Frank Henenlotter/ USA/ 1988/ 85 mins
Available on Blu-Ray from Mon 8 May 2017
Brain Damage director Frank Henenlotter claims that he never felt he made horror films but exploitation films. Boy, is he not kidding.
The plot sees a brain eating but eloquent parasitic creature called Elmer attach itself to a young guy called Brian (Brian Damage, anyone?) and control him using an addictive psychedelic toxin that he injects into Brian’s neck. As Elmer gets more brain thirsty Brian tries to beat the addiction and protect his girlfriend and his brother.
From this simple but weird premise the film mixes the social commentary of George A. Romero with the body horror of David Cronenberg to create a grubby little drug addiction horror – sorry – exploitation film.
In the social commentary corner we have a down and dirty 80’s New York and a sequence in which Brian tries to break Elmer’s control by going cold turkey. This proves especially difficult as Elmer is giving Brian a running commentary on his many weaknesses.
However, we also have plentiful gore and body horror to balance out the social commentary and keep the horror fans happy. This is again demonstrated during the cold turkey scene when Brian hallucinates pulling brain matter through his ear. The cold turkey scene really is the disgusting gift that keeps on giving.
Despite the comparisons to Romero and Cronenberg, Henenlotter ploughs his own particularly seedy low-brow furrow. The film has a unique sense of jet black humour and some incredibly bad taste gags especially a quite literal “gag” featuring death by fellatio. Also, Elmer looks like a radioactive penis with cartoony stick on eyes so there is little danger of taking the film too seriously.
On a side note Henenlotter establishes his own filmic shared universe when the lead character Duane from his debut film Basket Case crosses paths with Brian on the subway. They share a meaningful look before Duane shuffles off to his own corner of the Henenlotter universe. Since most modern franchises are pushing the shared universe idea perhaps Marvel or DC should hire Henenlotter to direct one of their films. Elmer the parasite could be a good fit alongside Groot and Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy 3: Not for Kids.