Brain Damage (1988) Review

Written and directed by Frank Henenlotter the crazed mind behind such cult classics as Frankenhooker and the Basket Case trilogy Brain Damage which came out in 1988 six years after the first Basket Case film on paper appears to be a bad taste gore filled horror as unwitting youth Brian (Rick Hearst) becomes the host for a brain eating talking parasite named Aylmer or Elmer if you’re his friend.

As with all Henenlotter’s movies however and maybe in fact more so this twisted tale of addiction has a far darker and deeper side than you may at first expect expertly using the comedy and over the top horror as a sick subterfuge to then subversively display a story about the hopeless and depressing depths that addicts can sink to.

The movie opens on the unhinged Morris and Martha (Theo Barnes and Lucille Saint-Peter) elderly neighbors of Brian who have been keeping Aylmer in their apartment for many years feeding him animal brains in exchange for the euphoric hallucinogenic blue liquid the slug like parasite injects into them.

Escaping the old couple’s clutches Aylmer attaches itself to Brain making him at first extremely sick so much so his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) and brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald) begin to worry. Leaving him alone Aylmer introduces himself to Brain explaining that he can make his new friend feel the best he has ever felt giving him a life without pain, hurt or suffering and all he ask in exchange is to be feed on occasion.

Injecting the blue fluid straight into his brain via a skewer from his hidden multi toothed maw Brain begins to trip out beyond anything he has experienced before and the pair head out into the night where the newly initiated addict experiences lights, colours and visions while feeling better than he ever has.

Brian is so high in fact that he doesn’t notice the guard of the junk yard they have broken into approach him or Aylmer attack the innocent man and eat his brains out by boring through his skull. Thus begins a sickening symbiotic relationship that will take Brain to the very bottom before destroying everything in his life to keep Aylmer from taking away the sweet blue nectar he needs.

Unlike any other horror villain in his design and voice Aylmer, who we discover has been around for centuries feeding off people throughout history in exchange for his highly addictive juice, is a distinctly phallic blue slug like creature with a bulbous head and cartoon eyes and mouth making it both comedic and disturbing in design in equal measure.

Voiced by TV horror host John Zacherle whose languid and friendly tone incongruously meshes with the disgusting visual Aylmer is an insidious character who quickly convinces Brain to help him commit murder. Unlike many other films where the process is slow or the compliance accidental or engineered Brain is too busy tripping to understand the gravity of the situation making it all the more accurate as an analogy for real drug addiction.

Bearing a likens to Little Shop of Horrors before it and How to Get a Head in Advertising afterwards among other movies Brain Damage bares the trademarks of Henenlotter’s work mixing jet black humor with some truly revolting gross out gore including a scene where Brain pulls his own brains out through his ear and a death by blow job I won’t even try and describe.

There are also the themes of symbiosis which Henenlotter explored in Basket Case although here they are far more destructive and negative than the relationship between Duane and his deformed Siamese-twin brother. In fact Duane makes a cameo holding his basket towards the end of the film when Brain has finally succumb to Aylmer’s all-consuming power and the fact that Duane runs after making eye contact with him says a lot about the polarity of the two films.

Ultimately Brain Damage is a very stark and brutal exploration of addiction as Brain goes from enjoying the LSD like experience to worrying about what he may have done during his black outs and attempting to go cold turkey to get himself clean and free of Aylmer’s grip.

Taking place half way through it is one of the darkest scenes in the movie as Brain battles the withdrawal while the repulsive and contemptuous monster taunts him from the grubby sink in the flea pit they have fled to mocking his attempts and reveling in his agony.

What’s worst of all is Brain fails and from here things really unravel as he accepts his fate knowing Aylmer with murder but choosing to be high while he does it so he doesn’t have to deal with the guilt, a choice which results in him losing the thing he used to love the most before the drugs overcame everything.

Part entertaining horror comedy and part bleak meditation on drug dependence it is ironic that Henenlotter’s most shocking and gore filled film is also his most serious and for that reason it is worth experiencing just be warned not to get addicted to Aylmer.

Movie Rating: ★

★ ★ ☆ ☆ 



Alex Humphrey

Alex studied film at the University of Kent and went on to work for Universal Pictures in their Post Room gaining an inside look at the movie industry from the very bottom. Constantly writing reviews in everything from local magazines to Hip Hop sites Alex honed his critical skills even spending a brief period as a restaurant critic. Read more

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