BluRay/DVD Reviews

BRAIN DAMAGE

By • Oct 25th, 2003 •

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Synapse) 1987.
86 mins. / 1.78:1 aspect ratio, transferred for 16X9 monitors / D5 premastering

Synapse has done a remastering of this minor classic in High Definition D5 and it literally leaps off the screen. The detail on ‘Elmer’ the parasite, in particular, is exquisite…you can scrutinize every wrinkle in it’s coprolitic carcass.
Elmer – actually ‘Aylmer’ – is an ancient wormlike being that has been valued and passed down, or stolen, through the centuries for its ability to give its host intense visions, eventually leading to drug addiction, which the intelligent little creature then uses to its advantage. By the time we join Elmer he’s ditched his two elderly hosts for a younger guy in the same apartment building, and gets him hooked real quickly.

Of the several films writer/director Frank Henenlotter has made, including genre faves BASKET CASE and FRANKENHOOKER, this is far and away his best, exhibiting to an almost uncanny degree a profound understanding of the excesses of drug addiction in metaphorical terms. As the protagonist lies in an agony of dependency, listening to his brother and girlfriend making it in the next room but unwilling to do anything about it, and perhaps even unconcerned about anything other than his next fix, the narrative makes its point as well as any straightforward film ever has about the subject. (Another terrific horror flick using drug addiction as subtext is NEAR DARK from Anchor Bay.)

Directing actors has never been Henenlotter’s strong suit. None of them here loses their self-consciousness in front of the camera save lead actor Rick Herbst. Even John Zacherle, though fun, falls a bit short of what the vocal characterization of the parasite could have been.

Henenlotter is one of those filmmakers who likes to remain loyal to his film family, which is a good thing (Romero does it as well), though sometimes, as a result, a member with limited skill is carried over into a project demanding more than they can give. An example is DP Bruce Torbet, never an artist with the camera, though he does do his best work here…or is it that D5 transfer?

Henenlotter is also often sloppy with his editing. FRANKENHOOKER, for example, leaves in as many dead gags as live ones. Not so this film. It flies along, high on narrative drive for the first twenty minutes, flinging us headlong from one mystifying scene to another, and we’re almost at the halfway point before we finally glean enough plot information to fully understand what’s going on. It’s as if we’re in the protagonist’s skin, hooked and delirious, and we don’t know quite what’s happening to us. A brilliant idea, tight, fast and extremely satisfying in execution.

The commentary track featuring Henenlotter, writer Bob Martin, and filmmaker Scooter McCrea, is both playful and hyper. They identify Elmer’s face as very Chuck Jones, which is utterly clear once you’re aware of it. Sometimes their riffs are scene specific, and at other times they stay locked into a memory that moves them past visual points of interest. One of the strangest omissions for me was an early scene in an auto collision yard. Asked where it was, Henenlotter thinks it was somewhere in Queens. In fact it was on the Queens/Brooklyn border and is credited in the Thanks You’s. Statewide Auto Parts, a picturesque collision yard no longer in existence, is where STREET TRASH was shot back in ’85, and that film’s director’s father, Jim Muro Sr., owned the business. Jimmy Muro Jr. also worked on both BASKET CASE and BRAIN DAMAGE, as did a number of other STREET TRASH alumni, including Barbara Coston (On-set Accountant), Jim Mah (Dolly Grip), Karen Ogle (Continuity, Stills, and Asst. Editor), Rick Boyle (2nd Grip), and Anita Muro (Jimmy’s mother, who catered the film). Henenlotter claims forgetfulness often during the talk – odd considering his well-deserved reputation as one of the foremost psychotronic genre historians out there.

Henenlotter mentions during the commentary that he sees Elmer as a kind of penis surrogate rather than an animated turd, the latter being how most viewers I’ve spoken with perceive it. And the explanation of how the sounds coming out of Rick Herbst’s body during the dinner scene were accomplished is so outrageous that Bob Martin assumes it’s a joke until Henenlotter elaborates.


Includes: Audio commentary by director Frank Henenlotter, novelist Bob Martin, and filmmaker Scooter McCrea.
Isolated music score.


Credits:
Director of Photography: Bruce Torbet.
Music by Gus Russo and Chuck Reiser.
‘Elmer’ created by Gabe Bartalos & David Kindlon.
Supervisor of Visual Effects Al Magliochetti.
Edited by Henenlotter & James Kwei.
Produced by Edgar Ievins.
Written and directed by Frank Henenlotter.

Cast:
Rick Herbst
Zacherle

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