Writer/director Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988) is a thoughtful and powerful exploration of the dangers of drug addiction. It also happens to be a gory horror-comedy featuring a singing, dancing, phallus-shaped, brain-eating monster. A young man awakens one day to find a strange creature somewhat attached to his body. The monster provides him with hits of its drug-like venom, but it demands to be fed human brains in exchange. Combining puppetry, stop-motion animation, practical effects, and limited rotoscoping, the filmmakers make the monster every much of a character as his human co-stars. Director Henenlotter balances the gore with his trademark bizarro humor – often in the same scenes. The humor and gore are actually in service to a serious story that explores the destructive effects drug addiction can have on users as well as on their family and friends.
Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha (Lucille Saint-Peter) are an older couple living in New York City. To their horror, they have just lost something precious to them, causing them to practically tear apart their apartment while looking for it. What they have lost turns out to be a slug-like parasite/symbiont name Aylmer (voiced by classic television horror host John Zacherle – aka Roland/Zacherley). He provides his hosts with injections of his hallucinogenic venom in exchange for being fed brains. Tired of the calves’ brains that Morris and Martha have been providing him, Aylmer leaves to find a new host. He selects young twenty-something Brian (Rick Hearst as Rick Herbst). Brian is understandably disturbed by Aylmer’s bizarre appearance, but he quickly warms up to the creature after his first hit of its hallucinogenic “juice.” What Brian does not realize, though, is that during his venom-induced blackouts, he heads into the streets to help Aylmer feed on human brains. As his addiction to Aylmer’s “juice” increases, Brian starts neglecting his relationships with his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) and with his brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald). When Brian finally realizes what Aylmer is feeding upon, he refuses to take part anymore. Does Brian have the strength to starve off Aylmer, or is his addiction to the venom’s drug-like properties too strong?
With a special effects driven creature as a central character, it is important that the filmmakers of Brain Damage make sure that they make that character as believable as possible. Effects artists Gabriel Bartalos and Al Magliochetti bring Aylmer to life primarily through the use of puppetry and animatronics. In most scenes, the human characters are interacting with a fully articulated Aylmer, grounding their conversations in the real world, in spite of the fact that one of the participants is a brain-eating slug monster. For the few times where a more mobile version of Aylmer is needed, the production utilizes the time-honored tradition of stop-motion animation. Aside from these short sequences and a few rotoscoped “light shows,” the majority of the effects are practical in nature. One particularly unusual but effect scene involves Brian hallucinating that his plate of spaghetti and meatballs is slowly transforming into a plate of “spaghetti and pulsating brains.” Those are not the only brains that make an appearance. One cannot feature a brain-eating monster without featuring said brain-eating. Brains make another appearance during a scene that brings new meaning to the phrase “giving head.” It is particularly gruesome. The makeup team, headed by Dan Frye, gets some nice subtle work in, as well. The progressively detrimental effects of withdrawal are graphically demonstrated with the makeup for Morris, Martha, and Brian as the film progresses. Their slow physical deterioration nicely balances believability with shock value.
Fans of writer/director Henenlotter know that he often mixes off-the-wall humor with his gore. Brain Damage is no exception. There are some nice in-jokes for Henelotter fans – especially a brief cameo by Kevin Van Hentenryck, star of the director’s first film, Basket Case (1982), as a gentleman carrying a familiar-looking wicker basket. Aylmer’s look and demeanor provide the lion’s share of the film’s humor. While he is essentially a brain-eating slug, Aylmer appearance is reminiscent of a cross between a giant phallus and a rather large bowel movement. This is not an accident. Additionally, his general appearance and especially his big, dopey eyes give Aylmer somewhat of a cartoon-like air about him. Again, this is fully intentional. Contrasting with his physical goofiness, Aylmer’s voice has a dignified and cultured tone thanks to the talents of famed television host John Zacherle. When Aylmer gyrates and belts out the old standard “Elmer’s Tune,” it is reminiscent of the old Warner Brothers mascot Michigan J. Frog. While this scene does play as one of the funnier bits in the movie, it is conversely also one of the most disturbing. The silly, cartoonish aspects of Aylmer end up underscoring the horror of the effects of Brian’s addiction.
The aforementioned scene of Aylmer singing and dancing underscores the genius of Brain Damage. If one just looks at Aylmer and his antics, they provide a goofy musical interlude. In the context of the scene and the film as a whole, though, it takes on a much more sinister aspect. While Aylmer is crooning, Brian is writhing in pain on the floor. At this point in the story, he is refusing to feed Aylmer, so Aylmer is refusing to dose Brian. It is a gritty and harsh portrayal of withdrawal. Aylmer’s singing is there to taunt and torment Brian. The creature is manipulating the addict, trying to break him. He wants to show Brian just who is master over whom. It shows Aylmer as a monster of another kind – a psychological monster. This drives home the point that the film is a not-so-thinly veiled parable about the dangers of drug abuse. Brian is willing to do anything for another hit. At one point, he is so apathetic that he does not even blink when he finds his brother and his girlfriend sleeping together. Brian’s loss of control is the true horror in Brain Damage.
Writer/director Frank Henenlotter’s body of work contains quite a number of goofy and gory horror classics, and Brain Damage is one of his best. It takes quite a bit of skill to make an animatronic brain-eating slug into a fully realized character, and the filmmakers manage to pull this off, all while with a limited budget. The cartoonish design of Aylmer, combined with the sophistication of the voice work by John Zacherle, infuses the film with a silly sense of humor. The comedy turns to horror as viewers realize the destructive force Aylmer has become in the protagonist’s life. Ultimately, the film is a powerful and disturbing portrait of multiple lives ruined by the damaging nature of drug abuse. Brain Damage is worth catching, and not just for fans of Frank Henenlotter or of bizarro horror comedies. That is, as long as one does not have any problems with their social commentary being served up by a singing, dancing, phallic, brain-eating slug monster.
Brain Damage (1988) (4.3 / 5)