Starring Rick Hearst (as Rick Herbst), Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, the voice of John Zacherle
Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Distributed by Arrow Video
When it comes to bizarrely perverted and viscerally stomach-churning horror, few have done it better than cult auteur Frank Henenlotter. His early filmography, scant as it may be, is filled with fiercely original tales of sexuality and grotesqueries that, while unabashedly extreme, work organically to the story being told and are not done for the sake of being gratuitous… ok, maybe a little. As a writer and director with a steadfast vision, he is able to make movies that feel like they exist in his own alternate universe filled with flashy colors, sketchy characters, grimy cities, Freudian subtext, and unremitting fun. Much as I love the Basket Case (1982-1991) series and Frankenhooker (1990), my absolute favorite is unquestionably Brain Damage (1988). Similar to the first time I watched comedic horror luminaries such as Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Re-Animator (1985), the experience of seeing an ancient phallic worm inject an LSD-like substance into a host for the purpose of being taken out to feed on human brains blew my own mind. The deceptively simple story is bolstered by a roster of strong performances, a perfect score, and skin-crawling special effects work anchored by the cause of the titular ailment: a little black worm-thing named Elmer the Aylmer.
An elderly couple, Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha (Lucille Saint Peter), return home to their tiny apartment gleefully touting a package of fresh animal brains for… something, but their joy quickly turns to despondence when their “pet” appears to be missing. The two scour the building as best they can but come up with nothing, and eventually they wind up on the floor, writhing in agony from some sort of withdrawal. Not long after, one of their neighbors, Brian (Rick Hearst), wakes from a wildly psychedelic dream and comes across their lost little guy in his bathroom – a foot-long black phallic creature named Elmer (voiced by John Zacherle). As Elmer explains, Brian needs only to “listen to the light” and agree to take Elmer on a walk whenever he gets hungry. In return, Brian gets a dose of Elmer’s secret juice – a blue liquid injected into his brain via a thin probe contained within Elmer’s mouth. Once in a hallucinogenic state Brian is blissfully unaware of Elmer’s actions, which consist of only one thing: eating human brains.
Brian’s reliance on Elmer’s mind-melting magical fluid has overtaken his life, causing him to ignore his roommate brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald), and his girlfriend, Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), who is awfully patient with Brian’s sudden change in personality. Elmer’s penchant for human gray matter leads Brian into numerous gory scenarios, and eventually he realizes what Elmer has been doing to the local nightlife. He firmly refuses to take Elmer out for any more “food”, but in return is denied access to Elmer’s cerebral party juice. And the withdrawals eventually leave him pleading for more. Hooked and powerless against his addiction, Brian continues to satisfy Elmer’s cravings while remaining torn on how to handle this Faustian bargain gone awry.
Elmer the Aylmer is easily one of horror’s most overlooked creatures. Henenlotter created something distinctive and curious; a weird “black dildo” (Henenlotter’s words) that speaks and sings, delivering unparalleled joy to its host and asking only to be taken out for regular feedings. As Morris explains during the film’s climax, Elmer is an “Aylmer”, an old creature with a rich history that has traversed the globe and eventually, somehow, wound up in a bathtub in New York City. Elmer’s true origins remain a mystery and Henenlotter does a wonderful job of giving this unexplainable organism a rich and colorful personality. Hell, Elmer is more interesting than anyone else in the cast. I know the possibility of recapturing the magic of Brain Damage would be extremely difficult for a sequel, even if it had been made the following year, but I just want more… which is fine. Always leave them wanting more, as the old showbiz adage goes.
Gabe Bartalos and his FX crew not only bring Elmer to stirring life, making this personably phallus seem like a genuine flesh-and-blood creature, but the gore gags both real and imagined are cringingly nasty. Brian’s dreamy brain-pull still makes my ears hurt. Each of Elmer’s feedings is filled with grimy bits of grue and gore, with blood and flesh and brain matter being flung about as he wriggles his way deep into his meal’s head cavity. And then there’s the infamous “blow job”. Bless Vicki Darnell’s heart because that woman not only signed up to fellate a veiny appendage but she also allowed the FX team to pack her mouth with brains for the big reveal. In a film filled with wildly graphic violence, this scene still causes jaws to drop whenever I show it to friends. The gross-out sights gain additional impact by standing out from the black humor and kaleidoscope of colors presented when Brian is under Elmer’s juicy spell.
Henenlotter manages to keep his narrative clean, avoiding messy subplots and exhaustive exposition in favor of something more straightforward. Brian’s dealings with Elmer are overtly sexual, a theme that runs throughout the entire film. It is a relationship both Faustian and Freudian, rife with subtext that isn’t exactly subtle. Brain Damage is a triumph of ‘80s ingenuity and atypical storytelling. Sure, some of the acting is amateurish and the effects work isn’t always entirely “seamless” on screen, but there is so much charm contained within Henenlotter’s quizzical little creation that it’s a title I find myself coming back to over and over, like an addiction.
Previously issued on DVD by Synapse, with an expectedly slick image, Arrow Video delivers the goods with a Blu-ray release featuring a 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded picture. While no restoration information has been provided, as someone who has watched the film on DVD many times I can safely say this HD image is a clear improvement in every way. This is never going to be a pristine picture but the upgrade in color saturation, fine detail, black levels, and refinement of film grain is more than enough to merit a purchase. Dirt & debris have been nearly eradicated. Grain is occasionally clumpy, especially when cutting to effects shots, which is to be expected. I was extremely pleased with this image and while it may not be perfect, it is perfectly fitting for this picture.
There are two audio tracks included – English LPCM 1.0 mono or a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. The mono track sounded a bit thin and constrained to my ears, while the multi-channel track allowed for some breathing room. Dialogue is always clear and never lost within the mix. Gus Russo & Clutch Reiser’s score is a hypnotic gem and I wish someone would give it the deluxe treatment on vinyl. An isolated score is also available via a 2.0 track. Subtitles are included in English SDH.
Director Frank Henenlotter makes his one bonus feature appearance on an audio commentary track that is brand new, not carried over from the previous DVD release. If you’re a commentary nerd, hang on to your old disc.
“Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage” is a wonderfully exhaustive retrospective documentary on the film’s production, featuring interviews with Rick Hearst, Gabe Bartalos, and many more. Every bit of the film’s history is covered here and although Henenlotter doesn’t make an appearance the participants do a fantastic job covering all the necessary bases.
“The Effects of Brain Damage” is an interview with Gabe Bartalos, who discusses how he handled all of the effects work with his team.
“Animating Elmer” features Al Magliochetti, who did the stop-motion work on Elmer.
“Karen Ogle: A Look Back” is an interview with the woman who was the set script supervisor, still photographer, and assistant editor.
“Elmer’s Turf – The NYC Locations of Brain Damage” is hosted by former Fangoria contributor Michael Gingold, who tours the old filming locations seen in the movie.
“Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession” is an interview with a “super fan” of the film, Adam Skinner.
“Frank Henenlotter Q&A” is taken from a March 2016 screening in Brussels.
Three image galleries are included, featuring “Stills”, “Behind-the-Scenes”, and “Ephemera”.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is included.
Finally, there is a cool short film animated by Harry Chaskin called “Bygone Behemoth”, featuring the final vocal appearance of John Zacherle.
As usual, Arrow has also included a thick booklet filled with an essay, color photos, and promotional materials.
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
- Original Mono and 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround Audio Options
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Isolated Score
- Brand new audio commentary by writer-director Frank Henenlotter
- Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage – brand new documentary featuring interviews with actor Rick Herbst, producer Edgar Ievins, editor James Kwei, first assistant director Gregory Lamberson, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti and makeup artist Dan Frye
- The Effects of Brain Damage – FX artist and creator of “Elmer” Gabe Bartalos looks back at his iconic effects work on the film
- Animating Elmer – featurette looking at the contributions of visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti
- Karen Ogle: A Look Back – stills photographer, script supervisor and assistant editor Karen Ogle recalls her fond memories of working on Brain Damage
- Elmer’s Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage – featurette revisiting the film’s original shooting locations
- Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession – an interview with superfan Adam Skinner
- Brain Damage Q&A with Frank Henenlotter recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival
- Image Galleries
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Bygone Behemoth – animated short by Harry Chaskin, featuring a brief appearance by John Zacherle in his final onscreen credit
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck
- Limited Edition O-card with exclusive artwork
- Collector’s Booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold, illustrated with original archive stills and posters
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