CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy


Brain Damage Frank Henenlotter 1989

Can't Get You Out of My Head

I’ve said it and said it and said it: horror-comedies are HARD. Walking a tightrope more tensely-strung and higher off the ground than any other genre hyphenate, these ambitious (and usually disastrous) little curiosities seek to do not one, but two of the hardest things that a film can hope to accomplish: make you laugh and make you scared. The vast majority of films who try to have just ONE of these effects fail miserably: comedies are usually not genuinely funny, and horror movies more often than not fail to really scare much of anyone except the critics. So the attempt to pull both reactions out of an increasingly jaded audience is a hefty undertaking that usually ends in disaster – look at Seed of Chucky, Scary Movie 3, Wacko, and Satan’s Little Helper for examples. Actually, I take that back – don’t.

So it’s a genuine pleasure and a visceral rush when you see a horror comedy that pushes all the right buttons at the right times. Night of the Creeps is an excellent example, as are American Psycho and Ginger Snaps. But in a dingy and low-rent corner of the horror universe there lives a truly twisted soul who is responsible for some of the strangest and hardest to categorize genre films of the past few decades: Frank Henenlotter. Although his Basket Case series is more widely-known and the packaging of the VHS release of his Frankenhooker is infamous (remember how you could press the streetlight and it would say “Wanna Date?”? Genius!), Frank has earned a special place in my heart thanks to his disgusting, hilarious, disturbing, and oddly arousing splatter-monster-comedy Brain Damage.

The story is a simple one that we’ve all seen a million times before: a young man in New York City becomes host to a hairless, slimy parasite who takes control of his mind in order to find people whose brains he can eat. In the entertainment world, they call these “agents”. But in Brain Damage, the nasty little fella is referred to a Aylmer, and he has apparently been around for centuries, passing from one host to another as he ate his way across the continents. Having been kept as some sort of bathtub pet by a loony old couple (they feed him sheep’s brains to keep him weak and enjoy the benefits of the hallucinogenic “juice” that he injects into their brains), Aylmer manages to break out and find a new friend in Brian, a strapping young New Yorker with an extremely mousy girlfriend and a roommate who likes to hang out in his underwear. Aylmer starts juicing up Brian, who in turn starts tripping his face off all over town, and Brian unwittingly becomes the accomplice in a handful of brain-eatings that he will soon come to regret.

The reason that Brain Damage works so well is that both the tale and its telling are absolutely unique and, even better, hypnotically fascinating. It’s not like you stumble across this kind of story every day, unless you work in Manga porn or run a Pokemon fan-fiction site. But with such a bizarre tale, things could have gone incredibly wrong in bringing it to life, and that’s really where the strength of Brain Damage lies: this movie is plain fucking crazy. There are strange hallucinations (apartments fill with 2000 Flushes for no apparent reason; lighting fixtures turn into eyeballs), music numbers (Aylmer, voiced by TV horror icon Zacherley, croons in a filthy sink as Brian suffers juice withdrawal in a fleabag motel), and more downright titillating sexual imagery than you can shake a stick at. And that, of course, is what I will spend most of my time addressing.

Plain and simple, this is a movie about a guy who gets off on a 10-inch worm. That alone should be enough to enter this in the Homo Horror Annals (ahem – that’s Annals, gents), but it actually gets worse. The worm, a soft-spoken, intelligent, almost fey fellow, has a beautiful singing voice and a seemingly endless supply of Ecstasy. Obviously a club queen of some sort. Further, the worm spends most of its time either latched onto our hero's neck or in his trousers, both of which imply a degree of intimacy not usually found in hetrosexual male-male relationships. Come to think of it, I think I dated Aylmer in college...

Now, I do realize that we're talking about a worm here. But this is just the foundation upon which dozens of deliciously subversive gracenotes are piled. For starters, there's the interesting fact that all of the men in this film look like late-80s street hustlers -- and I mean that of course as a positive. Both Brian (Rick Hearst, who went on to have quite a career in soaps) and his brother Michael (Gordon MacDonald) have pouty, brooding good looks and lean builds that scream "dancer by day, facedancer by night". Brian and Michael also share a sexual partner, Brian's mousier-than-thou girlfriend Barbrara. *Cough!* *Coughcoughcough!* The fact that the two hotties are sexually linked by a common partner is suspect enough -- the fact that her name is fucking Barbara is tantamount to waving a rainbow flag on a Funny Girl Forever float.

Still not convinced? I haven't even gotten started. When Brian becomes addicted to Aylmer's juice (*cough*!) and Aylmer forces him to go trowling for victims, where does Brian naturally go? The public shower at his hotel. What do you know, there's a preposterously beefy bodybuilder in the shower, buck-naked, brandishing his meaty ass at Brian and us. Naturally, Brian does what any decent heterosexual would do: he stares at him. For, like, five minutes. The bodybuilder seems completely unfazed by the fact that this guy in a towel is ogling his saddlebags, and even turns around several times to face him in the nude. Folks, this scene makes absolutely NO SENSE independent of a gay reading of the film -- there's simply no other way to interpret the very presence of an ass-naked bodybuilder in a horror film, much less the fact that our protagonist stares at him for an entire real-time shower. Second-best "fags in the shower" scene ever featured in a horror film, second of course to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, and followed closely by Fear No Evil (which can be found in the Homo Horror Guide).

There's still more. For one thing, the the length of time that we are asked to watch Brian's face as he reaches near-orgasmic levels of ecstasy seriously adds up to about 15 minutes. When Brian picks up a sluttish girl at a rock club and she drags him to an alley to suck him off, for example (don't you hate it when that happens?), the cheeky lass gets more than she bargained for when she opens his fly and Aylmer pops himself into her mouth. Not content to let this little bit of obvious sexual innuendo and playful misogyny lay where it lies, Hennenlotter drags the scene out to completion, with Brian face-fucking the poor girl with Aylmer as he eats her brain and Brian clutches the back of her head, moaning in pleasure. We linger on a loving closeup of Brian's face as he enjoyes the throes of passion with his new worm-friend. Honestly -- hardcore porn doesn't pay this much attention to a man's face during the sex act... unless it's gay porn, of course. I say that fetishising Brian's body during his worm-fueled sexual awakening is as queer as it gets. And besides that -- it's fun!

Anyway, the film's disregard for females in general (right down to its horribly disturbing resolution of Barbara's part of the tale) is troubling but not altogether surprising, as Brain Damage seems to envision a world that is made up entirely of bathrooms, dance clubs, backalleys, and boys' bedrooms. The extreme fetishization of our hero's body becomes downright pornographic by the end, when we have basically seen every surface and orifice of the poor boy fall prey to the nasty little varmint (his brains even get pulled out his ear at one point) and he reaches total enlightenment. In the end, Brian is pleasured into oblivion, which really can't be that bad of a way to go, when you think about it -- and probably a more common occurence than we'd like to imagine on the streets of New Jack City.

One thing troubles me, though. The film is clearly left open for a sequel, and yet we've seen nothing -- in fact, Hennenlotter's other creation, Basket Case, has enjoyed two follow-ups, and it's really quite an inferior film to this one. I'd love to see Aylmer have his way with another fresh-faced go-go boy somewhere in the dirty streets of NYC. In fact, call me, Frank -- I've got a few numbers to give you. In the meantime, everyone else add this one to your must-see list (be sure to get the unrated DVD release -- it's simply jaw-dropping).

Rating (out of 5):