St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

“Brain Damage” (1988)

Brain Damage title card.

It’s no secret that Parker and I are big fans of Frank Henenlotter’s films. In December we watched all three Basket Case movies, and a couple of years ago we loved his Frankenhooker. What is it about this man that hits us right in the funny bone? All of his movies have a magic combo of low-budget good times, B-movie horror, macabre comedy, and above all a true appreciation of camp. It’s pretty common in horror movies to get some gratuitous boob-grabbing scenes (and to be fair we get one of those in Basket Case too), but Henenlotter’s movies seem just as likely to feature beefcake in comedy thongs (see Basket Case 3) or naked twinks in long moonlit dream sequences (Basket Case). The only form of entertainment Henenlotter doesn’t do is musical numbers, and I’m fucking ecstatic about it. The quickest way to get me to reach for a bottle of Dr. Goodbottom’s Gin Enema and a bottle of sleeping pills is to break out into song and dance.

The old man's library of suspicious books.

An old lady prepares a nice meal of brains for someone called Elmer while her husband complains about how tedious it is to talk to the French. But… Elmer is gone! Dun dun dun. The old lady and the old man go apeshit and start tearing their flat apart looking for him. The old lady hits up the kitchen and hurls plates to the floor, while the man decides to fuck up the library full of juicy titles like Sodom Today (Gommorah Tomorrow?), Liquid Pain, and The Sex Killers. You know I’m getting the impression that he’s the kind of person whose house gets raided by the police and all the news reports say, “Inside police recovered thousands of images of an explicit nature.” You know this couple is into some kinky geriatric shenanigans.

Brian meets Elmer.

Elmer turns out to be this blue worm thing which drills a hole into people’s brains and jizzes blue juice into the folds of their cranium to produce a dizzying, psychedelic, and very addictive high. Elmer has found a new home with Brian, a nearby neighbour, who doesn’t seem to realise what’s going on at first. Stupid boy. Doesn’t even know he’s in a Frank Henenlotter movie. If I saw anything like this jazz-talking worm bobbing from side to side and promising to jizz in my brain, I’d know exactly whose movie I was in.

Elmer attacks a security guard.

But Elmer needs brains to survive, because of course he does. So Brian has to take him around town and feed him random strangers.

Brian in the bath.

Brian would rather take a bath with Elmer than with his boring girlfriend. Elmer sprays Brian’s pecs with blue jizz and Brian starts hooting incoherently. God, I know how cheap it is just to crack jokes about blue jizz the whole time, but look at it, it’s everywhere. If this movie has a central theme, it’s that if someone cums like a Smurf you should run a mile.

Eventually the old man tracks Brian down, looking somewhat worse for wear, and reveals that Elmer is really the “Aylmer”, a creature who goes back at least as far as the Fourth Crusade and has been hitching a ride from host to host since then. I tried searching for what, if anything, Aylmer means, but all I could find was a town in Ontario.

Brian in the shower.

Brian takes refuge with the Aylmer in a seedy New York hostel to try and detox, but the Aylmer tells Brian his body chemistry has changed already and he’ll never be free. So Brian, looking like death, goes for a shower and has a long, unnecessary conversation with a naked, soapy bodybuilder. I’m thinking David DeCoteau went to the Henenlotter School of Film but only went to “Pecs 101” and missed all the other classes like how to tell a good story and how to be funny.

Duane from Basket Case.

Brian takes a wee ride on the train and finds himself sitting opposite… Holy shit! It’s Duane from Basket Case! And played by the same actor too. How much would you love it if he just pops up in every movie.

The Skinny

Brian's head blows open.

“All I remember is feeling something sticky in my pants.”

On the surface this is a movie about addiction, but something about that doesn’t sit right with me. For a start I don’t need a whole movie to tell me that addiction makes you addicted. And secondly why doesn’t Brian commit a transgression, why doesn’t he willingly get addicted? There’s never a moment where he gets offered meth and takes it even though he knows it’s addictive (there is a moment when the Aylmer asks Brian to trust him but that’s after Brian’s first hit so I don’t know if it counts). The addiction is something that victimises Brian, something that’s against his will. And why all the homoeroticism and body horror? Maybe a better reading would be repressed homosexuality. That would explain why he spends so much of the movie talking to a jaunty blue penis, staring at soapy bodybuilders, and imagining his best friend’s abs covered in suction cups. A similar reading also works well for the Basket Case movies — some part of your personality that turns dark when repressed, which you try to divest yourself of, but ultimately come to own. And Frankenhooker is repudiation of Keynesian economics and a case for the return to the silver standard.