For proof that all good horror filmmakers are surrealists at heart, one need look no further than Frank Henenlotter’s deranged and brilliant Brain Damage, a film that features a singing, brain-eating parasitic worm as one of its main characters. Written as a condemnation of hallucinogens, there is a delicious irony to the film’s staunch anti-drug subtext, given that the movie itself feels as though it were written after a six hour LSD trip. It’s bizarre. It’s squelchy. And it’s utterly, grotesquely unique.
The film focusses on Brian (awkwardly but loveably played by Rick Hearst) a mild young man who finds himself the unwilling host for a talking parasite named Aylmer. Aylmer floods Brian with a blue, hallucinogenic fluid, one that sends the man tripping from psychedelic vision to psychedelic vision, some astonishingly beautiful. But there is a price to be paid for the open access to these spectacles, and soon Brian realises he must kill in order to sate Aylmer’s appetite…
Brain Damage is a prime example of the body horror genre; it’s an orifice obsessed collection of gooey special effects work, and the scene in which Brian has to forcibly remove Aylmer from his ear is full of woozy can’t-look-away viscera. It’s a film obsessed with holes, and Aylmer’s phallic appearance adds a deliciously, disgustingly perverse angle to the proceedings. One need look only as far as Brian’s orgasmic whimpers after Aylmer first penetrates his brain to realise that there is something unavoidably Freudian going on.
Eyes appear in ceilings. Tidal waves of blue fluid fill up a room. A car crushing lot becomes a disco. Insanity drips from the piece like the drug that oozes from Brian’s addled brain, and the breakneck speed of the plotting allows Henenlotter to deliberately and memorably overload the audience. We are barely given a moment’s break, and the plethora of madness becomes in this way ecstatic.
Nonetheless, despite the brilliance of the film’s distinct imagery, the star of the show is Alymer. Memorably voiced by horror radio icon John Zacherle, he’s as charismatic a force as ever there was; a prototype for all the joke cracking villains that would follow him. What with all his crummy quips and swaggering musical numbers, he has a kind of cheesy, MC quality that is utterly hypnotic.
That said, despite all the madness of the film’s first two thirds, by the time the final act slots into place, proceedings have become strikingly tragic. The shift from psychedelia to pathos is as moving as it is unexpected, and Henenlotter’s risky tonal gamble pays off. We really care about Brian by the film’s conclusion – perhaps more than we ever thought we would – and there is a genuine sadness to where and how we leave him.
Brain Damage might not be for everyone’s taste – there is no denying the film’s deliberately exploitational roots, and squishy effects work might be too much even for some seasoned horror veterans – but if you are on the movie’s wavelength, you will eat the thing up the way Aylmer up brain tissue.