Brain Damage (1988) ***1/2
Director: Frank Henlotter
Runtime: 1h 26m
Some of the oldest exploitation films focus on drugs and addiction. Reefer Madness (1936) with its depiction of violent marijuana-fueled insanity is only the best know of the subgenre; aside from the brilliant sun there’s constellation of minor films on the subject like Marihuana (1936), Narcotic (1933), The Pace that Kills (1936), and Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1931). The reason for the rash of drug-exploitation films in the 30s and 40s was due to the newly strengthened Hays Code, which made it virtually impossible to make and distribute exploitation films. Exploitation filmmakers were forced to dress up their tawdry films as public service announcements. Provided they were pushing an ostensibly moral/educational message, the Hays Code let every sleazy bastard with a camera more or less film what he wanted. With the end of the Hays Code, there was no longer any reason to dress up exploitation films as anything but exploitation films. Aside from a few outliers like Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), the drug-exploitation film was now relegated to Lifetime channel movies of the week. Unlike their forerunners, these films are actually invested in the moral message and not just looking to subvert censorship. This is a shame though, as the basic framework of addiction films is a great way to take an initially sympathetic, wholesome character and drag them through the muck. Evidentially, I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as Frank Henenlotter, one of the most talented and astute exploitation filmmakers of the 1980s, decided to follow up his famous Basket Case (1982) with today’s film: A story of a regular, all-American guy who becomes addicted to the secretions of an ancient brain-monster.
The film’s opening gives us a great idea of what to expect: we start with an apparently respectable middle-age couple preparing dinner. The only odd part is that they are fixing raw cow brains for someone/something they refer to as Almer that lives in their tub. However, they soon discover that Almer is MIA it sends both old fogeys into a panic that is equal parts disturbing and humorous. The pair trashes their apartment looking for the thing, destroying most of their furniture and possessions in the process. Once they have ruled out every cranny of their own apartment, they begin to harass the neighbors. Unfortunately, they must live in a massive apartment building and consequently do not discover that Almar has taken up residence in the apartment of two brothers: Brian and Mike.
Brian has come down with some kind of bug, and rather than let the concert tickets he bought for his girlfriend Barbara go to waste, he has his brother Mike take her out in his stead. Not the best idea really, as its fairly apparent that Mike has feelings of his own for Barbara. Once Brian’s alone in the apartment though, Almar makes his move, injecting Brian covertly with a mysterious blue liquid that causes hallucinations and feelings of euphoria. When Brian comes out of his hallucinatory trip, Almar introduces himself properly and the audience gets their first look at the brain puppet. He’s a small blue thing, with a head the size of a tennis ball with a small stalk of brain stem jutting out from his base. The puppet is a remarkable mixture of gruesome and goofy: A veiny blue body that occasionally distends to reveal rows of sharpened teeth stand in sharp contrast to the creature’s innocent looking wide-eyes and tendency to bob back and forth in the middle of serious conversations. Then there is Almar’s voice, which has a gentle, almost dignified ring to it; a voice you think you can trust. Seriously, the voice of the damn brain monster is probably the best performance in the whole movie.
Almar tells Brian that he would be happy to inject Brian with his hallucinogenic secretions again; the only price is that Brian take him on a brief walk outside. Brian, already hooked on the brain’s mind-altering chemicals cheerfully agrees and starts meandering about the neighborhood. Brain stumbles into a junkyard, transfixed by glowing patterns that appear on broken glass and unintentionally draws the ire the yard’s watchman. This watchman is rather more invested in his job than most of his peers, whereas the average watchmen would be content with calling the regular cops, this one leaps into action gun in hand. When the rent-a-cop goes to frisk Brian though he discovers an odd lump on the man’s torso where he is concealing Almar. It’s at this point that Almar makes his move, leaping through the air and devouring the watchman’s brain. Brian is so strung out the blue stuff that he doesn’t even know what is going on. Once Almar has finished his meal Brian happily takes the brain back home, completely ignorant as to what has happened.
After that, Brian descends into a full-fledged junkie lifestyle: never leaving his apartment, pushing away his loved ones, and spending copious amounts of time in the bathroom. Barbara and Mike are worried about him, but they quickly discover that there is very little you can do to help someone who isn’t interested in helping himself. However, even Brian isn’t blind to all the warning signs. He begins to suspect that something might be wrong when he begins to hallucinate during dinner and his plate of spaghetti and meatballs transforms into a quivering mass of brains before his eyes. The real wake-up call comes after Almar takes Brian on another nocturnal prowl, this one culminating in a shockingly sleazy set piece where Almar impersonates Brian’s penis and delivers a literal skull-fucking to a hapless club floozy. Once again, Brian doesn’t remember anything, but this time he discovers that his underwear are soaked in a stranger’s blood. At this point, Almar comes clean and admits what he’s been doing to Brian. The brain-monster doesn’t see much risk in it; as by now Brian is so completely addicted to his blue juice that there’s little chance of him resisting.
To give Brian a bit of credit though, once it becomes obvious that Almar is hurting people he becomes determined to keep the brain-monster under control. He takes Almar and moves into a Times Square flophouse, where he is determined to keep off the blue stuff until Almar agrees to stop eating human brains. The only problem is that the withdrawal symptoms for brain goop are so horrid that only the most iron-willed individual would stand a chance of surviving it. After a few days, Brian is pale, sickly and as weak as a kitten. Finally he crawls to Almar, begging for a fix; but Almar isn’t going to let his rebellious stooge off so easily. No, before he gets a hit of the blue stuff, Brian is going to have to get the evil brain something to eat.
Brain Damage, like its precursor Basket Case (1982), is a sleazy, cruel and cheaply made picture. It’s also a masterfully put together one. The sheer number of different flavors of exploitation in this movie is impressive in and of itself. The main story-line is drawn from the addiction exploitation films of the 1930s and 40s, but its colored with goofy monsters, sexual violence, and good old-fashioned gross-out tactics. Obviously, Henlotter did not have much money to throw around on a film like this, and consequently the acting is subpar at best (except for the brain monster perversely enough). However, given the roughness of everything else, the leaden amateur acting actually enhances the experience of Brain Damage, evoking the film’s equally dodgy ancestors. Obviously, most of the budget went towards creating and animating the brain monster, which is excellent. The creature moves and looks oddly natural.
I understand that for many viewers the topic of drug addiction will touch a nerve, and they just cannot handle watching a ludicrous exploitation movie on that subject. I get it, believe me, I get it. Next to a lot of people’s, my life has been comparatively sheltered, but I’ve lost friends and family to real-life horrors that are reminiscent of Brain Damage’s plot. And in my mind, Brain Damage isn’t just tawdry exploitation; it feels like a genuine and moreover fair depiction of what addiction is like. Brain tried to resist the seductive power of Almar, he fights the addiction with every fiber of his being, but the film shows us what a hold the brain-monster has on our protagonist. It does a great job, despite the amateur acting and shoddy production values, of showing us the real tragedy of the story. Brian is not a bad person, but a weak one. Once it is obvious that he cannot control Almar, he tries to keep Mike and Barbara out of the monster’s reach. He does everything he can, but it’s not enough. I find myself recognizing a lot of real world people in this fictional portrayal. I suspect that Henenlotter has had some experiences similar to my own, as throughout his film the characterization of Brian as a man who has lost himself to addictive compulsion rings true. A sensitive viewer could criticize the comedic interludes of the film as crass and unnecessary, but I don’t think I would have been able to stand the film if not for the occasional moment of levity; it would be too true and too somber to stomach.