Movie Review: Brain Damage

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Brain Damage (1988)
Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Starring Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter, Vicki Darnell

I’m sure everyone reading this is familiar with this strange and twisted Faustian tale, that could only come from the mind of the man who gave us Basket Case (1982), writer/director Frank Henenlotter. If you haven’t, then I’m not sure what cave you’ve been living in for the last 30 years, but you need to pick it up now and watch it. It will change your life. Okay..maybe not change it, but definitely put a lot more entertainment in it. And there is even a message in there too! I mean, how can you have a tale about a parasitic creature, that looks like a cross between a turd and a deformed penis, that gets you hooked on a hallucinogenic drug that it emits, if only to keep you in control. Sure, there is a huge drug/addiction parable here, as well as the old fable of selling soul to a devil, but as crazy as it sounds, Henenlotter actually created a very well thought out story and it works quite well. The characters feel like real people, giving the dark and funny story more of an edge than most would probably take it as, about a much too common plague that still exists today. Sure, maybe not played out like it is here, but then it wouldn’t be as fun to watch, would it?

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Rick Hearst (billed as Rick Herbst in the film) plays Brian, who leads a normal life in New York city. He lives with his brother and has a girlfriend. Normal. That is until he gets a little taste of the wild side when this parasite named Aylmer finds him and decides to use him to get some much needed (and fresh) food…aka brains! Alymer gets control of Brian by getting him addicted to a powerful drug that he  produces that is injected directly into his brain. The rest of the film has Rick seeing the world in literally a new light. It’s not too long before Rick realizes the predicament he’s in, and starts to try to gain control and get out of the grips of Alymer, unfortunately with little success.

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This movie is filled with plenty of examples of sheer genius. From Henenlotter first coming up with this crazy idea and making it happen, to makeup and creature effects from the young Gabe Bartalos, the cinematography, the actors who have to perform this insane world, and to everyone else who worked on it, they created an incredible piece of cinema here, one that still gives a powerful message now as it did then. Plus, it is still as entertaining all of these years later. There are more than a few sequences here that will resonate in your brain for some time to come. It really is a cult classic and is so much better than what most would give it credit for.

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This film is also a perfect example of good old fashion guerilla filmmaking. Just by listening to the audio commentary by Henenlotter, you can tell his is not particularly a fan of the Hollywood system, especially with the MPAA. You’ll hear so many incredible stories of how they got around the system, or basically said screw them and made went ahead anyway. Henenlotter is a smart man and knows the business and knows what he wants to create and just does it. Damn shame more filmmakers can’t be as determined and have the drive that he does. But make sure you listen to the commentary. It is great and is definitely worth your time to listen to it since you’ll not only hear some great stories, but just hearing Henenlotter go on and on is so much fun. You’ll also hear him explain why Zacherle was not credited in the film too (as well as hearing his Zacherle impression, which is spot on). Which, on a quick side note, Zacherle was the perfect choice for the voice for little Aylmer, with his calm tone, making you want to believe what he was telling you.

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This has been released a few times on DVD but now comes to Blu-ray thanks to Arrow Video and it is quite a treat. There is an amazing documentary called Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage, which runs almost an hour long. There is input from actor Hearst, makeup men Bartalos and Dan Frye, first assistant director Greg Lamberson, producer Edgar Ievins, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti, co-editor James Y. Kwei, who all contribute so many fun stories about working on the picture. They also really give a great insight on how this film was made. Definitely a must see!

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This release is also filled with a ton of other extras, such as one on the effects of the film, the animation in there, a look back with Karen Ogle, who was the stills photographer, amongst other duties, revisiting filming locations with Michael Gingold, and a great Q&A with the director at the Onscreen Film Festival in Brussels in 2016. Needless to say, this release really is a must for the collection.

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