Eighties schlock horror is a puzzling genus to decode; any merits of radical plotting or production design are often undermined by an unabashed inclusion of the arbitrary gore and nudity needed to meet the demands of its unhinged audience. What seems to separate the camp, cult classics of yesteryear from the straight-to-DVD burnouts of today is the genuine care and love of the filmmakers involved. The intricate, charmingly makeshift practical effects and set design of the cult, exploitation feature have been replaced by a reliance on crude green screen sets and clunky CGI. I won’t try and convince you that director Frank Henenlotter (also the man behind Frankenhooker, 1990, and the Basket Case series, 1982-92) is making meaningful art, but if the unrefined subject matter and acting don’t turn you away, you may find these exploitation films are actually fairly fascinating explorations of genre filmmaking.
Brain Damage concerns a feckless teenager Brian (Rick Hearst) who has his body taken over by a malevolent brain-eating parasitic slug called “Aylmer.” Brian and Aylmer reach a living agreement that comes with reciprocal benefits; Aylmer will keep injecting Brian’s brain with a euphoric hallucinogenic drug if Brian keeps finding more victims’ brains for Aylmer to consume.
The mystery of Aylmer provides much of the intrigue and suspense needed to sit through this brisk feature, the highlight of the film is the principal moment of symbiosis between this odd couple. Occurring just ten minutes into the feature Brian stumbles to his ordinary white walled bedroom and looks at his light. An artic glow begins to envelope the room as his trip kicks in, the light shade transmutes into a robust clammy eyeball cueing the light-giallo, Tangerine Dreamesque-score to kick in, accompanying the thrusting zoom to the ceiling.
Watch the scene from ‘Brain Damage.’
All around Brian the room subverts its infrastructure as the dream takes hold of the norm. A deep blue foamy current sweeps in, slowly submersing the floor. The color palette is of a forgotten time where brazen shades of primary bold blues and green inhabited the screen. It’s a testament to the daringness of that time, a true product of unapologetic late-1980s experimentation. The return to the eyeball cornerstone becomes even more tactile and glistening, showing the rush of blood as it pierces the synapses of this giant model prosthetic. Brian’s room is now half filled with the glowing elastic blue water. Cutting back and forth we witness the eyeball’s path to complete bloodshot status. Finally the hyperbolic navy wave breaks the levees and cascades around Brian’s body, swallowing his bed. His face slowly disappears into the murky blue as the giant eyeball on the ceiling ebbs and flows, fading to black.
This scene, a primer to the bizarre, is pivotal to the film as up until now we are completely unaware of what is going on; here we are educated on the what this film will unleash upon us, and, like Brian, we get our taste and want more.
Zachary Stein was a student in B. Ruby Rich’s Spring, 2013 Eyecandy class at University of California Santa Cruz. This essay was chosen from submissions from the class for publication in Keyframe.