Brain Damage (1988)

Frank Henenlotter

Rick Hearst - Brian
John Zacherie - Aylmer (voice)
Gordon MacDonald - Mike
Jennifer Lowry - Barbara
Theo Barnes - Morris
Lucille Saint Peter - Martha
Kevin Van Hentenryck - Man with Basket

Genre - Horror/Comedy/B-Movie

Running Time - 86 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

While he does have a cult following, Frank Henenlotter isn’t a name many horror circles talk about a whole lot. He’s not as crisp of a filmmaker as John Carpenter. He didn’t bring the genre back into the mainstream like Wes Craven. And he didn’t shock people in a polarizing way like Eli Roth, James Wan, and Rob Zombie. Whenever Henenlotter is mentioned, it’s usually concerns 1982’s BASKET CASE, an insane low-budget horror film involving a twisted tale of conjoined twins on a quest for revenge. It’s considered a horror classic by many and one of the many inspirations for low-budget horror directors quickly after [along with Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD]. Others mention 1990’s FRANKENHOOKER due to its clever name and content. 

But rarely does 1988’s BRAIN DAMAGE gain the same kind of attention. Maybe it’s because it feels like the middle child between two big cult films. Maybe it’s because horror fans weren’t too fond of the film at the time, due to how much the MPAA had butchered it before its release. Thankfully, an uncut version was finally released in the late ‘90s. And while BRAIN DAMAGE has gained a good cult following since its release, it’s usually mentioned third after BASKET CASE and FRANKENHOOKER in some circles. I find it strange, since BRAIN DAMAGE is probably the best of Henenlotter’s films and worthy of more attention than it usually gets.

Brian (Rick Hearst) wakes up to find out that some sentient wormlike parasite called Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherie) has decided to burrow itself in his neck and effect his brain functions. Brian quickly realizes that Aylmer needs to survive on a constant diet of human brains and wants to control Brian to find victims. Usually Brian would be against this, but he relishes the feeling of Aylmer injecting a highly addictive blue fluid into his brain that fogs his memory and makes him hallucinate really strange things. Due to these events, Brian has neglected his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) to the point that she runs into the arms of Brian’s brother (Gordon McDonald). As Brian realizes Aylmer is doing more harm than good, he does all he can to make sure both his brother and girlfriend don’t become victims themselves.

It had been many years since I last watched BRAIN DAMAGE, forgetting all about the film until I saw someone mention it on social media due to a gorgeous blu-ray that was released recently. I decided to sit down and check it out, forgetting how great this horror-comedy is, while carrying a strong anti-addiction message that deserves more respect and recognition. Don’t get me wrong - I absolutely love BASKET CASE, as it never fails to entertain me. But let’s be realistic - BRAIN DAMAGE takes the similar concept presented in the previously mentioned film and does it ten times better due to its strong storytelling and unique visual presentation.

BRAIN DAMAGE reels me in due to its story and how well written it is. Henenlotter loves using the theme of symbiotic relationships between a man and some freak of nature that only he understands. And while it’s presented as more of a creepy mystery in BASKET CASE to shock audiences, BRAIN DAMAGE uses the same concept to tell its audience a strong message about addiction. It’s sort of the B-movie equivalent of those drug commercials with that frying egg on the hot pan. Drugs will fry your brain, just like how Aylmer fries Brian’s brain. Even though Brian knows this worm creature isn’t totally on the up and up, the high he receives each time Aylmer attaches himself to Brian is a pretty accurate depiction of an addict. There’s even a scene where Brian tries to do cold turkey away from Aylmer, only for the creature to smugly mock him and force Brian to beg for his help. This is a common story with addicts, who believe they can hear their addictions talking to them as if they’re the only friend they’ll need. Even Brian’s relationships with people in his life and the world around him deteriorate quite fast, due to his willingness to please only Aylmer and the high he feeds Brian. For a silly creature feature, it takes a serious subject [that was extremely topical at the time] and portrays it excellently. BRAIN DAMAGE is never subtle about it, but it never really forces it on you either. 

The characters aren’t deep or anything, but they’re not unlikeable or hard to relate to. We barely know who Brian is before he succumbs to his addiction, since Aylmer possesses him right from the start without any sort of backstory. In a way, it’s as if this creature has raped Brian in his sleep and Brian suffers from some sort of Stockholm Syndrome to maintain the pleasant feeling he receives from Aylmer. It could also be a clue that Brian was weak-willed to start with, and Aylmer took advantage of that vulnerability. Brian does seem to have a decent relationship with Barbara, who adores her boyfriend in an almost obsessive way. It’s like she’s addicted for Brian’s affections towards her! Brian also shares a weird relationship with his brother Mike, who loves Brian so much that he’ll take the first chance to bang Barbara. There’s also this strange fantasy where Brian hallucinates having a threesome with Barbara and Mike, almost insinuating some sort of creepy incest element that doesn’t get fleshed out thankfully. There seems to be something going on with Brian that the film never fully develops, but BRAIN DAMAGE doesn’t really need to. The fact that he takes to Aylmer so quickly and decides to deal with his nonsense for a quick fix proves that Brian is a victim mentally and emotionally.

Speaking of Aylmer, he’s obviously a smart villain that has no problem taking advantage of people weaker than him to get what he wants - which are human brains that he enjoys feasting on. He’s apparently been around for centuries, attaching himself to others to do his dirty work. He’s also quite the charming wormlike fellow, making us see why Brian [or anyone else] finds him alluring. Plus, he has an interesting visual design with his tiny eyes and weird needle-like teeth. Plus, he has a great singing voice. Why wouldn’t anyone allow him to eat their brain?

Frank Henenlotter and the special effects team do a really great job on a small budget, even though I believe BRAIN DAMAGE cost more money to make than what was used to film BASKET CASE. It’s a more ambitious film than BASKET CASE for sure, which shows the growth of confidence Henenlotter achieved between the two films. The hallucination, trip out scenes are done really well with neon colors that pop out and make you experience the high Brian is feeling. The camera moves smoothly, giving us great angles and shots that build tension and reveal a lot about the characters and the setting of New York City in the late 1980s. Henenlotter also relies a lot on the color blue. Aylmer’s hallucinogen is a blue fluid, while a lot of the scenes where Brian is high are shot with blue hues that add a ton of atmosphere. I especially love the first hallucination sequence where Brian is submerged into the blue fluid. My only minor issue is the repetitiveness of Aylmer shooting his fluid to get Brian high, which is done like four or five times. But overall, it’s beautiful filmmaking from a man you wouldn’t expect that from.

As for the special effects and gore, you won’t be disappointed here. You get a lot of stop-motion sequences, along with multiple moments of Aylmer burrowing himself inside people’s skulls to eat brains. Aylmer, himself, looks quite silly but you get over it due to how he’s portrayed and the voice acting. There’s a creepy moment where Brian pulls his brain out of his ear in a blood-soaked scene that would make Sam Raimi proud. And probably the reason for the uncut version of this film - a very memorable scene of fellatio gone bad where Aylmer enters the mouth of a woman as she gives Brian oral stimulation. It’s gross, shocking, and one-hundred percent funny. BRAIN DAMAGE definitely uses its budget well.

The acting isn’t really much to write home about. But it’s definitely an upgrade of the campiness of BASKET CASE, which wouldn’t work for this film at all. Future soap opera actor Rick Hearst does really well as Brian, convincingly playing an addict who happens to be addicted to a puppet. Considering the type of film he was in, Hearst took it entirely seriously and made Brian as fully a fleshed-out character that the script would allow. I’m not surprised he went on to work on multiple television shows. He has the chops. Gordon MacDonald and Jennifer Lowry were okay as Mike and Barbara. They didn’t really get a whole lot to do but played their supporting roles well enough to make the premise work. And I can’t end this review without mentioning former television horror host and singer John Zacherle. He gives Aylmer so much personality just with his voice, bringing the character to life and making you forget you’re watching a silly looking puppet destroy a young man’s life. I think he was the perfect voice for the character and I loved his singing voice during the cold turkey scene. Just great stuff.

Plus, we get a cool cameo from a familiar guy carrying a basket on the subway.


  • This older couple destroyed their apartment looking for an escaped Aylmer. There are easier ways to get on Property Brothers on HGTV.

  • As Brian hallucinated in his bedroom, his ceiling lamp turned into a giant eye in the sky. The Alan Parsons Project approves of this film. 

  • While high, Brian acted silly in a junkyard at night. He better be careful. He might believe that he’s really watching a dog pee fire to resurrect Freddy Krueger. Nothing stupid like that would ever happen. Oh wait…

  • Brian sat in a bathtub for three hours. Maybe he’s having a Daryl Hannah SPLASH phase. Don’t judge!

  • While high, Brian saw his spaghetti and meatballs transform into throbbing brains. That’s the last time I eat at Olive Garden.

  • Brian slowly pulled his brain out of his ear, tearing his ear off in the process. I imagine this would have been a trick Vincent Van Gogh would have pulled if he had become a magician rather than an artist.

  • Brian caught his brother boning his girlfriend, while fantasizing that he was having a threesome with the both of them in incestuous fashion. This is some Jerry Springer shit!

I'm very happy that I decided to revisit BRAIN DAMAGE after not having watched it in many, many years. It’s one of the finest anti-drug films and a clever low-budget film by Frank Henenlotter that proves how good of a horror filmmaker he is. The film has a message that’s presented well, solid acting by the two leads, slick direction, and pretty cool special effects considering its budget. BRAIN DAMAGE is smart, clever, funny, creepy, and satisfying for anyone looking for blood and guts. If you enjoy BASKET CASE and/or FRANKENHOOKER, I have no doubt BRAIN DAMAGE will be up your alley. Definitely recommended, but be careful - you may gain an addiction from the film’s awesomeness.

4 Howls Outta 4


Inferno (1980)

Dario Argento

Irene Miracle - Rose Elliott
Leigh McCloskey - Mark Elliott
Eleonora Giorgi - Sara
Daria Nicolodi - Elise De Longvalle Adler
Sasha Pitoeff - Kazanian
Alida Valli - Carol
Feodor Chaliapin Jr. - Varelli
Veronica Lazar - The Nurse
Gabriele Lavia - Carlo
Ania Pieroni - Music Student

Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Witchcraft

Running Time - 107 Minutes

In New York City, Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle) buys a book called The Three Mothers - a book that details how the author (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.) built houses for three powerful witches known as The Three Mothers. One of these houses was created for Mater Suspiriorum [The Mother of Sighs] in Germany, seen in 1977’s SUSPIRIA. After reading and figuring out the clues, Rose realizes that her apartment is a building built for Mater Tenebrarum [The Mother of Darkness]. Her knowledge, unfortunately, leads to her death by a mysterious person.

Before Rose’s death, however, she wrote and sent a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh Mccloskey), who is studying abroad in Rome. Realizing that his sister is missing and in trouble, Mark arrives in New York to investigate. What he encounters are a series of supernatural events that lead to a bunch of murders within or around the apartment building that may make him a victim of The Three Mothers.

In the 1970s, Italian maestro Dario Argento could do no wrong. Films like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, DEEP RED, and especially 1977’s SUSPIRIA brought a lot of attention to Italian horror from all over the world. The success of SUSPIRIA in the US market inspired Argento to quickly capitalize on it with a sequel titled INFERNO, the second part of a proposed trilogy that would showcase each of the Three Mothers. 20th Century Fox, riding high from SUSPIRIA, quickly offered to co-finance the production [along with Italian and German consortia] with a budget of $3 million. Co-writer, actress, and then-Argento flame Daria Nicolodi was inspired by her stay at Central Park for the film’s main setting, while legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava, Lamberto Bava, and William Lustig helped fill in during production to create a good atmosphere and finish shooting scenes when Argento fell ill during production.

INFERNO was released in 1980 in the United States in a very limited theatrical release, which was the total opposite of SUSPIRIA’s release. Apparently, Fox had a change of management at the time, leaving INFERNO’s fate in limbo. The film, outside of Italy, was pretty much unseen until 1985, where it finally went straight to video. The reception at the time wasn’t all that positive, leading to Argento waiting to finish the trilogy in 2007 with THE MOTHER OF TEARS. While the reception of INFERNO has grown more positive over the years, it’s easy to see why this sequel isn’t as beloved as SUSPIRIA. It’s also not as strong as Argento’s earlier films, or later works, such as 1982’s TENEBRE, 1985’s PHENOMENA [aka CREEPERS] and 1986’s OPERA.

That’s not to say that INFERNO doesn’t have great things going for it. The direction, mostly by Dario Argento, is fairly solid and what you would expect from the Italian maestro. If you loved the style of SUSPIRIA, INFERNO will be right up your alley. Like the previous film, the lighting and colors pop extremely well, with many scenes shot in vibrant reds, blues, and greens. In fact, several scenes seem to have been taken right from SUSPIRIA, just with different actors involved. One example is Eleonora Giorgi sitting in a cab as the rain downpours around her, shot in red and blue lighting. It’s totally reminiscent of Jessica Harper’s Suzy at the beginning of SUSPIRIA. It’s a nice throwback that fans will pick up. Same with the film’s final act, which is a shorter play at SUSPIRIA’s ending, but still very effective and fun to watch. Like with many of Argento’s works, the direction comes across as surreal, elegant, and awkwardly titillating when you least expect it. That being said, one of the film’s best scenes wasn’t even directed by Argento. The gorgeous opening sequence involving Irene Miracle diving into a water hole in a cellar, leading to a corpse floating right by to frighten her, was shot by Mario Bava after Argento had fallen ill with hepatitis. It’s well crafted, as the scene slowly builds to that reveal for our first scare. Regardless of who directed what, INFERNO is visually stylish as one would expect.

Adding to the awesome visual presentation are the perverse death sequences that only Argento could picture in his head. The guillotine death, with the use of a window being slammed over a victim’s throat, is pretty brutal. Another person gets stabbed viciously before being mauled to death by a group of cats. And probably my favorite kill - a crippled man falling into water by a sewer [in order to drown cats in a bag], only to get attacked by hungry rats before getting stabbed in the neck multiple times. It may be overkill, but it’s pure Argento and I love it. We also get bizarre imagery, like women hanging, paper dolls getting decapitated, and beautiful women creating a wind and sound distraction in a lecture room. None of these things seem to connect to anything, but the imagery is bizarre and somewhat creepy. Honestly, the direction and visual presentation for INFERNO are the best things about the film.

Another highlight is the musical score. Unlike many of Argento’s other films, INFERNO is not scored by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame. Instead, the musical duties were given to Keith Emerson of prog rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. While not as memorable as Simonetti’s themes, Emerson provides a nice rock and synthesizer score that reflects the turn of the decade from the 1970s to the 1980s. I do think that the music wasn’t used in the proper moments in some cases, creating a jarring effect that hurt these scenes more than help them. Watching a woman sit in a taxi shouldn’t have an upbeat, high-energy rockin’ tune going with it, especially when it hasn’t earned that and only makes the moment silly rather than poignant. And some of the suites are a bit hokey at times. But for the most part, the score works and I liked it. It’s one of the few things that set it apart from SUSPIRIA, so I’m okay with it.

The acting is pretty okay as well. I thought Daria Nicolodi did a good job as Elise, a tenant inside the cursed building that Mater Tenebrarum controls. She’s obviously comfortable working for Argento due to their personal relationship. Plus, she co-wrote the film and knows where her character is coming from. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but she’s always a welcome presence. Sasha Pitoeff is also fun to watch as Kazanian, the bookstore owner. His hatred of cats and how it ended up leading to his fate was handled well, and Pitoeff is great through it all. I also thought Feodor Chaliapin Jr. was great in his short role as Varelli, the author of The Three Mothers. I did feel that Leigh McCloskey wasn’t the most captivating male lead in the world and he doesn’t even get to do a whole lot until the film’s final act. His performance was kind of bland in my opinion, but it’s not a performance that ruins a film. I think the acting is much stronger in other popular Argento films, but it’s still pretty good for the most part.

My real issue with INFERNO is the film’s story. Argento’s films have always been more style than substance, even with his classic gialli and supernatural films having flawed storytelling that you can forgive because it’s a fun ride getting to the film’s conclusion. Unfortunately, INFERNO can be a bit of a chore to sit through at times because the way the plot is presented is really disjoined. The film takes place at multiple locations, going back and forth between them as the narrative plays out until the film’s final reveal. There’s nothing wrong with this - that is if we had characters we could care about. Besides Mark, Rose and Sara, the other characters appear in and out without much character development. Some of them just seem to be in the film in order to die a vicious death. That’s great for a slasher film, but not for a supernatural movie that’s the sequel to a classic. In fact, we’re not even really sure why Mater Tenebrarum would even want to deal with these unlikeable people. What’s her purpose? It’s not like killing these people adds to anything she may be planning. When she finally appears, it doesn’t make much of an impression because the storytelling is all over the place. The mystery and the journey solving it should have been stronger. Maybe it’s because Argento fell ill during the production, or because he felt pressure in topping SUSPIRIA. But INFERNO could, and should, have been better than it is if there was more going on in the narrative. There’s definitely an interesting idea underneath INFERNO and it presents itself during the film’s best moments. It’s just a shame it’s not expressed better. I think even if it had a wider release back in 1980, fans probably would have left wanting more.

While not as strong of a film as SUSPIRIA, INFERNO still manages to be a good watch for anyone who is into Italian horror. It’s also a decent continuation of The Three Mothers trilogy started in SUSPIRIA. The film has a lot going for it - great kills, that beautiful Argento visual style, and cool music by Keith Emerson that probably could have been used better at certain points in the film. Unfortunately, the story is all over the place. The characters are weak and things seem to happen in order to fill a gap needed to move the story along. That being said, INFERNO has a ton of atmosphere and a vibe that is sometimes missing in horror films. INFERNO is a classic Argento film that works more than it doesn’t, making it worth a look if you’re a fan of the man’s work.

3 Howls Outta 4

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