Movies That Ruined My Childhood: Brain Damage (1988).
This movie was forbidden fruit in my childhood…fruit with a smart-talking brain-eating worm at the center!
As soon as I saw the box cover for the VHS tape for Brain Damage, I knew I had to see it. I don’t know why. At ten years old, I was certainly not a horror movie fan. My cousin collected Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the like but I never watched any of them. I hadn’t discovered cult favorites like Evil Dead, Re-Animator, or Night of the Living Dead. At age 6, I had actively fled a showing of Gremlins. Scary was just not in my wheelhouse. It was pure eye-candy appeal, then, that made Brain Damage call to me. It was unapologetically weird…and as I would find out, a ten on the gross-out meter.
Brain Damage (1988.)
Brian’s got problems. He’s got a pest problem, and he’s got a drug problem. Biggest problem? They’re horrifically related. See, Brian is the unwilling host to a brain eating parasite named Aylmer. Aylmer injects Brian with a highly addictive hallucinogen, and keeps him cranked up constantly. In exchange for a fix, Brian has to set Aylmer up with victims whose brain the parasite requires to live and manufacture the narcotic. As Brian spirals further out of control, his personal life becomes a minefield. It doesn’t help that Aylmer has enemies looking for him, either.
The Perfect Crime.
I knew I had to see this movie, so I came up with a foolproof plan. It hinged on waiting for a high traffic day at my local VHS rental store, one in which the sole clerk was an indifferent teenager who never checked to see if the tapes were rewound. His scoffing at the holy tenet of “be kind, rewind” meant he never laid eyes on the tape in the case. With my mark set, I put the heist into motion. I slipped the tape into a patsy case (The Land Before Time, as I recall) and sandwiched it between two Nintendo games. Thursday was rent two, get one, so I even got the coveted R-rated film for free! I’d like to think I played it cool after scoring the video…if by cool you mean tear-assing my way home with the goods in my newspaper delivery bag. Yes, it was the frigging 80’s and I paid for my movie and video game addictions with a paper route.
What I Thought Then.
Depictions of drug-induced lunacy were pretty rare in my middle-school viewing list…excepting that scene in Dumbo, of course. I had no goddamn clue what I was seeing, as Brain Damage is 90% hallucinations, 10% a guy talking to a worm that looked like a Sesame Street reject, and 1000% unmitigated gore. The trippy visuals didn’t register with me, except to make me think this movie didn’t make a lick of sense. The gore…yeah,that registered with me. The constant deluge of red food coloring and rubber brain chunks on display keyed in on my “illicitly watching an R-rated movie on a crappy TV/VHS combo in my garage” nervousness to result in a predictable way: violently throwing up.
What I Think Now.
Brain Damage isn’t a misunderstood gem, by any means, but it’s got a certain charm. Rick Hearst really tried to sell Brian’s drugged up experiences. He looks like a goofy lunatic while being assaulted by gonzo visions, sweats bullets while trying to hide his altered state from his girlfriend and polite society, and winds up crashed out on the floor in his underwear, foaming at the mouth. It’s a harrowing look at addiction only partially played for laughs. It was well before its time, when the late 90’s and early 00’s actually started to show addiction as more than a stoner punchline or a antiseptic tragedy.
For those not looking for cultural commentary, it’s got big brass balls. Director Frank Henenlotter was a b-movie horror provocateur of the finest caliber, making infamous films such as Basketcase and Frankenhooker. When he decided on “brain eating worm that dispenses drugs” as a concept, you could figure he was going to ride it right off the edge of the world. Lots of “shocking” movies these days are just trolling audiences. Sure, you can literally coat your movie in feces as a statement, but it’s still a bad movie. Henenlotter’s movie actually seems to be interested in its premise and characters, beyond as just stage dressing for lots of brains getting exploded.
Looking for a Fix.
Unlike several film’s in this series, Brain Damage was a good, bad time. I’m sure my fascination with other cult classics was hurried along by the weird and unique experience of this deranged but earnest film. Some people go for Citizen Kane. Some people go for Pink Flamingos! There’s a lot of celluloid out there, and as long as it’s being offered in good faith, there’s merits to much of it. Having re-watched it as an adult, I can appreciate what it was going for.