Frank Henenlotter is a director with a unique vision; his films carry an aesthetic, a certain style, which can never be mistaken. Most of his films were made in in the heyday of gritty New York City, “Brain Damage” is no different. The locations look unsafe; the interiors are lined with crud and filth while trash meanders through the streets, the human variety among it. This backdrop, along with a heavy punk scene scattered throughout the film, creates a setting that is fun to glimpse at from a distance while assuring the audience can breathe out a collective sigh of relief when the credits roll; they only have to wander a few feet to shower off the symbolic scum collected throughout the duration of the picture. The allegory for drug abuse and addiction is heavy in “Brain Damage” and makes it dirty, timeless, and real; it’s hard to shake the scene of a Brian going through withdrawal, shaking violently on the ground, his shirt stained and skin pale. Along with this seemingly grim setting is a darkly comedic style; “Brain Damage” is filled with bizarre characters and a highly intelligent, manipulative parasite with a crude streak of humor. These elements bring an outrageous feel to the film; they mix well with its downbeat setting and fantastical concept, due to the filmmaker’s talent. Henenlotter manages to take all these elements and somehow ground it to create a wonderful world of fun, splatter, and nihilism.
The technical aspects of “Brain Damage” are a mix of practical and optical. Elmer’s design is very phallic, resembling “A black dildo” as Henenlotter put it. For a phallic creature, he is very animated; the special effects team created several Elmer’s that, when used together, create a very effective creature. Puppetry and stop motion elements are mixed and work wonderfully. The optical effects are good for the time and hold up to this day aside for some of the work done on the subway, where Elmer keeps popping out of Brian’s mouth for a late night snack. This effect is dated, appearing subpar to the rest of the work, but has an organic charm, regardless. The lighting, mixed with some of the post optical effects, create a visually appealing film; almost everything has a wonderful blue hue to it, not your typical teal color that is seemingly oversaturated in today’s market, the colors pop so well they are truly mesmerizing. The visuals are best in the surreal drug trips. The strongest of these is when Brian’s room fills with dark blue water and his overhead light turns into an eyeball, staring into him. Along with New York City, there are some built sets and miniatures that blend in seamlessly together. The voice of Elmer brings a lot of life to the character; the powerful booming voice of horror host John Zacherle seals the deal, his pacing and delivery is top notch. As for the other actors in the film, they do well and while some of the performances are bizarre, it all manages to work to the film's advantage. The bizarre synth score works with the electric imagery and optical effects; these are most used when Brian’s brain is juiced with Elmer’s drug. One thing about “Brain Damage” that can’t go unmentioned is the splatter, the scene where Brian goes through withdrawal is by far one of the most gruesome over the top moments in any splatter flick. A healthy helping of his brains are pulled out of his head through his ear canal, it seemingly never comes to an end! Each time he pulls a string of his brain, more meat is ready to slide out, until it comes to a volcanic eruption of blood and gore.
The film looks and sounds top notch, the work Arrow has done has made everything look great. The features on the disc are there in buckets, included is a 50 minute documentary featuring many of the cast and crew, an extra interview with stills photographer, optical effects artist, fx artist Gabe Bartalos, a bittersweet stop motion film entitled “Behemoth Bygone”, a Q&A with Henenlotter, a new commentary with Henenlotter, a fan interview/collection, and more. All and all the punk splatter, gritty New York style, darkly comedic, monster movie has never been presented better.