From the clearly troubled brain of Frank Henelotter comes Brain Damage, a touching story about a boy and his penis. This is Henenlotter’s film after the wonderful Basket Case but before Frankenhooker, and while it’s good in itself, it also starts to reveal interesting themes in his fucked-up series of work.
Here’s the deal. Somehow Aylmer, a kind of worm that is the general size and shape of a penis, has climbed into this guy Brian’s brain [oh, I didn’t get THAT joke until I just wrote it out]. It feeds him with some kind of juice that provides a euphoric high and bizarre hallucinations. Thing is that Aylmer wants to eat human brains, which at first Brian is too high to notice, but once he does, he starts having [those old boring] moral issues about it.
Let me state once again that I LOVE cinematic approximations of hallucinogenic drug trips, and the ones in this film are a) plenty, and b) really good! The first and best has Brian laying in bed staring up at the lighting fixture on his ceiling as it transforms into a giant eyeball. The transformation is very slow and gradual, and the film also is smart enough to alternate shots of what Brian supposedly sees with shots of his face as he experiences the ecstasy of the drug, implying that there’s even more going on than we can see, and keeping the focus on his experience as opposed to the freaky light show.
It is not long before he is introduced to his parasite, who speaks in the high-pitched, slightly dismissive voice of a college professor. Aylmer definitely has a personality, which at first is very friendly and a little goofy, but gradually becomes more evil and manipulative. He’s never more wicked than after Brian realizes that he has become a part of Aylmer killing people, and tries to withdraw from the drug and escape Aylmer’s power. As he grows pale and sick, Aylmer gently torments him throughout, including singing his very chipper “Aylmer song,” knowing full well Brian will eventually give in.
But let’s not forget Barbara, Brian’s girlfriend. She is in the long tradition of Henelotter heroines that are ABSOLUTELY HIDEOUS. Where does he come up with these women? It also must be noted that there is a VERY strong streak of misogyny in Henelotter’s work [not so obvious in Basket Case], which receives ample workout here. Even as Brain has completely transformed overnight, is having very disturbing hallucinations, and is obviously in serious trouble, all Barbara cares about is how all this is going to affect their relationship. She can’t stop “reaching out to him” and taking everything he says as a sign that “he doesn’t want to be with her anymore.” It’s a sign of contempt on the writer/director’s part, and by the end of the movie you will feel it as well, as Barbara is such a whiny and insipid character one is eventually rooting for her to die.
Along with this we must discuss THE most notorious scene in this film [you HAVE to get the unrated or limited edition DVD], in which Brian, under the influence of his host, goes out and is picked up by a rock & roll floozy [who gets a lot more turned on by him once she realizes he’s high out of his mind], who takes him into a back room and goes down on him. Aylmer leaps into her mouth, and what follows is essentially a face-fucking scene as Aylmer eats her brain. How explicit is it? Well, if the thing in her mouth weren’t grey, it could be a scene from a porn film. It’s so explicit that even though I captured a frame from it, I’m not going to put it up on the site [there could be kids reading this!].
Now, when you consider the complete oeuvre of Henenlotter, some themes emerge, and one of them is this extremely violent misogyny, and the way it is played as humor. In Frankenhooker, our hero’s girlfriend [who struggles with her weight] is pureed in the first scene by a lawn mower. He then gathers a roomful of prostitutes to whom he gives “super-crack” which causes them to explode, sending body parts flying. He together these parts to make his girlfriend a new body [ostensibly a slimmer, more sexually-optimized one]. The thing is that somehow all of this isn’t offensive. To me, at least. Why? Well for one, I’m not a woman, but otherwise it strikes me as just so on the surface and simple-minded to be really offensive, and also [in this film at least] it is placed in the context of so much other really interesting and thought-provoking content that the misogyny is not the main impression one walks away with.
Also, when you have such an obvious face-fucking scene, the movie isn’t TRYING to allude to anything other than sex, so that itself is the conversation. Compare this to something like Species II, which disguises its sick male sexual fantasies under less obvious [and thus less available for discussion] circumstances. In Species II a man has sex with a woman, and her belly begins to instantly swell until it bursts open with his child. Later, a woman is choked TO DEATH on an alien “appendage.” This to me seems a far uglier depiction of violent male sexual fantasies, because ostensibly you’re watching a movie about aliens, and the sexual content is hidden. In Brain Damage, there is no question but that you’re watching a violent male sexual fantasy, so regardless of what you think about it, the director is putting it right there on the table, which seems to me more honest.
Now let us ponder the considerable homoerotic content of this film. Now, it would seem that this movie is about a young man who suddenly gets a big penis that makes him feel really good, but also makes him act in very strange ways. He withdraws from his girlfriend, and seeks out men or women of a trashier variety to be with and consume. Then you start having scenes, like the one in which Aylmer is taunting Brian as he’s going through withdrawal by saying such things [in a male voice] as: “You NEED my juice, Brian. You know the pain is going to get so great that only my juice can stop it.” I have known moments like that. But anyway, also consider the scene in which Brian goes into a fleabag hotel’s shower, where there just happens to be a huge bodybuilder washing himself [sexy sexy sexy Joseph Gonzales, who appears as hot hot hot Zorro the pimp in Frankenhooker]. Brian just STARES at him for quite some time, while the bodybuilder nonchalantly goes about taking his shower, apparently not really minding [why can’t they be so chill in real life?]. It doesn’t go much of anywhere, this does not become a homo movie, I just think that Brian’s new penis and alien-inspired lust makes him horny for EVERYTHING, so that would include the equal balance of hetero and homo interest seen here.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to mention to mention the scene in which an older man grasps Brian’s “Aylmer” and squeezes a bunch of juice into him.
And now some individual moments of glory:
> This film can cause quite a bit of annoyance to those in apartments with neighbors, as one is constantly riding one’s volume button since the characters alternate whispering with SCREAMING throughout.
> Note how the credits here contain a blueprint for the wonderful credits sequence of Frankenhooker.
> There is an interesting breaking of the frame as Brain is hallucinating while watching Aylmer kill the junkyard man… suddenly HE becomes a person watching a horror movie, watching these events happen while he is removed and less personally involved.
> Don’t miss the scene in which a guy is laying there with a giant hole in his head, and Brian asks: “Hey, is that guy okay?”
> The spaghetti/brain hallucination is one of the creepiest ever!
> There’s a nice walk through late 80s East Village for those interested in seeing the neighborhood back then.
> The song “You haven’t seen me mean” heard in the rock club presages the declining relationship between Brian and Aylmer.
> All of a sudden there’s this absolutely gorgeous shot of NYC at dawn!
> You won’t be able to miss Aylmer’s little song.
> The not-so-sub subtext of this movie is made quite obvious when Aylmer juts up under Brian’s sheets like a giant boner.
> Don’t miss the call-out to Basket Case. Boy, Kevin Van Hentenryck from that movie sure did age quite a bit in six years.
> Notice how the older couple only seems able to locate Brian when he happens to be in the back alley.
Like so many wonderful movies, this one loses energy toward the end, and I’m not sure the ending makes sense at all, but no matter. It has all been so creepy and whacked-out and disturbing and hilarious and delightful that you will be immeasurably happy for the joy it has brought into your life.
YES, YOU MUST. But be sure to get the unrated DVD with the notorious face-fucking scene. As George Michael once so sagely observed: "If you’re gonna do it, do it right."
BASKET CASE is similar in being very, very strange and extremely delightful. It surprises me to say it, though, but I think this one is better.
FRANKENHOOKER is his other major movie after this one, but the misogyny in it was more extreme, and it kind of soured for me. Plus it just didn't habg together as well. But for those interested in seeing the hunky Jospeh Gonzales, he plays a hot pimp in that one.