Brain Damage and the Art of the Unsubtle

Brain Damage (1988) | Art by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

Frank Henenlotter’s infamous 1988 video-aisle classic Brain Damage is a quintessential B-Movie and an indelible artifact of the time and place in which it was made. Equal parts body horror, comedy, satire, and morality play, it’s set in a dank Manhattan during the twilight of Mayor Ed Koch’s third term. The unabashedly seedy film chronicles the descent of a desultory young man named Brian (Rick Hearst), who falls under the spell of a basso-voiced, ancient parasitic monster named Aylmer (John “Zacherley” Zacherle). 

While viewers are eventually treated to an exposition dump on Aylmer and whatever his whole weird deal is (“a creature of endless histories…a living relic of civilizations long since forgotten”), Brian remains a cipher for the entirety of the film’s 86-minute runtime. We know he has a girlfriend, Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), and lives with his brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald). Apart from that, Brain Damage is utterly unconcerned with granting Brian interiority, or a life outside the walls of his apartment, which is lit in garish neon blues and pinks, befitting of the aesthetics of the post-Miami Vice era. Brian doesn’t seem to have a job, or friends, or any semblance of direction in life. But that’s the point: he’s a vessel, both for Aylmer and for Henenlotter’s endearingly ham-fisted metaphor about addiction and codependency. 

Brain Damage opens on an elderly anthropologist and his wife frantically searching for Aylmer, having become hopelessly hooked on the hallucinogenic secretion he pumps into the napes of their necks with his needle-like proboscis. They’ve apparently long since made peace with the gruesome consequences of their arrangement with the primordial beast: Aylmer feeds on brains, which they’re more than happy to provide (animal, not human, which will prove to be an ultimately critical plot point). Aylmer, however, is a capricious critter, and he soon finds a newer, more impressionable victim in Brian. As the story churns toward its inevitably tragic conclusion, Henenlotter doses his audience with unforgettable scenes of psychedelic imagery, ultraviolence, and unapologetic perversion: the Timothy Leary fantasia of the scrapyard sequence; the bizarre, incestuous three-way dream; and the notorious blowjob murder scene (excised from home video releases for decades), which reportedly caused walk-offs on the set. Oh, and Aylmer does a little song-and-dance number in a fleabag motel bathroom sink, in case the movie wasn’t over-the-top enough already.

Henenlotter—whose film education came mostly from ping-ponging between screenings on the porno-and-crime laden Times Square when it was at its most debauched—is keen to refer to Brain Damage as being inspired by Faust, with Aylmer as an uncharacteristically jolly Mephistopheles figure: by the time the credits roll, Aylmer has left the streets of New York City strewn with bodies, including poor Barbara’s. Brian seemingly overdoses on Aylmer juice, and some kind of cosmic portal bursts forth from a tumor in his head. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s apparent that Henenlotter is less concerned with logic than he is with eliciting a reaction and making plain his metaphor as bluntly and luridly as possible.

Brain Damage is something of a psychotronic parable about the pitfalls of addiction, from cravings to withdrawals to the inevitable destruction of one’s personal life (in Brian’s case, these consequences play out in unfortunately gruesome detail vis-à-vis Barbara). It’s an Afterschool Special that only Henenlotter’s depraved mind could dream up. Brian isn’t chasing the dragon, the dragon is chasing him in the form of Aylmer, who—via Zacherle’s expert voiceover—gives voice to vice: “This is the start of your new life, Brian, a life full of colors, music, light, and euphoria. A life without pain, or hurt, or suffering.” The results of Aylmer’s narcotic neck-pricks resemble a half-baked hodgepodge of LSD and MDMA, though its neurochemical dependency suggests the effects of harder substances. The crew of the film have been quick to cite the rising tide of crack cocaine abuse in New York around the time of the film’s making as inspiration, though Aylmer-heads are more blissed-out (and periodically blacked-out, all the better not to remember the blood and guts you left in your wake) than the average crack user might be.

The discussion around narcotic abuse in late-‘80s America has been well documented in pop culture, and in the lasting footprint of the (often racially- and socioeconomically-motivated) “moral panic” around the so-called crack epidemic at the time. Official New York State Police documents indicate that at the time of the film’s shooting, their number of dedicated drug enforcement officials had swollen to 300, and they’d created a whole new department, S.N.I.P. (Statewide Narcotics Indexing Program), to help liaise between drug-trafficking investigators. In 1987 alone, there were 1,645 reported felonies related to possession of a controlled substance, and 8,272 misdemeanors. Henenlotter weaves his addiction metaphor into the film’s mise-en-scène, particularly in and around the scene at the punk club where Brian goes to see (real-life) New Wave band the Swimming Pool Qs perform. Outside, an unhoused man glugs desperately from a bottle of bourbon. Inside, yuppies and ne’er-do-wells pour out of the bathroom en masse, all rubbing their noses vigorously, grace notes that are just as broad as anything you’d find on a D.A.R.E. billboard—overblown and oversimplified. Even so, the addiction metaphor is effective on multiple levels; as Brian puts it, “[Aylmer] needs the brains, but I need his juice.” 

Henenlotter paints in broad strokes, and his work is all the better for it. There would be no room for laughs or wretches in a more—pardon the term—sober take on the issue at hand. This “anti-drug” movie exalts in making the high look so damn cool; between its neon light shows and other optical VFX, Brian’s euphoric trips seem absolutely rhapsodic. Even the attendant consequences of Brian’s Aylmer dependence—the viscera, the body count (less so his ashen, pockmarked, and emaciated body)—scratch an itch for the audience, a reflection of the compulsion some cinephiles have for the shocking and grotesque. It’s both a condemnation and a celebration, a true B-movie bacchanal of bad habits. And yet, as the credits roll, the viewer still feels like they need a good, long shower; in both aesthetics and delivery, with Brain Damage, Henenlotter makes his point with sublime effectiveness.


In the retrospective featurette Listen to the Light: The Making of ‘Brain Damage,’ from the 2017 Arrow home-video release, producer Edgar Levins regurgitates the common refrain that New York is a “character” in the film. Despite a minimum of exterior filming, Brain Damage nevertheless drips with the infamous sleaziness of the city in the late ‘80s, a potent vibe that a certain generation of Manhattan-bred creatives seem to romanticize and venerate. This includes Henenlotter, who’s positively fixated on the idea of the Big Apple as a hedonistic circus of shady figures; he embraces his hometown with sweaty, outstretched arms. The writer-director is fond of recounting his early-hours call times at the abandoned button-making factory on 33rd Street that housed Brain Damage’s sets, used condoms squishing and spent crack pipes crunching under his feet as he trod to the entrance. It’s a vivid image of the spiraling metropolis at the time, and a milieu that’s absolutely in line with Brain Damage’s icky, debased vibe.

I never visited New York until adulthood, well after it had been purged of any “unseemly” elements and Times Square had been fully sanitized and Disney-fied. I have no frame of reference for the city as it was then apart from shot-on-location grindhouse movies of the era or throwback period pieces, and only a by-proxy sense of the lived experience of late-‘80s America (I was born nine days after Brain Damage’s world premiere at the Lyric Theatre on 43rd). I revel, though, in safely teleporting to that lost late-century New York-as-Sodom vicariously through cinema, be it Brain Damage or, to cite another favorite, After Hours. (Both, as it so happens, seamy nighttime odysseys starring pale pretty boys who are In Too Deep.) I find the New York of Henenlotter films (see also: 1982’s Basket Case and 1990’s Frankenhooker) particularly alluring because he shows the city through the eyes of its losers, bottom-feeders, outcasts, and freaks. These are his people, and he damn well isn’t ashamed of it—it’s all up there on the screen in grainy 16mm or vibrant, aggressively-lit 35mm.

The hypercolor palette of Brain Damage is just one of the myriad ways it screams in viewers’ faces. Henenlotter is not the kind of provocateur who smuggles his worldview into popcorn entertainment—he’s more Larry Flynt than Paul Verhoeven. He’s the puckish uncle who kills the vibe at the family Christmas dinner with a particularly off-color joke. This indifference to tact works in Brain Damage’s favor. If the film took itself too seriously, its sermonizing on the dangers of addiction would feel maudlin and condescending. One gets the impression that Henenlotter himself is no narc, he just needed to find the ideal culturally-relevant avenue for his trademark indulgent gross-out gags. “Aylmer’s like your best friend…just like your first couple lines of cocaine are your best friend,” he quips on the film’s commentary track. Said recording is chock-a-block with other remarks that speak to Henenlotter’s deliciously unabashed sledgehammer mentality: “It’s really disgusting…it’s vile…sue me,” “I always like gratuitous sex scenes in films,” and “the amount of blood in this I was really happy with.” His philosophy is best exemplified in a moment where he imagines an imaginary critic asking, “What are you trying to do Frank, is this funny or is it serious?” 


While Patrick Bateman-types—many of whom were in the thrall of cocaine dependency themselves—thumbed their noses at Henenlotter’s kinsfolk from the balconies of their Wall Street penthouses, Frank was painting his own powerful, if characteristically on-the-nose, commentary on the perils of drug abuse among the hoi polloi. But even the inequities of Reaganomics couldn’t hamper Frank’s creative ambitions. The bargain-basement budget of Brain Damage isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. How else to best deliver such a garish and grisly B-Movie about a then-gauche subject without embracing the gutters of an economically bifurcated city and the underclass that dwells in them? It’s not as if any venerable studio would have lent its resources to such a vulgar exploration of the hot-button issue of addiction, nor send its crews to the kinds of neighborhoods that Henenlotter so adored after sundown. 

Critics likewise balked at Henenlotter’s work. According to cult horror host Joe Bob Briggs, storied critic Rex Reed was so appalled when he walked out of a Cannes screening of Henenlotter’s first full-length film, Basket Case, that he reportedly said it was “sick”—something that delighted Hennenlotter, who plastered the quote all over the film’s marketing materials. Frank got the last laugh: the Museum of Modern Art would supervise a 4k restoration of Basket Case in 2018.

Henenlotter’s filmography has risen in esteem, and rightly so. Though Brain Damage is a B-movie through and through, it makes a lasting impression and communicates its simplistic metaphor with admirable economy despite the limited nature of its resources and the dangerousness of its filming locations. Brain Damage wouldn’t be nearly as potent (and certainly not as wickedly fun) if it were flush with a megabudget and the four-quadrant expectations that comes with it. Henenlotter is a true auteur, and this, his masterpiece, is the perfect coalescence of his thriftiness, his extravagance, his gleeful obviousness, and the harrowing perils of addiction in a city years away from its family-friendly makeover.