By Matthew Sorrento.
Traditional readings of the film see it as a commentary on the damning nature of chemical dependency. While the theme’s presence is undeniable, the film also depicts the freeing and often empowering nature of stimulants.”
After the release of his horror-comedy Re-Animator (1985), debuting filmmaker Stuart Gordon was very conscious that the film would be treated as his yardstick – against which his later work would be judged. (1) No stranger to having his worked critiqued, Gordon already directed for the stage in Chicago and used the horror genre’s bankability to enter filmmaking.
Though many filmmakers banked on the horror market for a debut (like Sam Raimi with The Evil Dead, 1982), Frank Henenlotter naturally gravitated to the material (though he prefers to describe his work as “exploitation.”) Preceding Gordon’s film and made in the late 1970s, Basket Case likely appeared in the VHS horror movie marathon that Gordon and his team watched, at the urging of producer (and future director) Brian Yuzna (2) – the funny terrors Evil Dead and Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979) have been documented to be on the bill. They are likely bedfellows to Henenlotter’s effortlessly comical/terrifying yarn, filmed on the streets and in locations of seedy Pre-Guliani Manhattan, about a miniature evil Siamese twin removed from his sibling (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and carried in a basket by him, from which the thing soon escapes to destroy.
Also long in the making, Frank Henenlotter’s second feature, Brain Damage (1988, recently released on disc from Arrow Video), shows little of the sophomore anxiety that has plagued so many debuting filmmakers (from Kenneth Branagh to Spike Lee). It’s an assured commentary on youth rebellion, equal parts psychological horror, gorefest, and grindhouse exploitation jaunt. Using effective elements from his earlier film – urban isolation, grim nighttime environments, and a cojoined-cum-removed evil threat – Brain Damage also explores 20-something anxiety and the psychical release of substances. Traditional readings of the film see it as a commentary on the damning nature of chemical dependency. While the theme’s presence is undeniable, the film also depicts the freeing and often empowering nature of stimulants. It’s a theme stemming back (at least) to Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception (1954) – which describes the author experimenting with mescaline, which opened him to new perceptions of the outside world – and running up to Christopher Bell’s little-seen 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, which questions the taboos of steroid use and other forms labeled “doping” in a society that normalizes – and obsessively markets – other substances for medicating and enhancing performance.
From the opening minutes, Brain Damage presents the style of realistic camerawork that made Basket Case such a treat. In kind with Larry Cohen’s approach to situating horror in the urban everyday (though Cohen triumphs in light or dark, while Henenlotter works best at night), Henenlotter uses a consistently low-key style that makes his city streets the elements of nightmarish hyperrealism. Brains are a commodity, it seems, as impish apartment dwellers Morris (Theo Barnes) and Martha Ackerman (Lucille Saint-Peter) lose a coveted, slithering “creation” down their bathtub drain. These characters channel the kind of evil-just-beyond-the-wall in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977), though the couple’s aim is hardly to catch the youth(s) next door, who in this case, gets ensnared by accident.
In another apartment, the escaped “thing” (named “Aylmer” by the Ackermans) finds slacker Brian (Rick Herbst). His isolation allows a needle from the thing’s mouth to penetrate/feminize him in the back of the head; it injects a fluid of bright blue (with a glow like Re-Animator’s neon green). To portray the feeling, Henenlotter eases his realism into the hyperreal, with the boundaries gone, moving forward. Lying down, Brian feels the juice invading his mind as it overtakes the floor. The stop-motion shots edited with process ones have us pine for purer days of effects, as a blue gel licks up the floors to rise and slowly cover Brian, as if floating his body up briefly before it swallows him. The gelling flow is surely something sticking in the subject’s and viewer’s mind, with a rubber-bandish synth in Clutch Reiser and Gus Russo’s score accentuating. The gelatinous imagery connects to the eyeball he sees on his ceiling (which turns into two fiendish eyes, once he’s submerged in the blue). Henenlotter and cinematographer Bruce Torbet vary shots to present the bedroom as an expanse for the vertiginous teen, defying the claustrophobic space he occupies. Critiques of masculinity and other oppressive systems appear, since his ecstasy compensates for what he’s not getting from sex and other drugs. As Aylmer leads Brian towards a new consciousness, we see this youth as more than a surrogate for a desired audience but rather as a subject of keen interest for the filmmakers.
Once he wakes, apartment living remains a confinement, as in Basket Case, which was certainly true for viewers attending the New York grindhouse theaters where Henenlotter developed his cinematic taste. (3) Brian recalls nothing of this euphoric episode (and others to come), which on the surface makes the injection seem like a harmful invasion of the self and one’s health. Aylmer, the bluish black pet monster, speaks in the words of an uncredited Zacherle (the horror TV host) to promise Brian a new sense of meaning in a milieu opposing him. As a metaphor for addiction, it’s too simple, since the film reflects a need for teens/20-somethings who are oppressed by conservative expectations. While moments of Brain Damage reflect withdrawal, the film is more ambiguous and complex in its commentary on substances. The long-term benefit to Brian: Aylmer drives him towards a powerful awakening.
After the talk, Aylmer juices a Brian ready to emerge from the confinement of his apartment. In a junkyard he has a vision that, neon-colored like the first, reflects the discotheques but moreso the arcade games of the time. In the mise en scene, Henenlotter uses the reference to relate the jubilation of the awakened mind – and just as video games teach youngsters how to master complex systems, Brian’s mind moves to more powerful thinking. If arcade games are at the heart of his subjective lightshow, a maze of stacked junk cars reflects the refuse of cultural hypocrisy about stimulant use. Brian’s vision of beauty in the spider web-cracks of a windshield is delicate, so much that Aylmer’s killing of a guard (especially phallic/feminizing, as it breaks through the forehead) seems an impulsive reaction. We soon learn that Aylmer (a disembodied brain itself), who had tired of the animal brains fed to him by the Ackermans, wants more and more human ones, and hence his presence as a dependency on Brian’s brain. From afar the murder of the guard appears to be yet another example of violence inflicted upon blacks. Though Henenlotter continues the pattern, with a death of a black man in a bathroom later in the narrative, to develop a narrative contrarian to this abuse: the killings result from unhinged use, itself a product of the 1980s “war on drugs” propaganda which posed non-whites as drug dealing invaders on white suburban culture. The junked vehicle wrecks, remains of violent car culture surrounding Brian in the junkyard, also indicate the waste of conservative propaganda clarified in They Live, of the same year: Consume, Buy: Do Not Question Authority, Submit.
In describing his writing process for a later project, Henenlotter builds his narratives to include a list of horror gags he gathers in a planning stage (4); I’m sure Brain Damage was no exception. From the guard’s killing, the film moves to other attacks by Aylmer, itself high on the human brains it reaches with the help of Brian. While many would be put off by the appearance of the puppet worm Aylmer (imagine Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas going noir, a la It’s a Wonderful Life, and something slithered from the depths of the pond), the visual effects of yesteryear, plus the avuncular touch of Zacherle’s vocal performance, make him a fond bit of mayhem. A phallic joke taken to the limit, Aylmer inspires Brian’s goofy masturbation scene in a tub, and – more directly in the gross-out horror-comedy vein – Brian’s bowl of spaghetti during a date pulses with Aylmer (and other brains?) submerged.
The film’s more famous scene in a punk night club brings Brian/Aylmer into a more appropriately bleak milieu. The dread of Brian, a fish out of water (dressed like your every-kid from 80s comedies, though channeling Jeffrey Coombs) among outcasts that imply dirty deeds, offers the kind of moody isolation that fueled Basket Case in between scares. When Brian scores a willing punk chick (“You’re fucked up, huh?” she says, an ok to proceed), Aylmer steals away Brian’s chance for action by diving down her throat, in a “giving head” jest aimed to outdo Re-Animator’s famous one. While Brian enjoys the temporary highs, Aylmer has apocalyptic aims, telling Brian to get hookers, that he’ll eat a million of them! If the severity points to the temptations of addiction, it also underscores how numerous serial killers – Jack the Ripper, Henry Lee Lucas, LA’s the Grim Sleeper, etc. – found easy prey in a society ignoring them but also condemning sex slaves.
The aborted fellatio foreshadows a jarring homoerotic scene in a shower. Entering with a throbbing Aylmer needing a fix, Brian seems as disturbed by Aylmer’s aims as he is to his own reaction to what he finds there. He encounters a bodybuilder showering (played by Joe Gonzalez), every move of the soap a flex in his muscles; if the buff guy shows camaraderie (“Don’t worry, man, no one will bother you here”), it can easily seem as code for a come on. That Aylmer attacks, as clearly expected, plays as a sex-murder response routine in the slasher film of the 70s. By adding a homoerotic strain, the scene channels our obsession with sexualized violence, what viewers must undergo when viewing the male. (5)
Brain Damage embraces Cronenberg’s style of body horror, as Aylmer begins to take over Brian – numerous ports for Aylmer appear in the other’s chest, noting the all-encompassing influence. Its killings of Brian’s brother/roommate, as he has sex, and of the mad scientist/monstrous father, Mr. Ackerman, lead toward the transcendence final, in a way a tribute to Cronenberg’s “new flesh” finale in Videodrome. The confrontation leaves the Mrs. consumed, and Aylmer all the stronger after his own attempted murder.
Blue lightning rises above the misunderstood youth, and in a subjective mood, the world falls down around him. To knee-jerk conservatives, it represents a breakdown at the hands of addiction – similar to how some see Psycho (1960) as a series of punishments for deviating against family values, and not an indictment of such. (6) Brian’s New Flesh reflects his release from all the misunderstanding of Reaganite Just Say No culture. If you feel yourself cast into a greater Beyond as Videodrome cuts to black, you’ll find a new Becoming at the end of this Henenlotter.
- Sorrento, Matthew (2008), “Object in Mirror May be Closer Than It Appears,” Bright Lights Film Journal, July 31: http://brightlightsfilm.com/object-in-mirror-may-be-closer-than-it-appears-stuart-gordon-talks-about-horror-the-absurd-and-stuck/#.Wjq5ylWnG1s, accessed 12/1/17.
- “Video Interview: Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna” (2004), Re-Animator Millennium Edition DVD (Elite Entertainment).
- Sorrento, Matthew (2008), “The Basketcase Returns(?): Interview with Frank Henenlotter,” Film Threat, June 4, https://archive.li/q5t9, accessed 12/1/17.
- “The Basketcase Returns(?)” Part II, https://archive.li/OZC4A, accessed 12/1/17.
- See Neale, Steve, “Masculinity as Spectacle,” Screen 6, Nov 1983, https://academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/24/6/2/1653405?redirectedFrom=PDF, accessed 12/5/17.
- Robin Wood introduced this reading of Psycho. See Wood, Robin, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia UP): 142-51, originally pubished in Wood, Hitchcock’s Films, 1965.
Matthew Sorrento is Co-Editor of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. His collection, David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)interpretation, co-edited with David Ryan, is forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.