undeniably youthful and energetic tone powers the entire film. (The moody, electronic score is solid too.)

The direction in “Basket Case” was clearly hampered by that film’s low budget and lack of production design. Yet, even under those circumstances, Frank Henenlotter managed to show off a distinctive visual sense. In “Brain Damage,” his ability as a director truly blooms. The drug trip sequences provide some memorable visuals. The light shade in Brian’s room becomes a starring, glowing eye. Electric static floods over close-ups of brains. Blue fluid floods the floor of his bedroom. All of the film is framed through a blue coloration, lending a moody, melancholic tone to the entire movie.

The acting in Henenlotter’s movies have gotten better too. The film was the debut role of Rick Hearst, credited as Rick Herbst, who would later go on to multiple soap operas. Since the character spends most of the movie doped out of his mind, Hearst mostly stares in a compromised state. However, he’s good at that. When the script calls on the actor to do more, he can generate some decent emotion. A scene devoted to Brian explaining why he’s leaving his girlfriend, for fear of hurting her, actually has some okay pathos. Brian’s lowest moments, when crouched on a hotel floor, puking and sweating, also show that Heart is giving a solid performance.

If a main component of “Brain Damage” doesn’t really work, it’s that love story. Jennifer Lowry is decent as Barbara. However, Brian and Aylmer are quickly headed for the moon, leaving Lowry’s Barbara behind on Earth. When she reappears in the script, it’s to fall into the arms of Brian’s brother. This subplot does provide a little more sex and nudity to the movie. It also attempts to root Brian’s conflict in some humanity. (The love triangle also provides another memorable dream sequence, where Brian grows giant blue suckers on his skin.) Lowry’s performance is fine, if a little overly theatrical at times, but her story line is clearly not the focus of the movie.

Another element of the film that doesn’t totally work is the explanation provided for Aylmer. At the film’s beginning, the creature is held captive but an elderly couple. They feed him animal brains, to keep him weak enough to control. After he escapes and shacks up with Brian, the couple come after him. In a scene midway through the film, the older man basically explains Aylmer’s entire history. (Not to mention the meaning of his odd name.) Like the extended flash back sequence in “Basket Case,” the scene hampers the film’s overall pace by explaining something that probably didn’t need such an in-depth explanation.

“Basket Case” had a somewhat tragic, suitable ending. “Brain Damage,” on the other hand, ends rather haphazardly. The subplot involving Barbara is bluntly resolved on a subway train. The elderly couple reappear just in time for the end, attacking Brian. Aylmer is fatally wounded in the conflict but not before Brian gets a mega-dose of his blue juice. The resulting overdose causes his head to swell up. A gun shot causes the abscess to burst, white light pouring out of his punctured head. Whether or not this is meant to be a dying hallucination of Brian’s, as the drug continues to surge through his body, is left up to the viewer. Mostly, it’s an odd way to conclude an off-beat movie. It some ways, it seems like Henelotter just ran out of ideas for the film and decided the story was going to end here.

“Brain Damage” isn’t without its narrative problems, that’s for sure. However, it’s a more finely constructed film then “Basket Case.” The script has so many strange ideas that the final film is bursting with creative concepts. It’s a visually impressive experience. The acting is solid. Most of all, it creates a memorably bizarre villain, brought to life by likable special effects. Though poorly received initially, the film would soon garner a cult following to rival Henenlotter’s most well known picture. It might be my personal favorite of the director’s films, an unforgettable oddball creature feature with a gonzo sense of humor and a story not quite like anything else. [Grade: B+]

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