I remember Brain Damage well, because it came into my life that winter of ’88. I graduated from high school May of ’87. Summer felt like any other summer, but once school started up in September things felt “weird.” That “weirdness” started the morning school started, for everyone else, I mean. I remember the school bus waking me up as it drove by. The bus stop was just down the road. When I heard it, I thought, ‘That’s right, I don’t have to get up because I graduated.’ I went back to sleep. But that fall and the following winter felt “strange.” It felt like I should be somewhere, like back in school. But I was done with school, so what now? Work and getting my driver’s license, but that chapter of my life didn’t start until Fall of ’88, before then I read a lot, especially that Winter and that’s where issue #71 of Fangoria came in. It was an extraordinarily good one too. Just look at that cover! Being a monster movie fan that issue had me hard the moment I saw it. Cellar Dweller, Deep Space and Brain Damage all made the cover, and that was the first time I had ever heard of any of those movies.
It was decades before I ever saw this movie; for some reason I don’t ever remember it coming to cable. It was Synapse Films 2003 DVD where I eventually saw it. This was before I ever had a home computer. I was at the library using their’s when I came across news of it on Fangoria’s site. And it being a limited edition, I immediately ordered it. I always knew I’d be a fan of this movie once I saw it, and I was right! This was also the first time I heard of Synapse Films too.
In a nutshell Director Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage is a black, gory comedy about drug addiction where the “drug” is an ages-old parasite that lives on and in Brian’s (Rick Herbst) body. Aylmer is his proper name, but Elmer is what Brian calls him. This Aylmer has a history and it’s recited by an old man later on in the film, where he reveals this thing has been kicking around the planet since 1203. Nevertheless Aylmer’s true origins are never revealed, all we know is its life span is much, much greater than a human’s. And do we need to know exactly what and where it came from? Hell, no. Ambiguity with some monsters is a good thing, believe it or not. An air mystery is what makes some of them all the more interesting. All you need to know if you ever get an “Aylmer” stuck to your body is that like any drug it becomes your best friend, supplanting any and all friends you previously had. But like most drugs there’s a downside, most of that downside is taken up by death, and an addiction to Aylmer is no different, but let me tell you with him, or it, or whatever the hell you want to call him, you’ll go out in grand style, let me tell you.
As the movie begins Aylmer is in the possession of this old couple, Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha (Lucille Saint Peter) Ackerman, who have been addicted to him for years, and have managed to stay addicted that long because they’ve learned how to control him, but one day he decides to just up and leave.
Brian and his brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald), are living in the same building as the old couple. We never see how Aylmer found Brian; he just wakes up with blood on his bed and a weird wound on the back of his neck. For the most part Aylmer keeps out of sight by sticking to Brian’s back, or his stomach, and when he finally introduces himself, we see a thing that looks part turd and part dick with a human-ish face. And, holy shit, it can even talk! What does it sound like? Kind of like horror host Zacherle, who did an uncredited voice over as the creature. What does Zacherle sound like? Well, like a normal guy with a rather soothing tone. To get hooked on Aylmer all you have to do is put him on the back of your neck and he inserts a needle from his mouth into the base of your skull that penetrates your brain where his “juice” is dripped. Give it a few seconds and you’re tripping away like never before. We get to see some of those drug-filled trips too, which gives the movie its weird, tantalizing and colorful quality. I mean that literally.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘You’re not convincing me yet this Aylmer is such a bad thing.’ Did the death-thing I mention earlier not grab your attention? Well, how ‘bout the fact that Aylmer subsists solely on a diet of human brain matter. Not the hosts, no, no, that would be biting the hand that feeds you. Once you’re high, you’ll more than likely bump into other people while you’re tweaking and it’s these other people Aylmer feasts on. He just leaps onto their head and burrows into their skulls, or in one instance disguises himself as Brian’s dick and sucks out a chick’s brain through her mouth as she goes down to blow him.
I failed to mention Brian has a girlfriend by the name of Barbara (Jennifer Lowery), and while he and Aylmer are tripping the night fantastic in the seedy parts of 1987 New York, Barbara and his bro, Mike, are left to try and put the pieces together. I have to admit I was shocked Barbara ends up dying at the end, by Brian’s hands even, while he’s under the influence of Aylmer, her brains sucked out through a kiss.
Like any good addict who has a moment of clarity Brain realizes Aylmer is bad for him and tries to go cold turkey. Holing up in a flop house his withdrawals shrink him to the shell of the man he used to be, with Aylmer holding court in the sink and singing while Brian drools, convulses and hallucinates. In the end (and like Aylmer told him he would) Brian begs the parasite to dose him and take the pain away, but not before he feeds him. Oh, yeah, more death ensues. Dying in the middle of taking shit is just downright sad to watch, but that’s where Aylmer finds his next victim.
The climax is just downright weird. You see like most drug addictions there’s always a chance one can overdose on them, be it accidentally or deliberately, and that’s how Brian goes out, through an accidental overdose of Alymer’s juice. A confrontation with that old couple precipitates the overdose, for they want the parasite back. One thing leads to another, shots are fired, a struggle ensures, you know how it is with the addicted, and Aylmer gets throttled the very instant he’s dosing Brian. Squeezed so fucking hard his brain gets squirted with too much juice. Aylmer himself looks to be down for the count for good too, gagging all crippled and crunched up face down on the ground in a pool of his own juice.
So, what does an overdose of Aylmer juice look like?
Not very pretty.
Brian’s head bulges and drips. He returns to his apartment, puts the gun he snatched from the old man to his head and blows it off. A good chunk of it, right the fuck off, and out pours this huge ray of white light and electricity. And, dear god, Brain is still alive! That’s how it ends.
The effects for Aylmer are very good, being back in the day of good ol’ fashion practical FX, with a tiny amount of stop-motion, and possibly traditional cell animation in one scene.
Synapse Films was the first distributor to release Brain Damage on DVD back in 2003. I think they did two versions. There was a regular special edition at one point, but the one I bought was the silver limited edition in 2003. Not sure how limited that really was because I think it was available for quite some time. On May 23rd Arrow Films is the new distributor of this new blu-ray in both the U.S. and the U.K.! You can buy the US version here on Amazon and the UK version here on Amazon UK.
Reverse Cover Art
Slipcase (left)/Custom Cover Art (right)
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen—English LPCM Mono, 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 Isolated Score—English SDH subs only
What I loved best about this blu was seeing Aylmer is more detail now. Yes, the transfer is that good!
Extras included . . .
- NEW Audio Commentary with Frank Henenlotter
- Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage (54:13)
- The Effects of Brain Damage (10:00)
- Animating Elmer (6:40)
- Karen Ogle: A Look Back (4:29)
- Elmer’s Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage (8:48)
- Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession (10:00)
- Frank Henenlotter Q & A (20:36)
- Image Gallery: Stills (4:18); Behind the Scenes (1:35); Ephemera (:52)
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Bygone Behemoth (5:08): Animated Short
(Note: That NEW means they did not port over the old commentary from the Synapse DVD. This is a brand new commentary Arrow did).
(Note: This is only “limited” because of the slipcase. Arrow doesn’t normally do slipcases, but they did for this one).
Arrow has assembled an excellent batch of extras too! In the 2016 Q&A Henenlotter casually mentions he still has plans to do a sequel called, Second Head!
Brain Damage exists in the same universe as Frank Henenlotter’s other horror film, Basket Case (1982). Look for a cameo from that movie’s main character, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) while on the subway, carrying a wicker basket, the same wicker basket Duane keeps his mutant twin brother, Belial in. Brian and Duane have an impromptu “face off,” where Brian wins. Duane quickly changes seats, subconsciously realizing this guy he was staring down may have “demons” worse than his.