Release Date(s)1988 (May 9, 2017)
Studio(s)Palisades Entertainment Group (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Often cited as the strongest of the films that he made throughout the 1980s, Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage was only his second official film after his breakthrough with Basket Case. This time around, he chose to go in a more ambitious direction, utilizing more complicated special effects and more overt themes than before. While on the surface it’s a story about a man who aids an otherworldly creature by bringing it victims to devour their brains in the promise of hallucinatory ecstasy, it’s also an obvious metaphor for drug abuse and addiction. Fortunately, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s presented under the guise of a romp with strong gore and over the top imagery.
Released in 1988, the movie quickly landed in a bit of controversy over one scene in particular in which the creature in question, Elmer (pronounced Aylmer), attacks a woman through the pants of his would-be host (and through her mouth). If that doesn’t give you an image, I don’t know what will. Other gore shots were also trimmed and later reinstated into the film in its Unrated form. A combination of different genres, including horror, comedy, and drama, it also strays into fantasy territory, particularly with its top-popping ending. Frank Henenlotter would return to body horror with Bad Biology in 2008, but Basket Case, Frankenhooker, and Brain Damage all remain his most popular works for genre fans.
Arrow Video brings Brain Damage to Blu-ray in glorious fashion, showcasing a carried-over high definition master. No information has been supplied as to what source was used for said master, but it’s likely that it wasn’t the original camera negative. It has the appearance of a film print to my eyes and, as such, doesn’t yield the absolute heights of quality. Then again, having the movie in shiny new quality probably wouldn’t do it any favors. It’s a dark-looking transfer, as it always has been on home video previously, but more detail is present than ever before. Grain levels are high and noticeable, but with surprising depth, particularly the sequence in which the lead “gets high” for the first time and is engulfed in blue liquid. That scene also showcases how strong the color palette tends to look. It’s a little uneven, particularly skin tones, but potent nonetheless. Black levels are extremely deep to the point of possible crush, which may be inherent in the original photography or the source that was used, but brightness and contrast levels are satisfactory. Some film artifacts are leftover, including occasional lines and scratches, but the image is quite stable and clean otherwise.
The audio selection includes an English mono LPCM track, as well as an English 5.1 DTS-HD track. I personally found the mono track to be the more fitting of the two as it more fully represents the original intentions of the director at the time, but the 5.1 has some decent heft to it. On both tracks, dialogue is clear, although overdubbing is just as obvious as it always was. Sound effects and score have slightly different roles to play on each track. For the original, both have flatter qualities, whereas on the 5.1, they’re a little more spaced out, particularly in the rear speakers. Ambient activity, as well as occasional low end, is also detectable, although ambience plays a slightly bigger role on the 5.1. Both tracks are good without being truly great, and your preference will really come down to how you’re accustomed to watching the movie. Subtitles are also available in English SDH for those who might need them.
For the supplements, Arrow Video has put together a mostly complete and thorough set of extras. First up is an isolated score track in 2.0 LPCM; an audio commentary with Frank Henenlotter, joined by Mike Hunchback; the new Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage documentary; The Effects of Brain Damage featurette; the Animating Elmer featurette; Karen Ogle: A Look Back; Elmer’s Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage; Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession, which is an interview with super-fan Adam Skinner; a Frank Henenlotter Q&A from March 2016 at the Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels; a set of image galleries (stills, behind-the-scenes, ephemera); the original theatrical trailer; the Bygone Behemoth animated short; a DVD copy; and a 32-page insert booklet with an essay on the film by Michael Gingold and a gallery of posters for the movie. Unfortunately missing from the Synapse Films Limited Edition DVD release is a different audio commentary with Henenlotter, novelist Bob Martin, and filmmaker Scooter McCrae.
Brain Damage will be an acquired taste for some, but for those who are already familiar with Henenlotter’s output, they’ll probably get more out of it. It’s an effective piece of work from a filmmaker that, in the last couple of decades, has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence due to the popularity of his films on home video. As such, Arrow Video’s Blu-ray presentation of Brain Damage is quite excellent and definitely worth your time.
- Tim Salmons