For once we have an 80’s trailer that doesn’t give everything away! It’s a miracle! Brain Damage’s trailer perhaps doesn’t entirely do the movie justice, leaving out most of its fantastic antagonist, but altogether it does a good job at showing us something that sparks curiosity – have a look and find out for yourself if this is something suitable for that yummy brain of yours.
This is a movie about a parasitic, brain munching turd. Okay, he’s not actually a turd but he looks like one. But, believe me or not, this is one of the most oddly sympathetic, intriguing antagonists you will ever bump into – irrespective of it being a B-movie or not. Really, you may even – secretly, deep down inside – wish you had your very own “Aylmer”. You can though! Just go to the bathroom right now – or within a few hours – and make your very own Aylmer by natural means. Given you ate enough fibres. Please don’t play with it, though, or try to insert into the back of your neck. It makes a huge mess and your mom will be very upset. Take it from me.
Brain Damage is a movie unlike any other, I genuinely can’t name anything like it, but to put it simply – it’s clearly a “narcotics movie”, which sounds really odd but bear with me. The movie isn’t anti-drugs and it isn’t pro-drugs but it does very obviously tell us a tale of addiction, be it in this case to a parasite. Regardless, though, it’s showing us the path of coming in touch with a powerful drug and the gradual descent towards hell that follows.
I think most of us have known someone, or perhaps even were that person, and seen up close what drugs can do to someone and everything they have. I myself did some stupid things after my dad died, not actual drugs, but just as bad. Thankfully I realized my mistake and quit instantaneously, and I’m glad I did. However, for many people there is no road back as they become completely dependent – physically or mentally – on their fix. Brain Damage, be it by metaphor, is all about that but without trying to teach you a lesson or being dramatic. In fact, it’s hilarious and gory but also sad and thrilling.
Ultimately, of course, this is still a B-movie and there are limits to its capabilities, including acting and special FX, but more about that later. Overall I really enjoyed this film and I confidently recommend it to many, but before we get to that – lets look into the details a little more. Oh, and this one – despite being a horror comedy – is definitely not suitable for the kids. Of any age, trust me.
So you’re a young college guy named Brian, sharing an apartment in New York with your brother and you’ve got a cute girlfriend, what could go wrong? Turns out, lots! But first things first.
The movie opens with the Ackermans, Morris and Martha, two elderly residents of the same apartment building as Brian. Mr. Ackerman comes home with a large dish full of a potent delicacy – raw brains. Yes, brains. Animal brains, though.
Mrs. Ackerman is immediately excited about the plate full of spongy, slippery central nervous systems but Mr. Ackerman much less so. As he puts it while dropping into his comfy chair, ‘He’ won’t be pleased with it, they’re simply not fresh enough. But by then his wife is already dancing off towards the bathroom with the dish full of brains.
Once she enters the bathroom she lets go of a blood curdling scream as she finds the half-filled bathtub abandoned. ‘He’ is gone. A frantic search around the house, even the apartment building, begins as the Ackermans wail and cry in despair.
Cue Brian who, like most of us in our college days, is spending a lot of time sleeping. Why? Because you can! But in this case he’s sleeping unusually long. He’s slept through the ringing of his girlfriend Barbara’s phone calls, he’s slept through his brother trying to wake him, and only when Barbara comes over to the apartment to personally shake him awake does he finally re-enter the land of the living. And it’s not hard to tell that he is not feeling or looking well.
Brian and Barbara decide he’s most likely sick with the flu, and Brian suggests that she take his brother to the concert they were going to attend so he can lie down instead and get some rest.
Meanwhile it appears that the poor Ackermans are going through extreme withdrawal symptoms from whatever it is they are missing. Frankly, they’re spazzing out on the floor like dehydrated gerbils on XTC. Don’t ask me how I know, it was a tragic day for both me and my cousins. And rodents.
Anyway. Brian wakes up after a while and, when he feels the back of his head, finds a significant amount of blood sticking to it. Needless to say he panics and rushes to the bathroom, but finds himself weak in the knees and confused, to say the least. After checking in the bathroom mirror, it appears that it has stopped haemorrhaging and he figures that for now the best thing to do is to stumble back into the bedroom and lie down. Something is wrong.
What follows next is the trip of a lifetime. From the phone lying on the floor a soft-spoken voice says hello, and as Brian stares at the ceiling from his bed the lamp begins to shine a blinding light, fading into the image of his own eyeball from inside out. The room fills up with a liquid that can only be described as Ty-D-Bol – or ‘Toilet Duck’ for Europeans – on steroids. Gradually everything begins to sink away into the blue, blue water – his dirty socks, the phone, the bed, and eventually poor Brian himself.
That the water looks like toilet cleaner is a lucky coincidence, or perhaps deliberate, because of what Brian’s new friend, whom he is about to meet, looks like. After waking up again and coming to his senses, Brian once again finds the back of his head bleeding and returns to the bathroom to check it out, there he finds a tiny little hole at the back of his neck near the base of his skull. When he turns around he also finds the bath tub to be half full. Realizing that someone else has to be in the house with him, he calls out to the person who filled up the bathtub to show himself. And his request is honored, but probably not like anticipated.
From within his own body a strange slithering thing, the nightmare slug we all shiver at the thought of, begins crawling to the surface.
Out from Brian’s neck pops Aylmer, who I’ve already described as a turd, but honestly – the good man genuinely looks like faeces. If you remember Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poop from South Park, it’s pretty much that, except darker. Both in appearance and character.
You see, Aylmer is not your average brain parasite, he’s of a whole different magnitude. For one he has the ability to drill directly into your nervous system and deliver a potent drug directly into the receptors via his tongue.
Aylmer calmly explains to Brian that he’s his new friend and that his life will change forever, there will be no more pain, no more worries and a world of fantastic experiences will open up. There is a downside, however.
But first, he asks Brian to trust him and put him on the back of his neck for wonderful trip. And so Brian, clearly already under the influence, is tempted by his new friend to go for a little stroll. In return Aylmer gives him a little bit of his magical juice, which is really some hardcore hallucinogen, through the express access to Brian’s cortex. Refreshing.
On his stroll, tripping out hard, Brian stumbles upon a junk yard – which in his altered state of mind appears to be one giant disco with laser lights and music. Basically it’s what you’ll experience when you buy “Aspirins” from a shady guy called “Ricky” who wears a track suit and baseball cap at events featuring DJ Tiësto and Armin van Buuren. Specially the Aspirins with the Mitsubishi logo on them. That’s some strong shit. Trust me.
Completely fascinated, Brian climbs over the wall to become “one” with the moment. Unfortunately for him the junk yard has a vigilant security guard, AKA a Rent-a-Cop, who is not about to let some druggie just go ahead and knick some precious valve caps from totalled cars. And so, while doing a rhythmic, interpretive performance amongst car wrecks like an inebriated Flash Dance, Brian suddenly finds himself confronted with an armed security guard. The guard swiftly overpowers Brian, forcing him onto the hood of a vehicle and frisking him for any objects of interest, and boy, does he find one!
After a moment or two, something moves underneath Brian’s shirt, and the startled guard – foolishly – goes in for a better look. I bet he wishes he hadn’t done that.
Within a fraction of a second, Aylmer jumps out from under Brian’s shirt and sucks himself tight onto the unfortunate guard’s forehead, and begins devouring his brain, the poor Rent-a-Cop screaming in agony, trying to pull off the nasty brain leech with what strength he has left. Take it from me, you will lose strength at a disappointing rate once a zombie turd starts munching through your frontal lobes and sucking out your brain like a strawberry milkshake. (And no, Aylmer never suffers from brain freeze.) As a reward for his servitude, Aylmer gives Brian one more shot of his hallucinogen and so his host stumbles home, happy and far out.
From this point on, Brian begins building a greater and greater dependency on Aylmer’s “juice” while becoming more and more paranoid – and as his influence grows, Aylmer starts exerting his power to satisfy his insatiable appetite for the human brain. But, as we found out during the introduction of the movie, Brian isn’t the only one familiar with and dependent on his new friend. And so the movie becomes one crazy ride into the absurd world of a mutant parasite brain leech.
Though this is very much a B-movie, the performances are actually quite reasonable! Brian is played by Rick Hearst, a well-known soap opera actor, and though his acting is a bit dramatic at times – which fits well with his current career – he overall does a fine job, and the movie is tongue in cheek to begin with. Brian’s brother has a somewhat disappointing performance and Brian’s girlfriend Barbara made me root for her demise, though that doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t play her role well. Morris and Martha Ackerman are also enjoyable characters played sufficiently.
But there’s one person who stands out above all others, yet you never actually see him on screen – the voice of Aylmer, John Zacharle.
Zacharle was a well-known American TV host, radio personality and voice actor who will ring well with many fans, hosting numerous horror-related shows during America’s horror heyday.
His “performance” as Aylmer is fantastic. Sure, it’s “just voice-acting”, but he did fantastically, and it’s not hard to tell we’re dealing with a seasoned veteran.
Zacharle’s character is soft-spoken, calm, extraordinarily intelligent and oddly soothing – yet he is expressive and strong. Aylmer’s got Brian where he wants him and is confident in his domination. There is an absolute evil lingering inside Aylmer, which shimmers through in some sort of malevolent tone that you can’t put your finger on but is always there. It’s almost like infrasound, you can’t hear it, but you can feel it. Aylmer’s darkness is palpable and Zacharle convincingly brings it out, yet simultaneously manages to keep the character likeable, sympathetic and – in the most bizarre way – believable. Nothing but praise for his performance.
Sound(track) & Special FX
Like most 80’s movies, Brain Damage has its fair share of synthesizer music and doesn’t really stand out in that regard. However, during the club scene, which turns into one of the most gruesome scenes you will ever bump into, there’s a very nice punk rock/new wave song in the background which is genuinely notable and plays almost in full. It may not have you jumping around the couch but it’s actually really good and adds to the scene. It sets the mood just right.
The Special FX are cheap yet effective. They certainly won’t win awards for their artistic quality or exceeding realism, but they are convincing and are sure to make you cringe – the grossed-out kind. As I said above, the club scene is one that will stick with you – Yes, it’s essentially pornographic but it’s also funny and very much horrifying. You know what’s about to happen, you want it to stop, but you just can’t stop yourself from looking at it. And it feels bad. The guilty-pleasure kind.
Unfortunately that scene has been in cut in some editions of the movie, so try to make sure you get the right one! You don’t want to miss this!
The movie also frequently uses animation, such as during the junk yard scene, which are not great but sufficient – the same goes for the video effects that are best comparable to those we saw in 80’s music videos. Cheap but entertaining, and isn’t that what ultimately matters most?
The art-direction isn’t necessarily very special, but overall it’s well done. I very much enjoyed the “New York by Night” setting throughout the movie, the gritty feeling and the blue tones that make the already dark world and events even a little darker.
Locations are well picked, from Brian’s meagre apartment to the filthy hotel and the busy, packed club where he ends up after the restaurant fiasco. Basically the world changes with Brian, and the movie reflects it. He’s no longer part of the normal world, he’s part of the darkness now but seeing it through tinted lenses. But we can see it and it’s ugly.
The characters are dressed and living lives as you expect them to – they are believable people you could’ve easily walked into back in the 80’s.
Aylmer is something else. As I’ve mentioned many times now, he looks like poop – but he is actually quite scary. He’s a leech with a mouth full of teeth that can open wide and a little tongue that will plug right into your brain. He even has tiny little eyes that are in fact functional. He’s certainly no looker but oddly well designed.
It’s also fun to see how he moves and behaves. Aylmer always seems to be in motion, never fully still – usually wiggling left and right like a snake under a spell. It’s not clear whether this has any physiological reasons or he simply enjoys life. I like to think it’s the latter.
9/10 – Yes, really. I rate this insane movie about the drug-distributing, brain-leeching parasite a nine out of ten. If not for one sole reason, it embodies something very special that is often “unique” to cult movies – it pushed boundaries, it boldly went where nobody had gone before. Back in the late 80’s most horror movies, and film in general, were very rigid in how things were supposed to be – there were strict formulas to building your movie. Brain Damage isn’t like that, it almost seems improvised but in a wonderful way. I believe director Frank Henenlotter just sort of “went with it”, he made what he wanted and didn’t stick to conventional methods to portray his vision.
Notable, too, is the fact that the movie isn’t just a horror movie – it’s clearly a horror comedy, and humor is all throughout the film. The humor, however, is never forced or “Haha!” – rather, it’s strangely subtle, you suddenly find yourself chuckling at the way Aylmer expresses himself or you entertain the thought of being in that situation yourself and how awkward it would all be.
Of course there’s also some really gory scenes, as I said before, and limits are definitely pushed here. Sure, there’s a legion of movies that feature chain saws and body parts flying, but I found myself grimacing at the screen a number of times as Aylmer sets to work on his next meal. Brain Damage’s gore isn’t about tons of blood and young women screaming at the top of their lungs as a knife plunges into their soft bosom – instead you cringe because you can almost taste it. And you wonder how it feels – will it hurt? Are they on a trip too? All these thoughts come by as you watch. That’s an admirable thing to do for a B-movie. And it deserves credit for that.
7/10 – Which is really good for a movie this ‘small’ and on a budget. Here’s the thing – does this movie in any way compete with, say… A Kubrick film? No. Of course not – not even a little.
But like I stated in the previous rating, this movie makes you think, this movie makes you wonder and question things while the movie in and of itself is absurd and silly. In a fascinating, extremely low budget and low brow fashion, the movie pulls off a wee bit of “A Clockwork Orange”.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a die-hard Kubrick fan – an admirer really – but hear me out. Again, it can’t ever compete when you put one next to the other. But you don’t need a Ferrari to enjoy the feeling of racing – there are cars, by Japanese manufacturers especially, that can deliver you performance that fully deserve the title of being a sports car. It’s just not a Ferrari.
Brain Damage makes you question the world around you, makes you question some of your insights, questions about ourselves, just like “A Clockwork Orange” does. Of course, fair is fair, the latter wins – but they share that element.
Aside from that, the movie does of course have many shortcomings. Acting is meagre by professional industry standards, it’s a lot of stage or TV-production quality acting. Special effects and everything are also rather minimal and a soundtrack virtually non-existent. These are things that do count in the bigger picture.
But in the end, if watched with the right intentions, Brain Damage is even a very reasonable movie when viewed purely as a film in and of itself.
Brain Damage tells a story, an absurd one, and exploits difficult subjects in a way that is both questionable and amusing. But it has guts, literally and figuratively, and takes us on a tour of the darker parts of the late 80’s as opposed to the peppy, glammy side we usually see in film. How many movies at the time dared to address addiction? A quick reference, sure, or some scene about doing drugs, but no one made a whole movie around it. Brain Damage did and it’s worth checking out.
For me, this is one of those odd cult movies that I’ll never forget – perhaps that’s what I love about the genre the most, there’s always something that sticks – but this one in particular has that vibe. There’s something about the whole movie – above all, Aylmer – that will leech onto you and never let go. (See what I did there?)
Whether this becomes one of your favorites or one of your worst – I can almost guarantee you, you will remember this one. That means it has a certain quality, whether good or bad, that makes it stand out. You know you’re curious.
How to Watch & After Thoughts
So, now you have to get into the right mood and everything to enjoy Brain Damage to the fullest. Well, let’s go through a list of options!
Brian and his friends were all students, and students love beer – period. Beer and pizza, because it’s convenient, cheap and it gets you drunk. So why not go with the house specialty of college cuisine? Buy a six pack of beer, or whatever quantity you require, and order the greasiest, slimiest pizza in a box you can find. The one with the eight layers of cheese on it, the pepperoni that oozes and the anchovies that smell like oral sex. And enjoy it. By which I mean both fish and oral.
Another option – the movie features a particularly interesting scene in a restaurant, where Brian and his girlfriend are having a bit of a moment. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but you will never look at spaghetti and meatballs the same way again. So, perhaps, you may want to get in that last batch of mom’s special Spaghetti & Meatballs before you put on this movie – I warned you.
And if you’re totally adventurous and not necessarily adverse to real-life brain parasites and contracting encephalopathy, you can in fact eat real brains. Not human brains, though – seriously, don’t even try – but animal brains are actually sold and eaten in many delicacy shops and cultures. Asian delicacy stores, especially, often have brains from lambs for sale, and with proper preparation they can taste quite reasonable. But, even though the risk of contracting something after one-time consumption is very small, I wouldn’t really recommend it. I had an uncle who ate it, but the rest of the family kindly refused. But if you’re a daredevil or you feel pretty stupid over who you voted for during the November elections – eating brains may be a thing for you. And Aylmer.
But watching a movie without drinking is a sin. I’m not necessarily talking alcohol – wink-wink, nudge-nudge – but something that fits the movie. One non-alcoholic option is Powerade, yes the sports drink – with its bright blue color it’s the perfect match with Aylmer’s juice! In fact, you should probably save some till Aylmer sings his song and sing it with him while sipping from your own juice! By which I mean Powerade, not something gross that comes out of you. What’s wrong with you?
Another non-alcoholic option is a strawberry milkshake! Think about it! It’s a thick, pink sludge, a lot like brains, that you can slurp up with a straw! I imagine that Aylmer’s addiction to brains is a lot like a good milkshake – you stir that straw in there and suck it all out! Especially that last part with all the thick goodness at the bottom that makes such a noise when you slurp it up.
One more alcoholic option is a Blue Lagoon cocktail, or pure Curacao if you can handle the exceptionally sweet taste, because that blue drink will mess with your head and your heart – just like the movie’s antagonist.
As far as outfits go, the movie is simple – wear a jeans jacket, a slightly tight-fitting white t-shirt, or an ugly sweater with pin-on buttons. You can’t go wrong! It’s the 80’s, baby!
Music wise, I’d advise either The Cure or The Cult – that great new-wave sound just resonates with the 80’s so well. Of course, it does appear that Aylmer himself is more of a fan of music of the mid-twentieth century or, given his exceptional age, classical music – I’m sure a bit of Vivaldi would please the brain parasite inside of you! Who knows, maybe it’ll release something enjoyable?
There is a scene in the movie that plays on a NYC subway. All throughout the scene a man sits across from Brian and his girlfriend holding a wicker basket – you may wonder why this man is so obviously there in the scene. The reason is that it’s another character from a Frank Henenlotter film, “Basket Case”, about a man who is separated from his “mutant” Siamese twin and carries his sibling in a basket while exacting revenge on those that separated the two.
I very much plan on finding the movie and reviewing it, right here on Cult Pro Review!