Frank Henenlotter has a reputation as a purveyor of gory low-budget exploitation horror films that marry graphic thrills with a dark sense of humour. His second feature, 1988’s Brain Damage, is enough to confirm it’s a notoriety he fully earned. It tells the grim story of Brian, a stable young man who will succumb to a terrifying addiction that costs him everything he cares about. It’s also the tale of Aylmer (or Elmer if you’re so inclined), a centuries-old parasite that resembles a brainy penis. Aylmer loves munching brains but to get around he needs a human to help. In return, Aylmer shoots his juice into the companion’s brain causing a high the likes of which nothing else can compare. It’s a symbiotic relationship and mind-bending euphoria that at first Brian can’t get enough of. But Brian can’t cope with the murderous mayhem his parasitical pal is causing and resolves to get clean before it’s too late.
This could almost be an ultra-dark update of those ‘30s and ‘40s ‘reefer madness’ flicks that tried to warn kids of the perils of drugs, whilst at the same time revelling in depicting the acts themselves in prurient detail. Henenlotter isn’t interested in disguising the thinly-veiled allegorical nature of Brain Damage however, because he’s more excited about punctuating Brian’s descent with some outstandingly bloody sequences of Aylmer chewing down on his unfortunate victims in vividly executed practical-effects set pieces. They’re the sort of effects that could feel quaint in these days of CGI if they weren’t still just so nasty. The splatter is offset by a running thread of pitch-black humour and commentary provided by the smooth Aylmer himself (in a stroke of genius Aylmer is given life by the mellifluous vocals of venerable TV horror host John Zacherle). You also get a solid central performance from Rick Hearst as Brian. Overall, there’s not much to it other than gross-out and in truth, even though it’s only 86 minutes long, it sags a little. But despite that it’s still the triumph of a twisted, witty imagination and deserves the cult reputation it has.
Picture-wise it’s generally in great shape for a film that cost almost next to nothing 30 years ago. We imagine Henenlotter probably never imagined his film would get the type of treatment this superlative Arrow release provides. Fans of the film will find a brand new info-packed commentary by the excitable Henenlotter, a substantial making of documentary and plenty of other worthwhile extras. If you already love this film, this is a release that's inarguably essential and for those new to Henenlotter it’s also a great place to start.
BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: FRANK HENENLOTTER / STARRING: RICK HEARST, JOHN ZACHERLE, JENNIFER LOWRY / RELEASE DATE: 8TH MAY