Brainiac (2004)

Brainiac reviewStarring Greg Bayan, Lisa Nistri, Joe Hansard, Elizabeth Shevock, Michael Petrunak, Sarah East

Directed by Terry Michael King

Director Terry Michael King and friend Greg Bayan, who not only co-wrote the script with his brother but also cast himself in the lead role, started out trying to make what amounted to a backyard homage of the classically bad Mexican horror film, The Brainiac (aka El Baron del Terror, a schlock cinema masterpiece which I recently reviewed a restored DVD release of), but you can’t really call it a remake since the story and premise are so radically different outside of the title character transforming into a monster that sucks out victims’ brains with a tongue-like appendage. It’s impossible to watch their film and not sense the amount of enthusiasm they put into it. Alas, enthusiasm alone does not a good movie make (or even a so-bad-it’s-good movie), but their Brainiac is not without some merit.

The original version told the tale of an evil warlock sentenced to death by the Mexican branch of the Spanish Inquisition, only to escape by teleporting himself to a passing comet. He returns along with the comet 300 years later to extract revenge against the descendants of his inquisitors, doing so by transforming into a bizarre looking humanoid creature that sucked out victims’ brains with a forked tongue. King’s name-only remake, on the other hand, owes more to the classic creature features of the 1950’s with a mad scientist creating a drug that’s supposed to better mankind but only succeeds in making himself periodically transform into a brain-sucking monster and using his monstrous side to kill anyone in his way. Still, there’s no denying that those responsible harbor great affection for the original film right down to copying certain elements of it and even at one point having characters watch the original on TV. I think they may even have borrowed some music from the original’s score.

Their Brainiac monster is a very cheap creation, but one still in the spirit with the film’s 1950’s retro fashion. Like the original movie, the creature’s visible monsterism is limited to its head and hands. In this case, a pair of quite rubbery-looking, swollen monster hands and a Halloween mask head, albeit a very high-end Halloween mask but still obviously a full head mask. Somewhat goblin-like and looking like it would have been quite at home in the Star Wars cantina, this Brainiac’s head even pulsates a little like the original Brainiac and has a tongue-like appendage for sucking brains, although this one’s looks more like the Alien mouth-within-a-mouth. The transformation scenes are handled identically to the original film, simple fades from human to monster and back to human again – no fancy morphing here. Some viewers may scoff, but given the sort of movie the filmmakers were attempting to make and the limited resources they clearly had to work with, it’s a perfectly fine movie monster.

This is a very low budget film, slightly above the level of being a backyard production, or maybe it was just a backyard production that looks more professional than usual. To give you an idea what kind of budget this thing was working with, one of the opening scenes has the film’s main character standing behind a podium with a sign on it that reads “ANNUAL STOCKHOLDERS MEETING”; this stockholders meeting is being held in what looks like a college classroom and the man at the podium seems to be standing in front of a bunch of cabinets like you’d find in a biology or chemistry classroom. While the film is nicely lit, it rarely suffers from inconsistent sound quality like so many ultra low budget productions do and, amazingly, never has any grainy video quality. However, King still makes some annoying first-time director mistakes such as the occasionally poorly framed shot, pointless close-ups, and allowing certain shots to go on longer than needed.

Then there’s the matter of the acting. It’s, umm, shall we say, amateurish. That’s about the most polite way of putting it. Some performers fare better than others, but the ones that don’t really don’t.

Dr. Peter Van Doren is the head of a pharmaceutical drug company named PsyMax. Their big new wonder drug is Nirvana, a super drug they believe will not only eliminate drug addiction but also lower crime rates caused by drug using/dealing. Nirvana makes the brain produce endorphins, and endorphins make you feel good; hence, no need for illegal narcotics. Nirvana is being touted as the ultimate feel-good drug made from an all-natural formula with no side effects. PsyMax is nearing a breakthrough in the clinical trials, after which Dr. Van Doren predicts Nirvana will become the most successful pharmaceutical product of all time.

Trouble arises for PsyMax when a Food & Drug Administration investigator arrives with a warrant stemming from an intercepted internal memo that listed some unfortunate side effects Van Doren has been trying to cover up. The investigation effectively shuts down the clinical trials, and doing so could potentially lead to PsyMax’s financial ruin.

There’s also the matter of a bumbling police detective, Sgt. Danko (who looks remarkably like Wimpy from the old “Popeye” cartoons), investigating the murder of a top PsyMax researcher the night before. The investigation scenes with the fumbling detective were the worst aspect of the original Brainiac, and the stuff with the bumbling detective in this Brainiac fares even worse. His investigation will lead him to work with the murdered researcher’s assistant, Dr. Sunday Morgan. Yes, her name is actually Sunday Morgan.

Then there’s the matter of Dr. Van Doren’s teenage daughter Kate, her horndog boyfriend who is growing impatient with her refusal to give up her chastity, and a slutty cheerleader who is constantly tormenting Kate and isn’t even above trying to seduce her father.

Let’s not forget the completely extraneous subplot involving a drug addicted biker who was being used as a Nirvana test subject and has now become addicted to it too, and he certainly doesn’t take kindly to being told the clinical trials are on hold and his Nirvana supply will be cut off.

All the while, a series of murders have occurred that has stumped the cops and have been dubbed “The Brainiac Murders” by the media since all the victims are missing their brains. The only clue the police have to go on is that whoever did it suffers from a genetic anomaly that has something to do with regressed reptile genes in human DNA or something along those lines. It’s scientific mumbo jumbo; that’s another reason why Detective Sgt. Danko needs Dr. Sunday Morgan’s help. You don’t suppose that one of Nirvana’s side effects could transform someone into a brain-sucking reptilian man-monster? If not, it wouldn’t be much of a movie.

Unfortunately, it still isn’t much of a movie even with a brain-sucking reptilian man-monster. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s precious little brain-sucking reptilian man-monster action during the first half. Part of that problem stems from the story trying to keep the identity of the murderous mutant a mystery for much of the first half even though any avid B-movie watcher should be able to deduce who it is almost instantly. The movie this film bases itself on made no secret of who the monster was, wasted little time getting the monster in action on screen, and gave us plenty brain-sucking monster mayhem from then on. This film would have been wise to follow that blueprint.

King does deserve credit for actually doing a fairly satisfactory job keeping the pace relatively brisk, but when the story and characters aren’t terribly compelling, even a quickly paced movie can begin to drag. Brainiac does have a fun spirit about it that very much invokes many of the creature feature movies from half a century ago, but most of the characters and multiple subplots eventually grow wearisome. They needed to trim some of the fat and wrap things up in a timelier manner, 70-75 minutes, like the older films they’re invoking memories of.

Brainiac does spring to life with a lively finale that features the hilarious sight of the Brainiac driving down the street in the convertible whose driver he killed before jacking his ride. Now that brief moment definitely captured the berserk spirit of the original film.

2 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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