Director: Adam Simon
Script: Charles Beaumont and Adam Simon
Cast: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor, George Kennedy
Running time: 84 minutes
Dr Rex Martin (Bill Pullman) researches brain patterns and connections and has his own research lab replete with clumsy assistants at a respected university hospital. He’s also got a pleasant office that overlooks the city centre, a helpful secretary who types up his memos, and a lovely, supportive wife (Charbonneau), who has one of the sexiest pairs of legs I’ve ever seen! Anyway, I digress! Unfortunately for Rex, all this good stuff rapidly unravels, literally, when old acquaintance Jim Reston (Paxton) turns up asking Rex to evaluate a mental patient, Jack Halsey (Bud Cort), on behalf of Jim’s new employer, the somewhat sinister mega corporation, Eunice.
Rex reluctantly accepts the offer, but only after Jim sort of blackmails him, threatening his research (which Eunice now surreptitiously owns) with grant cuts. Dr Martin builds up a level of trust with the patient, who reportedly had previously gone crazy and killed his wife, three children, plus his own research assistants. It transpires that Halsey has vital information in his brain that Eunice desperately wants to retrieve or, failing that, want to make sure no one else can retrieve. Thus Rex has the sticky dilemma of either trying to carefully extract the information from Halsey, using his pioneering surgical techniques that are, as yet, untried, or to lobotomise his new friend.
However, it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t quite that straightforward and Dr Martin is plagued by doubts, paranoia and waking nightmares, similar to those suffered by Halsey. Could Dr Martin and Halsey be one and the same person, and if so, is Halsey right in fearing Eunice and its future plans internationally?
Brain Dead is a film that I’ve wanted to see for many years, ever since seeing the old video cover image of a man’s face stretched out across some kind of metal holding frame in a laboratory. Sadly, that effect is used sparingly, although it’s still very effective.
The plot is simply a McGuffin onto which to hang a series of bizarre dream-like visuals. Imagine a film that mostly consists of the nightmare sequences from An American Werewolf in London and that’ll give you an idea as to how unsettling and confusing this film can be. It’s forever taking the viewer down one road, and then quickly miss-directs you down another route. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if David Lynch had directed a script based on an idea by H.P. Lovecraft then this is it… It’s disturbingly bizarre, but in a good way, of course.
If you insist on your film’s plots being laid out for you in a typical linear way, then you’re not going to like this film, which delights in misdirecting its audience and filling the screen with surreal imagery that’s both strange and beguiling at the same time.
Acting-wise this is Pullman’s film, as he plays the complicated character of Dr Martin with intelligence and great depth, generating a character that is likable, but flawed in a goofy, academic kind of way. Paxton also delivers an excellent performance, as slime-ball Jim, who leads his friend down a warren of disturbing clues and encounters with frightening patients, corporate suits and butch male nurses. Sadly both George Kennedy and Patricia Charbonneau are under-used in under-written parts, but Bud Cort is great as the nutty scientist and in-patient, Halsey.
Director Adam Simon fills his film with arresting imagery and crazy clues as to what’s really going on, and doesn’t really give the audience an easy time, never fully explaining what’s actually going on so that by the end of the film one is left with a number of explanations for what has actually happened.
Although I enjoyed Brain Damage, I did get frustrated by the constant jumping around and lack of any real resolution, although I have my own theories as to what actually happened. It’s certainly the kind of high-concept film that probably wouldn’t be made these days, apart from perhaps by Christopher Nolan, and has dated in some ways, since it is ‘very eighties’ in tone and style. The music, by Peter Francis Rotter, is pretty cool, in a 80s synthtastic kind of way, and the special effects have really stood the test of time, and still look impressive today.
Brain Damage is recommended to connoisseurs of bizarre cult cinema, but maybe not to casual viewers.
101 Films are distributing Brain Damage on Blu-Ray. As per usual, 101 Films has done a great job with the transfer and there are plenty of special features including:
The Brains behind the Nightmare (44 mins) – A fascinating documentary which goes into plenty of detail about the genesis of the film and interviews some of those involved, along with a number of cult film experts, including the likes of Jonathan Rigby and Jake West. We learn that Julie Corman (Roger’s wife) produced the film and that it was based on an old script that was originally submitted by Charles Beaumont back in 1963, twenty years before it was made!
Deleted Scenes (2.5 mins) – Slightly extended scenes, which are already in the film.
Tales from the Cranium (16.39 mins) – A fun interview with the film’s director, Adam Simon, who is very engaging and full of interesting anecdotes about the making of the film and its admirers, including director Sam Fuller.
Trailer (1.44 mins) – A rather cryptic trailer for a rather cryptic film.