We’re living in an age where the queer community and the horror community have met at an accessible crossroads, and it’s one of a heck of an awesome place to be at. Monthly, I will be meeting you at this crossroads, and sharing queer aspects of films past and present. Some of these aspects will be blatant, and some will be closeted, but in the end, the queer parts of the things that go bump in the night will be explored in Queer Frights.
Brain Damage (1988) is one of the 80s’ quirkiest horrors. All of the kudos for the quirk goes straight to director and writer, Frank Henenlotter, whose other film, Basket Case (1982), has just as much quirk. What separates the two Henenlotter quirks of the 80s is the way in which Brain Damage struck me as just a little queer.
Brain Damage is about New Yorker, Brian (Rick Hearst), who wakes up one night befriended by a tiny creature of a peculiar shape and size. The creature, Aylmer (John Zacherle), supplies Brian with a substance that creates a euphoric state via inserting a needle like protrusion from its mouth and into the brain. Aylmer asks that Brian do something for it in return for the euphoria that it will supply Brian with; bring it humans so that their brains can be dinner.
There are obvious drug addiction themes slathered all over the film. Aylmer is the drug, or the addiction, and Brian is the addict who must deal with his addiction. Brian loses a girlfriend, has family worry about him, deserts all of his loved ones, finds himself in a seedy motel, and even goes through a sort of detox and relapse. I was aware of the addiction theme when I first watched Brain Damage, but I instantly became aware of another theme that I don’t believe was intended.
Queer individuals don’t go into each movie they watch expecting some queer aspect to reach out to them nor do they desperately seek a queer theme. When I started watching Brain Damage, I thought I was just in for a fun and nasty viewing. Although “brain” was in the title, it was a film that I put on to turn my brain off. Since I’ve watched it, I’ve done nothing but think about it. That’s because – to me – the film is not just a little queer like I mentioned above, but it is just queer.
“Brain Damage is such a nasty and fun flick with a little more brain than it puts on.“
Why, though? Because Aylmer is a perfect representation of Brian’s burgeoning homosexuality. Heck, Aylmer’s even shaped like a dick, which did not go unnoticed by those involved with the film. Its phallic shape is used to the nth degree in the film’s most shocking moment where a lady goes to give Brian a blowjob, and Aylmer pokes out and deep throats the girl to eat her brains. Aylmer being phallic is just the surface.
For most queer people, when they’re just discovering their sexuality, it’s rough. There are a lot of times when an individual will experience the majority of that discovery alone. Yet, every bit that is discovered leads to a euphoric state, and that state wants to be held on to because so much of the discovery can be hard. For Brian, Aylmer presented that euphoric state. It is the sexuality that Brian wants to release. There’s a moment where Brian confronts asks Aylmer what it is. Aylmer’s response is so simple yet so effective; “I am you.”
As Brian is wrestling with the fact that he needs Aylmer’s juices, he decides to abandon his girlfriend and brother, and find a place that he can detox. He chooses a seedy motel. This was the penultimate queer moment in the film. The metaphorical probability that this represents the loneliness a queer person sometimes push themselves into try and erase their fears of their sexuality is combined with many temptations that present themselves to Brian. The most obvious of these temptations as well as the most obvious queer moment of the film occurs within the hotel’s shower room.
Brian is able to fend off Aylmer for a bit, but denying what he truly wants takes over him, and he gives in. He must find more brains for Aylmer for another hit. This is when he enters the hotel’s open shower room, and watches a muscular man covered in soap and water. He returns to his room to grab a towel, and makes his back to the shower room. He stands back and watches the man even longer, confusion spreading over his face. Aylmer makes an escape from within his towel, and curiously does not go for the muscular nude man. Even after Aylmer goes away, Brian continues to stare at the man; out of fear that the man will realize what’s going on, or out of sexual curiosity? It’s a peculiar moment in the film that really drove home my hypothesis that Brian’s sexuality is at stake.
Brian’s lack of interest for his girlfriend, Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), plays another part in that hypothesis. He lets his brother, Mike (Gordon MacDonald), slide in and take over as her lover. Even as Barbara and Mike have sex, Brian’s only emotion is to protect them from himself. He doesn’t want Aylmer to attack them, but I saw it as he doesn’t want to get in the way of what they could have as he has no place to fight for Barbara. As Barbara sits with him on a subway, and is trying to rescue what relationship she believes that they still have as well as attempts to rescue Brian from himself, Aylmer slips out of Brian’s mouth every time Barbara looks away. Brian not allowing Aylmer to reveal itself to Barbara in this moment shows that perhaps Brian wants to reveal his sexuality to her. As we have seen, he isn’t comfortable enough with himself to let this happen. This results in a false kiss that ends up deadly for Barbara. Aylmer protrudes from Brian’s mouth during the kiss, and makes away with Barbara’s brains.
“There’s a moment where Brian asks Aylmer what it is. Aylmer’s response is so simple yet so effective; ‘I am you.’“
There’s also a place to make the statement that using Aylmer as the metaphor for Brian’s sexuality could be seen as Hollywood vilifying queerness as they were prone to do throughout the 80s. Queer thoughts are evil, and thus, that evil will come out and destroy every thing and one that you love, including yourself. By the film’s end, it does destroy Brian. Due to an altercation with Aylmer’s previous users, Brian receives an overdose of Aylmer’s euphoric juices. We see Brian running to his room with a gun, and the scene cuts as Brian aims the gun at his head. It’s an all too familiar place that some queer people go to due to their struggle, and one that shouldn’t been taken lightly. But we never see Brian shoot himself. The scene cuts away to pedestrians outside, and we hear a pop that sounds like a gun shot. When we cut back to Brian, he’s been discovered by his brother and a few policemen. Electricity is protruding from a gaping hole in his head.
To view it in the positive light that I held on to throughout the film as well as to steer clear of a vilified sexuality, I saw this as Brian coming to terms with his sexuality. He received that one moment where he realized who he was, and the queer inside of him burst out in the brightest light. Brian’s expression as this is happening is one of content and acceptance. There’s no pain being shown on his face. His expression is one of a release.
Some may see Brain Damage is an allegory for drug addiction. Correction; most will see the film that way. As a queer person, I just happened to be struck by a different viewpoint. Aylmer is sexuality. Its murders are the people you lose through either fear of their opinion or their choice to not accept your sexuality. It’s that euphoric state that all people who struggle with sexuality want to reach within themselves. Aylmer isn’t the villain, here. Aylmer’s the savior. (But don’t get that twisted on the side of the drug metaphor because in that case, Aylmer is the villain.)
Brain Damage is such a nasty and fun flick with a little more brain than it puts on. If you haven’t been affected by Aylmer’s juices, yet, search it out. (Hint: Tubi). Let us know what you thought over on our Twitter, reddit, Instagram, and on The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!