Saw this one at Dismember the Alamo, a four movie horror marathon put on by The Alamo Drafthouse this weekend. I’d already seen the other three movies, Re-Animator (cool), Suspiria (!!!), and Slither (eh), so Brain Damage was the only new-to-me movie. I’ll probably write about Suspiria once I get that new Blu-Ray next month (I’m assuming), and the other two didn’t spark much excitement from me, but I do wanna talk about Brain Damage.
The dude MCing the marathon said this was “like Reefer Madness if the reefer was a monster.” I get what he’s saying, and it is a funny one-line movie pitch to get peeps interested quickly, but it isn’t quite on that level. Reefer Madness works on whatever level it works because of the juxtaposition between the reality of smoking weed and the hyperbole of what goes down in the movie. You don’t turn into a jive-swingin’ murderer when you smoke dope, you just turn into a lame duck burnout who eats like Garfield and has the mental capacity of Odie. Reefer Madness is reactionary hysteria and propaganda that ended up on the exploitation circuit ironically, Brain Damage is, like, on the opposite end of the spectrum. It may play like a anti-drug PSA, but it’s firmly and sincerely exploitation camp.
A dude wakes up one day feeling pretty lousy and has to cancel a date with his girlfriend. While sleeping off what he thinks is some buggy funk, he has a bit of a freak-out moment. He wakes up with blood on his neck from an unknown wound, only to find out that he has a visitor in his apartment. A slug/leech/worm thing has bitten his neck and wants to talk things out. This thing needs someone to help him out, and in exchange he’ll make our main dude her forget about all of his worries and troubles. The worm secretes a blue liquid that he injects into people’s brains, and it gives that person a spiritual-level high. They see colors they never knew existed, and their senses begin to meld on a synesthesia-level. The guy gets the proverbial “first one is free” hit and has to return to that state of euphoria.
The cost? It isn’t obvious to our hero, but it’s obvious to we the audience. Our worm buddy likes to eat brains, and he prefers fresh human brains. So while his “host” is tripping like crazy and wandering around the streets of New York, the worm takes advantage of any situation where the guy’s alone with someone else and has his way with that unfortunate sap’s brains– his way being to eat them.
The movie goes through a lot of the expected phases of drug addiction. At first it’s a rush to feel new things, and the consequences be damned. Then he starts to shrug off friends and family. They ask if he’s having problems and he blows off their concerns. A few people get killed to “pay” for his addiction, but at first he’s unaware of their deaths. All he knows is that he had a wild night, doesn’t remember much other than the residual euphoria, and has mysterious blood stains on his underwear (and elsewhere). He starts to catch on and tries to break the habit cold turkey. He cracks and goes back to the drug, and now willfully allows the brain-sucking. His girlfriend makes one last-ditch effort to save him. Her brain is eaten. There’s a gunfight with the worm’s previous owner. He and his wife get eaten. Our hero can’t take it anymore and ends it all by killing the worm and himself. It’s the usual fun then trouble then violence then death route of most anti-drug stories. The charm’s in the details.
The worm’s name is Aylmer– or Elmer as his current strings of owners have called him– and he’s an ancient being who has been passed between people both powerful and unremarkable for centuries. His owner before the main dude goes into a long litany of past owners, tracing him through WWII to the Crusades, and who knows how long he’s been around before that. He’s ancient, he eats brains, and he makes a drug so potent that anyone who experiences it is willing to destroy whatever gets in their way. Elmer’s the stuff of fallen nations and assassinated kings– the secret reason behind many events in history– and now he’s in the hands of a dork who has Bauhaus posters in his bedroom. Elmer’s talkative and charming too. I swear the guy doing his voice is doing a Bing Crosby impersonation, and when you combined that voice with Elmer’s blue, sad, kinda tired eyes, and you have a bonafide Muppet-tier puppet character. I love how one of them is a little bigger and a little more “off” than the other. Without Elmer’s literal oozing of charm, this’d be a kinda forgettable low-budget thing with a couple of moments of cool gore. At the very least, the way Elmer kills the punk girl would make this one of those late night curiosities that’s worth checking out for the weird factor, but everything else about him makes Brain Damage close to an all-timer.
Then there’s the last couple of shots of the main dude post-attempted suicide. They’re kinda given away in some of the posters (the ones with light coming out of his head), but it’s still a doozy of an image and conjures up all sorts of cool ideas about what, exactly, is going down in the dude’s brain in those final moments. Is he achieving some sort of satori moment? Is something new and strange being formed, like a new world? Was Elmer trying to breed within his mind? Or is it just a cool explosion thingie? Whatever it is, it’s rad, and so’s this movie.