The Savage Stack: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)

Frank Henenlotter's anti-drug splatterpunk polemic is his masterpiece.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The thirty-fourth entry into this unbroken backlog is Frank Henenlotter’s drug trip monster mash, Brain Damage

Your first shot of cocaine is always the best. Coursing through your head like a runaway rocket, the rest of the night is yours to be had. The same can be said about that initial spoonful of heroin or spark of DMT - causing you to tumble backward into your own consciousness until infinity seems nigh. It’s an impossible sensation to accurately describe to someone who’s never used before, but teetotalers who’ve never picked up a straw, needle or pipe are always quick to judge those who end up traversing the horrid, bitter path of addiction. Yet anybody who’s gotten high knows that the consequences of indulgence pale in comparison to that original euphoria – a sensation all addicts chase until they’re usually found dead on their backs, foam bubbling from their mouths as the increased dosage utilized to combat pesky tolerances lead to a last shot that was just a bit too much for their fragile brains to take. Overdose and die, another sad story nobody’s going to care enough about to tell.

For NYC grime auteur Frank Henenlotter, addiction is the jumping off point for another one of his neon-slathered dives into The Deuce’s gutters. Like Basket Case (’82) before and Frankenhooker (’90) after, Brain Damage (’88) is an icky, textured mining of loneliness and social mores that uses a scummy monster to entertain while he spikes his rather potent lo-fi cocktail with a healthy dose of subversion. Emerging smack dab in the middle of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign that pervaded pop culture during the late '80s, the writer/director’s colorfully morbid tale of a young slacker’s symbiotic relationship with a pretty poison dispensing parasite was especially timely. But it’s Henenlotter’s ability to yet again place you inside those dingy apartments and dangerous back alleys that guarantees a sense of authenticity no politician could ever hope to achieve from their Ivory Houses in DC. The result is a splatterpunk polemic that never truly judges its wayward protagonist or the members of the audience who use drugs, taking an oddly empathetic stance toward the user even as its nightmarish cartoon carnivore devours the grey matter of innocent victims, just so our man can get his next fix.

For Brian (Rick Herbst), that first trip down Ecstasy Ave. is accidental, as he wakes up in bed covered in blood. There’s something about the lights in his room; the overhead lamp becoming a mucusy orifice as his carpet is soaked in clear blue liquid. Brian’s domicile is no longer a simple sleep quarter with walls covered in posters for Suicide gigs. Now it’s an ocean of perfect vibes, all thanks to the phallic creature, Elmer (created with game show flamboyance by Gabe Bartalos and David Kindlon), who’s attached himself to the boy’s brain stem while he napped. “This is the start of your new life, Brian,” Elmer tells him after the kid puts the severed tentacle into a bucket of water. “A life without worry, or pain, or loneliness. A life instead filled with colors, and music, and euphoria. A life of pleasure.” It’s the promises every addict is given by their first push off into oblivion. Reality is just a dull bore when compared to being high. So, why not always stay like this?

Like all addicts, Brian’s pursuit of the dragon comes with consequences. Being a Frank Henenlotter movie, track marks and a willingness to perform sexual favors for his drug of choice are just too subtle for Brain Damage to make its point. Instead, Elmer dines on a security guard at a local junkyard, and is then pornographically deep throated by a New Wave floozy (in a scene that reportedly caused the crew to disgustedly walk off set during filming). Yet the writer/director is smart enough to marry these fantastical grotesqueries with relatable real world penalties that anyone who’s ever known a junkie could predict from frame one. Brian’s doting girlfriend (Jennifer Lowry) and concerned bro (Gordon MacDonald) can’t help but notice the kid’s increasingly strange behavior and reluctance to socialize with them any longer. Why the hell are there all those locks on his door now? Why won’t he answer the phone? And who is Brian talking to when he’s in the bathtub? These are all telltale signifiers of a downward spiral, and if you removed the monster movie content from Brain Damage, replacing it with traditional drug elements, the picture would play the same way. Elmer is heroin. Elmer is coke. Elmer is whatever makes you quit your job because it’s getting in the way of getting high.

The popping purple palette that permeates Brain Damage is a massive jump from the washed-out browns and greys that dominated his only other feature effort (Basket Case) up to this point. Granted, Henenlotter had a bit more money to experiment with, courtesy of producer James Glickenhaus (The Exterminator). Brain Damage definitely exists in the same twisted funhouse mirror of '80s NYC that Basket Case did (and Henenlotter makes this connection literal via a cheeky cameo during the film’s final reel). His is a universe where rubbery beings ride along with biological twin brothers, or swim in the bathrooms of woefully dependent hosts. Brain Damage simply beefs up the anti-real texture, bathing Brian’s bedroom in a wash of electric blues. The streets are still caked in dirt, and it’s certainly not safe to take a shit in any of the graffitied public stalls. Over half a decade had passed, but Henenlotter’s Big Apple is equally treacherous, the subway just as apt to get you killed as it is to get you where you need to be. It’s a unique visual aesthetic that would define the rest of his directorial output, most notably the Super Crack strewn streets of Frankenhooker.

At one point, Elmer’s previous keepers – eccentric older tenants who live in Brian’s building – come calling and relay the beast’s history (as well as the true spelling and meaning of his name). It’s a chronicle that stretches back centuries, as Elmer became the inspiration to Italian art patrons and used in the rituals of ancient African tribes. As long as he’s controlled and utilized in a specific fashion, there’s a positive element to his existence. It’s only when Elmer takes control of his hosts that they spiral out of control, sweating through withdrawal symptoms as he sings them to sleep from the sink. This might the most potently rebellious message the 42nd Street staple worked into what could’ve been an otherwise pedestrian work of gross out horror. Drug use isn’t bad, but drug abuse and addiction definitely are. When Elmer falls into the hands of those who’re simply looking to escape from reality and consequences, the logical conclusion is a hole in the head, his rousing light spilling toward the heavens as your brains leak onto the floor. In just two features’ time, Frank Henenlotter had minted a masterpiece, and bested the politicians who dominated the news with their trenchant, half-assed efforts to get kids to “just say no”.

Brain Damage is currently available on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films.