UK Release Date: 8th May 2017
Runtime: 86 minutes
Director: Frank Henenlotter
Writer: Frank Henenlotter
Starring: Rick Hearst, John Zacherley, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter
Synopsis: A young man wakes to find himself propositioned by a slug creature who can implant addictive hallucinogens into his head in exchange for brains.
I have reviewed some very odd films coming out of the offices of Arrow in recent years, but few are as utterly bizarre as Brain Damage – Frank Henenlotter‘s cult splatter classic. It’s a deeply unusual, but consistently entertaining story that is a weird allegory for the debilitating power of addiction, combined with some unsettlingly grotesque splatter effects, hilariously over-wrought performances and what is without doubt the most disturbing blowjob in cinema history.
An elderly couple (Theo Barnes and Lucille Saint-Peter) in a block of flats wake one morning to realise that the strange creature who had been living in their home has escaped. The creature – a strange eel-like lizard called Elmer (John Zacherley) – has attached itself to Brian (Rick Hearst). When Elmer begins to inject Brian with a hallucinogenic blue fluid, he experiences exhilarating trips in which he sees everything in vivid, psychedelic colours. The trade-off, as he soon discovers, is that Elmer requires a steady diet of human brains in order to sustain his power.
Brain Damage is a film that lives entirely off the bizarro joy of its premise. It initially begins to unfold as a mysterious, but conventional, horror movie with overtones of the David Cronenberg film Shivers. Once we are introduced to Elmer, though, everything changes and the film reveals its hand – not so much four aces, but four jokers. Elmer is voiced by late night horror movie host John Zacherley, who was one of the inspirations for the character of Peter Vincent in Fright Night.
Zacherley brings honey-voiced gravitas to proceedings and his vocal turn walks the line perfectly between sinister violence and campy comedy. A scene in which Rick Hearst’s character wakes to find Elmer crooning a tune while standing upright in a sink is a disturbing comedic delight, capped with cynicism when Elmer twists the whole thing around. His power over the increasingly pathetic Hearst is very well realised as the latter character battles his addiction before eventually succumbing to the twisted urges of his new ‘friend’. These urges are showcased in truly horrific fashion, using an innovative selection of gore effects.
Hearst’s performance is every bit as entertaining, providing a delirious perspective on the hallucinogenic effects of Elmer’s influence. Everything he does is melodramatic, over-wrought and utterly unique. It’s a campy addition to the splattery joy of the premise of Brain Damage and he takes the whole thing just seriously enough to sell the horror. The scene in which a blowjob in an alleyway goes dramatically awry is sold beautifully by Hearst, who plays the inherent silliness of it all without undercutting the horror of the effects team’s gore work.
Brain Damage isn’t in any way a sophisticated piece of work, but it is an entertaining relic of 80s horror, where melodrama intersects with latex-filled effects work and buckets of blood. Hearst and Zacherley do excellent work to maintain the tough tonal balancing act of the storytelling, which straddles the thin line between dark comedy and serious violence very nicely. This is a movie in which a strange, blue, phallic, eel-slug animal dupes a young man into feeding him human brains in order to keep him alive. It’s every bit as weird as it sounds – and that’s what makes it a twisted joy.
There’s a pretty bountiful selection of features here, including a very detailed making of documentary, a commentary and Q&A with Frank Henenlotter and a selection of featurettes about the effects and the locations behind the movie. There’s even a chat with one of the film’s most devoted fans.
Pop or Poop?
The high camp of cult horror is evident in Brain Damage, which is tailor-made for midnight movie screenings and overnight marathons where fans chant and shout at the screen. Rick Hearst and John Zacherley deliver over-cranked performances that are perfectly pitched to exist within the centre of violent, deranged mayhem.
Frank Henenlotter’s cult gem is a slice of peak 80s weirdness and deserves to be seen all over again in this new Blu-ray.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Brain Damage is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from Monday, courtesy of Arrow Films.