First published by Film4
Synopsis: In Frank Henenlotter’s second comedy horror, a personable alien parasite named Elmer embodies the highs and lows of addiction in Reagan-era New York.
Review: While so many other independent horror directors in the eighties were content just to churn out formulaic slasher flicks, Frank Henenlotter was staking out altogether darker and more twisted territories. His alienated protagonists may have been killers, but they were also invested with a quirky New York edge, as though Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees had been possessed by the spirit of Travis Bickle. Like Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) before it, Brain Damage (1988) is a luridly demented exploitation tale whose big ideas are restrained only by a small budget – and by merely functional dialogue.
“You’re on drugs, right?” asks Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) of her boyfriend Brian (Rick Herbst).
The question does not seem unreasonable. After all, ever since the night their elderly neighbours the Ackermans (Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter) went on a wide-eyed search door-to-door for something they had lost from their bathroom, young Brian’s behaviour has become decidedly odd. Constantly light-headed and pale, he has stopped going to work, he has shut out Barbara and his own brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald), he spends hours alone giggling and whooping like a maniac in his bedroom or the bathroom, he raves to Barbara about his heightened awareness and sense of euphoria – and he wanders the streets at night with little recollection later of where he has been, or how his clothes have got so bloody.
Brian is indeed addicted, and is soon frequenting nightclub back-alleys, public showers and toilet cubicles to feed his habit – but instead of having a monkey on his back, Brian has a penile parasite on his neck. This blue-veined phallic creature, going by the name Elmer, has sweet-talked Brian into a Faustian deal: it will continue injecting an ecstasy-inducing blue ‘juice’ directly into Brian’s spinal cortex in return for a regular supply of human brains to feed upon. And so begins Brian’s downward spiral, as his initial hallucinatory highs soon become nightmares in a damaged brain – and his destructive binge draws in strangers and loved ones alike.
Regardless of whether Elmer is, as Morris Ackerman puts it, “a creature of endless histories, a living relic of civilisations long since forgotten”, or just a figment of Brian’s chemically altered imagination, when he taps into Brian’s neck, he is also tapping into a range of Reagan-era anxieties about drugs. Brian tries and fails to “just say no”, in the end surrendering altogether to his own appetitive impulses, so that the damage he does to others, at first unwitting and involuntary, soon becomes something altogether more open-eyed and complicit.
If the humans in Brain Damage are sketched a little thinly, the part animatronic, part stop-motion Elmer more than makes up for them. Voiced by TV horror icon Zacherley (uncredited), this blue meanie is all at once seductive, mellifluous, menacing and, er, cocky – he even gets to sing a song (‘Elmer’s Tune’, of course)! Elmer’s co-dependent relationship with Brian makes this one of the most bizarre buddy flicks since Eraserhead (1977) or indeed Basket Case (whose star, Kevin Van Hentenryck, gets a conspicuous basket-bearing cameo here).
The effects are cheap-acid cheesy, the gore comes thick and icky, the murders are all overtly sexualised in a manner that runs a fine line between funny and uncomfortable, and the equivocal ending, with its loop back to the opening image, may well mess with the viewer’s mind no less than the protagonist’s.
In a Nutshell: As high on concept as it is low on budget, Henenlotter’s eighties urban horror is cheap, sleazy and irresistibly addictive. It’s the best kind of bad trip.
© Anton Bitel