Brain Damage: Frank Henenlotter’s 1988 addiction parable has lost none of its power to shock and amuse
Avid readers of FANGORIA magazine in the 1980s thrilled to their coverage of Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage, the writer/director’s follow-up to his beloved cult oddity Basket Case. I know because I was one of them and I too was excited to see the picture. I was still excited to see it even after the film was cut to ribbons by a nervous distributor and it was that R-rated edit that I saw on a horror-fueled sleep over in 1988, where my pals opted to rent Halloween 4 and my choice was the oddball Brain Damage. I was 13. I sat dutifully through Dwight Little’s toothless sequel and while I didn’t dislike the film, I found it rote, mechanical, like most of the late ’80s slasher franchise features. But Brain Damage? Wow. Here was a movie that was heady (literally), blazingly original, bloody (even if its hacked form, the film was strong stuff) and totally goofy but absolutely sophisticated. It was and remains a movie that perhaps only Henenlotter could make.
I had two VCRs and, as I always did with films I responded to, I dubbed the movie and I swear, for a few weeks, I watched Brain Damage every single day. I knew every line. Every sound effect. Every beat of music. But, as time wore on and I outsourced other strange cinematic thrills, I never went back to Brain Damage, even after the uncut version became widely available. Which is why this notice will be perhaps even more enthusiastic than it should be, because Arrow Video have released Henenlotter’s magnum opus in a typically souped-up Blu-ray/DVD combo pack loaded with extras (I mean, TONS of extras, including a supplemental book penned by ex-FANGO managing editor Michael Gingold) and sporting a remastered print presentation that is brilliantly uncut. As FX master Gabe Bartalos states in the delightful making-of doc on the back-end of the disc, removing those blasts of gore effectively killed the punchlines of many of the movie’s best jokes. Well, they’re all here and man, are these punchlines funny and disgusting.
Brain Damage tells the tale of middle-aged couple Martha and Morris (shades of Freaks actress Martha Morris, perhaps?) living in an NYC apartment building and who worship at the bathtub-dwelling shrine of something they affectionately call Elmer. When they prepare a meal/sacrifice of animal brains for their “pet,” they are met with horror when the tub is empty and Elmer is nowhere to be found. As the couple dissolve into a hysteria and foam-mouthed withdrawal, Elmer reveals himself at the sick bedside of young Brian (Rick Herbst). Turns out Elmer is a like one of David Cronenberg’s Shivers parasites with a somewhat happy face and toothy mouth and who has the witty, articulate voice of late, legendary horror TV host Zacherle and who strikes a bargain with the lad. He’ll keep supplying a heroin-like toxin into the base of the boy’s brain on demand as long as Brian supplies him with the fresh brains he needs to survive. Once Brian gets a hit of that blue juice – a great practical effect with liquid spurting on a spongy brain and firing electricity all over – he becomes hooked and thus begins a lethal love story between man and phallic/turd parasite that’s as humorous as it is absurd as it is revolting as it is perverted.
Producer Edgar Ievins mentions in the aforementioned doc that the reason Brain Damage works so well is that Henenlotter is essentially retelling the tale of Faust and that literary basis gives the film a cerebral boost. He’s right. And I suppose that all addiction parable films are nods to Faust, really. When you get that high, when you sell your soul to keep that high, even if you know it’s killing you. You don’t care. You need that high. And that’s exactly what happens to poor Brian and to Martha and Morris and to everyone who encounters little Elmer. The movie is a downward spiral but peppered with so much freakishness that it’s never depressing. It’s purely Henenlotterian and — though I do love Basket Case, its sequels and Frankenhooker — I’d say that Brain Damage remains his greatest cinematic achievement to date. And this release is the definitive way to watch it.