a Primal Root review
edited by Bootsie Kidd
“Whenever you want the pain to stop, I’ll be here. Whenever you want to stop hurting, you come to me.” -Aylmer, Brain Damage
Let’s take a moment to discuss the Reagan Administration’s poorly schemed “War on Drugs”, shall we? On October 13th, 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs to be an imminent threat to U.S. National Security, while First Lady Nancy Reagan promptly flooded the talk show circuit advising the children of our nation to “Just say NO!”. Because, you know, becoming addicted to narcotics or not is as simple as just saying “no” to your local pusher. Obviously, Nancy Reagan and the War on Drugs, itself, were more than a tad naive when it came to the nature of addiction and its beginnings.
Thankfully, 1986’s “Brain Damage”, Frank Henenlotter’s stellar follow-up to his classic 1982 debut,”Basket Case”, doesn’t cut corners when it comes to the discussion of drug use. From its depiction of the initial orgasmic rush that launches its user into a life bent around being steeped in a state of euphoria where problems are forgotten, to the sudden meteoric plummet that follows once the high is wears thin. In his usual brilliant insight, Henenlotter creatively portrays to viewers how addiction winds up taking its toll not only on users, but those closest to them, as well. Despite the laughable oddity of the seductor, Aylmer, ‘Brain Damage’ manages to tell it to us straight with a dark, horrifying, even often comical story in the realm of fantasy-horror providing a truly masterful message film about the dangers of drug use and the nature of addiction.
We meet Brian, a nice enough average guy who lives with his brother Mike in an apartment in New York. Brian even has a caring, sweet-natured, if mildly bland girlfriend he’s dating named Barbara. One evening while sick in bed, Brian blind-sided by seemingly inexplicable visions of a blood-shot eyeball where his ceiling light used to be experiencing, pulsating bright lights, blue water flooding his bedroom, and a powerful feeling of euphoria. It’s a feeling the young man has never encountered before, and as you might imagine, and one he’s eager to experience again. Only thing is, he soon discovers that what he felt was due to a small, slimy, blue-hued, phallic, turd-like creature named Aylmer (or Elmer), but, bizarrely enough, that doesn’t seem to throw Bryan as much as you might think it would.
The precise origins of Aylmer are unknown, though it is revealed through its previous users that Aylmer has a sordid centuries-old past that can be traced back to countless now-fallen civilizations. Aylmer, a creature with friendly, sleepy eyes and palsy voice of John Zacherle (yep, the host of Shock Theater, Zacherley, himself) is quite willing to inject Brian with a mysterious bright blue fluid procured from a syringe-like appendage protruding from Aylmer’s enormous, sharp tooth-filled gob. Aylmer simply jacks his juice directly into Brian’s brain stem, injecting a little “Aylmer juice” which allows Brain to, once again, experience the unique pleasure of becoming unattached from the world and embracing visions of glorious lights in junk heaps, all the while laughing his ass off in chemically-induced glee. If Aylmer is anything, he is one helluva saleman, as he perfectly pitches to Bryan saying, “This is the start of your new life Brian, a life full of colors, music,light and euphoria. A life without pain, or hurt or suffering.” I mean, really, what could possibly be the drawback?…
Well, turns out Aylmer feeds on brains. Sure, animal brains are okay, but to become powerful he must munch on the human persuasion. So, the deal becomes clear to Brian after several night’s of blacking out under the influence, and waking to find blood stains in some pretty alarming locations on his person, that for each “fix” he must pay by hooking Aylmer up with a human brain to scarf down. And let me just say, Aylmer is one very sloppy eater and NO ONE has a quick and painless death at this parasite’s merciless bite. There’s no discrimination here, either. Folks of all race, gender, and class have their skulls bitten open and brains sucked out by Aylmer. From the security guard at the junk yard, to the man taking a dump in a bathroom stall, even the slutty girl with the enormous knockers ends up getting an Aylmer down the hatch in a disturbingly violent, yet rather hilarious sequence that has since been dubbed “The Blow Job Scene”. Trust me, it’s a must-see, classic, Trash Cinema moment. And as Brian’s dependency on Aylmer grows, so does the threat to his family and friends. No one is safe from the destruction Aylmer can cause.
Henenlotter handles Brain Damage’s odyssey of a boy and his parasite with a great sense of grotesque comedy to lighten the load of an otherwise deeply dark and unsettling cautionary tale. There is one sequence in particular that is both hysterically funny and soul crushingly bleak as Brian has finally realized the dire cost of his addiction. He decides he needs to pack up Aylmer and hold up in a derelict hotel room where he can quit Aylmer long enough to think straight and come up with some sort of solution to his problem. In short, he tries to quit Aylmer cold turkey. The sequence features Brian clinging to a radiator, quivering, practically swimming in his sweat, puking and sobbing as Aylmer laughs and cracks jokes at his host’s expense. For good measure, Brian even has a grotesque nightmare wherein he picks meaty, gore glazed chunks of his own brain out of his ear and horrified reaches for more and begins pulling a long, drippy, unending piece of tissue and literally unravelling his brain. No joke, this scene will have your stomach churning while you laugh at this graphic, gory take on the classic magician’s gag. Finally, Brian is reduced to a convulsing, filth-and-sweat-drenched shadow of his former self lying on the hotel room’s concrete floor in the fetal position. The pain of withdrawal is too intense for the young man to bear. And in desperation, in tears, Brian agrees to Aylmer’s demands. Someone must die so that Brian can get his fix. Aylmer chuckles with delight. He has won.
Again, it’s that perfect blend of humor and downbeat terror which gives ‘Brain Damage’ its substantial power to both entertain and completely repulse. By the film’s end many people have fallen the voracious hunger of Aylmer, and Brian’s need to satiate his own need for Aylmer’s juice, including people Brian loves and cares for. And in ‘Brain Damage”s pitch perfect, unconventional, ending, we are left with one of the most haunting and surrealistic images from Trash Cinema, as Brian’s glazed over eyes look through us, the screen fills with the brightest white light and crackles with electricity. It’s an audacious ending and one that still gives me chills to this very day. I have often called Brain Damage the “Requiem for a Dream” of the Trash Cinema genre. I still feel this is an appropriate description of this film’s nature and intent. This is one example of how powerful Trash Cinema can be, and in my opinion, this is Henenlotter’s masterpiece.
‘Brain Damage’ is the kind of sleazy, down trodden horror film that’s unafraid to point the mirror back at society and has an eagerness to push buttons, tackle difficult subjects and shove your nose into the down and dirty details. It’s unabashedly gross, over the top, and even silly at times. But the core to ‘Brain Damage’ is one that steeped the horrors of our own world. The darkness of despair and the nightmare of addiction. The unsettling, dreadful feeling that you cannot function normally without first feeding this need that has become more powerful than your common sense, rational thought, even your own sex drive. It’s more important to you than your loved ones and their well being. Suddenly, this stuff is your drive. This is what keeps you alive. This is what gives your life meaning.
Gang, I can think of few things more horrifying. And Brain Damage handles the subject with creativity and respect.