Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Brain Damage (1988)

... aka: Brain Damage - La maledizione di Elmer (Brain Damage - The Curse of Elmer)
... aka: Elmer
... aka: Elmer le remue-méninges

Directed by:
Frank Henenlotter

Henenlotter's highly unusual debut feature BASKET CASE (1982), the ultra low-budget (35 thousand), bloody, sordid, blackly comic tale of separated Siamese twins out for revenge against the doctors who separated them and left the horribly disfigured one for dead, took a little while to catch on with audiences but it eventually won itself a loyal cult following thanks to midnight theater screenings and home video. It wouldn't be until six years later that we'd get the writer / director's sophomore effort. It turned out to be well worth the wait. Brain Damage is a real bright spot in late 80s horror and now stands out as one of the more memorable films from an era where routine, formulaic slasher flicks were ruling the box office. The copious bloodshed, ultra-seedy urban atmosphere and unusual, diminutive central monster have all been carried over from Henenlotter's previous success, only this time everything is fashioned to be a parable about substance abuse. Humor, horror and pathos all effectively blend here and, thanks to a higher budget of 600,000 dollars which afforded 35mm film stock, this has a more vivid, polished, colorful aesthetic than the grungy / gritty-looking 16mm Basket Case. Both films really have the perfect look for their subject matter and the amount of originality and character thankfully remains undiminished.

Brian ("Rick Herbst," who'd later start going by his real name, Rick Hearst, and win Emmy Awards for his work on the daytime soaps General Hospital and The Guiding Light) wakes up late one evening in a daze. Upon further inspection, he realizes he has blood all over his neck. After an excellent trip sequence with blue fluid filling up a room and a ceiling light turning into an eyeball, we learn what's responsible for Brian's sudden altered perception: a slimy, intelligent parasite named Aylmer. And if you think having a monkey on your back is hard, try having an Aylmer on the back of your neck. Not only is his hallucinogenic, euphoric secretion (injected directly into the brain via a needle-like tongue) highly addictive, but he's also a demanding little sucker who craves fresh human brains in exchange for highs.

Having spent his early years absorbing a steady diet of 42nd Street Grindhouse cinema, NYC native Henenlotter knows how to put together a good, gritty exploitation film but he also gives audiences a bit more to sink their teeth into here. Nearly all of the symptoms / signs of addiction are touched upon in clever ways, including Brian's rapidly deteriorating health, sealing himself off from the outside world, lying, sneaking out at all hours of the night, hanging out in junkyards, seedy hotels and clubs, unsuccessfully attempting to go cold turkey and becoming estranged from both his brother / roommate (Gordon MacDonald) and his patient girlfriend (Jennifer Lowry). Aylmer's former owners; Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha (Lucille Saint-Peter), who are suffering from some very nasty withdrawal symptoms that include foaming at the mouth, physical deterioration and madness, desperately want the creature back.

Beverly Bonner (who has appeared in nearly all of the director's films) has a bit part as a neighbor, Vicki Darnell is a punk girl involved in one of the messiest fellatio scenes you'll see (granted you watch the unrated version), Joseph Gonzalez (who'd go on to play Zorro the Pimp in the director's Frankenhooker) is featured in a memorable shower room scene and Basket Case star Kevin Van Hentenryck has a hilarious subway cameo in his Duane Bradley persona. Aylmer's silver-tongued voice is charmingly provided by former Philly TV horror host John Zacherle, whose name had to be removed from the credits since this was a non-union picture. The new wave band The Swimming Pool Q's perform their song "Corruption" during a scene at the Hell Club and Zacherle even gets to sing himself; putting a memorable spin on the old song "Elmer's Tune."

Some have criticized the special effects (by Gabriel Bartalos and others) as borderline hokey, and perhaps they are, but in my eyes they're charming and well-executed considering the time and budget. There's even some brief stop motion animation thrown in. James M. Muro (Street Trash) was the Steadicam operator and the assistant director was Greg Lamberson (Slime City). Because of the success of his first two films, Shapiro-Glickenhaus financed three more films for the director: the aforementioned Frankenhooker and two Basket Case sequels; 1990's Basket Case 2 and 1991's Basket Case 3: The Progeny. It wouldn't be until a decade-and-a-half later that Henenlotter, who spent much of his down time running the invaluable Something Weird Video, would make another film: Bad Biology (2008). 

After debuting at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in France in January 1988 (under the title Elmer le remue-méninges = "Elmer Brainstorming"), this played a limited theatrical run in the U.S. in April, mostly around New York and New Jersey. The initial R-rated video distributed by Paramount was trimmed by about two minutes (mostly scenes involving brains and brain-eating), but the film was releases on home video overseas uncut. The 1999 DVD release from Synapse restored all of the previously missing footage and comes with an entertaining and informative commentary track.


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