Director/Screenplay – Frank Henenlotter, Producer – Edgar Ievins, Photography – Bruce Torbet, Music – Clutch Reiser & Gus Russo, Visual Effects – Al Magliochetti, Makeup Effects – Gabe Bartalos, Elmer by Bartalos & David Kindlon, Art Direction – Ivy Rosovsky. Production Company – Brain Damage Co
Rick Herbst (Brian), Jennifer Lowry (Barbara), Gordon MacDonald (Mike), Theo Barnes (Morris Ackerman), Lucille Saint-Peter (Martha Ackerman)
Brian wakes up one morning to discover that a sentient parasite named Aylmer has burrowed into his head. Aylmer requires a regular diet of human brains and uses Brian to go out to kill for him. At the same time, Aylmer injects into Brian’s brain a highly addictive fluid that causes hallucinations and blanks all memory of the killings from Brian’s mind. As Brian succumbs to addiction, he tries to prevent his girlfriend from becoming Aylmer’s next victim.
In a decade of extraordinarily prolific low-budget horror filmmaking – but where most of it was merely imitation, endless cannibalisation of the past and tedious parody – someone like Frank Henenlotter stood out with enormous promise. Beginning with the splendidly gungy Basket Case (1982), Frank Henenlotter showed an ability to take the staples of the low-budget horror film and spear them through with a powerfulness of imagery, a convincingly raw verisimilitude and a way-out wildness and inventivity. Henenlotter came with enormous promise but following Basket Case and Brain Damage, he disappointed with Frankenhooker (1990) and the two Basket Case sequels, Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3 (1991), before seemingly leaving filmmaking altogether, being last seen ‘presenting’ a series of low-budget sleaze classic releases on video. Henenlotter subsequently made a return to screens with Bad Biology (2008), as well as documentaries on genre subjects with Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) and That’s Sexploitation! (2013) and the non-genre likes of Chasing Banksy (2015) and Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana (2018).
Brain Damage was the best film that Frank Henenlotter ever made. The film hits one straight from its deadpan weird opening with Theo Barnes and Lucille Saint-Peter coming into their bathroom carrying a brain on a plate topped by a sprig of celery, and then going berserk and starting to froth at the mouth, although nobody at this point knows why. The introduction of Aylmer and a series of blue-tinged hallucinations, culminating in the scene where Aylmer opens up and injects a tiny needle into the back of Rick Herbst’s neck, squirting blue fluid direct into his brain, is startling. Some of the set-pieces that Frank Henenlotter manages are sensational, none more so than the sequence (censored from US prints) where Vicki Darnell kneels down to perform fellatio on Rick Herbst in an alleyway, only to have Aylmer burst out of his fly and pierce her throat to devour her brains – and then disappearing back into Herbst’s fly leaving chunks of meat all over his zipper.
Brain Damage is considerably more than its outrages though with Frank Henenlotter transforming it into a searing metaphor for drug addiction – especially disturbing is the image of Rick Herbst in a cheap hotel room trying to kick the addiction while Aylmer sits in a wash-basin singing (the film even has a theme song composed for him) and taunting Herbst with the certainty that he will give in. The moment that Rick Herbst confronts his brother and girlfriend, telling them “It’s simple – he takes the brains, I take the juice. If I’m high, I don’t know. I don’t want it to be you,” is powerful.