Brain Damage Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Meet Aylmer. He’s your local, friendly parasite with the ability to induce euphoric hallucinations in his hosts. But these LSD-like trips come with a hefty price tag. When young Brian comes under Aylmer’s addictive spell, it’s not long before he finds himself scouring the city streets in search of his parasite’s preferred food source – brains! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Frank Henenlotter burst onto the exploitation scene with Basket Case in 1982. Slowly, but surely, it grew into one of the quintessential independent horror celebrations of the scum-soaked streets of a pre-Giuliani New York City. After about six years (much of which was spent finding Basket Case distribution), he returned with a second tale of a loveable loser deep diving into grotesque creature effects and shocking violence with 1988’s Brain Damage. Without as much access to the grindhouses that made Basket Case a long term cult hit, Brain Damage took a little longer to find its audience.
Henenlotter’s relative amateurism has always been part of his charm and he was always sure to hold on to his original, DIY aesthetic throughout his career, but there’s also no mistaking how genuinely cinematic Brain Damage is – especially compared to something like Basket Case. Armed with a bigger (though still small) budget and access to 35mm film cameras, the director turned Brain Damage into a peak moment in his filmography, one that blends his distinct brand of slick cartoonishness and grimy, back-alley nastiness. It flirts with mainstream ‘80s creature horror acceptance, but, ultimately, Henelotter’s sense of humor is too strange to meet such expectations. In comparison, Frankenhooker (1990) was a return to the gutter and the Basket Case sequels (1990, 1992) were more like deranged episodes of Sesame Street. For better or worse, Brain Damage is often driven by effects, which may not endear it to audiences that have come to expect modern effects standards. But the imaginative gore and Aylmer’s rubbery, sometimes stop-motion-assisted facade is brimming with charm and character. The hallucination sequences are also surprisingly potent to this day in their ability to recreate the mix of awe and terror of drug-induced delusions. Even the dated composite effects somehow seem more authentic than the expensive and elaborate composite effects seen in big-budget counterparts from the era.
For a long time, Brain Damage was only available in a censored, R-rated form, which cut footage from two sequences, amounting to about two minutes or edits. The scenes in question include a delightfully nasty nightmare where Brian slowly pulls his brain out of his ear (strangely, a still from this sequence was featured on the back of the video box) and a disturbing (and unusually mean-spirited) scene where Aylmer poses as Brian’s penis and very slowly eats a prostitutes brains through her mouth as Brian shoves her head into his crotch. A comparison between the cuts can be seen over at MovieCensorship.com. In spite of these sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, always in bad taste moments, Brain Damage is a surprisingly moralistic movie, in keeping with Henenlotter’s M.O.. Unlike the Basket Case series, however, which tend to satirize their morals as much as they support them, Brain Damage is a rather sincere and sobering portrayal of the perils of drug addiction. Brain Damage is a potent blend of horror, comedy, and social drama that couples nicely with Henenlotter’s other films, but it also makes a neat double-feature with Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1988). Both are outrageously colorful, sexually-tinged, comedically slimey films about hallucinations and brain-eating, and each use the same analogue video effects to represent the tortured protagonist’s visual point-of-view.
As mentioned, the US and UK VHS versions of Brain Damage were edited either for an R-rating or censored by the BBFC. The first time the film was available entirely uncut and in widescreen was when Synapse Films got their hands on it and released a special edition DVD. That was later replaced by an anamorphic version with more extras and became a centerpiece of Synapse’s catalogue. At some point, they lost the rights and Image re-released a barebones version with help from Mackinac Media. Meanwhile, Second Sight did basically the same thing for the film in the UK, until Arrow managed to score release rights and put out the first ever Blu-ray version of the film in both territories. For this 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, Arrow received a high definition master via Mark Holdom from Mackinac Media distribution, who reportedly scanned it from original film elements. Additional restoration was completed by Deluxe in London. In all, this is about as impressive of a transfer as we can expect from this particular film. The overall detail level may not be a drastic upgrade over SD, but this is only really apparent in the occasional clumpy grain structure. Otherwise, even in the deep darkness that pervades throughout most scenes, edges, textures, and shapes are clearly defined. Shots that had previously appeared like a lumpy black/blue stew are now discernible, which is great news for all of those icky effects sequences. Henenlotter and cinematographer Bruce Torbet went to town with their otherworldly pink and blue color palette pops and flow into relatively neat blends that don’t wreak havoc with the purity of black levels. There are plenty of small print damage artifacts (including pulsy sequences, white/black dots, and some vertical streaks), but not much in the way of compression issues, aside from some low-level noise throughout the aforementioned deep-dark sequences.
The original press releases for this Blu-ray claimed it would feature only the original mono sound in uncompressed 1.0 LPCM, but Arrow has also included the 5.1 remix that was used for Synapse and Second Sight’s DVDs in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix is louder and spreads the music widely over the stereo channels (with a bit of a rear channel echo), but I’m not a fan of the wider spread and volume changes heard in the effects. Sticking to the mono track is just fine, because it exhibits plenty of depth and dynamic range for a single-channel mix. A couple of sequences, such as a touching moment between Brian’s girlfriend and brother, have a slightly muffled quality, but that’s about it for complaints. The electronic score, by Matthias Donnelly, Clutch Reiser, and Gus Russo, is tonally unique and stands pretty well on its own, outside of the context of the movie. So then, good news, there is an alternate isolated score track for those that want to listen to it all on its own – an option Arrow has borrowed from the Synapse release and has also presented it in uncompressed LPCM.
Commentary with Frank Henenlotter – I assume that this is a new commentary, since the Synapse/Second Sight track included novelization writer Bob Martin, and independent filmmaker Scooter McCrae, and this one is moderated by Mike Hunchback of Screeching Weasel fame. The director basically tells the entire behind-the-scenes story at his own pace, while occasionally pausing for screen-specific comments, sometimes at Hunchback’s behest. Very informative and very entertaining.
Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage (54:13, HD) – This brand new retrospective doc features interviews with producer Edgar Ievins, special effects artists Gabe Bartalos & Dan Frye, visual effects supervisor/animator Al Magliochetti, first assistant director Greg Lamberson, and actor Rick Hearst. It traces the connections made between the filmmakers in the lead up to Brain Damage’s production, as well as the actual making of the movie. It’s unfortunate that Henenlotter didn’t participate, but the interviewees do a good job paying homage to him and his weird ideas.
The Effects of Brain Damage (10:00, HD) – Bartalos host a further look at his work on the film and the creation of Aylmer, including archival video and photos.
Animating Elmer (6:40, HD) – Magliochetti breaks down his intricate optical and stop-motion effects processes.
Karen Ogle: A Look Back (4:29, HD) – The set photographer/script supervisor/assistant editor briefly speaks about her time on the film.
Elmer's Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage (8:48, HD) – Horror journalist Michael Gringold of Rue Morgue Magazine and Henenlotter lead a quick tour of the various areas that appear in the film as they look today.
Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession (10:00, HD) – Self-professed superfan Adam Skinner shows off his collection and plays selections from an album he compiled and partially composed in honor of the film. Watching this opens up a new menu option to play four more songs – “The Man with the Basket/Blowjob” by The Band from Planet X, “A Club Called Hell” by Bull Milk, “Movies I Love” by Daiquiri, and “Terrible Purpose” by Ultron Atreides.
Q&A with Frank Henenlotter: (20:36, HD) – This post-screening audience Q&A was recorded at the Offscreen Film Festival in March of 2016.
Still, behind-the-scenes, and Ephemera still galleries
Bygone Behemoth (5:08, HD) – An animated short film by Harry Chaskin from 2010 that portrays the bland day-to-day life of a domesticated kaiju monster who can no longer find a job in Hollywood. It features a brief cameo from John Zacherle, the voice of Aylmer.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.