Arrow Video: Brain Damage (1988) - Reviewed

The gross out over-the-top exploitation horror comedy never truly announced itself until the 1980s when directors such as Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson and Larry Cohen.  One director who seemingly remained under the radar outside of cult cinephile circles is Frank Henenlotter, an American writer-director and film historian devoted to rescuing and paying homage to exploitation and sexploitation films through the 1960s and 70s.  One of the key figures behind the video releasing outfit, Something Weird Video, Henenlotter is that gifted exploitation horror comedian the likes of Lloyd Kaufman can only aspire to be. 

Working within the limitations of the low budget B-movie shocker, Henenlotter’s sharp and transgressive sense of humor first gained attention with his 1982 horror comedy Basket Case about an ordinary man who carries his deformed twin brother with him in a wicker basket.  Despite the film’s success, Henenlotter wouldn’t secure financing for his next project for six years before unleashing the equally outrageous if not funnier companion piece of sorts to his debut, Brain Damage.  A loose take on Faust which inevitably inspired Bruce Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising a year later, the film concerns a talking leech-like parasite named Elmer who attaches itself to human hosts to feed on human brains while transforming his hosts into hallucinating addicts by injecting a blue fluid into their brain. 

Mixing the absurd and corny with some still provocative moments that were excised initially to avoid an X rating (restored to this Arrow blu-ray however), Brain Damage might be the funniest exploitation horror comedy loaded with perverse moments of raw sexuality and gross-outs tugging at the gag reflex since Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.  Part of the film’s success is that for all of the ludicrousness, Brain Damage is a sharply written and edited surreal black comedy with well-drawn characters as opposed to throwaway stereotypes.  While we’re aware of the film’s parasite clearly being moved around on monofilament wire, the voice work by John Zacherle provides what would otherwise be just another goofy prop with an identifiable and even charming personality. 

Against a low budget, Brain Damage is an inspired and often colorful little number which clearly laid the groundwork for films like Motivational Growth with Jeffrey Combs’ talking mold while finding it’s own footing in a genre that’s often disregarded as otherwise cheap trash.  Well shot by cinematographer Bruce Torbet who milks in the heavy neon blues and reds every chance he can with Basket Case composer Gus Russo returning to the synthesized music chair, Brain Damage is an overt drive-in cult classic with a head on it’s shoulders and oozing with character.  Very clearly this isn’t for everyone, as it does indeed contain some bona-fide moments of pure shock, but for what could have been just another cheapie creature feature, Henenlotter’s Brain Damage is one of the very best to emerge from the 1980s!

- Andrew Kotwicki