3 out of 5
Directed by: Frank Henenlotter
A middling, soft-porn-y midsection surrounded by a fantastically realized and out-there opening and an equally out-there but oddly depressing close… Henenlotter? Is that you? Of course it is. The film: Brain Damage, his ‘this is your brain on drugs’ followup to Basket Case.
Empty shell Brian is, as far as we know, an okay guy. His girlfriend, Barbara, seems like an okay girl, and his brother seems like an okay brother. We don’t fault them for hooking up later. Seems only natural when Brian is so busy with Aylmer, the brain-eating parasite that also helpfully secretes some trippy drugs up through y’alls spine, and that wandered into his room.
Aylmer is also an identifiably Henenlotter creation, all phallic and veiny, and besides the lil’ guy’s hilariously over-toothed maw – all the better to latch on to heads and cause gallons of blood to spurt while brains are out-sucked – the genius choice of casting classic radio personality John Zacherle as the voice gifts Brain Damage with an instant self-aware undercurrent of humor, more direct / intended than Basket Case initially offered, and thus also making the darker turn of events, juxtaposed to the tone as they are, feel more affecting. But the BC-style relationship is otherwise pretty similar: in exchange for doing bad things for Aylmer (find him braaaaains), Brian gets some perks (he gets hiiiigghhh).
Rick Herbst, as Brian, is phenomenal. He gives his absolute all to the role, selling both the utter jubilation of his trips and the destitute do-anything vibe of the strung out junkie. And the Aylmer design, though low-budget clunky, is fun. Frank and team have a good time with the gore gags, and while they are similarly DIY, they come up with some classic moments.
Alas: this is still a Henenlotter, grindhouse B-movie. The middle of the film lingers past the point of amusement on occasion, with extended ogling of a beefed up bodybuilder and a bizarrely tracked tussle ‘neath the sheets for two characters. Brian wanders around high for quite a while. There’s a small Basket Case nod that becomes a sort of obnoxiously excessive Basket Case nod. Excepting a gloriously random “origin” for Aylmer, you feel the runtime padding of this middle very distinctly. That said, a huge chunk of the joy of these things is witnessing and appreciating the efforts and energy that bring it to life, and, especially with Herbst and Zacherle as our focal points, it’s generally fun and easy to do so.
The Arrow bluray release that I viewed includes their usual bevy of features, including a fun walkthrough of the Manhattan locations, and an hour-long interview with the effects guys and producers and Rick Herbst. It’s oddly lacking in Henenlotter himself (though there’s a 20 minute Q & A filling that in), but it absolutely gives you the sense of how much of a passion project this was for the small team involved. Visuals and sound certainly exceed the quality of an VHS version you’ve since worn out.