An older couple in a New York apartment have lost their pet - they left it in the bathtub, and the husband had brought home fresh animal brains for it to eat, but now it's gone. As they ransack their rooms in search of the creature, down the hall in another apartment Brian (Rick Hearst as Rick Herbst) is lying in bed, feeling under the weather. His girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) arrives, expecting him to take her to a concert, but he's not up to it, so his brother Mike (Gordon McDonald), who is secretly in love with Barbara, takes her instead, leaving Brian alone. But is he alone? Later he awakes to find blood on his bedsheets, and when he ventures into the bathroom to examine himself, he finds a small but tender hole in the back of his neck at the base of the skull. Now what could have done that?
Brain Damage was written by the director Frank Henenlotter and was his long-awaited follow up to Basket Case. It's a similarly low budget, grimy affair, but has more expensive effects work which is to its advantage. It's a similar kind of story as well, featuring a young protagonist enduring a symbiotic relationship with a monster, in this case not a misshapen twin but the escaped parasite Aylmer (not Elmer), and leaving a trail of bodies behind them. An eccentric creation, Aylmer resembles a large, blue slug with a face not unlike that of Dame Edna Everage, if she had been a large, blue slug that is, and speaks in the urbane tones of the uncredited television horror host Zacherley.
Not long after meeting Aylmer, Brian (an anagram of "brain", of course) has a strange experience in his bedroom. Lying on his bed, he sees his overhead light transform into a huge, staring eye and is surrounded by the pale blue fluid that the parasite has injected into his brain. It's a hallucination, naturally, but Brian is impressed and wants more, which Aylmer is all too willing to offer - but at a price. Aylmer is sick of eating the animal brains his previous owners fed him to keep him docile, and he wants to feast on human brains instead. What to do? After giving his new host another injection, they both wander out into the streets, ending up at a scrapyard where Brian sees the piled up, wrecked cars as a light show Jean Michel Jarre would be proud of.
Not only that, but when the secruty guard investigates, he gets his brain sucked out for his trouble (Brian is too out of it to realise what exactly is going on). And so a pattern quickly emerges, Brian gets his fix, and Aylmer gets his food. The parallels between the story and drug addiction are obvious, with the addict becoming dependent on his narcotic, but you could say the parasite was addicted, too. However, the difference between the two of them is that Aylmer is made of sterner stuff and when Brian goes cold turkey, the parasite coos and jeers, knowing that Brian will not be able to live without his fix - he even sings a song as the addict has visions of pulling his brains right out of his ear.
Although there are strong hints of the broad, way out laughs that Henenlotter would employ in his later films, Brain Damage isn't really a comedy. Some of the more inspired moments include Brian seeing his meal of meatballs become a plateful of little, pulsating brains, and, most notoriously, a prostitute attempting to give our hero a blowjob only to get a nasty surprise from a hungry Aylmer, but the tone isn't bright and wacky. As with Basket Case, the vivid sense of place that filming on the streets of New York lends it is a bonus, but perhaps too downbeat overall. And any effort to give Aylmer a history or to put him in any social context doesn't really convince much further than the drugs connection. However, the imagination is there, and it takes enough chances to be judged a success. Watch out for a familiar face on the subway. Music by Gus Russo and Clutch Reiser.
American director of trashy horror comedies. Made his debut in 1982 with the cult splatter favourite Basket Case, which he followed in 1988 with the similarly themed, equally gruesome drug addiction-analogy Brain Damage. Frankenhooker was a taste-free updating of Frankenstein, while Basket Cases 2 and 3 followed in the early 90s. After a long gap overseeing the preservation and distribution of vintage grindhouse movies, he returned to directing with Bad Biology in 2008.