Blasts From the Past! Blu-ray Review: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)

This movie is currently available from Arrow Video (www.arrowvideo.com – www.facebook.com/ArrowVideo/).

brain-damage-blu-rayIt has been quite a while since I first saw the eccentric, low-budget horror/comedy Brain Damage. Truth be told, I only caught it on VHS maybe a year after its brief theatrical run. And it didn’t really speak to me at the time, but I was just entering my teens and perhaps couldn’t relate to its central themes. Since its initial run, this unusual cult film has built a large following. Now, Arrow Video have released a 2-disc “Special Edition” Blu-ray and DVD of the movie with a plethora of extras. It’s an incredible package that will not only please fans, but win over a few converts as well.

After revisiting the independent feature, I found that it actually holds up quite well. Directed by Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker), this is a loose adaptation of the Faust legend that works in an exploration of the crack-cocaine epidemic prevalent in New York City during the late 80s. Add in an incredibly twisted sense of dark humor and you’ve got a fascinating, odd duck of a film.

brain-damage-arrow-sinkBrian (Rick Hearst) is your average twenty-something living in New York with his brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald), often spending his free time with girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry). Priorities soon change when he makes the acquaintance of a talking parasite (voiced by television horror-host John Zacherle aka Zacherley). The chatty, foot-long Elmer (or Aylmer, at least according to a previous owner) promises to deliver euphoric, psychedelic highs to Brian. Unfortunately, the youngster soon discovers that while drugged, Elmer uses him to help deliver his favorite treat; live, human brains from unsuspecting victims.

brain-damage-arrow-bloody-attackFor a gross-out B-movie featuring visceral gags of questionable taste that depict the parasite attacking prey (with one of the killings simulating oral sex), there is far more subtext here than expected. And that may be what makes it so strangely compelling. In between the jokes and gore, the movie depicts how addiction can adversely alter a life. A nice and likable kid quickly loses his girlfriend and family as he tries to recapture the first incredible high that the parasite Elmer provides.

The lead performance is strong and the Brain character is easily relatable. As the story progresses, viewers witness the depth to which a normal person will sink to recapture his initial mind-altering experience. Additionally, the screenplay depicts the horrors of withdrawal. And fascinatingly, the Elmer character is quite articulate and manipulative, making the interplay between leads all the more interesting. It’s actually a grim and depressing tale, but the exaggerated and occasionally goofy approach helps with the dark material.

brain-damage-arrow-exploding-boilThe movie arrives in an 86 minute, fully uncut, digital transfer created from the original film elements. And it looks remarkable. Of course, there’s a grainy, gritty quality to the photography, but the image is incredibly sharp and striking. This is especially evident during the trippy drug scenes that are creatively captured using camera tricks and practical effects. Close-ups with added animation of the lead’s brain sparking as the fluid is injected look great. In addition to other low-tech but effective tricks, there are some incredible shots of Brain’s room filling up with Elmer’s blue-tinged solution and covering the character as the chemical hallucinogens take hold.

I’m always happy to see a smaller, more obscure title great a fresh new presentation in high definition. This release goes one step further, filling the disc with incredible extras. There is an audio commentary with director Henenlotter and a lengthy documentary on the film’s production with the cast and crew members. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are additional interviews with participants who reveal memorable behind-the-scene stories. Also included is an interview with the filmmaker at a film festival screening where he shares more insights.

Brain-damage-cu-elymerThe information gleaned from the bonuses is informative, showing how the director and crew managed to pull off a challenging and unique concept for next to no money (about $400,000, in fact). Remarkably, most of the filming took place in the same building where they rented the camera equipment. The upper floors of the warehouse were vacant and the production leased them out, building all the sets themselves. Not having to lug gear around helped save time and ease shooting, as did constructing rooms that would help conceal the Elmer puppet. Amusingly, when they did leave the building, they stole city shots without permits. One great exterior location, the vehicle junkyard, was used because it was owned by the Steadicam operator’s father and they could shoot there for free.

You’d never know these secrets unless the people behind the scenes were open to the interviewers and they freely reminisce on camera about what a difficult but enjoyable shoot it was. Also included are publicity stills and trailers. There’s even a featurette on a fan of the film who was inspired to create an album of songs inspired by the movie. Those who want to hear more will discover a hidden feature that gives owners the option of listening to several tracks from the release. And there are other extras as well. In fact, there’s even an effectively bittersweet short about the death of monster movies that marks the final onscreen appearance of Zacherle. All in all, the extras are spectacular.

I was really impressed with this disc and pleasantly surprised at how much more I appreciated the movie nearly three decades after its initial release. Yes, Brain Damage pushes the boundaries of good taste on numerous occasions, but it does so with gleeful, deranged abandon. And there’s a whole more going on beneath the surface than many gave it credit for during its original run. This is an excellent release that I was very pleased to reevaluate. For those who appreciate the eccentric charms of Brain Damage, this Blu-ray is a must own.

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