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It pains me to think about some of the important things I missed growing up. Things like never trying out for the high-school football team, that girl in my art class I never asked out—and not seeing BRAIN DAMAGE.
But that’s the point of the Files, to make up for all those things I should have seen years ago. Of course, it won’t get me another shot at the girl of my teenaged dreams, and I sucked at football anyway, but I can catch up on all my lost viewing. Already I can tell by the small, singing turdlike creature on the main menu that Frank Henenlotter’s BRAIN DAMAGE (1987) is definitely a File I’m happy to have discovered.
This critter goes by the name Aylmer, a parasitic creature with a voice somewhere between Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. Aylmer is an ancient monster who happily pleasures his host with a shot of blue liquid bliss injected straight into the brain. Said host, Brian (Rick Herbst), gratefully accepts these injections while unknowingly assisting Aylmer in devouring the delicious brains of strangers. Eventually, Brian struggles to break free from Aylmer’s chemical influence, but finds “kicking” almost impossible. Set in late-’80s New York City, BRAIN DAMAGE is a comedic William S. Burroughs-esque tale of a “junkie” struggling with an addiction so close to heroin that I almost expected Nancy Reagan to jump out and scream, “Just say no!”
The Files are full of praise, with clippings from such heavy hitters as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, all hailing what they knew was already a horror classic. The film’s power was felt as far away as San Francisco, where the now-defunct Chronicle exclaimed, “Do not under any circumstances fail to see it!” Now that’s some well-deserved high praise from a classy publication. As with any Henenlotter film, it’s impossible to tell if it’s cheesy or awesome, so I’ll settle for cheesely awesome. With imagery from the lighter side of Kubrick’s 2001, BRAIN DAMAGE is visually stunning in an extremely low-budget, tongue-in-cheek manner. It’s a style you find in only the best New York horror films, a subgenre Henenlotter was certainly the master of.
There was a reason the writer/director featured numerous long tracking shots of St. Marks Place in the film. The city was more than just a backdrop; it was a vital character that played a crucial role in many a fright flick from this period. This was before the networks started putting out sitcoms about unemployed 20something “friends” living in luxurious three-bedrooms. This was before the streets of Soho became overrun with Midwest fashion queens sucking down overpriced lattes from behind oversized sunglasses, all hoping to live out a SEX AND THE CITY dream. In Henenlotter’s Manhattan, real junkies become extras and small, cramped apartments become film studios. It’s a filming style that’s been lost forever, making BRAIN DAMAGE a time capsule of a point in history when New York horror films could only be made in New York.
Now, with the end of the grindhouses and drive-in theaters, classics like BRAIN DAMAGE can only live on in the privacy of our homes. Fortunately, a limited-release special-edition DVD is available from Synapse Films. This discs includes a well-deserved hi-def transfer, 5.1 audio, isolated music track, and audio commentary by Henenlotter and Bob Martin (who novelized the movie). I, for one, was glad to cross this film off my long list of should-have-seens and forever preserve it in the Fango Files as a reminder of the lost art of New York horror.
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From the Files of Fangoria
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