One of the reasons so many independent genre filmmakers are considered outsiders or mavericks in the film industry is because many are true auteurs. Think of John Waters, Jess Franco, and Jean Rollin, amongst many others. Sure, Waters made an occasional foray into semi-mainstream filmmaking. Sure, Franco sometimes made alternative cuts to his films to sell to different territories. And yes, Rollin occasionally played gun-for-hire to survive until he could move onto his next surrealistic fantasy film. But, for the most part, these directors made the films they wanted to see with very little outside interference. Whether viewers love or hate their films, most everyone has to at least accede that these mavericks of cinema created their own unique cinematic visions. Frank Henenlotter ought to be considered as a member of this special group of genre auteurs. Sure, his output doesn’t come close in sheer number to the films of Rollin or Franco, and yes, he took the bait for a couple of easy paydays with two neutered sequels to his first feature, but when left alone and given even a modest amount of money, his visions are as unique and entertaining as they are controversial.
Riding the coattails of his surprise grindhouse sleeper Basket Case (1982), cult director Henenlotter used whatever cachet he had garnered with his freshman feature film and managed to increase his budget from Basket Case’s measly $35,000 to nearly $600,000 for his sophomore effort, the equally controversial Brain Damage.
Though he managed to increase his budget nearly 20-fold, Brain Damage was still very much a low-budget, independent effort, and sometimes that shows. But part of the fun of Henenlotter’s films—and a key aspect of his filmic vision—is, regardless of how cheesy or bad some of the effects look, he would rather include them in the film to convey the storyline than to compromise his overall vision. Folks, you simply have to respect that kind of attitude.
Now, if you are reading this review you probably have seen this film. More than once. Heck, maybe own a copy on VHS or DVD. Likely you are wondering if upgrading is worth it and that’s what you want to read about. But allow me to keep you in suspense a while longer, just in case there may be a stray reader or two who have stumbled onto this review and want to know what the film is about. Aylmer is a centuries-old parasite with a unique ability: Aylmer can inject a serum into its host’s brain which acts like an LSD-like hallucinogen. The drawback? Well, just like most serious drugs, the user can get easily hooked. That’s when Aylmer turns on its host, demanding fresh kills on a regular basis so it can feast on human brains. Aylmer has been carefully passed down through millennia and has somehow come into the hands of an elderly couple who keep it in a bathtub and feed it animal brains. This allows them to control Aylmer and keep him from becoming too powerful. But one night Aylmer escapes and finds another host, Brian (Rick Hearst). Brian becomes addicted to Aylmer’s juice and Aylmer leads him on a killing spree through the city. Can Brian overcome his addiction before he kills his girlfriend and his brother? Will Brian’s girlfriend and brother be able to help him before Aylmer gains complete control? It’s a life-and-death struggle for the parasite, his host, Brian, and Brian’s loved ones.
Brain Damage is certainly a step up in the creature F/X department from Basket Case. The monster in Basket Case was a primitive stop-motion creature. By 1982, stop-motion was considered a dated method for creating creature effects. 1981 had seen blockbuster creature effects in both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, along with numerous other features, but practical effects and animatronics were expensive. Nevertheless, even with outdated methods, Henenlotter exploded into feature films with his 1982 gore epic, which played uncut and unrated in grindhouses and drive-ins across the U.S. Conversely, Brain Damage’s parasite, Aylmer, was created using animatronics, thus appearing to be a bit more realistic than Belial did in Basket Case. Nevertheless, the parasite has an exaggerated, phallic look that makes it more cartoonish than scary. Add to that the friendly, sing-song voice of syndicated television horror host and icon Zacherley as Aylmer, and the entire affair is oftentimes for jokey than terrifying. There are also several primitive optical effects that don’t quite come off perfectly, though some, such as the electrical sparking in the brain whenever Aylmer’s blue “juice” washes over said organ, are effective. The gore effects, however, are very good and that’s what Basket Case fans came to see. There are several gory set pieces with two, in particular being showcased in this uncut version of the film.
That’s right, folks—this is the (in)famous uncut version, complete with brains being pulled out of the ear and blood gushing like a firehose when the cranium is emptied of cerebrum and cerebellum, as well as the complete “blowjob” sequence. These two sequences were filmed and prepped for an unrated release while a less violent and more politically correct R-rated theatrical release was also produced for theatrical release. But it’s the unrated and uncut version people were drawn to, and this is the version made famous in the late-80’s when it landed squarely in video stores.
So, for those who enjoy some off-color comedy, quaint monsters, and violently bloody sequences in their films, Brain Damage is a must-see. Some will simply dismiss it as low-budget trash. But those who get it, and those who appreciate how hard filmmakers work with nearly zero resources at their disposal to create a vision and get it out to the public, will find Brain Damage highly enjoyable.
And for those who have been patiently waiting—I hope you’re still with me—yes, this upgrade is well worth the asking price! Arrow Video USA hasn’t been around nearly as long as many of the boutique labels which specialize in this kind of fare, but they certainly have made a strong impact in a very short period of time. Typical of many Arrow releases, this Blu-ray + DVD combo comes chock full of special features, including a brand-new audio commentary with director Henenlotter, who talks non-stop for the length of the picture, telling stories and being generally very entertaining. Also included is a brand-new, nearly 60-minute feature on the making of the film which includes interviews, insights, and great stories from many of the cast and crew. In my opinion, this single feature is worth the price of admission alone. Great stuff! Other short featurettes include interviews with FX artist Gabe Bartalos, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti, stills photographer and script supervisor Karen Ogle, a visit to the locations of the filming of Brain Damage, a 2016 Q&A with Henenlotter at a film festival, three image galleries, and the theatrical trailer. Filed in the “ephemera” section are some other featurettes, including one about superfan Adam Skinner, who lives, breathes, and even makes music inspired by Brain Damage. There is also a short film that has nothing to do with Brain Damage but does have John Zacherley’s final onscreen credit. Along with original and newly commissioned artwork and a collectible booklet, this makes Arrow’s release of Brain Damage one that simply can’t be missed.
The Blu-ray + DVD combo is available at Amazon or you can purchase directly through Arrow at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa